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keywords: audience | brand | claim | consumers information | corporate social responsibility | format | green-washing | lifestyles | media literacy | message | over-consumption | stereotypes | target | visual

decoding advertising
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goal: providing instruments to decode advertising messages; raising awareness about the role played by ads in influencing lifestyles and our purchasing choices; building critical thinking; making visible the potential of using the media towards sustainability.

risk: advertising is a language: this means that we have to study it in order to practice it and, first of all, to understand it. This is the aim of media literacy. Advertising is often a trend-builder, and a vehicle of stereotypes. It is up to trainers to avoid criminalising ads and to try, on the opposite, using the advertising’s power and appeal on youth towards sustainability.

YXC level: first community and community at large (2nd and 3rd level).

YXC materials: respecting our bodies[Fell Good Campaign | Us Food Advertising] - packaging yourself [Blackspot Sneakers| Salmon Nation |Anti-Fur Tv Spot | The Sneakers’ Revolt] - awakening your soul [Advertisers Anonymous] – carrying the torch[Consumers School | Make Your Voice Heard] - pay the right price[ Buy Nothing Day] - facts & figures, GENERAL DATA[Biz-Concentration| Clothes/Consumers Trends |Soft Drinks] - facts & figures, OTHER NEEDS[Media Concentration | Advertising & Youth | Internet & Youth] - dep’t store[ Innocent Drinks | Corp. Watch | Casseurs De Pub] - job opportunities[ Media Watch, Canada| Alternet | Indymedia | Media Diversity | Ifex | Fabbrica, Creative Lab] - test & play[ CONSUMERS GO WISE] - links[ Media & Communication| Empowered Consumers | Media Literacy]

subject areas: languages | social studies | cultural studies (media literacy) | workshops (visual arts, music, etc.)

work planning: Phase 1, testing students’ knowledge/awareness of the issue through key questions (see below); Phase 2, intro to the issue – media education; communication path (brand, target, goal); basic differences between a press campaign (newspaper/ magazine, promo publications, billboard, etc.) and audio/audiovisual campaign (Radio, TV, cinema); Phase 3, focus on printed ads. Choose 2 well-known campaigns (1 traditional and another with a more committed approach) and briefly analyse structure and message; Phase 4, creation of 2 teams - 1 working on a food & drink campaign, the other on cars or scooters. Phase 5, reporting and confronting the results.

testing student knowledge (key questions) : these questions should be discussed in the form of class brainstorming before any subsequent introduction to the topic.

  • Are you attracted by advertising messages and why (i.e. cool images, claims and appeals, information contents, testimonials, brand confidence)?
  • Do you feel able to fully understand an ad message?
  • Which threshold of attention do you turn on ad messages?
  • Do you feel overpowered by advertising?
  • Do you feel manipulated?
  • Do you think advertising stereotypes can affect social behaviours?
  • Do you think it can generate over-consumption and/or false needs?
  • When an ad message can be useful to the community?
  • Do you think advertising can raise awareness also on social/environmental issues?
  • Does an “Advertising Code of Conduct” exist**?
  • Which kind of ad is the more powerful? (TV, radio, press, etc.)
  • Is the main purpose of advertising to inform or to entertain its public? Try to assign some categories of products to a kind of advertising which privileges the emotional aspects; then assign other categories of products to advertising, which privileges rational aspects.
  • Who is this message intended for?
  • Who wants to reach this audience, and why?
  • From whose perspective is this story told?
  • Which voices are heard and which are totally absent?
  • What kind of strategies does this message use to get your attention and make you feeling ‘included’?
intro to the topic (background): advertisements are everywhere, they surround us and we can’t escape. Saturing all media, but limited to none, advertising represents a superstructure with an apparently autonomous existence and engine. Its speed is big and its influence is immense.

Nowadays, before being consumers, we definitely are ‘advertising consumers’. According to major US surveys, in North America kids watch an average of 22,000 hours of television before graduating from high school. These hours contain over a 250.000 commercials, and it is these commercials that dictate what you should eat, drink, wear, how you should look, how you should act, and what you should – you ‘must’ have! Persuasive advertising tactics go so far as making some people feel inadequate or bad about themselves.

The goal of this activity is to help you become a responsible, conscious, and critical consumer.

introducing media education: media literacy or media education in its simplest terms, is viewing or reading any media message, even newspaper and magazine articles (with ‘hidden’ promotional messages), critically. A more detailed definition of media literacy involves five principles of knowledge:

1. Media messages come in different formats, such as commercials or news articles or billboards.
2. All media messages are created by someone for a specific purpose and target a specific audience or audiences.
3. All media messages are constructions and the way they are constructed includes words, images, and – sometimes - sounds.
4. People interpret media messages differently, based on their own experiences and even prejudices.
5. Each media message represents someone's social reality. In other words, just because something is printed and is real does not make it true.

decoding advertising: making visible the communication path (brand, target, strategies, goals, etc.).

1. Encourage discussion of advertising’s processes of production and reception.
2. Allow students the opportunity to connect these discussions of particular campaigns (see below) with emergent debates linked to advertising and consumer society.
3. Show insight into the relationship advertising has with other areas of contemporary culture.

providing evidence: focusing on printed campaigns (for practical reasons) you could bring some ads to class that show examples of youth targeted campaigns of different products (clothes, food & drinks, cars, ITC: in other words, the biggest spender categories).

methodological suggestions: students are requested to form 2 groups. Following your introduction in which you highlighted the effectiveness of advertising language to influence people’s lifestyle, ask the 2 groups to identify respectively 2 advertising attitudes, that can be represented by the category enlisted below:

1. merchants of cool: creators and sellers of popular culture who have made teenagers the hottest consumer demographic. (i.g. Innocent drinks)

2. “behind the product” communication: advertising committed to social and environmental aspects, consumer respect, code of conduct: (ex. Toyota Prius)
  • gathering information: to develop this activity students working in 2 teams could be asked to analyse different product groups. They could list the information provided by labels, advertising campaigns, etc. on: production methods (e.g. intensive farming); product features (e.g. is it certified? Is it GMO free?, etc.); packaging, and product disposal (e.g. recycled %/recyclable). Groups should be then invited to share their conclusions with others in terms of: % of certified products with respect to non-certified ones, the level of information clarity, etc.

  • detecting best practises: you could invite ‘per product teams’ to vote for the best labelling/advertising practise, asking them to bring to class the best and the worst product and to explain to the other students the reasons for their choices.

  • student competition: finally ask students to bring to class the most unhealthy/unsustainable but appealing product and the most healthy/sustainable but unappealing one they know... and let them vote on the ‘best’ two!

Case studies: the way a message can be built varies from case to case. In the case of Innocent, the starting point is the name of the brand/drink. It is a ‘charged’ name, meaning that it has a strong ethical connotation. It implies something very strong, namely that other fruit juices could be ‘guilty’. The semantic choice is far from casual, it ‘humanises’ a fruit juice by applying to it a semantic register that does not necessarily belong to the product. This ‘shift of meaning’ is supposed to appeal to a specific category of customers, especially to a young, committed female audience. The second element of the “Innocent” campaign is the graphic solution adopted for the label. This is a simple drawing of a fruit but the style and colour scheme refer to a child drawing. We are still in the semantic field of the ‘innocent’, which includes children. It is important to analyse the strategy used to sell the product. Once it is clear that “Innocent” is making a claim about ‘innocence’”, about a conscious and respectful use of resources, the question becomes that of checking the ‘reality’ of the claim. In the case of “Innocent” drinks, nothing on the product itself (nor on the label) proves that the claim is true or realistic. The juice is not bio. It’s only characteristic is freshness and the absence of added sugar and chemicals. At most, these characteristics can support the claim that this is a healthy drink.

A crucial element of all ads is the target of the communication, or, better, the actual or potential consumers of a certain product. The drink range called “Innocent” for example, young committed girls inclined to a bio or natural diet for Innocent, or middle-class (aged 30-50) men sensitive to environmental issues for the Prius car. Whoever build a message, he/she makes a ‘coding operation’.

The final receiver capacity in reading this message (a decoding operation) depends on various factors (personality, environment, age…). The most important of all, anyway, is his/her general knowledge, which will allow him/her to recognise the different reading levels of a message.

Talking about a press campaign we can distinguish two codes: a visual code and a verbal one.

The visual context of the Innocent campaign is a picture of a green wood, light streaming inside a forest, with a rainbow in the background. This is a second level of signification, or connotation level; in this case, for example the sense of serenity and peace that the wood can suggest, or the power of nature and so on. Adding the verbal code we can reach another level (further connotations), which complete the entire meaning of the ad. The claim "Innocent smoothies. From the makers of trees and stuff" will mean, in this way, that Mother Nature has created both the wonders of nature and the smoothies. These last, then, for similitude, become themselves wonders of nature.

Another point of view to analyse an ad’s meaning is that of the brought values. After indicating the different reading levels (let's now consider the Prius ‘green’ ad), for example a plastic visual, a detailed body copy (the written part of the page explaining the product features), we can consider: a) the story that the product wants to tell to his receiver (i.e.: there was a time when car brought only pollution and destroyed the environment, but now Prius has a new technology which respects the environment!); b) the deep values of the entire message. For example, if in the Innocent ad we could follow a path "from the Nature to the product" here happens the exact contrary: Prius, infact, is a car, which – because of his unique feature – aims to return to Nature (and we can follow the back path "from the product to the Nature").

The value level always involves the product into specific categories, which with enters in a dynamic relation.

Interesting websites: [www.adbusters.org/home/index.html]
[ chnm.gmu.edu/courses/omalley/120/empire/ads/ads.html ]
[ lumen.georgetown.edu/projects/postertool/index.cfm?fuseaction=poster.display&posterID=1769 ]
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