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  • Does Media Literacy Work? An Empirical Study of Learning How to Analyze Advertisements
  • Renee Hobbs (bio)

Many school districts are implementing media literacy programs in high schools that teach about the advertising production process and introduce students to techniques for critically analyzing media messages. In this study, students who learned how to critically analyze advertising as part of their Grade 11 English language arts class were compared to a demographically matched control group who did not receive such instruction. Four weeks of classroom activities involving the analysis of the purpose, target audience, point of view, and persuasive techniques used in advertising were provided as a regular part of classroom instruction in English language arts to 293 students by seven regular classroom teachers. Compared to the control group, students gained increased knowledge of the pre-production processes of advertising. Statistically significant differences were also found in measures of students’ ability to analyze a print ad, including the ability to identify target audience, to describe construction techniques used to attract and hold attention, and the ability to identify the implied message subtext.

Advertising is increasing its prominence in American public schools, but not just as components of particular marketing campaigns. In an increasing number of secondary classrooms, print and TV ads are used by teachers as texts to be formally analyzed and studied. Educational practices like this are commonly identified as media literacy, which is defined as an expanded conceptualization of literacy that includes print, audio, visual, and electronic messages from contemporary culture (Kress, 2002). In using advertising texts in the classroom, teachers emphasize the skills of analyzing and evaluating ads to identify the message purpose, target audience, point of view, and persuasive techniques used. Often, there is a focus on the social, political, economic, and historical contexts in which media messages reflect and shape culture (Buckingham, 2003).

Occasionally, as part of media literacy education, students also learn about the preproduction, production, and postproduction processes involved in the creation of advertising messages (Young, 1990; Singer, Zuckerman, & Singer, 1980). While it may be common for students enrolled in media production or marketing electives to learn about advertising production processes, it is far less common for students to gain this information in the context of their high school English coursework. Potter (1998) points out the importance of knowledge structures in building critical analysis skills when it comes to analyzing advertising, but empirical research has not yet examined the impact of increased knowledge of advertising production processes as it may affect critical thinking skills in responding to advertising messages.

Drawing upon a tradition underway for the last 15 years (see Alvarado & Boyd-Barrett, 1992 and Brown, 1991 for reviews), in the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia, advertising messages are routinely included in the study of persuasion and propaganda, and students are invited to design and create advertising in print, visual, video, and multimedia formats as part of their instruction in understanding concepts like target audience, purpose, point of view, persuasive techniques, and message interpretation and impact.

In the United States, a coalition of U.S. educators with interests in helping children and young people strengthen their media analysis skills has formed a national association and held bi-annual conferences bringing K-12 educators together with academics and community activists (Rogow, 2001). There has been increased momentum to include media literacy skills within state curriculum frameworks, so much so that secondary level English language arts textbooks now include the formal study of advertising (Odell, Vacca, Hobbs, Irvin & Warriner, 2000). In 1998, the State of Texas added viewing and representing skills alongside reading, writing, speaking and listening skills for students in Grades 4–12, and state curriculum frameworks make explicit reference to the genres of advertising, documentary, film drama, and news (Texas Education Agency, 1998).

The ability to analyze advertising was recently included as a component of the high-stakes TAAS test for 10th graders in Texas, involving students’ ability to identify the persuasive techniques used in a specific print ad (Livaudais, 2002). More than 40 states including Massachusetts, North Carolina, and New Mexico have identified media literacy skills within language arts, social studies, fine and performing arts, library information skills, or health education curricula...

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