Super Bowl Advertising

Last year, the Super Bowl halftime “wardrobe malfunction” led to an intense level of public outrage. The performance of Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake prompted over a half-million complaints to the Federal Communications Commission, leading to increased fines against indecent broadcasters. While the nationally televised flash of a woman’s breast was shocking, the potential for some of the products advertised during the Super Bowl to harm young viewers merits a comparable degree of indignation.
Last year, the Super Bowl halftime “wardrobe malfunction” led to an intense level of public outrage. The performance of Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake prompted over a half-million complaints to the Federal Communications Commission, leading to increased fines against indecent broadcasters. While the nationally televised flash of a woman’s breast was shocking, the potential for some of the products advertised during the Super Bowl to harm young viewers merits a comparable degree of indignation.

Consider the combination of unparalleled hoopla surrounding the Super Bowl commercials themselves mixed with the National Football League and networks shamelessly peddling products during the game and commentary. It is without question that given the effectiveness of targeted advertising, the overabundance of commercialized air-time and the nature of the products being pushed, widespread harm is being done to exploitable young viewers.

For the 2005 Super Bowl, which will most certainly be the highest rated television program of the year, Anheuser-Busch has purchased the most ad time (10 of the 60 available spaces at an average cost of $2.4 million per 30 second spot) for their skillful commercial appeals to get more people to drink more alcohol. Anheuser-Busch will argue that underage persons are not the intended targets for these ads, but it is impossible to plausibly claim the ads will have no impact on kids. The funny, provocative, trend-setting, youth-oriented beer ads aired during recent Super Bowls with their clever use of cartoons, animals, athletes and music provides good evidence that young people are being targeted. Over 30 million young people under the age of 21 (about forty percent of the underage population) will be watching the Anheuser-Busch Super Bowl commercials. Many will be watching the ads with great expectations, some even as the main attraction.

Those worried that a nationally televised breast is a threat to their children’s well-being should be especially infuriated by the prominent place alcohol advertising has in Super Bowl broadcasts. The reduction of cognitive faculties from excessive drinking increases the likelihood of unprotected sex, the risk of unplanned pregnancies and the risk of exposure to sexually transmitted diseases. Alcohol-related sexual assault and date rape on college campuses are also consequences of excessive and underage drinking.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a federal agency under the National Institutes of Health, alcohol is the drug of choice among children and adolescents and is the leading contributor to injury death — the largest cause of death for persons under age 21. Young drivers under 21 who have been drinking are involved in fatal motor vehicle crashes at twice the rate of adult drivers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Forty percent of those who start drinking before the age of 15 will meet criteria for alcohol dependence at some point in their lives, increasing their risk for a number of diseases, including cancer and heart disease.

The Super Bowl blitz on children’s health doesn’t stop with alcohol. The junk food corporation PepsiCo will be targeting youngsters watching the Super Bowl with aggressive advertising for its Pepsi-Cola sweetened soft drinks and Frito-Lay processed snack foods which are predominately high in calories and low in nutrition. Such items have become unhealthy staples in the daily diets of many young people, increasing the likelihood for the occurrence of chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Studies show that food marketing attracts kids’ attention and affects their food preferences and choices. PepsiCo pays millions of dollars for exclusive marketing rights in schools and other locations frequented by adolescents, undermining parents’ efforts to provide healthful diets for their children. Another NFL event, the “Pepsi NFL Punt, Pass and Kick,” allows PepsiCo to market directly to more than four million boys and girls (age 8-15) each year.

Not to be outdone, the fast food chain McDonald’s will push its unhealthy junk food with Super Bowl ads as well. Experts in their methods of targeting children, McDonald’s uses some of children’s most beloved characters, including Nemo, Tarzan, Winnie-the-Pooh, 101 Dalmatians, Furby and Beanie Babies, as well as collectible toys and gimmicks to peddle its high-calorie, low-nutrition Happy Meals. The rise of McDonald’s and other fast junk food chains has paralleled the boom in children obesity as it has changed the diets of children, (who are encouraged to nag their parents for fast food).

According to the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, the marketing-related and diet-related disease of childhood obesity has doubled in children and tripled in teens over the last 20 years. Yet we glorify Super Bowl ads that are designed to have these youngsters harm themselves. If only the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Trade Commission and parents across the country expressed a fraction of the outrage for repeated commercial assaults on children’s health as they did for Janet Jackson.

Certain events become so emblematic of our culture that we don’t notice because we’re so thoroughly steeped in it, and Super Bowl advertising, marketing and promotions are a perfect example. Not only have the commercials become an event unto themselves, but broadcasters have given way to a blurring of the line between ads and programming. Advertising has become such a major focus of the Super Bowl broadcast, and such a regular part of our lives, that we no longer consider what it says about us or what it’s doing to our youngsters.

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