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Research Roundup

April 19, 2011, Volume 57, No. 30

Impact of Graphic Tobacco Warning Labels

A study of over 5,300 smokers conducted by Penn’s Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) shows that multiple versions of the proposed warnings produce desired effects by increasing negative feelings respondents experience about smoking a next cigarette. “By failing to study the labels’ effects on affect, the FDA-sponsored research missed a key factor that contributes to a commitment to give up smoking,” noted Dr. Dan Romer, director of the APPC’s Adolescent Communication Institute. “And they also underestimated the power of some of the proposed warning labels.” The Annenberg study replicated findings from an earlier APPC study that identified the effects of Canadian cigarette pack labels on feelings about smoking.

Drawing on the content of the Canadian labels, the study also isolated ways in which the efficacy of the labels can be increased.  For example, adding language saying, “Tobacco use during pregnancy increases the risk of preterm birth.  Babies born preterm are at an increased risk of infant death, illness, and disability” increased the power of the label now proposed to say “Smoking during pregnancy can harm children.”

In their FDA posting, Annenberg researchers urged the FDA to study the individual components that contribute to the total message, a recommendation reinforced by the study’s finding that use of red lettering to communicate a warning increases the negative affect attached to smoking elicited by viewing the label.  And the APPC researchers noted that some labels work with specific subpopulations more so than others.  For instance, in one particular ad, the picture of a baby in intensive care combined with the Canadian warning “Smoking during pregnancy can harm your baby,” increased negative affect among younger (ages 18 to 24) smokers and smokers, irrespective of age, with children under 5 in their households, but did not have significant effects on other populations.

Positive Effect of Philly Neighborhood Reinvestment

A report from the Fels Institute of Government details the ways reclamation and redevelopment of vacant property have improved residents’ quality of life in eastern North Philadelphia.  The report, “Neighborhood Stabilization and Safety in East North Philadelphia,” highlights how comprehensive strategic investment by local community developers and public agencies correlates with improvements in safety, rising incomes and an attraction of new working households. The full report is available at www.fels.upenn.edu/apm_stabilization

Relying on Penn’s Cartographic Modeling Lab crime data and information from US census and demographic projections by mapping software ESRI and by PolicyMap, the Fels publication provides demographic indicators associated with the ongoing transformation in the area studied. 

Written by Fels Research Associate Christopher Kingsley under the supervision of Fels Senior Consultant John Kromer, the new report builds on two companion reports issued by Fels in September 2010 and July 2008 studying the transformation of vacant lots and redevelopment in the blocks east of Temple University and in neighborhoods in Southwest Philadelphia.

The most recent findings, which focused primarily on the area in eastern North Philadelphia, suggest there are dramatic benefits to investing in neighborhoods.

Highlights include: decrease in crimes by an average of 5.7% per year; less than a 1% decrease in population between 1999 and 2009; area is more inviting neighborhood for middle-class families, attracting about 42 middle-class workers per year between 2002 and 2008; households in the area are 4.7% wealthier than they were a decade ago; and residents are better educated, where high school graduates increased from 44 to 51.2%. 

Influencing Children’s Taste: Characters on Packaging

The use of media characters on cereal packaging may influence children’s opinions about taste, according to a report in the March issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

The article is the product of a study by Annenberg doctoral students Matthew Lapierre and Sarah Vaala, and Dr. Deborah L. Linebarger, assistant professor of communication.

“The use of trade (e.g. Ronald McDonald) and licensed (e.g. Shrek) spokescharacters is a popular marketing practice in child-directed products because the presence of these figures helps children identify and remember the associated product,” the authors write. Because children remember nonverbal representations more easily than verbal descriptions, a visual cue such as a character or logo, may help them remember information presented in an advertisement.

Eighty children between the ages of 4 and 6 years were evaluated to determine if using a licensed spokescharacter on food packaging affected children’s taste assessment of the cereal. Children were shown boxes of cereal labeled either Healthy Bits or Sugar Bits, with some boxes featuring media characters and some without. Having seen only the box, participants were asked to rate the taste of the cereal on a scale of one to five. 

Almost all the children reported liking the cereal, however those who saw a popular media character on the box reported liking the cereal more than those who viewed a box without a character on it. Additionally, those who sampled the cereal named Healthy Bits reported enjoying the cereal more than children who were given the same cereal under the name Sugar Bits. Children receiving the cereal with the name Sugar Bits in a box with no characters on it reported being significantly less satisfied with the taste than those in the other three groups.  No significant differences were found among children in the Healthy Bits group based on the presence or absence of characters on the box.

The Protective Power of Culture

Since the 1970s, education researchers have been examining the disparities in student risk through the lens of gender. Some scholars who explored classroom dynamics and teacher influence found cause for concern about how girls were faring.  In 2010, a Center on Education Policy report turned the spotlight on boys with the news that, at all levels and in all states of the union, boys were falling behind girls in reading.

Arguing that gender alone might be “too broad a category,” two Penn GSE professors suggest that the picture is far more complex.  They use the intersection of race, class, and gender to better understand equity in the classroom.

As Dr. Duane Thomas and Dr. Howard Stevenson reviewed the literature, one group in particular stood out: “low-income African American boys remain at the most risk, relative to other groups for disparities in education and with respect to being at a disadvantage in terms of academic outcomes.”

Drs. Thomas and Stevenson present the documented low expectations and high risk factors for African American boys as a convergence of trends. For example, some researchers argue that boys are disciplined more than girls, partially due to “feminizing classroom environments” that have low tolerance for “boys’ behavioral and emotional expressions.”

Across gender, African Americans face an additional challenge: “the expectation that teachers make regarding African American students’ academic underperformance and failures in the social arena.” These students receive less encouragement to pursue science, math, and advanced courses than do their peers, while the boys in this cohort are overrepresented in school discipline procedures and special education classrooms.

How do young African American males cope? Some turn to “role-flexing,” a tactic that involves altering one’s speech, behavior, or appearance to diminish the effects of negative stereotypes and gain social acceptance. Others take the opposite approach, adopting hypermasculine personas to evoke respect. Both solutions can have a negative impact on school performance.

So how do low-income African American boys succeed, both socially and academically? Drs. Thomas and Stevenson argue that success in negotiating the racial and sexual politics of the classroom calls on social skills that can challenge even the most mature among us: anger management and deflection of rejection.

But these individual skills can only go so far—and may be out of reach for many young people. Instead, Drs. Howard and Stevenson see racial socialization as one of the most important factors in assuring the academic success of young African American males. In the process of racial socialization, “children acquire behaviors, perceptions, values, and attitudes of their respective racial groups and come to take pride in and see themselves as members of such groups.”

African American youth who develop a strong sense of cultural heritage develop a healthier sense of self than do their less self-aware peers —and their teachers seem to be taking note. In one study cited, “the boys in the sample who demonstrated limited awareness of their African American cultural heritage were more likely to have their behaviors rated by teachers as being problematic.”

Overall, Drs. Thomas and Stevenson say that interventions aimed at reducing risks of educational underachievement for low-income African American male students would benefit from “a dual focus on racial/cultural identification and sociocognitive problem solving.”


Almanac - April 19, 2011, Volume 57, No. 30