Teaching Kids to Deconstruct the Advertising Pitch

A school librarian teaches young students how to analyze persuasive advertising strategies by looking at gendered earplugs, chain-store clothing ads, and other product pitches.
Jennifer Still, librarian at the Ethical Culture School in New York City.

Jennifer Still, librarian at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York City.

“Gendered earplugs,” said Jennifer Still, librarian at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York City, pointing to an image of the products. “You can get these in any Rite Aid.” In her work teaching advertising literacy to young students, Still points to products like these to help young school students understand how media messages are constructed and consumed. “We look at gender identity, what ads tell us, how ads work,” Still told an audience of librarians at the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference in San Francisco last month. At her school, Still also talks with kids about chain-store clothing ads, pointing out how they assert gender norms through body language that emphasize action or passivity. “[My] pre-K through fifth grade elementary school has a health and human sexuality arch in the curriculum, so we identified these three areas [to focus on]: identity, relationships, [and] responsibility,” she said. Those elements have to do with “how you eat, how you treat each other, how you act online, all those different aspects of health,” Still explained at her ALA poster presentation, Highlighting Media Literacy as Vital to Student Health. “The media literacy pieces build on each other in third, fourth, and fifth grade.” Still works with students in those grades for three sessions of 30 minutes. “We look at what’s being told, also what’s not being told, [and] what’s glamorized.” For example, “We look at toy ads right before the holiday toy drive and then we look at questions about identity when [the Ethics class is] is looking at identity,” Still said. “So hopefully those reinforce the lessons across the curriculum.” In order to evaluate the reliability of information in commercials, the librarian’s third graders compare their experiences of being misled by ads in order to build transferable critical thinking skills. In another lesson, they view highly gendered ads, and Still emphasizes to her young students that they may not identify with all the stereotypes they see. ALA_media_literacy_2

Jennifer Still's media literacy poster.

Students respond to the unit with a summative activity created with the app Visual Poetry on iPads and share their responses to stereotypes presented in advertising and real life, in play, at school, and at home. “Some of them wrote poems, and some of them wrote statements,” Still said. “It’s a good way to share their feelings when they’re done, and that was my evaluation of whether they understand the concepts.” One student imagined an advertisement in which children interact with sharks, and was responding to the realization that “a lot of toy commercials use animation so [an experience] can look better than it is,” Still said. The tacit consumer message, she notes, is often that “your kind of play is not good enough” and “you need to buy more accessories!” Fourth graders concentrate on food, starting with the reasons why people eat. Students bring in cereal boxes to illustrate specific persuasive advertising techniques, ranging from coupons and games to exaggerated claims. Still uses Brainpop movies to examine aspects of carbohydrates and other nutritional information, making the connection between health and scientific knowledge. Students also learn that many commercials feature white glue made to look like milk—and that that cereal flakes in ads are hand-picked and fast-food burgers are often painted. “Why does it always look so good on TV?” was one of Still’s fourth grader’s responses to a food ad. Fifth graders experience a more advanced analysis on advertising, including airbrushing, environmental appeals, and warranty information. Still highlights a variety of persuasive advertising techniques: “warm and fuzzy,” “bandwagon,” “celebrity testimonials,” and the “real folks” appeal. Most of the resources Still uses are available online, and media awareness programs like hers can be replicable in most schools. Her overarching message can be summed up as: If I can’t avoid advertising…can I be skeptical? Still describes younger children looking at elaborate playscapes on TV. “When the ads say ‘toys sold separately,’ their faces fall,” she said. “Let’s get them started [understanding early], right?”
Still shared her third grade lesson frame as well as these resources. The "Buy Me That!" series of videos produced by HBO and Consumer Reports about ads for toys The Media Literacy Project PBS’s Don’t Buy It guide for teachers, focusing on advertising tricks. An ALA attendee also suggested the lessons plans from the National Library of Medicine.

Wendy Stephens is the librarian at Cullman High School in Cullman, AL. She has a Ph.D. in Informatwendyion Science and National Board Certification in Library Media.

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