Dystopian literature was wildly popular in my sixth-grade classroom last year, and I anticipate it will continue to be, so I decided to capture that enthusiasm and build a unit around reading the hottest dystopian titles in small groups, but also delve into the themes in this science fiction genre. I chose LIBERTY as our theme topic because dystopian literature explores futuristic worlds in which liberty is squelched by a powerful government under the ruse of safety and utopia. Knowing that one of the ways these fictional governments control their societies is through propaganda, I wanted my students to think about how propaganda works. What word choices are used? What connotations do these word choices convey? Can citizens resist propaganda if they are aware of how persuasive it is? How is propaganda designed? My students were reading dystopian literature because of its highly entertaining action and courageous protagonists, but did they understand the systematic ways the antagonists were controlling their people? Are students aware of ways they may be persuaded to believe certain things? I thought we’d start with a more mild form of propaganda that is in front of my students every day: advertising.
Shortly before I designed this unit, I had attended a session at the NCTE annual convention with Christopher Lehman, Maggie Roberts, and Kate Roberts about close reading. Chris and Kate had written a book called Falling in Love with Close Reading: Lessons for Analyzing Texts—and Life. In the session, they highlighted a part in their book about some research Crystal Smith did around word choices used in commercials that featured boys’ toys versus those used in commercials that featured girls’ toys. She plugged in those words to make two separate word clouds. The results are fascinating; she posted them on her blog, and they are in Lehman and Roberts’s book. I thought adapting this idea and some of the other ideas in their book for our dystopian propaganda exploration would be perfect.
First, we had to define propaganda. The dictionary defines propaganda as (1) the organized dissemination of information, allegations, etc., to assist or damage the cause of a government, movement, etc. Similarly, advertising is (1) public promotion of something such as a product, service, business, or event in order to attract or increase interest in it. Propaganda and advertising are not the same thing, but they both set out to sway their targets, and one way they do it is through persuasive language and images. We took a look at some of the propaganda used in World War II by the Nazis. Students had some background knowledge of the Holocaust and Adolf Hitler because I had read Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli aloud and done some teaching of it so they could understand the novel better. I also showed a video of a Holocaust survivor, Alice Herz-Sommer, who had been in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, which was used by the Nazis specifically for propaganda. We discussed what the images and the words said that attempted to further the Nazi cause and how they might have influenced people. We also took a look at an article in Scope magazine that showed a poster of a Nazi that was used as propaganda.
Next, we moved on to contemporary advertising to see how it, too, uses images and word choice to sell products and the bigger ideas associated with branding those products. I had students take out their writer’s notebooks and open them to their Close Reading section. I used the same one Roberts and Lehman suggest in their book: a favorite Ram Truck commercial from the 2013 Super Bowl called God Made a Farmer to read closely. It is easily found on YouTube (which fortunately is unblocked in our district). Paul Harvey does the voice-over, and there are powerful images, connotations, and ideas being sold in this advertisement. After watching it once, I played it again and stopped the video every couple of seconds to allow students to write down words that they heard that they thought conveyed strong messages. They wrote them down as many times as they heard them. We noticed that words such as God, strong, family, and others were said more than once. I put these words into the word-cloud maker Tagxedo and pulled that up on the screen to show them what words popped out. When you use a word cloud, the words that you type in most often appear larger. It gives you a good idea of what concepts are stressed. Now the hard part: What did those words connote? What big ideas and themes did Ram Truck want us to associate with their brand and product? Who were they targeting as their consumers? We also laughed about how all Ram Truck drivers are not farmers. Some suburban dwellers drive them! Why? What besides a truck are they buying? An image!
I modeled a claim paragraph tackling these issues. We started with a claim. We discussed that based on the word cloud, Ram Truck is marketing American values and hard work. After the claim, we gave specific examples of words and images in the commercial to support that Ram Truck consumers are tough, family-oriented, hardworking, and caring. They represent the rugged American. We pulled out explicit pieces of evidence and explained each one. I wrote the example on chart paper and displayed it in the room. I find it is helpful to color-code the parts of a claim paragraph. The claim itself can be one color, paraphrased and/or explicit evidence another color, the explanations for each piece of evidence a third color, and the conclusion a final color. Writing in Google Docs makes this especially easy. Students can color-code the parts of their paragraph(s), and it makes it easier for the teacher to grade.
Now it was time for students to work independently. Each student chose an advertising focus. Examples included running shoes, Apple products, and pet products. We have Chromebooks and earbuds available to students, so after having a conversation about the responsible use of YouTube, each student looked up approximately five to ten commercials on YouTube on their topic and close-read them, writing strong word choices in the Close Reading section of their writer’s’ notebooks. Again, they needed to write a word down every time they heard it. Sometimes it took multiple views of the commercials to catch what words to write down. Pages in their notebooks were FILLED with words. This took a couple of class periods to finish.
Once they finished that activity, they typed all the words in Google Docs. This was a tedious process since they were just typing single words or typing the same word over and over that they had heard in their close reading of the commercials. After they were finished, they copied and pasted them into Tagxedo. Magically, they formed word clouds that revealed a lot! Tagxedo has the added bonus of allowing you to choose various images you want the word clouds to form, so they could choose outlines that reflected their topic. Once they created their word clouds, we printed them out and had conversations about the bigger ideas their products were selling. They turned and talked to partners to clarify their thoughts. Then they started to work on their claim paragraphs. Here are some examples:
“The advertisers for Apple products are marketing to people who want to feel artistic and different. The Apple commercials used words like poetry, colorful, music, dancing, and beauty to show that people who use Apple products are very artistic. Advertisers believe that people who use Apple products are more unique than other people. The commercials use words like misfits, troublemakers, rebels, crazy, and innovative. Advertisers believe that people who own Apple products are passionate. For example, they use words like romance, love, and friendship. Advertisers believe that Apple users are smart. They use words like genius and learn. Also, the tone of the commercials is happy. The advertisers use words like joy and delight. The advertisers are saying, if you buy Apple products, you will be an artistic, passionate, smart, and happy person who is very unique.”
“The advertisers who sell Nintendo games are marketing to kids and/or families that enjoy spending time together and exploring their imagination. The words Dream and Comfort are repeated a lot during the commercials, suggesting that playing the game/console will be a very relaxing and imaginative experience. The Nintendo commercials state that each one of their games or consoles are new and different, so even if you buy them all, you will have a different gaming experience with each one. The advertisers also include the words Create, Characters, and Customize, which say that the player can create their own gaming experience in some situations. Most commercials express the idea that if you get one of these games and/or consoles, you will have a better relationship with your friends and family. The people who create these advertisements always say that kids who buy this game have a lot of friends and a seemingly carefree life without homework, chores, or anything kids don’t enjoy to do. The tone for these commercials is fun and creative. The group of marketers are telling the audience that their products can create extremely close relationships with your loved ones and that they will inspire you and open your imagination.”
“Advertisers of running shoes are marketing to people who want to be faster, fitter, and more active. Throughout the commercials many repeat the word Faster. This is showing that the shoe will make them go faster, rather than a different running shoe. Fit and healthy are also used throughout commercials. This is to show that this running shoe is going to help them become fit and be more healthy. Another word used is active. The advertisers are showing that with this shoe they will be more active and run more than before. Environment is also used a lot throughout the commercials. This is to show that no matter what the environment, you can run. Advertisers are saying if you buy their running shoe, you will be more active, healthy, fit, and run more.”
“Advertisers of hair product commercials are persuading customers who want their hair to feel healthy with rich words. The word irresistible is used in very many hair product commercials. Irresistible makes you feel like you have to get the product because you will look irresistible if you use it. Words like moisturizing, restore, healthy, and body are used. Don’t those words just make you feel like you’re young again?! They use those words to try and prove that their product is great! More words are beautiful, shiny, rich, free, perfect, and style. Words like that make you feel like a gorgeous princess. They do that because that’s the persuasion they sell to you. The commercials show models flipping their shiny, beautiful hair. They want you to think that you will look like that if you use the product. The tone of the commercial also helps the persuasion. The tone is usually rich and enthusiastic. The marketers are saying that if you buy their product, you will be just like a model: beautiful, perfect, healthy, and free.”
Through the word clouds and claim paragraphs, students showed they understood the power of persuasion. We don’t want to be hoodwinked into believing everything advertisers want us to believe. We connected this back to the dystopian leaders in their small-group novels and discussed how the characters were led to believe their societies were good when they were, in fact, evil and oppressive. Those leaders used propaganda and sold their people lies through images and word choices. We want our students to exercise their liberties by being able to discern what is right and true when they close-read the world. This exercise got them one step closer to being literate, intelligent consumers and citizens.