Messages in the Media

Eager for a collaborative project that engages students? A “Messages in the Media” unit holds great potential because it targets critical thinking and engages students in real-world contexts:  evaluating how media shapes decisions such as cultural values, consumerism, personal health, and self-perception.  It also provides an opportunity for students to be media creators, communicating their own knowledge in a variety of ways.  Several years ago I partnered with our Freshman Health classes, creating a media literacy unit to evaluate health claims of sports and energy drinks. This project meets goals of both National Health Education Standards (NHES) and American Association of School Librarians (AASL), such as

Standard 2:   Analyze the influence of family, peers, culture, media technology,
and other factors on health behaviors.

Standard 3:   Demonstrate the ability to access valid information,
products, and services to enhance health.

Standard 1:        Inquire, think critically, and gain knowledge.

Standard 3.3.3  Use knowledge to engage in public conversation and
debate around issues of common concern; 3.3.4 Create products
that apply to authentic, real-world contexts.

In this six-meeting, sports drinks unit, we evaluate advertising using a five-statement media literacy checklist developed by Elizabeth Thoman and Center for Media Literacy.

1.     All media messages are constructed

2.     Media messages are constructed using a media language with its own rules.

3.     Different people experience the same media message differently.

4.     Media have embedded values and points of view.

5.     Most media messages are organized to gain profit and/or power.

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Students view a Hugh Jackman (Wolverine) “Got Milk” ad to analyze the construction of media language such as the signature milk moustache, dramatic lighting and shadows (to enhance Wolverine’s bulging biceps), and angles of the claws that bring the viewer’s eye to the slogan “Got Milk.”  Students also discuss the embedded message—milk will get you pumped—and the embedded point of view—guys need to be muscular.  Contrast this embedded message with a Japanese commercial featuring the pop group AKB48 and the unusual girl member, Eguchi Aimi (computer generated from each of the “most perfect” features of the other group members).  See this funny sendup by Kaleb Nation as he argues why a “virtually perfected” pop star is a disturbing idea.

Armed with an understanding of media techniques, student groups explore samples of drink products—from Gatorade to Muscle Milk to Vitamin Water to Energy Drinks– developing a checklist of health claims from ingredient labels and packaging design and then suggesting health topics (such as caffeine or sugar content in these drinks) that will be researched using library databases and PubMed.  A Gatorade website evaluation also provides a critical look at marketing and health claims—this is a sophisticated website with many health research articles published by the GSSI (Gatorade Sports Science Institute).  Discussion follows on purpose and possible bias in this site and research articles.

A challenging aspect of this project is finding a dynamic way to communicate new knowledge and research findings with an audience.  Over the years, students have shared their research in Glogsters and PowerPoints with embedded media ads, but this year I set up a LibGuide to showcase excerpts of student Analysis Essays and Infomercial Videos.  One student, Anthony, created a “counter ad” spoofing Red Bull energy drinks and the slogan “Red Bull Gives you Wings” (see the ad on tab 2 of the LibGuide). His ad shows a cherubic angel guzzling a can of Red Bull with the slogan, “Get Your Wings Early.”  Anthony described his design techniques:  “(I used) rays of sunshine shining on the angel which moves your eyes to the angel (rather than) the warning labels on the bottom of the ad.”

New directions for next year?  If more class time can be provided for the project, students might create their own webpages using GoogleDocs or Weebly, and could be used to look closely at video commercials prior to writing analysis essays.  Here is a sample Lucozade I created to evaluate sports drink health claims (you will need to add the app to your GoogleDrive to view).

Looking forward to reading your comments on how you are engaging students in media literacy.

 Recommended Research on Media Literacy

Pechmann, Cornelia and Susan J. Knight.  “An Experimental Investigation of the Joint Effects of Advertising and Peers on Adolescents’ Beliefs and Intentions about Cigarette Consumption.” Journal of Consumer Research 29.1 (June 2002): 5019.
JSTOR.  Web. 17 Mar. 2015. <>.

Siegel, Michael. “Mass Media Antismoking Campaigns: A Powerful Tool for Health Promotion.”  Annals of Internal Medicine 129.2 (July 1998): 128-132. Web. 17 Mar. 2015. <

Thoman, Elizabeth and Tessa Jolls. “Media Literacy Education: Lessons from the Center for Media Literacy.”  Media Literacy: Transforming Curriculum and Teaching.  Ed. Gretchen Schwarz and Pamela Brown. Malden: Blackwell, 205. Print.




3 thoughts on “Messages in the Media

  1. I got behind on the blog (what, there’s a conference to plan?) 🙂 🙂 and am just now catching up. Our PE department believes strongly in lifetime health and fitness. This seems like such a natural tie-in, and I love that you provide ways to lengthen or shorten it depending on the amount of time you have. This is a good collaborative opportunity to work with some people in my school that are often outside my radar. Thanks!

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