Boxed in by television?

11th May 2007 at 01:00
We know the tricks of the advertising trade, but children don't. Jan Trebilcock talks to those giving pupils an insight into the media and its persuasive power

Media literacy is the latest buzzword. Already part of the curriculum for older children, now the Government wants pri-mary pupils to have a greater understanding of the media and how it operates. Children are increasingly bombarded with advertising, particularly through television. There are concerns about how this affects them, and that they should be helped to understand and interpret ads.

"Pre-school children are as much part of this environment as older children. The most popular toys for young children are media related, and pressure to fit in with peers starts early. You can't start too young to prepare children to make informed choices," says Professor David Buckingham from the Centre for the Study of Children, Youth and Media at the University of London's Institute of Education.

Pre-school children can probably distinguish between a TV programme and an advert, and it's generally agreed that by six or seven years old children become aware of the commercial intentions of advertising, he says. By age nine to 10, distrust and cynicism have apparently set in. "At this stage, children start to say things like: 'The adverts never tell you the truth,'

and 'Those hamburgers are nothing like they look on the adverts'," says Professor Buckingham. "But that does not mean they are not influenced by the advertising."

And when it comes to more subtle techniques, such as product placement, sponsorship and online market research, he says children are much less aware.

Professor Buckingham backs helping children decode the media, but rejects the idea that they are easy prey for unscrupulous advertising professionals. "Children are more sophisticated, thoughtful and critical than they are often given credit for, he says. "I don't go along with the view that they are vulnerable and passive victims. But they need an understanding of how the industry operates to be able to make more informed decisions."

Media Smart is a media literacy initiative, funded by the advertising industry, which aims to provide primary children with the tools to interpret advertising so they can make informed choices.

Activities include the chance to analyse ad campaigns and then create their own campaign. Mark Gilronan, deputy head of Elaine Primary in Rochester, Kent, used the Media Smart resources to focus on literacy and persuasive writing with his Year 6 pupils over a term.

"The brands and styles they consider 'phat' or 'blinging' change almost weekly," says Mark. "And when we started the project, their attitude was more that ads provided information. They enjoyed spotting their favourite brands and were impressed by how clever ads were."

Attitudes began to change when Mark played an ad from the Media Smart DVD along with a short film about how it was made. "They began to appreciate how the images, lighting and soundtrack used can influence the viewer,"

says Mark. "They became more aware of the 'target audience' and the more subtle messages, which are not as straightforward as 'Buy our trainers' but 'These are hip and cool', and how using a football star might suggest the trainers make you a better athlete."

The project concluded with the class making two adverts for the school, one aimed at potential pupils, and one at their parents. "That's when they realised how they could exercise some influence," says Mark


Almost 75 per cent of eight to 15-year-old pupils have a TV in their bedrooms. Children watch almost 14 hours a week, rising to 15.5 in low income homes.

A third of eight to 11-year-olds and half of 12 to 15-year-olds say they mostly watch TV on their own.

More than three quarters of children aged 12 to 15 think news programmes are true either always or most of the time, and 76 per cent feel the same about nature programmes. One third of 12 to 15-year-olds say that reality TV programmes are true all or most of the time, although 20 per cent say they are never true.

Creating media-savvy pupils

Get your class to look at an advertising campaign, analysing:

* How they are targeted

* The music

* Images

* Persuasive language

* Editing and camera work

* Look at logos - can your pupils identify brand names from them?

Media Smart's TV tips

* Keep a TV diary for a week. Add up the time spent watching TV, write down the things you have learnt while watching. Think about whether you could have spent your time better or learnt more if you had done something else.

* If you watch a TV programme regularly and you know the characters and the storyline well, try guessing what will happen by the end of the show.

* Make a list of your top three TV ads. Try to work out: What is being sold? Who it is being sold to? And whether the advert could make you want to buy the product?

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