To be a functioning adult in a mediated society, one needs to be able to distinguish between different media forms and know how to ask basic questions about everything we see, read or hear.
Although most adults learned through literature classes to distinguish a poem from an essay, it’s amazing how many people do not understand the difference between a daily newspaper and a supermarket tabloid, what makes one website legitimate and another one a hoax, or how advertisers package products to entice us to buy.
Simple questions about the media can start even at the toddler stage, planting important seeds for cultivating a lifetime of interrogating the world around us. Parents, grandparents, even babysitters can make a game of “spot the commercial” to help children learn to distinguish between entertainment programs and the commercial messages that support them. Even children’s picture books can help little ones grasp the storytelling power of images—”And what do you think will happen next?”
Sometimes a media “text” can involve multiple formats. A new animated Disney film, for example, involves not only a blockbuster movie released in thousands of theaters but also a whole campaign of advertising and merchandising—character dolls and toys, clothes, lunchboxes, etc.—as well as a website, storybooks, games and perhaps eventually, a ride at one of the Disney theme parks.
Uncovering the many levels of meaning in a media message and the multiple answers to even basic questions is what makes media education so engaging for kids and so enlightening for adults. Here are some questions to start thinking about the impact media has on our society:
Does TV have too much sex and violence?
Are the news media biased?
Have TV talk shows gone too far with their sensationalized topics?
Should the content of Internet be regulated?
Are media shaping our values?
Is TV harmful for our children?
Do media drive foreign policy?
Is emphasis on body image harmful to our society?
Should tobacco advertising be restricted?
Should the media cover criminal trials?
Do media reports of crime heighten the fears of citizens?
Is coverage of political campaigns fair?
Is advertising ethical?
Do paparazzi threaten First Amendment Rights?
Does concentration of ownership jeopardize media content?
Advertising contains an explicit message. This is the intended, obvious message. It is usually some variation of “Buy this product.”
What is the explicit message of the following ads? What details in the ads support this interpretation?
The explicit or obvious message is “Buy a Chevrolet.” I know this is the intended message because the green Chevrolet car is the central focus of the image. The front hood of the car displays the word Chevrolet and the Chevrolet symbol. The ad also uses the words “You get more to be proud of in a Chevy.”
The explicit or obvious message is “Buy Chesterfield cigarettes.” I know this is the intended message because there is a picture of a carton of Chesterfield Cigarettes in the arms of the boy on the right, with the brand name prominently displayed. In the bottom left hand corner there is a picture of an open package of cigarettes that also clearly has the brand name Chesterfield. This ad even does something that few modern ads do anymore – it explicitly tells you why you should buy the product. In this case, it is better than other cigarettes because it is always milder, is better tasting, and provides “cooler” smoking. Lastly, the name Chesterfield is again prominently displayed in the bottom right corner of the ad.
Advertising has implicit messages. These are also intended though they may be less obvious. Advertising works by associating values, feelings, and desires with the product or brand name so that people will unconsciously be drawn to that product instead of another one. It is usually some variation of, “If you buy this product you will be more cool, or beautiful, or manly, or successful, etc.”
What is the implicit message of the following ads? What details in the ads support this interpretation?
The implicit message for this advertisement is that if you buy this car, you will be the kind of man represented in the ad. You will be handsome and active. You will have a conventionally attractive woman at your side. You will be financially, socially, and romantically successful. You will have achieved, and can be proud of having a achieved, the desired middle class goals: wife, dog, car.
The implicit message of this advertisement is that if you buy this brand of cigarettes for your husband or father, then you are an ideal wife or child. This is what your man really wants and you should give it to him. These cigarettes are better than other cigarettes, and you will give them to your father or husband because he is a better man than other men and you are a better wife or son than other wives and children. Your man has high expectations and they deserve to be met, and you can meet them by giving him these cigarettes.
Implicit messages do more than sell products. They contribute to the creation and recreation of social norms. So the ad is not just telling you that if you use this hair product you will be more beautiful – it is actually creating and recreating the idea of what is beautiful (or cool, or manly, or successful, etc.).
Implicit value messages normalize social standards because of their prevalence (they are everywhere) and their repetition (they are seen again and again and again). Ideas of beauty (or coolness, or manliness) don’t exist as absolute truths. They are to some extent created, and they change as time goes by.
What social standards are normalized in these advertisements?
These advertisements help to create and recreate the ideas of masculine and feminine gender identity. In each ad, the man is the centre of attention. From the first ad, men learn that material possessions like cars are something to be proud of, something that, in fact, makes one a man. This trains men to buy material goods to establish their masculinity. The first ad also equates his partner with his car: the woman becomes a material possession of which he can be proud. It teaches women the ideals of feminine identity. She is the observer, not the primary actor. She is the admiring cheerleader. She is very thin and her attention is focused on her man. His attention is faced out to the viewer. He meets the world; she concentrates on him. In the second ad, the focus is also on the man, even though he is absent. Women are shown that their role is to please their man by giving him what he wants. She wears make up, and a bright, frilly, dress that emphasizes the skin of her shoulders and neck. She is also a good mother because her child is very neat and tidy and has also learned to please the father.
Activity: Media Messages and Social Standards
- What is the explicit message of the following ad? What details in the ad support this interpretation?
- What is the implicit message of this ad? What details in the ad support this interpretation?