The scene is a familiar one. Towards the end of “The Wizard of Oz” the curtain is pulled back to reveal that the bluster and thunder of the powerful wizard is little more than the charade of an eccentric old man designed to manipulate others. Colleen Cunningham, a teacher at Franklin Heights High School in southwest Columbus, Ohio, recently watched a similar scene unfold with her students during a WebQuest focusing on the power and nature of advertising and its effect on how students save and spend their money.
The project arose from student responses to Ms. Cunningham’s question “what throws you off your budget?”. Students overwhelmingly stated that advertising creates the urge in them to overspend their budgets. “They told me that advertising convinces them that everyone else is buying this stuff, and that they should be buying it also,” Cunningham told Practical Money Skills. Cunningham decided to extend her curriculum and introduce a section on advertising and its relationship to personal financial management. “I thought that maybe if they understood advertising more, they’d have an easier time understanding why they’re buying things and learn to control their spending” says Cunningham.
Cunningham also felt that this curriculum block was a prime candidate for a WebQuest project. Developed in the mid-90s by Bernie Dodge and Tom March at San Diego State University, a WebQuest is an “inquiry-oriented activity” (Dodge, 1997) in which students use the Internet to gather primary and secondary materials. The students must then grapple with the information, analyze it, and demonstrate “an understanding of the material by creating something that others can respond to” (Dodge, 1997).
Cunningham worked with her Franklin Heights’s media specialist to provide the students with a list of web resources and media literacy clearinghouses as well as instructional forms as starting points for their own individual engagements with the topic. The students first evaluated their current understanding of advertising and the methods deployed by advertisers to persuade. Then they familiarized themselves with a core set of advertising methods-techniques advertisers use in various forms of advertising to target students and get them to buy. “I think I was most surprised how useful the PBS.org website was for the students” says Cunningham. “In particular, the Frontline series called “The Persuaders” really opened their eyes to how advertisers manipulate consumers.”
Students also watched dozens of ads, analyzing each based on the criteria and models they had developed earlier.
Finally, students had to produce their own ads using the techniques they had learned from their inquiries. Each student was responsible for both a print ad and a radio or TV (video) spot. Students were not evaluated on the production values of their ads but rather on how successfully they integrated the methods they’d uncovered in their own research.
In post-project evaluations, nearly all Cunningham’s students stated that they have a richer understanding of how advertising affects their buying decisions and feel more in control, and more aware of how their being pitched. “My students went into this project thinking that what advertisers told them was the truth--that everyone buys these things, has these things, and they should too, says Cunningham. “They came out of the project realizing that this was just an impression being told to them and repeated constantly and it sets up a vicious cycle. Students get a lot of pressure to buy things they cannot afford. This really opened their eyes and changed their attitudes towards things.”
Practical Money Skills for Life recognizes Ms. Colleen Cunningham, of Franklin Heights High School, as our May 2007 Innovative Educator.