Distributed March 28, 2003
For Immediate Release

News Service Contact: Kristen Cole

Julie Sedivy analyzes advertising and its effect on society

Julie Sedivy, a cognitive and linguistic researcher, says science holds the answers to questions about the impact of advertising on society. Sedivy teaches some 150 undergraduates each spring about “Language, Truth, and Advertising.”

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Determining the veracity of assertions made or implied by advertisers hawking products on screen and in print is not always easy. Brown University researcher Julie Sedivy says knowing about human cognition can help.

Advertisers employ a range of linguistic tools for their own purposes, according to Sedivy, assistant professor of cognitive and linguistic sciences, including targeting specific audiences by geography, class and gender. Their motivations range from the sale of products to increasing support for war.

“A background in language processing allows you to have a detachment and a way of evaluating the devices used by advertisers,” said Sedivy, whose primary research focuses on the moment-by-moment process by which humans assign meaning to words and phrases. “Clearly, ads are persuasive in nature, but the real question that remains is whether there are effects that could be detrimental.”

In her undergraduate course, “Language, Truth, and Advertising,” Sedivy outlines the ways science has answered some questions about advertising’s effect on society and raised other questions. The questions surround how people perceive meaning, remember asserted versus implied meanings, and the linguistic and cognitive limitations of children to evaluate assertions.

Researchers are at work to determine whether there are clear links between ads and actions such as an increased frequency of ads for nutritionally suspect food and an increased prevalence of childhood obesity or parallel increases in ads for beauty products and eating disorders, said Sedivy.

Other cognitive studies have used eye movements to track a viewer’s attention level while watching ads in hopes of determining the state of mind in which viewers are most susceptible to ads – when they are most apt to remember messages.

Those issues are at the center of attempts to regulate advertising. In some countries, including Canada and Sweden, advertisers are prohibited from targeting ads at children under the age of 13. In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulates deceptive advertising and the legal definition of “truth.”

As part of their coursework, Sedivy’s students are required to employ their cognitive training to make a case that a given advertisement violates the FTC criteria and to predict how the company would argue in its own defense. One former student took it a step further and submitted a complaint to the FTC about an Internet ad for a weight loss supplement. The ad was changed, said Sedivy.

Students who register for Sedivy’s course often include those who take extreme points of view – those who perceive ads as having nothing valuable to contribute to society and those who think consumers have the ultimate responsibility to determine the truth.

Sedivy notes that ads stimulate the economy and have the potential to uncover useful information about products, she said, “I don’t think they’re evil. The struggle is for a society to determine and minimize the negative impact.”