When it comes to drugs, alcohol and tobacco, many advertisers know how to make them seem very attractive and glamorous to teenagers.

What you see: Young people at a beach party, looking healthy, playing volleyball, drinking bottles of ice-cold beer. What you don't see: Vomiting, blurred vision, clouded judgement, DWIs and hangovers.

Kathryn Greene, communications professor at Rutgers University, has partnered up with 4-H to develop a new curriculum to increase teens' media savviness and help them imagine what alcohol and tobacco companies are leaving out in their ads.

The program, called Youth Message Design, helps deconstruct advertising, showing all its moving parts, and then encourages teens to use their knowledge to construct counter messages.

Greene says very often scare tactics are used to lecture young people. They are constantly told what to do and what not to do. But they have not developed the critical thinking, communication and relationship skills that would help them manage their choices in healthy ways.

The Youth Message Design, by contrast, makes teens "much more aware of the goals of the advertisers and what they're trying to do with these messages — how many there are around them and then get them to be better at analyzing what's absent from the advertiser's message," says Greene.

The curriculum has five levels. Level 1 discusses the cost and how much money is spent on advertising. Level 2 looks at the strategy that advertisers use and how they use them to target an audience. Level 3 focuses on hidden messages that are absent in ads. In level 4, you learn about production techniques and how certain features are used by advertisers to attract the audience's attention. Level 5 is when a teen uses the knowledge learned in the curriculum to construct counter messages.

For example, a counter message to a beer commercial might include some representation of nausea or images of long-term health effects of alcohol abuse, such as liver disease or a drunk driving car crash.

"Basically, there's some form of counter arguing — to look at an ad claim and then to be much more alert about the effort at manipulating that is all around them."

The curriculum, which has been tested for almost 10 years, falls under the category of media literacy, meaning it tries to get young people to think about how they consume and use media.

Greene says the Substance Abuse Mental Health Administration has rated the curriculum as effective. There is evidence that this program can in fact reduce or even delay initiation of the beginning of teen alcohol, tobacco and other substance use.

The curriculum is less than two hours. It's an online curriculum, "so youth can go through it at their own pace and it uses lots of examples of media in advertising that youth will see around them," says Greene.

A version of the curriculum called "Real Messages" is available online through D.A.R.E and Real Prevention.

Jen Ursillo is the midday news anchor on New Jersey 101.5. You can reach her at Jen.Ursillo@townsquaremedia.com

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