“Do you really want to think that someone with a contagious disease drank from your bottle?” read the advertisement. The ad, which used pictures of bacteria, urged readers to throw out their plastic bottles instead of recycling them. “Out with the old, in with the new!” it read.
Very tiny print at the bottom identified a fictional plastics lobbying council as the ad creators.
Absurd? A bit. But also strangely persuasive. And that is exactly the point of the seventh grade exercise—create a piece of propaganda that is at once ridiculous and compelling.
“I think this is the right time for them to analyze what’s around them, what they’re being told and what they’re being fed,” said Middle School English teacher Emily Vezina.
Vezina used George Orwell’s dystopian Animal Farm, which the students read in her English class, as the jumping off point for the propaganda project. After talking about how the pigs in the story were manipulating the other farm animals for their own gain, the class then touched on general themes such as cultural expectations, peer pressure, put downs, and advertising tactics.
Students also looked at examples of German propaganda from World War II and of modern campaigns to see how information is manipulated.
Having learned about such propaganda tactics as fear (“Do this or else”), emotion (“Because we are ready for the truth”), testimonials (“I did it, now you do it too”), and jumping on a bandwagon (“Be part of a larger cause”), Vezina asked the students to create their own website banner ads, print materials, and radio or television advertisements.
“Ultimately what this is about is media literacy,” Vezina said. “This is an age when kids first start to think of things outside of themselves in an abstract way.”
The projects the students produced ranged from a campaign to boycott a popular fictional singer to an advertisement announcing “Sugar is good!” to a political poster featuring a handsome (if nonexistent) George Harper running for senate.
After each in-class presentation, the students discussed what techniques were being used, how, and what the ad might accomplish.
In one clever twist, an ad announced the Star Spangled Banner was discriminatory to the blind since it included the words “Oh say can you see?” The poster also featured baby rabbits on a flag background.
“What technique is this?” Vezina asked.
“Is that framing?” Devin DeVerry asked.
“It’s kind of scare tactics and bias,” said Henning Fischel.
“To be a good American, you have to get rid of the anthem,” noted Cara Hudson-Erdman.
Vezina nodded. It’s this sort of analysis that she hopes her students will now bring to other literature that they read, shows they watch, and programs they hear.
The students themselves say that they have learned quite a bit from the project—such as to be leery of commercials on television or media commentators.
“Now you can realize that it’s just propaganda,” DeVerry said as the class was ending. “When you take it to the real world, you know what people use to make other people believe.”
Watch some of the students’ propaganda videos: