What Ads Tell Us

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What Ads Tell Us

This lesson is intended to set the stage for student analysis of historical advertising. In order to view these documents in a critical light, students must understand the purpose of advertising and some of the techniques advertisers use to reach their intended audiences.


In this lesson, students will:

  • Develop understanding of the media literacy concepts of purpose & audience and perspectives & values

  • Practice analyzing advertisements using contemporary ads

Other Materials

2-3 contemporary ads, chosen by the teacher. Given the focus on African Americans and women in the subsequent lessons, ads featuring images of either or both may be of particular interest.

Suggested Instructional Procedures

Note: For an extra level of student engagement, teachers may choose to ask students to bring in an example of a contemporary (print) advertisement that has caught their eye recently. Teachers should assign this task before this lesson begins and of course should provide parameters for acceptable content.

1) As a warm up, ask students (in whole class discussion, partner talk, or individual written response) to answer the questions: What is advertising for? How does advertising work? Students will likely respond readily to the first question that advertising is for selling products. Students will probably have varied answers for the second question, ranging in sophistication. If students offer the following concepts, highlight them: advertising works by appealing to emotion, by offering a role model, and/or by creating a need.

2) Explain to students that, as you’ve discussed, advertising exists to sell products, and it works by using certain techniques. Tell students that you also want them to know that advertisements can tell us something about the society and culture in which they are created, because distinct perspectives and values are embedded in advertisements. Ads can reveal ideas, assumptions, and beliefs held by people in the culture that they come from.

Project the first contemporary advertising example for the class. Ask students to respond individually, with partners, or in whole class talk to the following questions:

What is the message of this advertisement?

  • To aid students, consider providing them with this cloze sentence frame: “The message of this ad is that you should buy [product name] because ______________________.” An example response might be something like “The message of this ad is that you should buy [product] because it will make you…”

Who is the intended audience for this advertisement?

  • It is helpful to provide students with the source citation for any ad you provide. Where an advertisement is printed is a big clue to its target audience.

What ideas or beliefs about __________ does this ad reveal?

  • Note that you can fill in the blank or ask students to do so themselves. To help students answer this question, consider asking them to surface assumptions the ad makes. What are the assumptions the ad makes about race? About gender? For example, To aid students, provide them with cloze sentence frames such as this one: “This ad reveals an assumption that women should be __________________.”

3) Project or otherwise share with students 1-2 more example ads, asking them to respond to the same three questions as in Step 2.

4) (Extension) If you asked students to bring in their own ads, ask them to answer the same three questions about the ads they chose. Then, ask them to present their findings in partner pairs, groups, or to the whole class.