Ad Analysis: Historical Ads and Literature

The best way to help students truly understand a time period is to place them in the midst of the time period.  Many teachers do this through lecturing about the history, showing videos that capture the context, or asking students to examine images taken from the time period.  While all of these are great, another way to disseminate information to students is through primary sources in the form of print advertisements.  The Duke University Library has an excellent and easy-to-navigate database of advertisements through a variety of time periods.  This is an excellent resource, especially when teaching a novel representative of an era.  However, students are saturated with advertisement and are fairly adept at analyzing for meaning.  Below are three suggestions of how you can build on their ability to comprehend an ad and extend it to a deeper understanding.

  • Open a novel study by analyzing advertisements during the era in which the novel was written.  Let this serve as an introduction to the time period itself, allowing students to anticipate the storyline or characters.  Begin the discussion by asking students to consider the advertisement as a symbol of the people living during this time.  What can they conclude about their motivations, interests, relationships, etc.  However, make the activity more critical and complex by asking the students to study 5-7 advertisements for separate products and then have them synthesize them into a cohesive, analytical thesis statement about the mentality o f the time period.  This will cause them to consider the complexity of the era as opposed to limiting it to a single ad to represent the whole of an era.
  • The goal of an advertisement is to persuade, making an analysis of an advertisement and how it reflects the ideals of a time period a relatively easy task for most students. However, most authors were not part of mainstream society and often saw it their role to challenge or critique the status quo.  Therefore, consider asking students to explore how selected advertisements can be countered by the novel, using a passage from the novel for support.  This encourages students to analyze the text and draw inferences about the author.
  • Conversely, you can use the advertisements as an activity to wrap up the novel.  Provide students access to Duke digital collection and ask them to select advertisement that reflects a particular character in the novel.  Then, to increase the level of complexity and foster higher-order thinking skills, create a gallery in your classroom with one wall dedicated to each major character and an envelope under each ad.  Ask the students to go on a gallery walk around the room and place a piece of paper in the envelope of the advertisement that best captures the essence of each character.  Then, after the votes are tallied, hold a discussion debating the merits of their selected ad.  This encourages students to defend their answers and evaluate the ads in a more complex manner.


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