With ads for everything from big-budget movies to beer appearing everywhere there are eyes and ears – and, in some cases, noses – summer must be upon us.
Americans are exposed to anywhere from 500 to 5,000 advertising messages a day, and even if only a tiny fraction of those register in our conscious minds, they affect us.
Ads are constructed to stoke our sub-conscious desires, to make us feel that we lack something, and that this deficiency can only be cured by the advertised product. If rational adults often fail to realize that buying a product won’t fill the hole deep inside, children don’t stand a chance.
Related lessons in the CHARACTER COUNTS! Lesson Plan Bank
- Truth in Advertising: Teaches teens to see through common advertising techniques and to make honest arguments.
- Keeping News Trustworthy: A media literacy activity for teens, with a focus on current events.
A recent study from Yale suggests that licensed cartoon characters like Shrek, Scooby-Doo, and Dora the Explorer effectively lure kids to eat sugary, fatty snacks but not healthy ones. As Dierdre Lockwood writes for the Chicago Tribune, “The practice of labeling foods with toys, characters and celebrities aimed at children and teens grew 78 percent from 2006 to 2008… but only 18 percent of those foods met nutritional standards for children.”
Last month, the Center for Science in the Public Interest threatened to sue McDonald’s if it continues to use toys to promote Happy Meals. The nutrition watchdog claims that the use of toys constitutes unfair and deceptive marketing practices. In a press release, CSPI litigation director Stephen Gardner says, “McDonald’s use of toys undercuts parental authority and exploits young children’s developmental immaturity — all this to induce children to prefer foods that may harm their health. It’s a creepy and predatory practice that warrants an injunction.”
Other countries have gone much further to protect children from advertisers: Sweden, Quebec, and Norway ban any advertising at all to children under 12; the UK restricts ads that might harm children in any way or “take advantage of the natural credulity and sense of loyalty of children;” Greece bans any advertisements of children’s toys between 7 am and 10 pm and permits no advertising at all of war toys.
It’s hard to imagine any of those laws passing in the United States — and advertising to adults certainly isn’t decreasing — so we should do all we can to help American children become responsible consumers. If students can learn to see through the false claims of advertisers, they’ll at least have some tools to help them avoid the excessive consumption that leads to fiscal irresponsibility and drains the planet’s resources. Ad-savvy kids, knowing the latest toy, cell phone, or soft drink won’t fundamentally change who they are, might relegate “things” to their proper place, behind people.
Media literacy also works in reverse: If children understand the difference between persuasion and propaganda, they can make the conscious decision to use ethical means of persuasion in their own lives.
In that spirit, we’ve tested out a few of the tools available on the Web for the education, or — SIGH — “ad-ucation,” of your students:
Don’t Buy It
This site by PBS informs kids in a fun — and funny – way about advertising tricks, buying with intelligence, understanding the ways media mislead, and offering ways kids and parents can get involved in the fight against misleading advertising.
The interactive features are the best part. Kids can become detectives and look for hidden ads. By creating their own ads and designing a cereal box, they can see how ads persuade, and how meaningless their claims tend to be. In the process, kids also learn how colors make people feel (orange stimulates the appetite), what characters appeal to which groups of people, and what slogans send desirable messages to particular demographics.
Center for Media Literacy
This site has extensive reading material on theory and practice, a guide to professional development, and a collection of curriculum materials and lesson plans for all grade levels. The goal of CML is deconstruction, based on five questions: Who created this message? What creative techniques are used to attract my attention? How might different people understand this message differently? What values, lifestyles, and points of view are omitted from this message? Why is this message being sent?
The sponsor of “Buy Nothing Day” and “Digital Detox Week,” Adbusters tends to be overtly political and geared toward an adult audience. However, the Spoof Ads, which turn advertising messages on their heads, are certainly worth a look, if not a high-school writing assignment or two.
“Why get ad-ucated? Because advertising is all around you!” This site, developed by the Federal Trade Commission, hopes to teach kids 8-12 how to decode and understand ads. It has four features: a multi-level game that involves a lot of running, jumping, collecting coins, and answering questions about ads; sample ads you can use as teaching tools; a free curriculum from Scholastic, Inc. geared to 5th and 6th graders; and teacher training videos. Three critical-thinking questions come up constantly: Who is responsible for the ad? What is the ad actually saying? And what does it want me to do?
Writing for Slate.com, Seth Stevenson says the most interesting aspect of the site is its demonstration of just how ubiquitous advertising has become. Ads are everywhere, and they come in many different guises. (For example, Stevenson notes that all of Admongo’s curriculum materials bear the Scholastic logo.)
Stevenson asked Susan Linn, of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, what she thought about Admongo. Going against the whole premise of this article, she told him, “There’s no evidence I know of showing that media literacy has an impact on consumer behavior. Ads target emotions, not logic. You can know you’re being manipulated but still be manipulated.” She’d prefer a ban on all marketing to children under 12.
Surely though, knowing you’re being manipulated is the first step to putting an end to the manipulation. It’s like those old G.I. Joe PSAs always told us: “Knowing is half the battle.”