Deconstructing a TV Commercial: Media Literacy
Lesson plan created by Frank W. Baker, media educator- copyright 2009
For years, ever since I first saw this commercial, I have been using this ad in my media literacy workshops. We know that young people watch a lot of TV, and so, we know they are exposed to a lot of commercials, even though they may zap (skip) them.
Most of our young people already own mobile (cell) phones—they’re already connected. But if we ask these same young people: how was the cell phone first marketed? this question alone is a good backgrounder for what they are about to see.
Teaching advertising is a great way to infuse media literacy, critical viewing, and high order thinking skills into instruction. We know our students are targets for all kinds of products and services. We know that advertisers use every trick in the book (techniques of persuasion) to make their products attractive, appealing and believable. We also know that most students watch media passively. Media literacy, among other things, is designed to turn them into active (questioning) thinkers/viewers.
Introduction: For the most part, students have never been taught how to watch or deconstruct television. (For that matter, many educators have never had a minute of media literacy training.) This activity involves listening and viewing a commercial for cell phones. Students will be encouraged to look deeply and to ask questions about the production techniques used to make the commercial. (Most national and state standards for English/Language Arts include both “viewing” and “listening” so this activity can help educators fulfill those objectives.)
Pre-viewing questions Students should be challenged with questions like:
- who creates commercials and for what purpose?
- what techniques do the creators use to make a product appealing?
- how do they know who might be their “target audience”?
- which specific “techniques of persuasion” might be used in this ad?
- which television shows will the creators buy time within to show the ad?
- how much does it cost to make an ad; to position it inside a prime-time program?
- how are camerawork, lighting, music, editing used to tell the story?
- how do I feel after seeing a commercial? How does it appeal to my emotions?
Step One: first, ask your students to simply close their eyes while you playback the one minute ad. (click the image below to start the video )
At the end of the minute, ask them to open their eyes and to write down everything they heard. Now, why is this important? Most of us are visual learners. Yet commercials are composed of both visuals AND sounds. ( A simple two-column script is how most commercials are formatted.) This exercise is designed to get them to think about the audio (sound) portion of what they experience. Give your students about a minute to make their list. After the minute, you should ask: what did you hear? Be prepared to write their responses on the board, overhead, or WhiteBoard. Invariably, some students may have heard things in the commercial that others in the class did not hear. For example, ask how many heard the wolf (or dog) howling? For those who did not hear it, you can point this out in step two.
Step Two: Be prepared to play the commercial a second time: this time allowing them to see it for first time. Before doing so, ask your students this question: Other than cell phones, what else is being sold? (This question is designed to get them thinking about how the creator of the cell phone ad used techniques to sell….fear, for example). After the second viewing, ask students the question: what else is being sold? (Did they answer fear?) Why would cell phone makers use fear to sell their products? What techniques did they use to “sell” fear? ( student should think about specific words, phrases, sounds, music, etc. ) Can they think of any people who have used fear to sell products/concepts/issues/ candidates?
Post viewing questions
Introduce students to the “languages of television/video production”—these are the tools producers use not only to create media, but also to create meaning. Introduce these before proceeding to step three.
1. camera shots (where is the camera positioned? close-up, far away)
2. camera lens (does the lens zoom in or out?)
3. camera movement (does the camera tilt, pan, truck?)
Lighting: what time of day is depicted? What clues tell you so?
Music: what types of instruments do you hear?
Sounds: other than music, what other sounds are heard (e.g. female narrator, car cranking, sound of cars going by; dog (wolf) howl, etc.)
Setting: where is the location? is it artificial or real? justify your response.
Post production: editing, what impact does it have?
Actors’ Expression: other than words, notice how an actor communicates with facial expression, body language, gestures.
Step Three: Playing the commercial again. If you have time, play the commercial a third time: assign groups of students to one of the languages of television/video production. They will be responsible for discussing the ad from their groups’ assignment.
– how many close ups; medium shots, wide shots?
– why is lighting important? how does it help to set the mood?
– describe the music; does it remind you of something?
– how do sound effects contribute to the feel of this spot?
– what is the setting; how do you know; is it realistic?
– count the number of edits (the number of times the shot changes.) Students should count out loud.
After this screening, you might ask: what is the impact of quick edits?
– what non-verbal expressions are used that might reveal how she is feeling, thinking?
– What happens at the end of the commercial? Why do you think the producer of the commercial stopped it like that? What do you think might happen next?
– Power: who has power and who is powerless in the ad? How does that make you feel?
Optional: have your students create the actual script for this commercial. Download a blank script template here. Ask students to re-create the script. In the video column they should make a list of each shot and describe it in detail. In the audio column, they should document everything that is heard.
For further discussion questions about this specific ad, go to page 64 of the document Literacy for the 21st Century
For more resources on teaching advertising and media literacy, go here
To view other YouTube videos with accompanying lesson plans, go here
Share this page:
(Updated for 2018)
By Frank W. Baker
For many years, I have hosted a web page, “Using Super Bowl Ads In The Classroom,” because I wanted to help educators who haven’t thought about using these popular culture texts in instruction.
You might notice that I use the word “texts.” TV and other video commercials should be considered as texts because they present information that students can learn to scrutinize closely (analyze) and deconstruct. In fact, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) has long recommended that teachers include “non-print” texts in the classroom.
Click to see Pepsi’s halftime ad ‘hype’
In a study I conducted some years ago, elements of media literacy were found in the English/Language Arts teaching standards of most states. Understanding advertising continues to be an important part of media literacy today. The Common Core ELA standards also speak to the need to engage students in these real-world, popular culture “informational texts.”
Standards aside, can there be any doubt that students today are bombarded by commercial messages everywhere they look on every device they use, and need to be smart and discerning about what they see and hear?
In my media literacy workshops around the nation, I often hear from teachers who are still not comfortable teaching with or about advertising. One reason is a lack of training or the need to simply think all the way through the process. If you find yourself in this category, read on.
The USA TODAY Super Bowl ad meter streams the latest news. (Click to access.)
The Super Bowl ad extravaganza
In 2018, Super Bowl 52 will be viewed by 100+ million people in the U.S. alone (NBC had an average audience of 111.9 million viewers in 2016) and the cost of a 30-second ad is estimated at $5 million this time around (about the same as 2017). At this stage of the run-up to the February 4 game, a lot of attention (on social media, in the press, and around the office water cooler) has already been given to the game and the commercials (look no further than USAToday’s AdMeter site).
One marketing professor, writing at the Huffington Post last year, noted that advertisers will likely spend another $1 million or more to produce their commercial, pushing the cost up to $6 million or $200,000 a second. How can these expensive, high-concept advertisements, which will appear over the course of a 7-hour broadcast, be used in the classroom?
The producers and creators of commercials use a formula that they know will hook the audience. It might be humor, a slogan, a jingle, a color, a pet, a celebrity…anything they believe (and market testing shows) will attract positive attention to their product.
How will advertisers balance broad reach and controversy in deciding ad buys?
• Forbes Magazine
• Kellogg School Super Bowl Ad Review
It’s up to us, as educators, to pull back the curtain on how these highly persuasive texts might pull an emotional string which makes us remember (or want to purchase) the product or spread the message.
Many believe Apple’s 1984 ad (click above) introducing the Mac set the Super Bowl standard.
Students need to think like advertisers
When I speak to teachers about advertising, I encourage them to get their students to think as if THEY were advertisers. If you are going to promote a product, then you must know:
• who is my audience?
• what are the best ways to reach them?
• what techniques will I use to get and hold their attention?
• what celebrity or high profile event can I associate with?
• what television programs & websites does my audience follow closely?
• what do I want them to know about my product?
• how can I get them to make a purchase?
Years ago, I developed a series of media literacy/critical thinking questions and posted them on my Super Bowl ads webpage. You’ll find several interesting links there, including a story about a non-profit in New York that several years ago let youth remix Super Bowl ads in real time. (About copyright: educators can legally record and use Super Bowl ads in instruction.)
And there’s SuperBowl-Ads.com, a website that includes information about the commercials featured during the professional football championship game in past years, as well as news about the 2017 and 2018 commercials (teacher discretion advised). Check this link for SuperBowl-Ads.com updates on 2018 ads. And here’s another resource worth mining, posted by AdWeek: The 2018 Super Bowl Ad Tracker.
Some announced advertisers for 2018 include: Automotive: Audi, Buick, Honda, Kia, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz and WeatherTech. Food and Beverage: Anheuser-Busch, Avocados From Mexico, Pepsi, Skittles, Snickers. Packaged Goods: Febreeze, GNC, Mr. Clean. Retail: 84 Lumber. Services: TurboTax, Intel, GoDaddy. (See some ads and teasers in advance here.)
USAToday’s AdMeter will let visitors rate
the 2018 Super Bowl ads (free registration)
Questions to consider before the kickoff
Here are some questions you might have your students research and ponder before the game:
► What do you know about the Super Bowl game? Where did you learn it? Why does the game get tremendous media attention every year? What makes advertisers want to show their ads during this once-a-year sporting event? Why does it cost so much to buy just one 30-second ad? What justifies that advertising expense? How do advertisers make money from their Super Bowl spots?
Budweiser’s SuperBowl 2015 lost puppy ad
► Students might also use search tools to find out who decides what order the ads air during the game. Why do some ads only run in certain sections of the United States? How do advertisers create buzz about their ads, even before the game is broadcast? They might create a tracking chart listing theknown advertisersand research their parent companies.
► They might predict how many ads will be for: alcohol? cars? TV shows? movies? Why are some kinds of ads so popular with Super Bowl advertisers (e.g., beer, wine, liquor)?
► Which propaganda/persuasion techniques would you expect to be used in each ad? Which ad(s) are you looking forward to viewing and why?
► Be on the lookout for not-so-obvious ads during the broadcast – like the Pepsi half-time moments. (Students might want to create a list.) Based on the ads scheduled to be broadcast, what demographic (gender, age) do you think each advertiser is trying to reach?
► What social media might be used, if at all, by advertisers during the event window? How do students plan to use social media, if at all, during the game?
(USA Today, online and in print, includes a huge advert preview in the Friday issue before the game.)
Questions for after the game
Here are some questions to consider after the game (in addition to “Who won and what was the score?”):
► What ad(s) did you find most entertaining, and why? (students should be specific and give details here). What ad(s) did you find the most dull/lame, and why? Which ad(s) did you think were most effective in getting viewers to buy or do something, and why? Which ads were for products or services that you couldn’t figure out?
► Which ad(s) were you most willing to share (email, likes, retweets) with friends? Which ad(s) featured well-known personalities? Why? Which “techniques of persuasion” were used in each ad? Teachers might want to select appropriate elements from this media investigations checklist and have students match the ads with techniques described on the list.
► Math? Students might calculate the total advertising revenue going to the TV network if each 30 second ad costs an estimated $5 million. Older students can do more sophisticated calculations. (An aside: Ads are cheaper if they are targeted at smaller audiences; e.g., the 2015 Verge ad, above right, that appeared in only one Montana city and cost $700. Click it.)
► How do Super Bowl advertisers get mileage for their message before and after the game? How many ads did you spot inside the stadium? How were Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social media used during the game to promote the products being advertised? How did you use them, if at all?
► Students might survey classmates, parents and grandparents and ask each to list their 3 favorite ads. Compare and contrast responses. Do some ads appeal to different genders and age groups? Were these the groups the ads were targeting?
► GoDaddy & Budweiser had competing “cute puppy” ads in 2015. GoDaddy’s ad had to be withdrawn. The ad distressed social media users when they learned that the ad’s narrative ended with Buddy the puppy being listed for sale online as soon as he found his lost family. Know your audience? GoDaddy’s announcement included an apology, and in an earlier tweet, CEO Blake Irving said it was intended to be a “fun and funny ad.” These developments might make for a good class discussion. “Why did GoDaddy’s attempt at fun backfire?” Find a scene-by-scene look at the heart warming Budweiser ad in this video from Poynter Institute.
Super Bowl Ad Analysis Worksheet
Here’s a worksheet I’ve designed that students might use during the game to gather information about the various ads they’ll see. You can download a PDF of this grid here. Feel free to adapt it to your own needs and purposes. I think you’ll find the explanatory notes useful in guiding students’ work. (Click on image to enlarge.)
Popular culture, media literacy – and it’s legal!
Taking the time to use Super Bowl advertising in your classroom and having students discuss their opinions is another great way of demonstrating that popular culture and media literacy have a place in today’s 21st century classrooms.
And once again, in answer to the final question of many teachers: Yes, educators can legally record and use Super Bowl ads in instruction.
Frank W. Baker is a media literacy education consultant and the author of three books, including Media Literacy in the K-12 Classroom (2nd Ed.) (ISTE, 2016). He contributed two chapters to Mastering Media Literacy (Solution Tree, 2014). Follow him on Twitter @fbaker and visit his resource-rich website Media Literacy Clearinghouse. Frank’s latest book, Close Reading the Media, was published by the Routledge/MiddleWeb partnership in 2017.