‘Bad Ads’ and the Study of Rhetoric

Analyzing whether an ad is misleading or not can be a great way to get students engaged in the study of rhetoric.

High school students discussing advertisements in a group in the classroom
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Rhetoric and media literacy are essential skills for students, but where to begin? On social media alone, students are hit with a never-ending barrage of persuasive messages. Ads are pervasive, and although students are often aware that they’re being influenced, knowing how persuasion works gives them a whole new power to understand and affect their world.

How Persuasive Are You?

My students and I start our study of rhetoric with a quick write on the following questions: Are you a persuasive person? Why or why not? What are your methods of persuasion? How well do they work?

The discussion that follows is lively and leads us into the ideas that persuasion is both an art and a science and that there are concrete methods of persuasion that we can identify and begin to recognize in the world around us.

I then introduce Aristotle’s basic rhetorical appeals of ethos, pathos, and logos, and we watch and discuss examples of each appeal in video commercials.

At the end of this initial discussion, I send students off to find examples of each of the three rhetorical appeals to share with the class. These allow us to review and reinforce the concepts the next day, and put students on the alert to notice rhetoric in the world around them.

Teaching Specific Rhetorical Techniques

After reviewing ethos, pathos, and logos the following day in class, I give students a list of rhetorical techniques. There are several available on the internet, but I’ve found this list from the New Mexico Media Literacy Project to be a solid reference.

Because print ads are static, they’re ideal for students to analyze in more detail. We work together to deconstruct a common ad that I put up on the Smart Board, finding as many of the techniques from the list above as we can. Identifying techniques is only the first step—the crucial next task is to discuss the effect of each technique.

For example, students notice right away that the “beautiful people” technique is employed in many ads, and that the intended effect of this is to make us think that using the product will also make us attractive.

Take a Side

After we discuss the various techniques we find and their effects on the reader, I bring up the idea of “bad ads”—ads that could be considered misleading and or unhealthy in some way. Students then get to take a side on whether they think the ad we’re looking at fits this definition of bad. They jot down an outline for their argument, stating a claim and bullet-pointing evidence from the ad text to support their claim. I don’t ask them to write the analysis from this outline, but it prepares them well for the next step.

The next day, students each bring in their own example of a bad ad that they want to analyze. I have several magazines for them to look through. Teen magazines such as J-14 and Seventeen are great sources, but just about any magazine will provide a rich yield. Students also print out ads from their Facebook and other social media pages, which provoke an interesting discussion on advertisers’ increasing ability to target their audience.

The culminating activity of this unit is a persuasive rhetorical analysis of a print ad. For their chosen ad, students state a claim about how the ad is misleading and/or unhealthy and then use evidence from the ad to support their opinion. We peer edit and conference to revise the papers, and depending on time, I’ll often have students present their analysis to the class.

Moving Forward

Our study of rhetoric usually lasts about three weeks, from the introduction of the rhetorical appeals through the writing and revision of the analysis paper, but it can be contracted or expanded to fit different class schedules and student interest.

My students are so engaged by the topic—in our end-of-year reflection it is hands-down the most mentioned unit we study—that we have branched out naturally over the years into exploring other forms of persuasion, such as speeches, print text, and various aspects of social media.

It’s definitely an advantage for students heading into AP Language and Composition to be familiar with the concept of rhetoric, but the most palpable benefits of this study are apparent in students’ everyday lives. They become more conscious consumers of the rhetoric all around them, and the growth in their critical thinking skills is undeniable. I’ve had students complain, “Thanks a lot, Mrs. Krulder. Now I can’t watch TV or go on the internet without seeing a million ways someone is trying to persuade me!”

You’re welcome.