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Audience “Revoked” in the Ad Analysis Assignment: Working with Students, “Trending” the Ad Analysis, and “Reading Against” Ads

Returning to 1020 for the first time in two and a half years, I’m working through an adapted version of the GTA common syllabus (where the main tweaks are additional ‘responses’ retooled for reflection on writing and reading practices, a number of different lesson plans and readings, and different versions of the fourth and fifth assignments), so I wanted to post something fairly reflective about my freshest remediation: the ad analysis project (and though I’ll try to avoid the ‘online diary’ tone as much as possible as I reflect on a few ideas about my teaching of this assignment, this still may be a tad drawn out, as it actually does come from my reflections over the past two weeks).

This can be taken as what might be several small contributions to the teaching of project one (still mostly untested) worked out while talking with several students that were keen on making some larger claims through their drafts of that project. Along with everyone else in my classes, these students were directed to develop their ideas through their initial content analysis of an ad (upwards of three ads initially), and to test out what Dr. Pruchnic mapped out as several possible structures and methods to pursue based on the distinctions between content analysis, categorical analysis, and contextual analysis — of which the latter two arise as possible arrangements that can productively shift a student from a well-formulated content analysis to an analysis that explores broader exigencies and questions about what’s happening “beyond the sell.”

After a series of fairly challenging readings about advertising and ‘reading’ advertising rhetorically, and after students had worked as a group on a content analysis as a class, done so again in smaller groups, and then written their first drafts, predictably, a number of students wanted to push their analysis to explore some larger questions that had come up over the past several classes. After a class, I found myself working with seven students (from two back-to-back classes) who had written excellent rough drafts with a strong content analysis and were now interested in pursuing a number of questions related to two common concerns: about how to write about shifting trends in advertising strategies, and about whether they “should read against the ads” they analyzed.

Helping these students seemed like an opportunity to help me rethink my own recent run up to project one, and to potentially offer some last minute direction, motivation or tips during the week they finished working on their projects. Also, as I had been concerned in the past that I’d worked too much with the strongest and weakest students, instead of working with these keener students exclusively, I invited these students to work with me through a couple emails after this ‘after class session’ that raised the initial questions. I stated that my goal would be turning a few of our conversations towards the creation of one or two small lessons and/or tips that we might circulate to everyone in the class over the following week.

The first set of questions from this group of students revolved around ‘trending’ — where they asked questions such as: how far could/should I go in trending the techniques or themes in the ad(s) they started with? How exactly do I make a bridge from a content analysis to a different focus on wider trends in the paper? Does this count as context? How do I incorporate research without making this too much of a research paper, given the goals of the assignment and the time allotted?

McDonald's "Lightpost Hijacking" Coffee Ad

In general, these students wanted to say that a particular change in advertising was new and important, but they found it hard to find preliminary (or ‘valid’) research that might support their claims at this point in the project. They were interested in trends like the rise of the hyper-sexualized teen in Abercrombie ads, or the ‘more intense cocaine chic’ and ‘sordid hotel’ shots from American Apparel ads, or in (what seemed like) the rapid evolution of photo-shopping, the uses of ‘projected publicity’ (cheap large-scale, or unusually located projections of ads in public spaces), the evolution of shockvertising, etc.

Abercrombie & Fitch Web Advertisement

Initially (and by ‘initially’ I mean this was just during that period after one class) I noted to a group of students that identifying such trends would likely help frame their analysis in a way that would be interesting to our class (and that this was half the battle), and that this was indeed a very important part of the context. We then returned to some claims made by the readings to help them pinpoint and clarify some of the main transitions in advertising practices noted by Ruth Shalit (“Return of the Hidden Persuaders“) and in the more challenging piece by Thomas Frank (“Why Johnny Can’t Dissent“). They felt the readings pointed to several important trends ‘historically’ but they were unconfident in making claims that other trends they saw were ‘important enough’ by comparison, or even ‘authentic’ given that advertising trends seem to come and go so rapidly (i.e. one student felt he was hyperbolizing his own trend, thus adding hype to hype – he also loves the word hyperbole).

"Apple Water" (fake) advertisement

That afternoon I started a basic timeline with them that began with the trends charted in the readings: noting the surge of the ‘rebel sell’ that emerged largely in the 1980s, then noting a few other key moments that initially came to mind but were not mentioned in class, particularly: adbusting and their attention to the subvertisement (which I noted had both dropped off as a key strategy of Adbusters, and been co-opted by companies like Apple who hire out firms to create parodies and “faux-ads” as a way to build hype–see the apple-water ad above). Later the next evening I took this shorter timeline and extended it in a way that I hoped would give these students a sense that the trends they were finding were important to both the marketers and in how they affect the public in a number of ways. I initially ran through some articles and videos associated with “Trend-hunter,” a magazine that I would occasionally see in my old stomping grounds in Toronto, which has now apparently evolved into an “online trend community” that “identifies emerging micro-trends.” I used this to periodize present trends in a little more detail and create a rough timeline of changing marketing strategies over the past several years, with a handful of links that could take them to several similar forums that discuss trends like the following (these were some of those interesting to a number of students in my three classes):

    • Changes in “Interactive retail” and the additions of “wireless retail space;” i.e. “touchscreen solutions”, dynamic visual displays that are meant to “facilitate the sales process for staff” and use of Apps and messaging that enhances shopping through “wireless retailing” (also called “Real timing” – with stores, cafes, and brands through social media)
    • Changes in Shockvertising: using shock tactics like gruesome, bizarre and hyper-sexualized imagery to various affect, including the expectations that this will quickly ‘go viral’ (and the related trend called “charitable deviance:” how shockvertizing has become a favorite tactic of various public human/animal rights or charitable organizations),
    • New Promotions of “Wearable tech and self-branding”: the push to merge wearable technology with a conspicuously branded style
    • Recent attention to a trend called “Brand reversion” an idea that explores ‘nostalgia’ in cases where people sell, return to childhood brands like Disney but in haute couture, or purchase princess phone cases, or Nintendo accessories to satisfy some childhood nostalgia
    • Pushing the idea of “Democratic selling” – which is (apparently) the next thing in crowd sourced selling, where consumer votes via tweets and facebook likes are used to determine what a retailer should actually carry and sell (supposedly creating a stronger voice of the consumer; related to ‘tweetonomics’ and who is best at tweeting their brands–the answer is usually Aston Kutcher)
    • “Discreet consumerism” which gives new meaning to going “No Logo.” Examples include Starbuck disguising one of its chains in Manhattan as in indie espresso bar, or Absolute Vodka going label-less; many companies are turning away from the label (to an extent) and aiming to create “irresistible experiences” for a certain audience (the poster-boy is Brooklyn Fare)
    • “Rockstar self-expressionism” the extension of the ‘rebel sell’ to more unusual products from hard-edged hotel designs to rebelliously designed baby clothes
    • “Modern kidvertising” by comparison focuses on parents’ desires to have sophisticated looking toddlers

That Friday afternoon I emailed the seven students the list and the linked resources, asking if they could compare the way their trends are discussed as ‘important changes’ in these discourses, to how they thought they were discussing the trend in their projects. I also asked whether they felt that they had also earned a right to comment on these trends through their analysis (and tried to repose their question about ‘reading against the ads’).

One student immediately suggested the list could be positioned alongside the discussion of ‘creepier’ future trends we identified in the interactive ads in class (the “Whopper Sacrifice” campaign and “Subservient Chicken”) — and noted that many in the class were largely inspired by these examples. He also then tagged onto our list: “The 5 Creepiest Advertising Techniques of the (Near) Future” from Cracked.com, which included: #5 new tracking techniques; #4 custom made ‘shilling’; #3 trends in ‘fusing ads and culture’ (a nice recent history students could relate to); #2 people ‘going undercover’ to promote ads in public; and #1 ‘getting into our head’ — a short segment which restated much of the main thrust of the readings.

He suggested that I circulate an email with a list of key trends, and a short paragraph noting how the #1 trend in Cracked agrees with our readings, and how anyone interested might consider connecting their analysis to any of the above trends either simply by 1) situating their ads as part of such a trend, or 2) shifting a more substantial section of their analysis to examine the trend.

The other responders (5) all seemed to recognize that these popular articles seemed to ‘analyze’ recent trends in some detail as ‘problem solvers’ for the marketers and companies (or in the case of cracked.com, with heavy irony). They thought that their analyses were closer examinations of the ‘parts’ of the ads, compared to the more positive (or ironic) look at the larger trend as a ‘whole.’ They seemed to think this closer analysis was the crux of their ‘reading against’ the ads, and that they were mostly “better off” to this solely in a project directed at their classmates.

Through a second email I wanted to turn their thinking back to their second set of questions — questions they were asking about ‘reading against’ their ads, such as: Is it okay to say that my ad is unethical? Can I go through my ad, point-by-point and judge it, without being judgmental? Is doing this still an analysis? Can (or should) I read my ad positively or negatively? Is it okay to make broader judgments about advertising? I hesitated to push something like a critical discourse analysis in response to this (in addition to their training in rhetorical analysis) to support their goal of reading against the ads (although I did previously run through the old ‘surface, intended, and ideological/cultural levels’ of meaning). I also wondered if I hadn’t focused enough perhaps on the ethics of language, or even perhaps of images, in relation to how rhetoric helps them ‘read’ both of these in several distinct ways.

My initial ideas circulated around a comment that came initially after the class. It was from a student working on the Chrysler 200 ad. This student had already connected Frank’s claim “What we understand as ‘dissent’ does not subvert, does not challenge, does not even question the cultural faiths of Western business” to the tactics of the wildly popular Chrysler 200 commercial (all of us noting that we love it of course) which led another student to suggest we explore the following GM ‘spoof’ as ways of ‘reading against’ this and similar ads. I suggested that spoofs demonstrate a great way of ‘reading against’ the ad, and that it should be clarified as to what is meant here by language play (offering a rudimentary definition of language play, noting that many are spoofs are done for fun, and a major distinction can found in contrasting what are sometimes termed ‘badvertisements’ to ‘subvertisements’ or ‘culture jams’). At the time, I told the students that since we are supposedly learning something from the experts in persuasion, ‘reading against’ the ads is similar to what these ‘spoofers’ are doing in their close content readings and ‘creative responses’ — noting that they too are not experts — they’re not poring over ads and underlining letters and saying: “that was great because it used anapaectic tetrameter with two kinds of assonance, some graphological deviation and some intertextuality” (an old quote I’ve used too much, Danesi, 20). One of the students then said that she wrote something in her draft like “the audience for her ad would say it was catchy but probably internalize in complex ways. People may remember it, hum parts of it and forget others, or never even consciously absorb it at all.” To which I responded (poorly): “great, it was your initial job to read the ad closely using the flexible tools we’ve discussed in class, and to test your own thoughts about the persuasive affect/effects of the ads on your classmates and myself. So if this is your claim about audience, it sounds good to me.”

Sometime later, I realized that I had partly missed the opportunity to answer the questions about reading ‘against’ the ad in a more helpful way. I turned to an old article (which, for some reason, I tend to do when I think I screwed up something in my teaching), Ede and Lunsford’s classic (1984) “<a href="http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0010-096X(198405)35%3A22.0.CO%3B2-V&#8221; target=”_blank”>Audience Addressed/Audience Invoked” remembering hazily that this basic distinction about audience took into concern how many other teachers had over-emphasized one sense of audience (usually addressed) and cast writing as if it had a lack of concern for the ethics of language use, that is, for the creation of an ethical response that makes sense for the writer (160). It seemed to me that my students needed at least two better senses of audience to more confidently make claims about the ads and their wider trends.

Being the first project and all, I had strongly emphasized their writing as directing something persuasive and interesting to our classmates, and left out any distinctions that might lead to “a fully elaborated view of audience” that “must balance the creativity of the writer with the different, but equally important, creativity of the reader” (169). In the meantime I was doing the kind of cooperation with students that made me the primary audience addressed (which is of course fine occasionally and often unavoidable), while also focusing too narrowly on helping students learn how to “continually modify their work with reference to their audience” of classmates (158). I was pulled back to Ede and Lunsford because of demands like:

Such a focus, which in its extreme form becomes pandering to the crowd, tends to undervalue the responsibility a writer has to a subject and to what Wayne Booth in Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent calls ‘the art of discovering good reasons.’ The resulting imbalance has clear ethical consequences, for rhetoric has traditionally been concerned not only with the effectiveness of a discourse, but with truthfulness as well. Much of our difficulty with the language of advertising, for example, arises out of the ad writer’s powerful concept of audience as addressed divorced from a corollary ethical concept. The toothpaste ad that promises improved personality, for instance, knows too well how to address the audience. But such ads ignore ethical questions completely. (159)

What resulted was that I sent the second email suggesting then that we might include a ‘tip’ based on two straightforward elaborations of our idea of audience for the project (of course, I know they weren’t going to disagree with me here). Saying: “Our primary audience is still each other, but when making claims about the ethical pitch of the ad(s) or the wider trends they are associated with, you might also think of your audience ‘invoked’ (this is then explained) in at least two different ways. With your carefully executed rhetorical analysis of the content of the ad, you’ve earned the invoke an audience of future readers (vulnerable readers, or other critical readers, a mass audience, etc.), or to devote a paragraph or two to write, basically, to yourself (explaining how you feel you’ve discovered something affective, unethical, ethical, etc, or how it makes you think about how you’ve responded or reacted to such ads, etc.).

While the list was circulated as an initial email to the classes, the discussion of audience was tagged into a mini-lesson at the beginning of the following Tuesday’s class.

This past week I subsequently asked several other students during some optional conferencing whether they found these added tips and mini-lessons helpful as part of the set up for project one – and they tended to say that they took them to heart because of the added voice of fellow students. Comments ranged from: “I took the tip seriously because I could tell these students were trying and they did the reading” to “the tips made sense and came to me just when I needed added help with framing this analysis and finding the elusive ‘exigence’ you speak of.

Jared Grogan is a PhD Candidate in the Department and joined the faculty as a lecturer in Fall 2011. His research interests include Rhetorical Theory, Ecology and Sustainability, Eco-Composition, and Pedagogy. He currently teaches English 1020.



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