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Seventeen, Self-Image, And Stereotypes

As part of my 11th-grade class last year, I did a media literacy unit on advertising. The purpose of the unit is to help students consider more critically the role and influence of media, particularly the pervasive and intrusive nature of advertising, and how it conveys certain values, messages, and ideas that often perpetuate sexist, racist, and pro-capitalist points of view.

The unit took seven weeks, covering topics from the image of women in advertising to what the Center for Media Literacy calls the "Myths of the Image Culture" (for example: "your body is not good enough," and "the 'good life' consists of things that require lots of money"). In this article, I want to outline my general orientation and to focus in particular on how we analyzed the images of women in advertising.

To begin the unit, I surveyed the students about their media interests and habits. Then, using the resource "Twenty-Seven Problems with Advertising" [from Marketing Madness: A Survival Guide for a Consumer Society, by Michael F. Jacobson and Lurie Ann Mazur (Westview Press, 1995)], the students developed and performed satirical skits. One group of girls, for example, did a "commercial" about trendy and expensive tennis shoes, showing how advertising tells us that you're not cool unless you wear certain articles of clothing. A racially mixed group of students did a skit about rap videos, showing how "advertising perpetuates racial (African Americans as musicians and athletes), gender (women as sex objects, men as business people), and class (middle-class whites as social norm) stereotypes."

After one or two skits were performed each day, I presented a few commercials I videotaped. We watched and critiqued television commercials, speculating on how they were constructed, what messages they conveyed, and what various techniques advertisers used to sell products. For instance, a frozen food product commercial opens with a black-and-white shot of frozen fish sticks on a cooking pan. With no music to accompany this shot, viewers are asked if they would rather have the "usual frozen food" or would they rather have a "real meal"? We next get a colorful shot accompanied with alluring music of a steamy hot Swanson beef and vegetable dinner - "a real meal." I presented this commercial a second time without sound and asked students to identify what they saw and noticed about the editing. I replayed the ad again with sound only so students could notice the role music and voice-over narration plays in advertising.

After a moment of silent reflection, one of my students, China, spouted: "Shoot, there's no real difference between the two products. One's no better than the other. They both are frozen foods." Other students chimed in: "A 'real meal' is not a frozen dinner!"

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