Critical thinking workshop on advertising for middle school & teens

advertising concept
06 Jun SAV 1 Comment

A teacher asked me for help with a workshop for fifth graders, to stimulate their critical thinking skills and work on their English around the theme of advertisements and commercials.


To start the lesson ask students if they can think of any ads they have seen, online, on TV, in town, or wherever. Ask students to describe ads they know to the class. Ask them if they like them, and whether they feel like buying the product.

Critical thinking and advertising - Example

Show an ad to the class. If you can show a video ad, so much the better. Otherwise, show a printed ad. Present a list of questions to the class such as those below. Discuss the questions with students and elicit possible answers. Here is an example below, with the ad picture, questions, and possible answers.

- Who created the message?

Answer: Bougues Telecom. (A french communications operator)

- What techniques did they use to attract attention?

An attractive young woman, smiling and relaxed. Nice soft colours. A short, catchy phrase "Stay connected to your loved ones".

- What values or information are included or omitted?

The idea communicated is that if you are on  your phone with your friends and loved ones, you will be happy, relaxed, laughing and having fun, and sharing the pleasure with a friend or sibling, who is also on their phone.

What is omitted is that too much screen time causes depression and other problems*. Screen time isolates you from those around you, as shown in the photo. The two people are together on the bed but not talking to each other. Mobile phone radiation may be dangerous.

- How truthful is the ad (exaggerations?)

This answer will be subjective, depending on how a student interacts with his or her phone.

- Who is the ad aimed at, (age, male or female, interests)

This is aimed at all teens and young adults. The ad is probably aimed more at females because there is a girl in the pic, the soft orange wall is quite feminine, and lying around on your bed with a friend is quite a girly activity, though these days, what with neutral genders, transgenders, and non-identified genders, frankly, who knows?

- Why was this message sent? Information and sales

Bouygues Telecom sent this message to advertise its brand.

Now let's make this lesson interactive and dynamic - make a live photo!

Now students know the method and what is expected of them, make small groups and give each one an ad and get them to think about it and answer the critical thinking questions. Then, instead of just sharing the answers, try this fun idea, that is creative for the students. Each group prepares a "live photo" of the ad. They do this by creating a freeze-frame to communicate the content and meaning of the ad.  Students hold the position while a narrator from the group presents the product, telling the class who made the ad, what the ad is communicating, etc. as per the questions above, and then, finally, asking the class if they can guess the product. The group keeps the position and expressions throughout.

lego advertisement for critical thinking workshop on commercialsThe teacher should demo this first. Show an ad, like this lego ad pic. Get a group to quickly make a freeze-frame, and use appropriate expressions. Narrate the ad to the class: This ad is made by Lego. They used a cool motorbike to attract attention. The red bike is bright on the grey background. They also used a famous star wars stormtrooper. People love star wars, so they'll love a star wars Lego. They used good looking people and both dads have trendy beards so they look hip and cool, because no child wants a dad who looks like a dork. (Although, and I appreciate that I'm in a minority group here, the copy-cat, let's clone a beard and look like everyone else movement, is utterly dorkish). The idea is that with lego you will be really absorbed and have a fun, privileged moment, with your dad all to yourself while he lovingly watches you create a cool lego model, and the ad reminds you that you love your dad "J'aime mon papa".  What they leave out is that painstaking hours have to go by before you get to place the final piece, (which, in all likelihood will be lost under a sofa by now!) The ad is relatively truthful in that the models are to scale in relation to the humans, but there's no way Dad will just sit and watch. Annoyingly he will probably butt in and make most of the model himself!

Fun, creative idea

Next, have each group invent its own ad. Do a quick brainstorm for ideas of products students could choose. They invent the ad, and then the class comment on it and whether it makes them want to buy the product. Have the class vote on the best ad and chose one of the products. See which group sold the most.

Be sure to put a strong leader in each group. Don't put all the talented ones together. Spread the talent around so there is someone to lead the group, linguistically and otherwise.

Let students work with others who also like their chosen product. If someone hates lego, they may choose to be unhelpful on the ad-creation team and the task may just annoy them.

Using video ads

Video commercials are great because the advertiser has time to tell a story. Human psychology is driven by avoiding pain and going towards pleasure. Advertisers play on this. You might have a desperate "homemaker", with stained, or grey laundry. And then yippee, after having polluted the environment with some powerful detergent, they are ecstatically happy again. The kids will come home from rugby and they'll be glowing inside, knowing they can get all the mud off thanks to the marvellous product. Life is wonderful thanks to laundry detergent.

That said, laundry ads won't be of much interest to kids or teens. Find ads for products they know and that are relevant to your students. There are of course, always the classics, like the Andrex loo roll ad and the labrador - that one has been going for decades...soft, long and very strong. (Type Andrex toilet paper advert on YouTube and you'll find a choice.)

Repeat the critical thinking work using the videos. Have students vote on the best ad. Have students find an ad they like for homework and prepare to act it out to the class. Have students work together to act out an ad, with a script. Vote on best sketches. Have students make up their own ad and perform it as a short skit.

Other ideas for ads

How about vintage ads from the 1950s? Or ads from different cultures? Share your ideas below, we'd all love to hear them.

All the best, Shelley Ann Vernon.

Check out my books here and in paperback here.

* Twenge and Campbell



Very good teaching plan and it is very helpful. It tells me a lot of methods to teaching critical thinking and empower me in teaching. Thank you very much!

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