If you’ve ever seen an episode of Mad Men, you’ll know what I’m picturing: a half dozen white men sitting in a mahogany room, leaned back in their chairs with the feet propped up on the table, swishing the ice around their glasses of bourbon, declaring and hashing and bulldozing ideas about how they might tap into the mind of a woman to sell her a lipstick or a pair of pantyhose. Of course, this television series is appealing to a sense of mid-century nostalgia, but the world of advertisement still carries the power those suit-clad men represent. We are bombarded constantly with media, and sprinkled throughout that media are advertisements designed to convince you that you need whatever Miracle Polish they are selling.
You’ll undoubtedly also be able to envision an adolescent with their eyes glued to a flashing smartphone. As technology and the Internet becomes more portable and constantly accessible, so too does the influence of the media and advertisers. Therefore, it is becoming increasingly crucial for adolescents to develop their critical media literacy—or, develop their “ability to access, analyze, create, and reflect on the print and visual texts of everyday life — and then to act on their conclusions” (Begoray, D., et. al., 2013). If the goal of education is to produce an educated citizen—that is, a person who is able to fully and critically participate in our liberal democracy (Boyd, 2010) – then it is crucial that students learn how to critically assess any messages the media may be directing at them—especially of those messages are misleading or undemocratic.
Now, his isn’t to say that delving into advertisements as text is a new idea. I can remember doing several projects throughout grade school that involved decoding the hidden messages in print advertisements—projects from selecting a magazine add and translating its imagery, or creating World War II propaganda posters. To put it in more academic terms, many teachers encourage their students to be conscious of advertisements as transactional texts—both viewer and advertisement present a set of values and knowledge, the alignment of which will determine the advertisement’s effectiveness in terms of its capacity in persuading the viewer to take on or maintain the norms or set of values it represents. This relates to the positioning theory of marketing, in which “advertisers seek to position adolescents to be at once passive recipients of a message and active consumers of a product” (Begoray et. al., 2013). In fact, media literacy is a key component of the BC New Curriculum’s Critical Thinking proficiency (“Core Competencies,” 2016). By making students aware of the transactions between consumers and advertisers, they are better equipped to make conscious and informed choices as consumers.
Significantly, as this is the direction this essay aims to take, advertisements as text are also a tool teachers can use to train creative writing students to make conscious and informed choices in the conception and execution their characters and their settings. As such, in the following paragraphs I would like to suggest how and why we might use advertisements to helps students to inquire into the norms and values they represent in their own work. For the sake of brevity, the example I will be using for norms is gender representation in fiction, and the example for values will be in writing speculative fiction.
The role of the writer is to represent what she or he observes in their lives in the world of story, with the hope of revealing, complicating or emphasizing some universal truth about the human experience—this is one of the Big Ideas of the new Grades 11 and 12 BC Curriculum for Creative Writing (“Curriculum 10-12 Drafts: English Language Arts,” 2016). The social role of the writer (and of the artist, generally) is to translate their own experience and commentary on society into a medium that can be shared with others. Similarly, the role of the advertiser is to make observations of the norms and values of a certain group within society, and create a campaign that capitalizes on it. As consumerism is at the heart of many aspects of the Western experience, and since we know that advertising affects individuals’ perceptions of the “norm” and their place within it, it is safe to assume that the writer is not immune to its influence.
The way in which we use advertisements as text in Creative writings might not necessarily in the typical analytical fashion that English teachers have asked their students to decode visual advertisements in the past, but instead through the lens of how advertisement portrays social norms by a criteria based on “impossible standards,” how these standards reflect the norms and values of a given place or market, and how this in turn might influence the way in which we conceive of and write our characters, whether we are aiming at representing a perceived “norm” or rejecting it. Portrayals of gender binaries are particularly startling, but one could just as easily explore how advertisers’ “impossible standards” relate to other points of contention, such as racial tokenisation or socio-economic disparity. But by being conscious of what is generally perceived as “normal” and/or “valuable,” student writers can begin to be more aware of the implications of their characters’ traits and behaviours, and perhaps even work toward pro-social ends.
Without a doubt we have all engaged in some debate surrounding the differences between men and women, and their roles and treatment in society. Some argue that the differences are intrinsic and biological, others argue that gender differences are an illusion created through socialization, and many reject the binary all together. Whatever the case, advertisers have capitalized on perceived gender difference. Analyses of children’s programming in the 1970s showed that “girls and women were viewed as softer, weaker, and more passive than boys and… and boys were more autonomous, aggressive, and inventive” (Pierce, 2001.). This observation is not surprising, considering how many historical women “suffered from the negative stereotypes that were forced upon them by the patriarchal literature that used to tell them how to look and how to act” or were forced to make a point of resisting them (Khalil Hammad, 2016). Similarly, female characters in many works are portrayed as either sexualized objects who either have the goal of obtaining a man, or who are the prize a man seeks to win by the end of the story, or directly challenge this stereotype and are presented instead as a series of typically “male” traits embodied within a female form—consider how many stories you have read in which the strong female lead considers herself to be a tomboy, or who really only fits in with the boys, such as Hermione from the Harry Potter series or Katniss in the Hunger Games series.
I should acknowledge, however, that gender representation in both advertisement and literature is beginning to diversify. I don’t think that advertisers are trying to systematically oppress every non-white and non-male group in the world as some evil plot to achieve some new world order. Rather, I think they advertisers simply observe trends in thinking and action within their target audience, and try to appeal to those ways of thinking either cognitively (by reaffirming values or norms), affectively (by reaffirming the individual’s experience), and/or via the psychomotor (by inciting visceral engagement or reactions through reaffirmation). In other words, pro-social behavior inevitably leads to more pro-social advertisement campaigns.
As a result, if we teach our students of Creative Writing to be observant of the world around them, we train them to accurately portray the current concerns (i.e. the norms and values) of the society in which they live. Since the purpose of advertisements is the capitalize on these norms and values, they serve as a sort of concrete and portal lens through which students can reflect on the society in which they live and create characters who are accurate portrayals of the norms and values they themselves wish to support and propagate through their writing.
BC Ministry of Education. (2016). Core Competencies. BC’s New Curriculum. Retrieved from: https://curriculum.gov.bc.ca/competencies
BC Ministry of Education. (2016). Curriculum 10-12 Drafts: English Language Arts. BC’s New Curriculum. Retrieved from: https://curriculum.gov.bc.ca/curriculum/10-12#ela
Begoray, D., Higgins, J. W., Harrison, J., & Collins-Emery, A. (2013). Adolescent Reading/Viewing of Advertisements. Journal Of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 57(2), 121-130. doi:10.1002/JAAL.202
Boyd, Dwight. (2010). Character Education and Citizenship Education: A Case of Cancerous Relationship. Philosophy of Education. Retrieved from: http://ojs.ed.uiuc.edu/index.php/pes/article/view/3061/1136
Khalil Hammad, Lamia. 2016. The Art of Storytelling as an Exploration of Re-Writing Gender Roles in Grace Paley’s A Conversation with my Father. Epiphany: Journal of Transdisciplinary Studies, Vol 9, No 1. Retrieved from: http://epiphany.ius.edu.ba/index.php/epiphany/article/view/195/155
Pierce, Kate. 2001. What If the Energizer Bunny Were Female? Importance of Gender in Perceptions of Advertising Spokes-Character Effectiveness. Sex Roles, Vol 45, No 11/12. Retrieved from: http://download.springer.com.ezproxy.library.uvic.ca/static/pdf/395/art%253A10.1023%252FA%253A1015696504841.pdf?originUrl=http%3A%2F%2Flink.springer.com%2Farticle%2F10.1023%2FA%3A1015696504841&token2=exp=1488248482~acl=%2Fstatic%2Fpdf%2F395%2Fart%25253A10.1023%25252FA%25253A1015696504841.pdf%3ForiginUrl%3Dhttp%253A%252F%252Flink.springer.com%252Farticle%252F10.1023%252FA%253A1015696504841*~hmac=873f54c5bcd819dfaa670bd4bfc9aea6580eb271eedcda320f1d0e727ee58267