athletic young man silhouetted by the waterWhether you are a following the 2016 Summer Olympic Games or not, the buzz around them is nearly impossible to miss. While athletes have devoted their lives to preparing to compete, companies around the world are jumping at the opportunity to promote themselves to millions of viewers. News and broadcasting companies have already sold more than $1 billion in advertising spots for this summer’s Olympics.

Family Watching TVThe business of advertising matters because watching the games is often a family activity. This means that kids and parents will see commercials and be influenced by them. Research shows that children cannot understand the intent of advertisements until late elementary school. However, even older children and adults can be swayed by advertised messages. This is why it is important for adults and kids to watch the Olympics (both the games and the commercials) critically – recognizing the advertisements, (everything from gymnasts wearing a logo on their leotards, to the full-blown ads shown during commercial breaks) and understanding what the ads’ messages are trying to get you to feel and do.

Recognize, Think About & Discuss These Messages:

  • Athletes most commonly endorse sporting goods and apparel, followed by food and beverages, and lastly other consumer goods. These ads often suggest that athletes do well because of what they eat, drink, or wear, and downplay the amount of time and dedication athletes put into their physical and mental training.
  • Many fast food companies are official sponsors of the Olympics. These companies often design ads that appeal to the athletic spirit of the games (and may even feature popular Olympians) while promoting unhealthy food options. In general, most of the food products advertised have little nutritional value, and many of the beverages have large amounts of sugar.
  • Although the Olympics is advertised as an equal playing ground for male and female athletes, research looking at Olympic broadcasts shows that male athletes and competitions are favored over female athletes and competitions.
  • Female athletes are often highlighted for their attractiveness and sexiness in ads as opposed to their athletic ability.
  • Female athletes are often under more pressure to maintain a certain body image. Those who compete in tight or revealing uniforms (beach volleyball, swimming, gymnastics, etc.) are often seen as eye candy rather than athletes. These sexualized body image portrayals (in the broadcasting of the games, and in ads) can influence how viewers feel about their own bodies.
  • Research shows that entertainment and sports channels have the highest amount of beer ads, with themes of partying, sports, being manly, love and sex, and relaxing. This year’s coverage of the Olympics will most certainly also contain sponsorships from alcohol producers, with ads and even branding tailored to the games. Unfortunately, many alcohol ads contain elements that appeal to children and make it seem attractive to drink.

What YOU Can Do

  • Media literacy and critical thinking allow children to question the motivations behind the coverage of the Olympic games and the ads they see. Children can also learn how to make their own healthy “advertisements” about what it really takes to be an Olympic athlete, showcasing mental and physical training and the importance of eating healthfully. By teaching kids to point out when they see biased coverage or unrealistic ads, children will be less likely to accept what they see or hear as an indication or model for the choices they make.
  • Children learn well when personal experience and instruction are combined. Relate specific claims about specific products to their real-world experience. For example, if you watch an ad for an energy bar where an athlete eats the bar and then outruns a cheetah, talk about how unrealistic the ad is, and relate it to the child’s own experiences with eating granola bars. This can help kids understand the exaggerated or false messages in the commercials they see.
  • Know that commercials will be all over the Olympic games – from the billboards lining arenas, to logos on team uniforms and commercial breaks. One way you can help limit your child’s exposure to ads is by recording the games and watching them later. This will allow you to fast forward or skip commercial breaks. You can also pause the action anytime you want to point out and/or discuss an ad you see on the screen.

Remember The Gold (Good) About Watching The Games

Young woman swimmer with a gold medalWatching the Olympics can be a wonderful way for children, teens and families to spend time together. The games give us an opportunity to watch a program that the whole family can learn from, talk about and enjoy! Watching the Olympics can also inspire us, give us a sense of community and may even lead to trying out a new sport!

When watching, help kids recognize the names of different countries. Point out new places on a globe or on a map on your phone. Teach them about equality and how men and women with different backgrounds are equal in what they can accomplish, despite their skin tone or place of birth.

The Olympics provide a time for all of us to come together despite differences in race, religion, politics, and beliefs to compete fairly and in ways that celebrate cooperation, respect, and hard work. Help your children to recognize these messages by teaching them what the Olympic rings stand for, or by talking about the benefits of working as a team, allowing others to help you, and helping them in return. When the games are over, follow-up with the lessons you discussed by encouraging kids to take on a new sport, or to pay closer attention to their teammates in their current activities.

Enjoy the 2016 Summer Olympics and learn from them as a family!