Movie Matters

In the movie "The Hard Way," Michael J. Fox says to a hot-dog chomping cop, "Ever heard of the saying, 'Take care of your stomach, and your stomach will take care of you?'"

The policeman's reply: "What are you, some kind of nutritionist?"

That's one of many nutrition messages Cheryl Achterberg has found embedded in popular movies and television shows. In a study aimed at helping her identify "the messages that we, as educators, are competing with," Achterberg, an associate professor of nutrition at Penn State, is analyzing the top 100 box-office movies from 1991.

hotdog

The hot dog incident sends a lot of messages: "Nutritionists are geeks, for one. And it's better to do what's socially acceptable than what you personally value." In many movies, she believes, the messages are more subtle, such as what is conveyed by the 14 packs of Marlboro cigarettes she counted during the 1978 "Superman." Or, on the positive side, when a primary character in "Boyz in the Hood" drinks milk while his peers drink alcohol.

The next step for Achterberg will be to set up focus groups and interviews. She'll show participants a movie, then ask whether they remember anything the characters ate or drank and what they thought about it. "We assume mass media messages are very influential," she explains, "but there really hasn't been enough research on this.

"We'll be looking closely at the target audience of the movie," she adds. The messages that the media convey to young girls about their bodies, for example, are often hypothesized as a possible cause of eating disorders, "Yet no one has ever tested that hypothesis and collected data. We intend to."

Cheryl Achterberg, Ph.D., is associate professor of nutrition in the College of Health and Human Development and director of the Penn State Nutrition Center, 121 Henderson Building South, University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-2916. Margaret O'Shea is a former Research/Penn State writing intern.

Last Updated June 01, 1994