Media/Visual Literacy Art Education: Cigarette Ad Deconstruction

By Chung, Sheng Kuan | Art Education, May 2005 | Go to article overview

Media/Visual Literacy Art Education: Cigarette Ad Deconstruction


Chung, Sheng Kuan, Art Education


Children's media/visual literacy has gained increasing importance in the field of education. Media educators (Considine & Haley, 1999; Couch, 1995; Kellner, 1988) advocate the need for children to acquire media/ visual literacy to survive in the world of global consumerism, especially the influence of media advertising. In contemporary life, it not surprising that the issues people talk about, the things they use, or the lifestyles they choose, are greatly influenced by what they see on television, the Internet, commercial billboards, and newspapers and magazines.

Through visual and textual manipulation, media advertising not only persuades people to buy the advertised product but also constructs false or questionable realities, beliefs, and values in relation to that product. Through the message of product desirability, these questionable beliefs and values are offered to children, either intentionally or unintentionally, and become sites of ideological struggle.

More often than not, an advertisement is composed mainly of images and textual symbols. Therefore, early art educators such as Broudy (1972) and more recently Barrett (2000), Duncum (2001), Freeman (1994a, 1994b), Stokrocki (2001), and others have strongly urged that art education foster media/visual literacy in children to help make them critical, informed consumers in a commercialized and image-saturated environment.

In the fall of 20021 conducted a pilot study to explore student responses to an art curriculum that fosters media/visual literacy. My study was an explorative case study in a junior high classroom at the Saturday Art School of a midwestern university. The curriculum focused on a unit called the "AdDeconstruction Project," designed to facilitate students' critical thinking and creative skills, and to provide them with the media/ visual literacy needed to deconstruct and reconstruct cigarette advertising. The project took place during four weekly sessions (3 hours per session) in a university-based computer lab and involved 11 junior high school students (1 male and 10 females) from diverse cultural backgrounds.

The students were first guided to analyze a number of cigarette advertisements in terms of their implicit and explicit meanings and explored issues of manipulation, consumerism, and health in relation to cigarette smoking. They then examined how they themselves are targets of the tobacco industry based purely on the profit motive. The students deconstructed and analyzed their chosen cigarette ads in terms of advertising persuasiveness, visual manipulation, intended message, and inferred meaning through a writing activity and a series of dialogic sessions. The students used what they had learned to redesign their chosen ads with Adobe® Photoshop®. Their works were displayed in a gallery to raise public awareness about the advertising of cigarette smoking.

Children as a Living Target

Teenagers are twice as likely to be influenced to smoke by cigarette advertising as they are by peer pressure, family members, or other factors (Evans, Parkas, Gilpin, Berry, & Pierce, 1995; Pierce, Choi, Gilpin, Farkas, & Berry, 1998). The tobacco industry repeatedly claims that they have made every effort to discourage teenagers from smoking. This claim, paradoxically, contradicts an internal memorandum released under court order that circulated through the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. The memo bluntly suggested that, "realistically, if our company is to survive and prosper over the long term, we must get our share of the youth market. In my opinion, this would require new brands tailored to the youth market..." (R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, 1973). This memo clearly showed that the tobacco industry has attempted to market cigarettes to children.

Other internal documents released in 1998 revealed that the tobacco industry has long targeted 13- and 14-year-old children (Weinstein, 1998). For example, one advertising agency offered its marketing plan to the R. …

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