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Family Matters

Managing the Message: Helping Girls with the Negative Effects of Advertising Overload

September 1st, 2015

image: ShutterStock

By Jennifer Lavallee

Research shows that we see up to 5,000 advertisements every single day. What…what? It’s true, a market research firm out of the U.S., led by Dale Yankelovich, whose findings were published in the New York Times, revealed the jaw-dropping statistic a few years back. Just take a moment to let that sink in—5,000 ads are potentially passing by our eyes or ears every single day. But, how is this even possible? Well, if you combine all those little blurbs and sneaky commercials that pop up on our social media feeds, YouTube videos, on t.v. and radio, blogs, websites, apps, billboards, junk mail—heck, even on the side of the bus driving by your house and on the box of cereal you reach for every morning, the numbers start to add up rather quickly.

It makes you wonder though, does the constant bombardment of these ads on our everyday lives actually do any harm? Especially on our youngest, do kids even really notice ads now that they’re so common place? If we were to focus on young girls, particularly those aged 8-14 (meaning girls who are experiencing puberty or who will be in a few years), overwhelmingly, the experts are saying, yes. Not surprisingly, this is true because it’s the time in their lives when young girls are just starting to figure out who they are and what it means to them to be a girl.  Exposed to constant advertising where women are often portrayed in unrealistic ways and where there is conflictive messaging, about things like appearances and gender roles, given from one ad to another, it’s no surprise to learn that, for example, girls’ self-esteem takes a major nosedive during puberty, 3.5 times higher, compared to boys of the same age. Of course, advertising is not the only thing contributing to the problem, but considering the sheer number of ads that kids today are exposed to, it is no doubt one important piece to the larger puzzle.

The Good News

The good news is, at the moment, there is a popular ad campaign trend that focuses on positive messaging for empowering young girls and highlights the importance of valuing leadership and confidence (think of campaigns such as Cheerios’ anti-diet mission or Always’ #likeagirl); however, juxtaposed against this is the subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, messaging that offers up just the opposite view and is, unfortunately, entrenched in a lot of our daily lives as acceptable. With this in mind—how do we help our girls embrace the messaging behind those positive ad campaigns, and leave the negative ones behind?

Challenging Stereotypes

“Yes, we talk about these things, even at their age,” says Krista Frattin, a local mother from Edmonton whose two daughters, aged nine and seven, and son, aged five, are growing up in a household that actively seeks out opportunities to challenge stereotypes. “In our house, if I hear the kids describe a person in a way that reflects a negative body-image term, I always try to open up a conversation. I really want to break down stereotypes with them and help them to understand that what they see on t.v. isn’t always reality,” asserts Frattin. And, according to the experts, she’s hitting the nail right on the head.

Christina Rinaldi, a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Alberta and a school and clinical child psychologist, says, “Kids are really impressionable at this age, there’s nothing wrong with talking about these types of ads and how they make your child feel.” Rinaldi explains that young girls (and boys) don’t necessarily understand that advertisements are really just something made up as a marketing ploy, and says parents and guardians should be talking, in a meaningful way, about some of those underlying negative messages and imagery contained in some ads. This, she says, will help to challenge the stereotypes they are maybe buying into.

Rinaldi says that children start to become aware of themselves and form self-image as young as the ages of three and four and explains that all the interactions and experiences of children will help them to form their identity. “Kids have amazing powers of observation,” continues Rinaldi, “and they learn by imitation, whether they realize it or not.” Challenging hypocrisies that often appear in advertisements and popular culture, especially with young children, will help kids to develop a healthier self image, says the child psychologist, who also highlights the importance of having these types of conversations with both your girls and boys.

Give Them the Tools

How then, do we get our girls (and boys) to focus on the messages provided in the positive ads and empower them to reject the negative messages of the other ones. According to experts here are a few steps you can take:

Talk the talk, but also, walk the walk. It’s important to have open, frank conversations with your kids from an early age. Challenge stereotypes and explore ideas and key values you want your child to consider when it comes to how they see themselves. At the same time, it is important to follow through with what you’re telling them, to show that you actually believe it. For example, the message gets lost if you tell your daughter she can grow up to be anything she wants to be and then, when she says she wants to be a plumber, tell her “well, that’s usually a boy’s job.”

Be conscious of even the simple things, like making sure your household works on an equal playing field; switching up household chores so the girls aren’t always doing the “girl chores” and boys doing the “boy chores” can be impactful. Dads, brothers, and grandfathers can play a particularly important role in this area.

Lead by example. Whether we like it or not, body image can be very important to girls as they grow up. Being mindful of how you speak about your own body can help encourage healthy discussions with your daughter on her sense of body-confidence. For example, if you refuse to wear a bathing suit during your family outing to the local swimming pool, and always hold yourself to an unrealistic body-standard, how will your daughter feel about her own body as it changes and grows?

Encourage. Let your girls know, just as much as your boys, that they should step up, lead, and have ambitions. Acknowledge their dreams and ask questions. Stir up passions and encourage goal setting.

In the Community

Of course, a big part of giving girls the tools to deal with the negative impacts of advertising overload starts at home, but there are also many community groups, throughout the Edmonton region, that focus on helping girls learn about themselves, build confidence and lead.


  • Girl Guides: Edna Dach, the Public Relations Chair with the Edmonton-area Girl Guides, says “Guides offers a wide range of activities and enriching experiences that will last for a lifetime.” She describes their group’s core programming, which is available for girls starting at age five through 18, as focused on instilling leadership. Guides covers topics such as discovering community, healthy friendships, celebrating cultures, online safety, self-esteem, and body image issues (depending on the age group).

  • Girl-focused science clubs. There has been a big push lately to have girls embrace their love of science and math. Programs, such as ‘Girls Learning Code’ and the University of Alberta’s GEM (Girls Engineering and Mentorship) and Girls Coding Club have been growing in popularity. Girls as young as age six can participate, however younger girls can still get in on the action by visiting interesting places, like Edmonton’s Telus World of Science.

  • Edmonton’s YWCA programming for girls. The non-profit group runs their “GirlSpace” program from October to March where topics such as realistic body images, independence, assertiveness, and responsible decision making are a main focus to the group.

  • Build strength. There are, of course, all the traditional sports available out there, but today there are also many outside-the-box type fitness classes and workshops specifically meant for girls, where building confidence and self-esteem are just as important as the fitness aspect of the group. Classes such as rock-climbing, dirt biking, and weightlifting, for example, are all available for girls in the region.


Jennifer is a freelance writer living in a small town just outside of Edmonton with her three kids, husband, and a wiener dog named Bruce. She is a regular contributor to the Morinville FreePress newspaper and writes different types of articles (such as general features, historical pieces, business spotlights, etc.) for magazines throughout the Edmonton region. You can find Jennifer on twitter at @unlockingideas.

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