The election is only a few weeks away and although your students might not be old enough to vote, you can still find ways to get them thinking critically about their civic duty (not to mention hone their writing skills at the same time) by incorporating the 2012 election into the classroom.
To help you do this, we thought we’d share an activity you might try:
How the 2012 Election Can Hone Your Students' Writing Skills.
In short, this is an ad analysis activity that will teach students to critically “read” an advertisement; it will also teach them to interpret and articulate not only what the advertisement is saying, but also what it isn’t saying.
This activity can work with any advertisement (audio, video, print), but print ads are going to be easier to work with in a classroom setting.
Why talk about commercials?
Let’s face it, commercials (and campaign ads) can stretch the truth in one way or another. Sure, we all have free will, but consumers’ choices can be shaped when they are unaware of how media shapes their desires, their purchases—and their votes.
Since commercials play on our hopes, ambitions, fears and insecurities, they are ripe for critical analysis. Advertisers spend billions of dollars each year on advertisements, which means that nothing about them is arbitrary. Color, placement, structure, detail, sound, movement is all labored over and placed before trial groups to determine whether or not the advertisement “works”—which is why consumers (and voters) need to train themselves to read these images critically.A reading you can pair with the activity
This activity pairs nicely with the first chapter of Carrie McLaren and Jason Torchinsky’s book, AdNauseam: A Survivor’s Guide to American Consumer Culture. If you follow the hyperlink, you’ll be directed to Google books; check out pages 3-11 (pages 12 and on have been omitted to encourage you to purchase the book, which I would recommend). High school students should be able to read and discuss this without any problem, but you may have to break it down into a simplified lecture for younger students.
YouTube Video you can pair with the activity
Lucky Strike Ad Pitch: This is a clip from the popular AMC drama, Madmen. It goes perfectly with the AdNauseam reading.
Before you put students into groups and ask them to do this on their own, you should work through an advertisement as a class.
- Select an advertisement and put place it on an overhead screen or make photocopies for each student. Give your students a few minutes to study the ad; then create two columns on your whiteboard/chalkboard. At the top of one column, write “observations”; at the top of the other, write “implications.”
- Now, open up the floor and have everyone name off all of their observations: what do they notice as they examine the piece? Once they have exhausted the list, ask them to think about what their observations suggest. What does each observation imply? Why does the observation matter? List an implication in the other column to correspond with each observation. Do they notice any patterns as they look over the implications column?
- You may need to show your students how to read and interpret these images at first, but they’ll get the hang of it quickly. Once they do, divide them into groups of four; give each group a different advertisement and have them repeat the activity. Once they are done, come back together as a class and have each group share their conclusions.
Here are some additional questions to get your students thinking more critically about their commercial:
Who is the audience for this piece? How do you know? How does the audience shape the way the piece is put together? How might a different audience change the way the piece is constructed? (For example, is the piece addressing insiders? Outsiders? Does the piece address the audience in a familiar way? Or more formal way?)
How is the piece put together? How is the structure helping the piece do its job? How might a different structure change it? Are there images? If so, where? Is there writing? If so where and what? What draws your attention?
Keep in mind the differences between “showing” and “telling.” Where are the places that the piece shows its audience an idea? Why? Where does it tell instead of showing? Why?
As an artist, one always has to make decisions about what to include and what to leave out. What receives the most space and attention in the piece? What is left out or can be quickly skimmed over? What might fall outside the edges of the piece? What might be going on outside those edges that we aren’t permitted to see? Why do you think the piece chooses its
What is the larger purpose of the piece? How do you know? How does the structure and style of the piece help fulfill its purpose? Why does the piece matter to the world?
This activity can be turned into an essay where students choose an advertisement, describe it to a reader who has never seen the commercial before and then critically interpret the advertisement to explain how it persuades.