Reading Between the Lines

Resilient Societies

Advertising and mass media seem to saturate every corner of our society. Consumers in the U.S. are exposed to as many as 5,000 ads a day; popular music plays in stores and restaurants and in the car; our YouTube and Facebook feeds are full of videos and images pushing goods and services. When it’s all around you, it can be easy to dismiss the content and meaning behind the words and images we are exposed to and the deeper messages they convey. Dr. Clay Craig of the Texas State School of Journalism and Mass Communication studies the messages we are exposed to every day.

Photo shoot of food

U.S. consumers can be exposed to 5,000 advertisements per day

Craig’s study method involves deep content analysis: looking at the images, language and design of media to identify and quantify the present themes. By examining the current media environment, Craig hopes to better understand the factors influencing consumer behavior. His works involve analyzing magazine advertisements for food-and-health messaging and music lyrics from both health and advertising perspectives; exploring factors influencing perceptions of product placement; individuals’ motivations for prosocial behavior; and how health professionals and organizations utilize digital media to communicate with patients. Each of these lines of research has room for follow-up analysis built in, looking at the types of claims advertisers make and the veracity of those claims, or identifying biases in gender, race or age present in the material. For example, Craig’s recent studies looked at how food was promoted in magazine advertisements. 

The key to success in this effort, according to Craig, is to examine “as many different perspectives as possible” to develop a complete picture of how our behavior can be shaped by our media exposure.

While there has been an increase in the use of health claims in food advertisements, the average rating of the foods advertised was a C on Fooducate — a food rating website established by nutritionists — revealing a lack of transparency in messaging strategies. Additionally, the studies found that food ads in magazines promote gender stereotypes, specifically: thinness, decorative roles and passivity for women. The ads also underrepresented minorities and objectified both men’s and women’s bodies. Oddly enough, men’s magazines had the healthiest food, while women’s had the least healthy.

The key to success in this effort, according to Craig, is to examine “as many different perspectives as possible” to develop a complete picture of how our behavior can be shaped by our media exposure. Craig has used his research to design studies and interventions in media literacy — the ability to critically examine media — and has developed lessons in media literacy for students.

woman shopping groceries

Strong support from the Texas State research community in terms of finances, time and collaboration provides the backbone for Craig’s work. The goal is to build a foundation from which applied research can support teaching efforts, and vice versa. “If you have a great idea, and can show benefit for the students, the university will always back your research,” Craig explains. “I’m always asking ‘how is this going to help my students, either in understanding the material or the world around them?’” 

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