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Advertising Agency

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Imaginary Forces

Brief Assignment Overview: 

Help your students realize when they're being advertised to by helping them turn the tables on the Don Drapers of the Internet.

Assignment Length: 
Pedagogical Goals - Digital Literacy: 
Required Materials: 

As part of their preliminary research outside of the classroom, students doing this assignment will need to participate on at least one social media platform, such as Facebook or Twitter. While the actual assignment is designed so that every student has access to a computer in the classroom (laptops would suffice), it could easily be adapted to only use pen and paper.

Timeline for Optimal Use: 
Full Assignment Description: 

From the minute we wake up to when we fall asleep — and probably while we dream — we are the objects of advertisements. Even if we have long gone without a TV, we are advertised to constantly through the social networking sites we use daily. Ads are on our Facebook pages, in our Twitter feeds, alongside our Google searches — and not only are they impossible to escape, but they seem to hauntingly follow us around like the eyes of the Mona Lisa. In the era of big data, advertising agencies know just about everything there is to know about you: Your age, your gender, your relationship status, your likes and dislikes; and increasingly websites curate your experience based on those statistics. This assignment aims to help students recognize those rhetorical structures telling them to buy buy buy by helping them flip the tables and write their own ads.

This assignment consists of two parts:

  1. A brief homework assignment to be completed the night before. In a one-page paper, students will need to make note of various personalized ads directed at/to them on either Facebook or Twitter. Each student must catalogue at least 4 of these, with at least one screenshot included in the text itself for clarity. The should summarize, in just a few words, what product each ad is for, the visual content of the advertisement, and the overall message. They should then try to identify trends between the ads and any rhetorical strategies these miniature texts might be employing to convince you to click on them. Finally, the students should spend a paragraph reflecting on what the ads suggest about the object's specific ethos, at least in the eyes of the companies mining your data and selecting these ads. Speculatively, what might someone assume about the viewer of these ads having never met him or her before? Who do these admen think the student really is? Are they right? What did they miss and what did they hit on the head?
  2. An in-class exercise that utilizes classroom technology to create personalized ads. At the beginning of class, students should pair up and share their one-page papers, taking a few minutes to discuss the details of the ads, what they missed, and what their partner liked (or didn't) about these particular posts. After the brief one-on-one meeting, the students should again break up, moving to computers in order to create a new ad for their partner as would appear on a Facebook or Twitter page. The new ad should be highly visual, so the students should use a site like PicMonkey or Canva to design the perfect piece of content; should there be no computers or too few, pen and paper would be sufficient. Based on their discussions, each student should decide on what product their partner would likely want to buy, how it can be presented in order to make it more enticing, and which social media site it would make most sense to appear on. Once they are finished, the students should somehow share their work with their partners, discussing what they had in mind and why they made the choices they did; the partner should likewise talk about whether or not they find this particular ad engaging — if it were on Facebook, would they click 'Like'?
Suggestions for Instructor Preparation: 

Other than preparing for the above, which would include familiarizing oneself with sites like Canva or PicMonkey, instructors should prepare a short introductory lecture on the rhetorical principles behind advertising campaigns. Rhetorical analyzing ads can be highly instructive, since their message always boils down to the same injunction: buy this product. Of course, there are a number of strategies that ads utilize to make that argument — humor, nostalgia, subconcious familiarity (i.e., Coke making ads so that people think of their product first to quench their thirst). A short video clip like this clip from Buzzfeed might help, or show a few famous ads and discuss those with your students.

Instructions For Students: 

The closer that students pay attention to the ads that show up on their social networking sites, and the more they consider what might have prompted this particular content, the more interesting this assignment will be. Did she search for anything recently that would suggest she like watching horror movies? Did he click 'Like' on anything or follow anyone new that would suggest that he likes eating at Chili's? What ads do you like, and what about them makes those ads memorable? Additionally, when it comes to creating ads, students shouldn't worry about whether or not their partner needs an item — trust me, agencies don't worry about that at all — but how to make what you're selling appear indispensable and interesting. For additional and helpful reading, students might find this recent NYTimes article on Facebook ads worthwhile.

Evaluation Suggestions: 

As with most in-class assignments, I pay attention more to participation than to the success of the assignment — whether or not someone would actually be convinced to buy a product based off of one of these ads shouldn't factor in to the grading rubric. Creativity and critical insight matter more than the productive part of the assignment.

Course Description: 

This assignment was originally designed for a class on the rhetoric of the digital divide, which included a unit on what has been called the "filter bubble."

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