A high school teacher explains his unit on advertising and media literacy – and why some students wanted to cancel their subscriptions to Seventeen.
By Bakari Chavanu
Silently reading an article about the images of women in advertising, one of my 11th-grade female students looked up and snarled: “This media literacy stuff is making me mad. Now when I open my copy of Seventeen magazine, I can’t look at it in the same way. I just renewed my subscription to it and now I can hardly stand it.”
I smiled and sympathized with what it meant to have her illusions of something shattered, but I honestly felt a little proud of the positive impact my advertising unit was having on my students.
Many of my students are walking advertisements and consumers of media. They purchase t-shirts, hats, and backpacks embossed with the ubiquitous Nike swoosh symbol. They sport images of their favorite heavy-metal band and sports team. They enter class talking of the latest episode of Dawson’s Creek. Typically, they will have accumulated 22,000 hours of television viewing by the time they graduate from high school, which is twice the amount of time they will have spent in school. They will have seen 350,000 television commercials by the age of 17.
We may not admit it, but our students are often more influenced by the popular media outside our classrooms than they are by the novels and textbooks we often must bribe them to read. Thus, media literacy can play a necessary role in helping our students become critically literate and reactive to the powerful influence of television, video games, commercial advertising, popular magazines, and movies.
THE ROLE OF COMMERCIAL ADVERTISING
As part of my 11th-grade class last year, I did a media literacy unit on advertising. The purpose of the unit is to help students consider more critically the role and influence of media, particularly the pervasive and intrusive nature of advertising, and how it conveys certain values, messages, and ideas that often perpetuate sexist, racist, and pro-capitalist points of view.
The unit took seven weeks, covering topics from the image of women in advertising to what the Center for Media Literacy calls the “Myths of the Image Culture” (for example: “your body is not good enough,” and “the ‘good life’ consists of things that require lots of money”). In this article, I want to outline my general orientation and to focus in particular on how we analyzed the images of women in advertising.
To begin the unit, I surveyed the students about their media interests and habits. Then, using the resource “Twenty-Seven Problems with Advertising” [from Marketing Madness: A Survival Guide for a Consumer Society, by Michael F. Jacobson and Lurie Ann Mazur (Westview Press, 1995)], the students developed and performed satirical skits. One group of girls, for example, did a “commercial” about trendy and expensive tennis shoes, showing how advertising tells us that you’re not cool unless you wear certain articles of clothing. A racially mixed group of students did a skit about rap videos, showing how “advertising perpetuates racial (African Americans as musicians and athletes), gender (women as sex objects, men as business people), and class (middle-class whites as social norm) stereotypes.”
After one or two skits were performed each day, I presented a few commercials I videotaped. We watched and critiqued television commercials, speculating on how they were constructed, what messages they conveyed, and what various techniques advertisers used to sell products. For instance, a frozen food product commercial opens with a black-and-white shot of frozen fish sticks on a cooking pan. With no music to accompany this shot, viewers are asked if they would rather have the “usual frozen food” or would they rather have a “real meal”? We next get a colorful shot accompanied with alluring music of a steamy hot Swanson beef and vegetable dinner – “a real meal.” I presented this commercial a second time without sound and asked students to identify what they saw and noticed about the editing. I replayed the ad again with sound only so students could notice the role music and voice-over narration plays in advertising.
After a moment of silent reflection, one of my students, China, spouted: “Shoot, there’s no real difference between the two products. One’s no better than the other. They both are frozen foods.” Other students chimed in: “A ‘real meal’ is not a frozen dinner!”
“How do they try to convince you that the foods are different?” I asked.
“Through the editing and the upbeat sound,” one student responded.
Because this critique of media is often new to many students, they are reluctant to admit advertising’s influence on their own values and decisions as consumers. So when one student boasted that the media had no influence on him, I spontaneously asked the class to name their favorite cars. They had no problem spouting off the makes and models. Then I asked them to consider how they knew the best cars when most of them hadn’t even driven those cars. They had to admit they knew of the cars because they were advertised in many of the commercials and magazines they encountered on a daily basis.
IMAGES OF WOMEN
This preliminary analysis of commercials helped prepare students for a presentation of Jean Kilbourne’s classic work Still Killing Us Softly: Images of Women in Advertising. I had shown this video in past years as part of my Women in Literature and Society unit. But watching it as part of a media unit, students were better able to comprehend Kilbourne’s analysis.
Still Killing Us Softly is an engaging and even humorous analysis of how images and ads shape our values. Ads, Kilbourne points out, not only sell products, but sell ideas about romance, sex, success, beauty, and power. Ads, she says, “will have you believe that women in the real world are all white and under 40; that no one is disabled and everyone is heterosexual; that a woman’s body is in constant need of improvement; that women need to look young, ‘beautiful,’ made-up, sprayed up, very thin, and perfectly groomed.”
Sadly, these images are part of a culture in which one out of five women has a serious eating disorder such as anorexia; where adolescent girls increasingly have problems with low self-esteem; and where Blacks, especially women, have historically had serious problems and prejudices concerning the lightness and darkness of their skin. (If I had had more time, I would have shown students Dorothy Sandler’s work, A Question of Color, which examines color prejudice in and outside African-descended communities. Sandler shows how this prejudice is significantly shaped by media presentations of beautiful white women and light-skinned women of color who usually must have the features of white models. California Newsreel, 56 minutes.)
Because some of the material is new to them, I have students watch Still Killing Us Softly without taking notes. I want to make sure they can give it their undivided attention. The next day, I present students with a page of typed notes from Kilbourne’s presentation and we discuss the notes. Then students break into groups and look through magazines they have brought to class, tearing out images illustrating the arguments Kilbourne makes in her presentation.
As students, especially the young women, presented the magazine ads, they talked of how no one they knew could possibly acquire the physical appearance of the models. And they began to articulate how women, and even men, are sexualized in the ads in order to sell products.
During one presentation, one male student leaned back in his chair and complained: “I think this stuff is going a little too far. I don’t look at women’s magazines, so how can I be influenced by them?” Looking over at him at his desk, I responded: “Well, think about what it means to have that magazine picture of model Tyra Banks [in an alluring bathing suit] on the front of your notebook.” When he smiled back, I asked him and his classmates to consider how such images might influence their idea of beauty or the type of girls or guys they might choose to date. I further reminded them that advertisers don’t want potential consumers thinking “critically” about what is flashed at them on television or what is shown to them in magazines and on billboards. It’s important that these corporate commercial images are received as a common, unquestioned part of culture. Finally, I asked them why companies would spend billions of advertising dollars if they have no effect on the buying habits and values of consumers? (The six major networks sold about 90% of the 1999-2000 season’s ad time for a record $7 billion. The 150 or so cable channels brought in more than $3.5 billion.)
To reinforce Kilbourne’s analysis, I used another activity I found on the Media Literacy Clearinghouse website. This activity has students critically examine Seventeen magazine.
First students read an article, “How Seventeen Undermines Young Women,” by Kimberly Phillips, published in the January 1993 Extra!, a bimonthly magazine published by the media watch group FAIR. Students were asked to investigate Phillips’s claim that Seventeen “reinforces the cultural expectations that an adolescent woman should be more concerned with her appearance, her relations with other people, and her ability to win approval from men than with her own ideas or her expectations for herself.” Since most students are familiar with this publication, and some girls subscribe to it, the unit had particular relevance.
I then gave a single copy of Seventeen or a similar publication, such as YM (Young and Modern), to groups of four or five. Next, I gave the groups two survey sheets asking them to conduct a page count of the number of advertisements, articles, quizzes, celebrity profiles of males and females, make-up tricks and techniques, beauty features, and fashion pieces found in the magazine. Next, they were to list the theme or focus of these items.
As students flipped through pages, heads popped up and some squirmed in their seats. Sample comments included: “You can hardly find the articles in this magazine.” “Mr. Chavanu, there’s an ad on almost every page of this magazine.” I had to remind students to use the table of contents to find the articles buried in the publication. Almost every group had to ask me if at least one or more items in Seventeen was an ad or an article. It was often difficult to tell the difference.
Typical student response to this activity included:
- “I think this survey is good for women because it will help them to see these magazines are not good at boosting one’s self-image. I stopped reading them because I could never be what they expected me to be.”
- “Well, I now realize that young girl magazines only focus on looks, and not on being smart or achieving your goals. [They] never mention schooling or jobs – just malls and cosmetics.”
- “This survey was a waste because I already know how ‘us teenagers’ are portrayed and should supposedly be or act.”
This latter response is important because it reflects how not all students were comfortable with these insights. Clearly, the unit had challenged their assumptions and caused them to question their own sense of identity.
On the other hand, some students were already critical of how the media stereotypes groups of people. I challenged them to think more deeply about the implications of certain media representations in influencing not only buying habits, but the ways they give support to a capitalist economy in which a small sector of rich people make huge profits off an unsuspecting consumer class.
These last two activities on women in advertising would later be tied to a couple of the essay-writing projects students could choose from as part of the media unit. One project, for instance, required students to research and write an essay in which they compare Seventeen with one or more non-commercial magazines such as Reluctant Hero or E-Zine, both by and for girls. This assignment led one student to do a class reading from her journal about her statistical analysis which showed that Seventeen lacked the racial diversity found in Vibe, another popular teen magazine.
While I don’t necessarily want my students to cancel their subscriptions to Seventeen, I do want them to see themselves as critically conscious citizens rather than manipulated consumers. And, at least with a few of my students, I know I succeeded. As my student Alicia Seibel wrote in her essay: “Throughout the last 30 years, teenage girls have depended on magazines like Seventeen to help through times of need, but I’ve realized that the magazine doesn’t do a good enough job. It lowers the self-esteem of teens and makes them think they aren’t good enough.”