Teaching About Advertising and the Real World
By Bill Bigelow
One aspect of learning to critically read the world entails asking questions about our “stuff”: Where does it come from? Who makes it? Under what conditions and with what ecological consequences? What resources are consumed to get it from where it’s made to here? The more students pursue these questions – and discover answers – the more they are able to recognize most advertising as disinformation, a seductive masking of social reality. I want my students to pry behind ads for what they say and don’t say: “Think about this shiny, powerful car; forget the fact that if we continue to produce shiny, powerful cars like this, the planet won’t survive.”
I recently taught a short unit on advertising and globalization as part of my 11th-grade Global Studies class, with the unit culminating in two assignments: essays analyzing the world of advertising and a project designed to “advertise the truth.”
A key resource for the unit was the extraordinary video, The Ad and the Ego (available from the Teaching for Change catalog, www.teachingforchange.org.) Although its narration is dense and at times academic, it is fast-moving, funny, and most importantly is about a topic with which students are intimately familiar. I stopped the video every few minutes to raise questions, ask for examples, or emphasize a point from the narration that may have been a bit obscure.
One of the video’s strengths is its breadth of vision, covering the rise of advertising as an industry; its production of personal discontent and insecurity; its power to shape our sense of “the good life” and human happiness; the objectification of women; advertising’s devastating environmental effects (the “making beautiful and desirable the using-up of resources” – “translating the process of consumption into an erotic spectacle”); and its monopolization of public space, squeezing out alternative social and ecological visions.
The distributor, California Newsreel, has helpfully provided a transcript of the video on its website (see related article for ordering information), and I made copies of this for my class. After we watched the video, I cut out about 50 ads from magazines ranging from Cosmopolitan and Seventeen to Newsweek and People, and posted these around the classroom. The students’ assignment was to find a specific ad that seemed to illustrate one of the video quotes and to write about that, or to treat the ads as a group and write about how these related to one or more of the quotes. I encouraged students to wander around the room and look over the ads before deciding what to write. (I left the ads posted on the bulletin boards for the rest of the school year, and we frequently referred to them in class discussions. However, the spectacle of Marlboro men and Wonder Bra women tacked up around the room did generate some raised eyebrows when colleagues dropped by to talk.)
In previous years, I’ve asked students to find their own ads and to write critiques of these. This has the advantage of encouraging students to re-see the commercial messages of the magazines that they read themselves, and I hope the activity allows them to gain a certain critical distance from messages that they may have previously simply absorbed as “natural.” As Bernard McGrane suggests in The Ad and the Ego, “It’s like breathing the air. You don’t notice the pollution.” In past years, I’ve used an opaque projector to display each of the ads students bring in – these clunky things are unwieldy and loud, but they are the only machines I know of that can project book or magazine images onto a screen. The students’ task is to share their insights with the class and to raise at least two discussion questions about their ads.
This year, I wanted them to expend their creative energy writing essays on advertising and, afterward, constructing projects to “advertise the truth.” [See side bars, pages 16 and 17.] I began by putting students in small groups and asked them to use the Ad and the Ego transcripts to brainstorm at least ten possible thesis statements that could power their essays. Later, I asked students to choose one of these, and as a class we reviewed possible types of essay introductions: a question, a personal anecdote, a quote from the video, a story, an amazing fact, a hard-hitting thesis statement, the description of a particular magazine ad or TV commercial, etc. (Generally, before I let students begin an essay, I require that they write at least two different introductions, so they don’t just pick the first thing that comes to mind.) [I had other essay requirements as well. See the “Producing Consumers Essay,” below.]
As students considered their topics, I supplemented The Ad and the Ego with parts of the PBS documentary Affluenza. Although Affluenza covers some of the same territory as The Ad and the Ego, – and much of it not as well – it focuses more broadly on the politics of stuff and our responsibility to deal with the social and ecological implications of consumption as a way of life. My colleague, Tamar Ehrlich, a member of Portland’s Rethinking Schools Globalization Workgroup, also told me that her ninth graders had an easier time with Affluenza than with Ad and the Ego, and that they appreciated Affluenza’s greater emphasis on ways that young people could respond to the disease of consumerism.
Students wrote fine essays, although these tended to focus more on how ads affected them individually than on the broader role that advertising plays in the global economy or global environmental problems. Consequently, their writing also tended to propose individual solutions to social problems – many of which boiled down to “Be yourself; don’t be influenced by the harmful messages of ads.” That said, many of the papers were passionate and insightful. Sarah Garnes wrote an essay titled, “After all, you’re ugly. Right?” which reads in part:
Have you ever looked in the mirror and it seemed to look back at you as it ridiculed your every flaw?
Where’s your cleavage, girl? Your butt is just way too big! And those thighs, what is there to do about those big mama thighs? You’re staying in this house, I don’t want you to humiliate both of us. Try a plastic surgeon, girl, ’cause you need a miracle. …
Advertising tries to make women increasingly uncomfortable in their lives. When a woman sees another woman on television or on the street, usually the first thing that comes to her mind is, “She’s so beautiful, if only I could look like that.” Then automatically that woman looks for methods to increase her beauty. …
The market of products out there never lets you know you’re OK or that you too are a beautiful person. Rather, they try to show you how you need to increase your beauty. Get a tan, get luscious lashes, fuller lips, and shiny nails.
After all, you’re ugly. Right?
A number of my students were also enrolled in my colleague Bill McClendon’s social psychology class, and this overlap was especially valuable in deepening the feminist critique of advertising. To look at the social construction of gender roles, Bill shows Jean Kilbourne’s Still Killing Us Softly, as well as Sut Jhally’s disturbing Dreamworlds, about the image of women and sexuality in music videos. These were somewhat beyond the scope of my advertising unit, but they should definitely be considered for broader units on critical media literacy.
As part of offering students prompts for their “Advertising the Truth” projects, following their essays, I showed them the “Culture Jammer’s Video” including six “uncommercials” produced by the Media Foundation. I wanted to offer video as a possible medium for students to use with their projects, but I also hoped that the strong environmental orientation of the uncommercials – as well as their quirky irreverence – would nudge students to consider approaches they may not have considered when choosing essay topics.
I also shared with my classes several playful and astute projects completed by students of fellow Franklin global studies teacher, Sandra Childs (including a full-color travel brochure to “Disney Haiti”), as well as projects completed the previous year by my U.S. history students, Angela Bolster (“The Little Book on Ads”) and Aaron Shogren (“Watch More Television.”) Experience has taught me that the more varied examples of excellent student work that I can share as I give an assignment, the more diverse and imaginative the results will be.
One of my favorite projects completed by a student this year was Erin Olinghouse’s “Sweatshop Barbie.” Earlier in the term we’d watched a Dateline hidden-camera exposZ called “Toy Story” that showed young girls in Indonesia and China making toys, including Barbie dolls, for the U.S. market. A number of the factories were dank and crowded, with electric cords hung dangerously above the machines. Erin had also researched sweatshop conditions in Nike’s Vietnamese factories. (See, for example, www.globalexchange.org.) For her “truth ad,” Erin not only designed an alternative Barbie “ad,” she assembled the entire SweatShop Barbie doll and packaging. “Pay her just 20¢ an hour, like in a real Nike Factory!!” screams the outside of the box. “‘I work cheap!’ She says: ‘I love my job … I love my job … I love my job …’ ‘I haven’t met my quota yet!'” “Have her work in your make-believe Nike factory!” The doll itself is barefoot, holding a miniature Nike shoe. The “promo” material on Erin’s package reads:
- This SweatShop Barbie came straight from a Vietnam Nike shoe factory. She works along with many other women and young girls until her quota for the day is met. This could be for up to 26 to 27 days out of the month and 40-45 hours of overtime. This SweatShop Barbie isn’t done working yet! After work she has a family to take care of. She has to give up meals so that she can feed, clothe and pay rent on a daily wage of $1.60. … Don’t worry about the conditions you put this worker in, if she can survive a Nike factory, she can survive anything! Buy your Barbie today.
A number of students turned magazine ads into their own “un-ads.” Pavel Lukyanov took an ad for Eddie Bauer turtlenecks and changed it profoundly with just a few additions, in italics:
There you are. Beyond the last lonely outpost. Where civilization ends and nature takes over. Oops. It’s getting dark.
As the wind whistles down your neck and shadows begin to grow tall, you pull out your secret weapon: the Eddie Bauer turtleneck.
This is the quintessential item. It’s made by a 12 year old child for 6 cents an hour.
It is simply the best. With a premium cotton interlock body, spandex in the collar and cuffs to seal out the cold …
To want one is natural. To have one is nearly essential.
So, forget about kids dying from chemical poisoning. You were never in Macau, you didn’t poison them.
Amanda Muldoon’s project was a book of “un-ads,” and included one for Target stores, showing a woman lost in her Target-purchased sheets and pillows. The text: “Is it possible to get lost in your own home?” With Amanda’s reply just below:
Is it possible to get lost in your own home? How much stuff will it take to make you this happy? How many hours will you have to work, to earn enough money to buy the stuff that makes you this happy? How do you feel doing your part to end life on this planet?
Jeny Hetum and Catherine Aiken produced a video spoofing the “Got Milk?” ad campaign. The video scans the dozens of milk-mustachioed celebrity magazine ads they’ve collected and segues into an “ad” for milk that features, among other skits, talking cows warning viewers of the health dangers posed by bovine growth hormones and antibiotics in our milk. (They both scolded me on the last day of school, when I brought the class donuts and regular, non-organic milk. Kids these days.)
Underpinning this short unit were assumptions about advertising’s role in the global economy. At its most immediate level, advertising is designed to sell specific products. But the more important social function of advertising is to sell the entire system of commodity production. Advertising is the smiling face of global capitalism, telling us and our students that everything is fine and getting better. More things will secure happiness and fulfillment for all.
The process of production doesn’t exist in Ad-world. Who makes products and under what conditions is invisible, irrelevant. What matters are all the new toys that will make our lives richer. Vast global inequalities or the consequences of Third World debt don’t make it onto the map of Ad-world. Neither does the frightening global environmental crisis.
To the extent that ads feature nature, it represents merely the out-of-doors site of our commodity-filled playpen – a place to drive our new Jeep Cherokee. In essence, ads strive to make us stupid; they make us not-think, not-question, not-critique.
Margaret Thatcher once said that society doesn’t exist; there are only individuals and families. This is the advertising message, as well: think only about yourself; be an individual; satisfying your wants and needs is all that matters. Ads invite us to meet the world of commodities as individual consumers. Indeed this is the advertising definition of freedom: personal choice in a bountiful marketplace. You will never hear a commercial urge you to think about humanity, to think about the earth, to think about the oppressed. Also missing from ads is an entire world of collective action, of people organized in unions, environmental organizations, women’s organizations, cross-border alliances for social justice, struggles for indigenous rights.
Advertising is so pervasive, its message so consistent, so monolithic, that it may be wishful thinking to expect a brief critical examination of its worldview to make much of a difference in kids’ thinking. Or maybe not. Perhaps a unit like this one has even more power because of the silence of critical voices in the commerce-controlled media. Perhaps its critique is amplified because of its absence in the rest of students’ lives.
And perhaps a critical unit on advertising can affect students’ thinking because it gives them a new conceptual vocabulary to describe things that have been bothering them all along. The world that advertising portrays may be seductive, but in countless ways it’s a lie. Prospects for the success of critical teaching rest in part on the hope that students would prefer fuller, more accurate knowledge with which to guide their lives.