In a recent article in the Journal of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Irby and Chepp (2010:101) note that “using commercials in the classroom can potentially prompt students to become more media literate outside of the classroom setting.” I suggest two ways to facilitate the transformation of students into critical media viewers. First, instructors can begin by regularly showing commercials in the classroom so that students can become familiar with the exercise of critiquing commercials. Instructors can explain a new sociological concept to students and then use a commercial as a way of showing a visual example of a potentially abstract concept. Essentially, in this first step the instructor connects the commercial to the concept for the students. Second, and perhaps the most effective way to produce critical media viewers is to couple regular commercial viewing in the classroom with the opportunity for students themselves to analyze commercials through a sociological lens. Halfway through the semester as students become accustomed to seeing the application of concepts to commercials, students—rather than the instructor—can become the analyst. This can happen in a variety of ways. If in-class quizzes are a part of classroom assessment, the instructor can show a commercial and ask students to apply the commercial to a sociological concept learned over the past class period or week(s). If an instructor usually incorporates minute responses or short in-class assignments into course evaluation, commercials analysis can be used for these assignments.
In the second step, the analysis of commercials by students acts as an assignment and an assessment tool. The benefits of using commercials as an assignment or assessment measure are many. For example, it evaluates students’ knowledge of the application of sociological concepts to experiences in their current day-to-day life. This benefits instructors because it allows the instructor to evaluate student learning. Two, if students regularly critique commercials in the classroom, it likely increases the potential for them to become media literate outside of the classroom as they get in the habit of being media conscious. Last, using the analysis of commercials as an assignment might bolster student learning because popular culture appears to quickly and effectively gain student interest and engage students.
Thanks to The Sociological Cinema, sociology instructors now have a free archive that houses commercials, which are tagged by their sociological theme. This easily allows instructors to find commercials that they want to use for assignments and assessment. I encourage instructors to not only show commercials in their classroom but to also include the analysis of commercials as an assessment measure.