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Teaching the 2012 Election


vote buttonNovember is just around the corner, which got us thinking about how teachers might incorporate the 2012 election into the classroom.

We just stumbled across The Living Room Candidate, a website that allows you to stream campaign ads from 1952 to 2012. Here’s an idea:

What if you asked your students to choose a campaign commercial and have them produce an analytical essay that explores how the commercial works in a rhetorical way? In other words, the goal is for them to decode how the commercial persuades, what it says, what it doesn’t say, what it implicitly says, what it explicitly says through its use of imagery, sound, texture, font, movement, etc.

This will not only hone their critical thinking skills, but it couples descriptive writing with analysis. If you’re students are younger, you could simplify the assignment and use the double-entry journal exercise we discuss below.

We’ve done something similar with product commercials or print ads and had success with it. You might even pair the assignment with several readings, one of them from the first chapter of a book called Ad Nauseam: A Survivor’s Guide to American Consumer Culture and sections of Jean Kilbourne’s book, Can't Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel. Kilbourne’s book may be a bit more challenging, but AdNauseam is very digestible for high school students.

Here is the assignment sheet. Please feel free to offer feedback or suggestions!

The Ad Analysis Assignment
For your next essay, I am asking you to select an advertisement or a very short commercial and produce an in-depth rhetorical analysis of that particular piece.

Let’s get more specific: first, select an advertisement and then describe the advertisement to your reader as though s/he has never seen this piece before; next interpret the images you describe and tell your reader how the advertisement “ticks.”  In other words, decode the image and explain what these images mean, how and why they appeal to consumers. I want you to explain how and why they work together in a rhetorical way. Fear not: We will discuss these things extensively in class and do in-class activities to prepare you for this essay.

As you begin thinking about this essay, try taking notes in a double-entry journal (just like we did in class): split a sheet of paper in half with the left-hand column labeled “observations” and the right-hand column labeled “implications.” First jot down notes in your observation column: what do you notice as you examine the piece? Then, after spending some time listing observations, think about what your observations suggest. What does each observation imply? Why does the observation matter? List an implication in the other column to correspond with each observation. Do you notice any patterns as you look over the implications column?

Here are some additional questions to get you thinking more crucially about your commercial:

1. Audience: Who is the audience for this piece? How do you know? How does the audience shape the way the piece is put together? How might a different audience change the way the piece is constructed? (For example, is the piece addressing insiders? Outsiders? Does the piece address the audience in a familiar way? Or more formal way?)

2. Structure: How is the piece put together? How is the structure helping the piece do its job? How might a different structure change it? Are there images? If so, where? Is there writing? If so where and what? What draws your attention?

3. Details: Keep in mind the differences between “showing” and “telling.” Where are the places that the piece shows its audience an idea? Why? Where does it tell instead of showing? Why?

4. Content: As an artist, one always has to make decisions about what to include and what to leave out. What receives the most space and attention in the piece? What is left out or can be quickly skimmed over? What might fall outside the edges of the piece? What might be going on outside those edges that we aren’t permitted to see? Why do you think the piece chooses its particular focus?

5. Purpose: What is the larger purpose of the piece? How do you know? How does the structure and style of the piece help fulfill its purpose? Why does the piece matter to the world?