April 13, 2012

5000 advertisements a day!

The first time I heard about media literacy I was in my 6th grade English class and our teacher was having us cut up magazines to recreate the advertisements with our interpretation of what it was they were trying to convey or sell. I have to admit I didn’t really understand why he was having us do it, but hey, we were getting to look at magazines and make collages during school, so I wasn’t about to complain.  Media literacy completely fell off my radar until I got to high school and became interested in the use of advertising in political campaigns to make voters feel something about a particular candidate whether or not it was a true reflection of who the candidate was or what they stood for. This got me wondering how much advertising influenced the decisions people make on a daily basis and the way we form relationships with other people as well as with the inanimate objects promoted in advertisements.

I bet most of you are thinking, “Hey, I’m an intelligent, well-educated person. I know how to make rational decisions. Advertisements don’t really have any influence on me.” Maybe, but we are living in an era of media saturation – think about how much time you spend on Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest or email or surfing the net. Advertisements have become harder and harder to differentiate from other forms of media. Some estimate that we are exposed to close to 5000 advertising messages daily! So, whether or not you believe advertisements influence the decisions you make, it doesn’t hurt to buff up your media literacy skills so that you can be both a critical thinker and creative producer of media.

So what exactly is media literacy? Essentially it is a communication skill set that enables a person to access, analyze, evaluate, and communicate information in a variety of forms (this includes both print and non-print media). It is not an anti-media movement but rather a movement to empower individuals as we make choices as students, citizens, workers, consumers, and (to tie this back to my role as Health Literacy Intern) as patients. One day there’s an article on how ________ food that is good for you and the next day there’s a new article about how it may cause _______.  One day low-fat diets are touted as the best prescription for weight loss and the next it’s low-carb diets. How am I supposed to figure out healthy eating with all the mixed messages? And all those advertisements for drugs that are supposed to help with anxiety, restless leg syndrome, insomnia, PMS.  How can I figure out if one is right for me? What if my doctor doesn’t prescribe the one I’ve seen on TV? Should I ask for a different prescription? Or for those of us who like to self-diagnose our symptoms, which websites are actually providing trustworthy information and how do I know whether I’ve just got bad allergies or a brain tumor when swollen, stinging, draining eye is a symptom of both? That’s where media literacy can help. It doesn’t have all the answers, but it will help us to think more critically about the messages we receive, question the source of the information and the motivation behind the message.

Interested in learning more about media literacy, check out some of my favorite media literacy advocates: Media Education FoundationSut Jhally, Jean Kilbourne, Jackson Katz, the National Association for Media Literacy Education, Center for Science in the Public Interest.

In the adult literacy classroom you can help your students improve their media literacy by creating activities and discussions comparing advertisements and public health announcements. You can check out more in our Health Literacy Workshops for Literacy Instructors.

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