5th graders learn to deconstruct ads

Student examines ad for persuasive techniques.

My words inspired my son’s fifth grade teacher, Dori Pulizzi, to create a media literacy lesson for her students. Am I pleased? You betcha! It’s just one small step, but it feels like a huge achievement. I sat in on the three-day series last week.
The first day, Ms. Pulizzi taught them about the persuasive techniques advertisers use. She asked them, What is advertising? They had a pretty good concept of that – Advertising gets people interested in products, it makes things look good. The concept of a “kid-friendly” ad came up. Things that make an ad kid-friendly, they said, were color and magical effects. One girl said her parents told her McDonald’s uses the colors red, yellow, blue and white because those are the first colors a baby learns. Sneaky! I didn’t know that, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it were true. McDonald’s pays experts a lot of money to find out how to hook kids as early as possible.
These students were very engaged in the lesson. It’s no surprise, really – this is a subject they have a lot of experience with, and they had a lot to say. It was also clear that some parents are talking with their children about marketing and advertising. This is so important in our media-saturated world. Children today are so overexposed to advertising, and too often they are just tossed out there into the world to be preyed upon by advertising, with very little protection in the form of education. It’s like putting them in the desert with no hat and no sunscreen and saying “Good luck!”
These kids have a lot to say about advertising!
Ms. Pulizzi then went on to ask them about the persuasive techniques that advertisers use. They came up with lots of good ones: Marketers use jingles, repetition, magical effects, put-downs of their competitors. They make it funny and they sometimes mention what might be bogus awards. One boy pointed out that ads directed at younger kids will use older kids. For example, he said, his younger sister was particularly interested in Uggs after she saw ads with teen-age girls wearing them. “It seems cool if older kids do it,” he said. Marketers sure know this.
When they learned about “weasel words” – words in ads with no substance, one girl thought it would be interesting to compare a candy bar with the words “even more scrumptious” on the label to the same candy bar without those words.
They learned the 12 techniques advertisers use the most often, and analyzed ads in small groups to identify the applicable technique. Then, they made their own ads after decided what technique to use. Making decision about how to use persuasive techniques in their own ads seems like a good way to really bring home the concept of how an ad works.
Student working on magazine ad for diapers.
It was tough for this Massachusetts teacher to fit the lesson into the schedule, because so much of the year’s lessons are built around standardized testing. “I had to be strategic,” she said. “If I do it at the end of the year after MCAS [testing], I can still cover everything I’m required to cover by the state.” She said there should be a “media strand” within the state educational frameworks, so that teachers and school systems could add this important subject to their lesson plans without having to justify it. And, she said, it needs to be offered repeatedly at different age levels.
Ms. Pulizzi is planning to offer the lesson to her class again next year. Which is good, because they really need it. But kids really need to learn more at earlier ages, too, when they are really vulnerable. And at older ages, when they can understand more about how they are being exploited. Media literacy has got to become part of the public schools’ mission throughout this country, as it is in Canada and Europe. She and I are working together now to find ways to get teachers in the system trained in media literacy. I hope to see many more teachers including media literacy in lesson planning, to the extent possible. It fits well in the language arts, social studies and health curriculum. By the way, Ms. Pulizzi got a lot of her information for the lesson from Media Awareness Network in Canada.
In the meantime, I urge parents to educate themselves and talk to their children from an early age about advertising and what it does. They need you to help protect them.
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