Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Media Persuasion

This week, after reading the Introduction to Media Literacy from the Media Literacy Project, I decided to watch a few ads during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. I watch the parade every year in honor of a tradition that my father started, and so for me, it’s a pleasant memory and a trip back to more innocent times. I figured that for most of the audience who take the time to watch the parade, it must be a similar feeling. As such, we are “primed” to be persuaded by certain heuristic cues (Griskevicius, et al, 2009) with the positive and sentimental emotions from watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. This gave me an opportunity to watch the commercials with a critical eye.

The first commercial was for the Lincoln Financial Group and the target for the commercial was the “Chief Life Officer” in all of us. An acoustic guitar played a non-descript tune in the background as a pleasant female voice spoke over the images. The images alternately flashed from scenes of the White House and Oval office to scenes of houses, offices, people at work in cubicles, people at play and images of small business owners; all comparing the life, role and work of the president of the United States to all of us in our respective roles, lives, offices, and work. The images were hard-working but happy people, with soft lighting and low sun angles.
Whether you were happy about the outcome of the election or not, the music and images provided happy emotional experience, as the female connected to us by saying “today, it’s not about who is in the white house or the oval office, but it’s about you….”  One of the “subtexts” of the commercial was that our happiness and security doesn’t come from whoever is in the White House. The message was that we are the commander-in-chief of our own lives as the commercial ended with “You’re in charge”.

The persuasion elements used in this commercial were an emotional warm and fuzzy appeal, a nostalgic feeling of friends and family, and use of plain folks to associate with the average person.
The second commercial I watched was for American Airlines. A soft piano playing in the background while images a young military serviceman in camouflage fatigues was making his way home. From the taxi dropping him off at the airport, through ticketing and boarding, to finally getting off the plane, he interacted with several people whom he thanked for their help: “thank you, sir”, “thank you ma’am”, with each interaction. The final scene showed him leaving the plane and thanking the pilot who then said “No, thank you” (ostensibly for his service to our country), and then faded to the tail of an American Airlines plane with a large yellow ribbon. There was no voice over to the commercial, just the voice young man thanking everyone who assisted him.

Of the three commercials I watched, this one clearly had the highest emotional element of persuasion. While American Airlines didn’t try to “sell” a product in this commercial, they were connecting their brand to a more noble cause by association – being thankful for and respecting our nation’s military. The timing of this commercial was also a persuasion element used: placed during the Thanksgiving Day parade.
To compare commercials from a different type of programming, I watched commercials in the middle of the NY Jets – New England Patriots Thanksgiving day football game, later in the day. A Honda Accord commercial appealed to a person’s need for quiet in the midst of a hectic life.  The background music was a piano playing softly, but building a slight tension by not resolving to the chord of the major key until the very end of the commercial. The camera angles showed people apparently at the end of their stressful days, as they finally relaxed in their Hondas with expressions of relief. The male voice of the commercial talked directly to the commercial watcher and used words to indicate that in the middle of a sometimes stressful, sometimes disorganized, always demanding life there was finally a way to escape with a car that starts with “you”.  The final scene was a man and woman dressed in evening wear and smiling going out for the evening, as the music resolved to the major chord.

The persuasion elements of this commercial were basic but cleverly disguised. A simple solution appeal was made to anyone with a complex life. As such, association was also used in that all of us relate to the desire to have a little peace in the middle chaos. And because no celebrities were used, Honda was making an appeal to the average person who could identify with the very plain folks used in the commercial.
Considering all of the commercials I watched through the day, I saw early on, my work as a media psychologist. This came clearly into focus as I perused the commercials during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Some commercials were aimed at kids or at parents with small children. For instance Samsung now has a “LeapPad” – an “iPad” for kids who can’t read yet – that lets them craft their own “commercials”. I immediately thought to myself, “We’re teaching kids who can’t even put two words together media literacy with commercial products!”.  Several of the commercials during the parade appealed to the digital native (Prensky, 2001), or the parent of the digital native. But these products can only teach them the “text” of media literacy. These products can’t teach them the “subtext” or “latent text” of media literacy. The work of the Media Literacy Project is a great start to teaching the subtexts and latent texts. This work needs to be expanded to real-life application where students of all ages have age-appropriate coursework with educated instructors to not only help them understand how to use the tools and skills enumerated in the Introduction to Media Literacy, but to be as proficient with the tools as they are with the text of the various media.


Griskevicius, V.; Goldstein, N. J.; Mortensen, C. R.; Sundie, J. M.; Cialdini, R. R.; and Kendrick, D.T. (2009). Fear and loving in Las Vegas: Evolution, emotion, and persuasion. Journal of Marketing Research 46, (384-395)
Introduction to Media Literacy. (n.d.). Media Literacy Project. www.medialiteracyproject.org

Prensky, Marc. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon, Vol.9, No. 5. University Press


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