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  • Media and Advertising: Who's Selling What?
    By Dr. Mikki Shaw

    Grade Level: 4 - 6

    Language Arts classes teach students to be intelligent consumers of literature, to read closely, to analyze and respond to text. Yet children, even very young children, are exposed to advertising techniques via print ads, television, video and film, far more than they are exposed to literature. They "consume" far more visual than written images, and far more of their information is gathered through television, video and film than though books. We, as educators, do not spend the same amount of time teaching our students to analyze and respond to advertising intelligently. This lesson plan introduces students to the idea that images and messages in advertising can be read and interpreted, and that they can become literate in media as well as text. It is meant to teach students to begin to look for the ways that advertising and media can manipulate and persuade an unwary consumer.


    • Students will begin to investigate the persuasive techniques used in advertising to communicate messages to the consumer.

    • Students will begin to look critically at advertising and to become independent critical thinkers in judging and analyzing the truth, effectiveness and appropriateness of specific ads.

    • Students will begin to examine how advertisers target audiences and design ads to appeal to those audiences.

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    Estimated Time

    5 - 10 class periods

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    Teaching Procedure

    Activity 1: Introduction: Everybody Gets An A!

    1. Teacher gives a pop quiz on current advertising slogans and/or logos (if the teacher is artistically inclined.) The quiz should include, for instance, popular slogans with a key word or the name of the product omitted.

    2. Initiate a class discussion about why everyone did well on the test without studying. Have we all, in effect, been studying advertising? How?

      Further discussion questions:
      • How does advertising work, how does it make you buy things?
      • Do you always believe advertising? Why or why not?
      • Have you ever been the victim of false advertising? How?
    Activity 2: Who's Selling, Who's Buying?

    1. Ask students to set up three columns on a sheet of paper. In the first column, the class lists together the places that they generally see advertising. (Magazines, newspapers, TV, radio, etc.) In the second column, they list the specific magazines, newspapers and TV shows that they are familiar with. The third column will ask for the specific products that are advertised in the magazines, shows, etc. that they have listed. For homework, preferably over a period of days or a week, ask students to fill in the third column.

    2. When the sheets are completed, the teacher shares the results. Depending on the age and sophistication of the class, this can be done by small group work, by setting up columns on the board or by discussion.

    3. The teacher leads the class toward making some general statements about who advertises where and what products are advertised to whom. Students begin to form some general assumptions, such as "TV shows about teenagers often advertise hair products, hip clothes or acne cream."

    4. The teacher reverses the process by giving them examples of particular advertising situations (the Superbowl, or the MTV awards or a big feature story about N'Sync) and asks the students to plan the advertising. Who would be the audience in each case? What kinds of products might do well?

    5. If there's time: Each student could "pitch" his advertising plan to the "agency" handling the big game or the print layout for N'Sync, etc.
    Activity 3: Analyzing The Techniques That Make Us Buy

    1. Students should bring in a variety of print ads that they think are, for one reason or another, effective or appealing.

    2. Post and review the effective and appealing ads that students have brought to class and try to identify and describe the strategies that the advertisers are using. Look at the language that the ads have in common and talk about why they might/might not work. With younger children, the teacher may want to give categories and brief explanations and ask the students to see if the advertisements fit into the categories.

      Suggested categories:
      • Eye appeal
      • Happy family appeal
      • An expert says
      • Famous people say
      • Everybody likes...
      • Snob appeal
      • Youth appeal
      • Symbols
      • It's new, it's better
      • Statistics
      • Concern for the public good
      • Humor
      • Romantic/sex appeal

    3. Ask students to name products or services that would be very hard to sell -lima beans, for instance, or summer school. Choose one as a class.

    4. In small groups, ask students to plan an advertising campaign for this difficult-to-sell product using at least some of the techniques discussed. The ads are presented to the class on a specified date.
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    Assessment Recommendations

    For Activity 2
    Ask students to create an advertising scenario similar to the one above, and plan a commercial or a print ad for a product of their own creation. Students should be prepared to tell where the ad will appear and why and to whom it will appeal.

    For Activity 3
    Students choose a product - a car, perfume, sneakers - name the product, and design a print ad for their new product. Students write a description of the strategies they employed, the probable placement of their ad and the desired audience.

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    About the Author

    Dr. Mikki Shaw's diverse experience in teaching secondary school is both traditional and alternative schools, in the suburbs as well as the inner city, has reinforced a real commitment to public education and to effective staff development. Visual literacy and the possibilities of using film to teach critical thinking are among Dr. Shaw's areas of interest. Currently Dr. Shaw is a full time instructor and lecturer at Teachers College, Columbia University.

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