Football ads fire up kids’ hostility

IOWA STATE (US) — This year’s Super Bowl advertising extravaganza should come with a warning to parents: Ads that contain cruelty can make kids think bad thoughts.

Ads with violent content aired during a sporting event that also contains violence may amplify aggressive thoughts in kids and put kids at risk for aggressive behavior, a new study shows. Findings are reported in the Journal of Advertising.

“You put it [violent content in TV commercials] in the context of football—which we generally think about as sport, not violence—and I think there is potential for kids to respond to this aggressively,” says Russell Laczniak, a professor of marketing at Iowa State University and one of the study’s authors.

“There is the opportunity for parents to co-view, and we found that co-viewing and discussion can lower children’s tendency to respond aggressively,” he says. “But given the context of people being at Super Bowl parties, I’m not sure parents are going to take time to talk with their children about the violence.”

The study authors recommend three things parents can do to mitigate the effects of violent media on their children:

  • Limit the amount of time viewing the content
  • Limit the media content to non-aggressive, age-appropriate media
  • Active mediation, where parents discuss media thoughtfully with their children.

Sex vs. violence
The study by Laczniak and colleagues included focus groups of 42 children and 40 parents to investigate their perceptions of media violence and how TV commercial violence may influence children; and an experimental study of 165 children (ages eight to 12, split between the sexes) to determine the kids’ aggressive thoughts after they viewed TV commercials containing violence. The researchers defined violence as “actions depicting intentional harm to victims who would not wish to be harmed.”

In the focus groups, parents expressed little concern about the effects of violent commercials on children. Both the parents and children associated violence with actions that resulted in “blood.” Both also indicated that realism was an important characteristic of violence. Cartoon or animated scenes depicting violence were perceived as being more fantasy than violence by the subjects.

“Sex and selling made them [focus group parents] mad, but their definition of violence was if it didn’t have blood and gore and wasn’t realistic—as opposed to cartoon violence—then it wasn’t violent,” says Deanne Brocato, an assistant professor of marketing.

Bad thoughts
In the experimental study, children were surveyed on their media viewing habits and then shown one of eight videos containing both children’s content and either violent ads or non-violent ads. The researchers then measured the subjects’ aggressive thoughts through their responses to a post-viewing questionnaire.

Exposure to violent ads clearly increased the amount of aggressive thoughts in children, the study shows. Parents should be concerned about their children’s exposure to violent content through TV ads, the researchers conclude.

Previous researcher—including a 2002 study by Iowa State psychologists Craig Anderson and Brad Bushman, who is now a professor at Ohio State University—found that violent cognitions may start a process that reinforces kids’ aggressive knowledge and may make them more likely to engage in aggressive acts.

“It increases the risk and the [aggressive] tendencies they have,” Brocato says. “You’re allowing your kids to have higher potential to engage in this activity and it puts them at a higher risk because they become desensitized to the violence.”

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