Friday, December 2, 2011

Cereal: Lessons in Media Literacy

Source: Wikipedia
The vast amount of visual stimuli that our students are faced with on a daily basis should remind us of why it is crucial to address the skills needed to be media savvy. It goes without saying that today’s kids see more advertisements from an early age than any other generation in history. As teachers, we continually seek ways to encourage students to look at more to help them notice things that they might take for granted. It is not enough to assume that they have all the skills to deconstruct media messages, or for that matter understand why they were constructed in the first place. By beginning the process of teaching media literacy in the elementary grades, we can give kids a leg up on learning about branding techniques, advertising tricks, and the art of persuasion used to target them as potential consumers. Our method is simple: cereal.

Cereal provides a sound place to start on a strong foundation of prior knowledge. Most children know plenty about it besides just eating one brand or another, and many can recite television commercials, sing jingles, or identify mascots. One of the first things we discuss is what it means to be a consumer. We relate it to eating and how they consume food. Then we take it a step further to talk about consuming information, and lastly how a consumer buys goods and services. It’s easy then to transition into what to look for as a consumer when buying something such as cereal. In our school library, we have a bookshelf full of cereal boxes to use as examples, but three of our favorites to start with are the original, Honey Nut, and Fruity Cheerios brands, a mere three of the eleven brands made by General Mills. This exercise can also be done with other products, using multiple types of a single brand.
Source: General Mills
The students carefully study each box and look at all the different elements that go into their designs, such as a heart-shaped bowl with a ribbon about cholesterol, a cartoonized honey bee dropping a little bit of sweetness at the same time it uses a stethoscope to check your heart, or rainbow colored rings packed onto an extra large, milk-filled spoon. They learn what a target audience is and whom the advertiser intends to get to buy a particular brand. Is it for adults or kids? Conversations usually lead to many of them making connections to television commercials that talk about heart health or cute little kids wanting breakfast. With lots of other examples for them to see, the conversation quickly turns into a diagnosis of cereal boxes in search for clues on how advertisers manipulate the visual imagery using bright colors, extra large type, prizes, and more.

Source: PBS Don't Buy It
We keep them engaged by adding a little “Snap, Crackle and Pop” to reinforce what they’ve learned. The students design their own cereal boxes using the Don’t Buy It website by PBS. It's a nice interactive activity to learn the basic aspects of how color selection, celebrities, and name help sell cereal. Another good site for branding cereal is the interactive game called Co-Co’s AdverSmarts. In this game, students have to come up with a new website for Co-Co Crunch cereal by coming up with five gimmicks to promote and market it. For a little more cereal identification, they play Can you name the Cereal Mascots? This timed game to name the sixteen mascots is a sure win, with a little spelling lesson built in to boot.

Source: Media Literacy Project
Talking to kids about cereal is eye opening for them, especially when we show them the typical cereal aisle in any grocery store. By having them analyze the picture to the left, we start the discussion about product placement. Kids are surprised that companies pay for the best spot on the shelf for their brands to be noticed. Where are the brands for them?

Kids get it once they learn what to look for and come away with a whole new level of understanding. They also willingly report back to us on what they have in their own pantries or what they noticed shopping with parents. By paying more attention, they become visually astute at picking up the nuances in branding. We emphasize how important it is to be a “smart consumer” and not to be fooled by advertizing tricks. In other words, kids feel proud and a little more empowered, thinking that they have one up on the marketers.

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