Behind the Online Curtain: Online Advertising, Teens and the Christian Form

[1] The advertising world has always been a bit of a mystery to me. I understand the concept of telling others about your product or service so that they might buy it. But the industry has exploded over the last several decades as I've crossed from my young adulthood of the 80's and 90's and over into parenthood in the not-new-anymore-millennium, and this is due primarily to the Internet. Most of the carefully crafted marketing messages now make their appearance in our lives from a seemingly magical cyberspace that "knows" us. How have these messages shaped us? How has this changed what it means to be a young person today?

Behind the Online Curtain: Online Advertising, Teens and the Christian Form  by Dianha Ortega-Ehreth

[2] Well, first of all, there is no magic. Online advertising is just a highly sophisticated Oz-like curtain. Thanks to a marketing consultant serving my local community, the curtain has been pulled back enough for me to peek into this world of online advertising, in particular, advertising on Facebook. Here's how it works: businesses who advertise on Facebook pay a fee every time a user clicks on their ad, and apparently, this is now more expensive than it was even five years ago. Due to its massive popularity, Facebook attracts more companies to advertise there to its users than ever before. Their users area sort of captive audience. Money is transferred to Facebook each time a user clicks on an advertisement, and what used to cost mere pennies per click is now costing dollars. Companies bid on key words, and the higher the bid, the more exposure that company gets next to users' profiles.

[3] In some respects, Facebook is the advertiser's dream come true. Where else do you have access to 800 million potential customers worldwide who openly share their top interests and affiliations?1 Online advertising has given new meaning to the understanding of "tag words" or "key words." Words commonly used in sending messages or updating profiles are filtered through a complex system that will identify the top bidding companies who are more likely to offer something to catch your eye. It only takes a click.

[4] Enter stage left the teen Facebook user. Now, teens are usually smarter than most adults think. According to a group of teens with whom I currently meet twice a month, they find online advertisements largely annoying but they understand why they are there. The benefit of using Facebook for free far outweighs the inconvenience of that blinking message on the right side of the screen.2 Alas, the truth is by now, these teens — even from households where spending money is highly limited or non-existent — have already been trained by the massive industry of children's advertising. Successful advertisers have already "hooked" (as if to a drug) a teen to be a lifetime customer. A lot of choices have already been made.

[5] For many teens today, these choices are made within a family construct that includes an understanding of shopping behaviors. One young person, when asked about how she spends her money, responded by saying "I feel bad for spending over $20." She knows her parents worked hard for the money that they let her spend.3 Yet she is influenced by popular peer culture to do what developmentally is critical for her: to fit in.

[6] Advertisers shape children, teens — all of us, in fact — by designing an incredibly attractive idea into which we will want to fit (and into which our budgets will allow us to do so). Markets are based on demand, and demand can be invented in powerful ways. Often this is done by telling us that what we have or who we are is not good enough. Our insecurities emerge out of our electronic messages to one another and are as varied as the (tag) words we use. These words, in combination with our zip code, gender, age, ethnic background, products already purchased, familial status, and much more help advertisers understand and target our consumer identities.4

[7] Forming one's overall identity is a life-long process. However for a teen, identity can be remarkably fluid. As young adults discover the world, they discover the responses within their being and navigate these responses towards a kind of conformity. They align with something or someone where they find, among other things, acceptance. To conform is to form one's self into the shape of what is acceptable. For as much as positive influencers encourage teens to non-conform, it must be understood that to conform is a basic human need.

[8] This really begs the question: is non-conformity even within our human capacity? The overwhelming popular culture that has shaped my family and me is very powerful, so the sinful part of me that identifies other sin is apathetically inclined to say no. Asking teens to non-conform, then, is not the best solution exactly. An analysis of the opportunity invites us to sharpen the question: Since our nature is to conform, then to what shall I try to conform? The Holy Spirit stirs.

[9] The paradox is that we live in the world where some culture is popular, or acceptable, and some is not, and we are responsible for making it that way. God is present in this world too — in the popular and unpopular parts of it. We are called to live as Christians in the whole world, not just the popular or unpopular parts of it. Our Christianity is a form based on the life and mind of Christ. Romans 12:2 says "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-what is good and acceptable and perfect."

[10] We are called to pay special attention to what shapes us. Trans-formation is a process of movement across, perhaps from the comfort of the popular and into the unpopular. Often, it is a daily process. What does this look like for teens in the context of advertisers who "know" them?

[11] Teens live in a world today where the consequences of non-conformity (to what is popular) are rough — rougher than when I was a teen. Bullying is rampant and brutal. Parents, teachers, pastors, mentors and anyone else who cares for them cannot turn a blind eye to the pressures of young people who are not emotionally equipped to write off every insult or abusive behavior. And why should they not deal with these in some intentional way? Ignoring these kinds of problems does not make them go away. Confronting negative behavior is hard, and not all adults are good role models in this sphere of life.

[12] Advertising today is an invitation for us all to clarify and perhaps re-form some of our relationships. Maybe marketing experts do "know" us, but God named us and knows us best as beloved children of God. We are consumers, yes, but our original identity and our original form is deeper and more powerful. It is one we can return to again and again to re-shape our hearts and minds. Building self-confidence in teens means reminding them that God created them in God's image, that God's goodness is part of their core identity, and what they need to be successful in life is fundamentally in this reality.

[13] Pastors, youth workers and others who work with young people in Christian ministry are helping to give shape to teens who are discovering and re-discovering the power of their Christian identity. They do this by building relationships with young people that model how God loves us. Re-formation is what happens when we listen to the voice of God within and to the Word of God in scripture then let these re-characterize our behavior — as Facebook friends, consumers, and all the other identities we bear.

[14] Our Christian form even calls us to repent when we more fully understand our contributions to consumer culture. Advertisers are not the adversaries in the consumer history that has unfolded. They have provided good services for many solid businesses. My neighbor marketing expert explained to me their industry is monitored by a code of ethics much like most all other professional fields. Scams do exist that clearly break ethics in advertising. Therefore, I filter everything I read, especially online.5 But for the large part, marketing experts cannot be isolated into an antagonistic corner. It is more important that teens be invited to consider their role in paying fair prices that value the work of others and the environment.

[15] In conclusion, all of us have been — and will continue to be — shaped by advertising. With a daily affirmation of God's love and acceptance, we will discern and create appropriate online identities by the groups, words and products that we "like." We are invited to exercise our power as consumers based out of our primary identity as children of God and re-form consumer culture. God is present in this world, the one we see and the one behind the online curtain, perhaps forming the teens of today into the advertising executives of tomorrow. Their ideas, if shaped by the Christian form, hold wonderful possibilities for "knowing" each other more faithfully going forward.

Dianha Ortega-Ehreth is a child of God, a parent, former Lutheran youth minister and currently serves as Executive Director of the Youth Leadership Academy, a non-profit organization helping low-income, at-risk students in the Elgin, Illinois, area gain access to higher education.



1. And even better — Facebook allows people to recommend certain products or services to their friends and acquaintances.

2. None of the teens in the group has admitted to ever purchasing something because of a Facebook ad. And while this might seem to be a failure for the advertising industry, my neighbor marketing executive assures me that the marketing success comes from continual presence, as a form of access into the popular subconscious. This "branding," a strategy based on creating a relationship of recognition and trust for the consumer, is what advertisers count on to build confident financial futures.

3. This particular group of teens was excited to share with me their smart shopping skills in the discount department. "Buying more with less" opens up a whole other conversation related to ethics of purchasing goods made perhaps by children in other countries.

4. Consumer online identities can even be formed out of the public eye and in the comfort of one's own home.

5. Ideally, of course, teens will do this proactively and not learn this lesson the hard way. Also, Christian re-formation includes an opportunity to let go of the things that do not really matter in the long run.




© January 2012
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 12, Issue 1