How To Watch A Political Ad

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Teacher and journalist Mark Phillips makes an argument for teaching students how to “read” the visual world around them:

“The suggestion that schools should teach students semiotics, the language of signs, isn’t likely to generate support in most school districts. Yet, growing up in a world in which they are continually bombarded by visual images in all media, students need to learn to read visual images. They need to be taught to be visually literate.

Advertising, political parties and the news media continually use visual images to affect our thinking and our feelings. To the degree that we are unaware of this, our choices are not our own. This affects our self-concept, our way of seeing the world and the choices we make, including our political choices. In short, it’s critical for both healthy personal development and the health of a democratic society.

[In one unit I teach,] students watch ‘The Living Room Candidate: Presidential Campaign Commercials, 1952-2008.’ This is a free online resource from the Museum of the Moving Image. It includes lessons for teachers and links to other online resources.

We then look at each of the elements of a commercial. In examining the selection of images, I point out how often adoring faces are included, the frequent inclusion of images of the candidate with children, and how low angle shots make the candidate look more powerful. We also look at the narration and music selected.

In small groups, students then become members of an ad agency working for a presidential candidate. They are to select a candidate who is not presently running and write a scene by scene description of a three-minute commercial for that candidate, including music, narration and visuals.

Learning to create ads will not give rise to a generation of advertising men and women, but it will make students far more conscious of the process. Students who experience this will never look at an ad the same way again, whether the product is a presidential candidate or an over the counter drug. They will also be far more aware of the way images and sounds are used for manipulative purposes.” Read more here.

This strikes me as something parents can do at home, too. In this season of omnipresent campaign commercials, we can prompt our kids to take a critical and skeptical look at these ads, asking themselves what the commercials are trying to make them feel and what techniques the admakers are using to induce those emotions.

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2 Responses to “How To Watch A Political Ad”

  1. Kelly says:

    I agree that children should have a mandatory lesson on visual media, and awareness is key.
    I studied advertising in college, and worked in kids print publishing for 5 years, which both gave me new perspective; I never looked at advertising the same again.

    Here in Canada, Concerned Children’s Advertisers (www.cca-kids.ca) has put together 3 PSAs on Media literacy over the past 15 years, (among other topics.)

    I say it’s time for nationwide standardized media curriculum to educate kids and inform parents about this ever changing form of communication.

  2. Gragg says:

    Given the current state of things, if there were a way to get away with it…this should be mandatory study for anyone of voting age!

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