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 Vol 5|No 4|June|2009
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Questioning Video, Film, Advertising and Propaganda:
Media Messages

By Jamie McKenzie
About Author

Watch "Dove Onslaught" at
  • How did the makers of this film or advertisement play upon your heart strings?
  • What film techniques did they employ?
  • What devices did they rely upon to win you over to their point of view?

Media literacy engages students in deconstructing media messages so they are aware of ways those films are wielding a variety of often subliminal methods to sway the emotions and thoughts of a viewer. We acquaint students with a list of "film devices" similar to the list of "literary devices" an earlier generation was asked to memorize in English classes.

Literary Devices

Acquiring a list of literary terms and devices has been standard fare in many high school English classes for decades. Students are expected to grasp the difference between a simile and a metaphor. They learn about alliteration. They can give examples of deus ex machina. A typical list of literary terms will include as many as a hundred or more items. Devices, in particular, refer to techniques, while terms may be applied more broadly to other aspects of writing. And some lists reach over to include what are called rhetorical devices that focus more on the logic than the style of expression:

Edmunds offers an extensive list of print Dictionaries of Literary Theory and Related Areas at;%20Literary%20Theory

This article suggests elevation of film and movie devices to a prominent level of attention in current curricula for students in K-12 schools. With all the attention being devoted to 21st Century Skills, the importance of media literacy seems quite evident.


The term "deconstructing" is closely related to analysis - as the viewer breaks down a visual work of art or communication into its component parts and elements in order to understand how they work. A grasp of film and movie devices would provide students with a toolkit to support such analysis.

An excellent example of film conventions is provided by Daniel Chandler, The 'Grammar' of Television and Film. His list ranges from Camera Techniques: Distance and Angle to Editing Techniques to Manipulating Time to Use of Sound, Light and Graphics. While his work was first posted in 1995 and relies on some dated texts, many of these conventions have been around for decades and persist today.

PBS offers Film in the Classroom: A Guide for Teachers that devotes a section to The Language of Film similar to the Grammar cited above. Their list of key terms is adapted from Reel Conversations: Reading Films with Young Adults by Alan B. Teasley and Ann Wilder. ©1997 by Alan B. Teasley and Ann Wilder. Published by Heinemann, a division of Reed Elsevier, Inc., Portsmouth, NH. Order Reel Conversations from Amazon. The PBS guide also devotes attention to the Literary Elements of any film:

  • Characterization
  • Setting
  • Themes, Motifs, & Symbols
  • Point of View
  • Tone and Mood.

Saskatchewan's Central iSchool provides a robust online course, Media Studies 20, that offers a rich collection of resources and activities quite suitable for K-12 teachers. Unit Four pays special attention to advertising with comprehensive lists of Advertising Claims and Advertising Methods.

Under Advertising Methods, they list major categories such as Fear Tactics

When advertisers use fear tactics, they attempt to sell their product by playing on our fears. The reasoning is that if consumers buy the product the fear is abolished. Ads that use fear tactics rely heavily on the text. Some common fear tactics are:

• Fear of death / aging / sickness
• Fear of failure
• Fear of poverty
• Fear of violence
• Fear of bodily embarrassments
• Fear of sexual failure
• Fear of failing to provide
• Fear of aging / sickness

Media Studies 20 serves as a superior example of the kind of critical analysis of film and video being suggested in this article.

The New Mexico Media Literacy Project (now sadly closed) provided many free downloads to support critical analysis of media as well as a range of products to support curriculum development in this area.

They included the following:

1. Basic concepts
First principles for the study and practice of media literacy.
2. Text & subtext
The difference between what you see and/or hear, and what it means to you.
3. The language of persuasion
How media messages work.
4. Deconstructing media messages
How to decode media messages.
5. Creating counter-ads
How to "talk back" to deceptive or harmful media messages.
6. Making media
Ideas and resources on making your own media.
7. Taking action
Why & how to take action in our media culture.

These resources are fully consonant with the theme of this article but help classroom teachers and schools construct programs that engage students in this kind of careful analysis.

Another organization offering strong support for teaching critical analysis is The Center for Media Literacy (CML) - a nonprofit educational organization that provides leadership, public education, professional development and educational resources nationally. They offer "Five Key Questions That Can Change the World: Deconstructing Media" - Cornerstone lesson plans for K-12 across the curriculum.

Moving Beyond Lip Service

Many documents outlining skills for the current century make mention of critical thinking and the importance of being able to understand information when presented through a variety of media, but there is little explicit clear commitment in those documents to the critical analysis and debunking of film, media, advertising and propaganda.

Judge for yourself. How clearly are any of the documents listed at highlighting the importance of analyzing and deconstructing media?

Media literacy is taking on increased importance as interest groups, the news media, government agencies, political parties and others have gained in the sophistication with which they are photoshopping reality. Note the article "Photoshopping Reality: Journalistic Ethics in an Age of Virtual Truth."

For a powerful demonstration of photoshopping reality, view the Dove commercial Evolution at

In 1971, Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner popularized the phrase “crap detector” in Teaching as a Subversive Activity.

The history of the human group is that it has been a continuing struggle against the veneration of “crap.”

Our intellectual history is a chronicle of anguish and suffering of men who tried to help their contemporaries see that some part of their fondest beliefs were misconceptions, faulty assumptions, superstitions or even down right lies.

We have in mind a new education that would set out to cultivate ... experts at “crap detecting” ... people who have been educated to recognize change, to be sensitive to problems caused by change, and who have the motivation and courage to sound alarms when entropy accelerates to a dangerous degree. (pp. 3-4)

If crap detectors were needed then, they are most probably even more crucial these days.


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