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TV Commercial Messages: An Untapped Video Resource for Teaching Content-based Classes

(A slightly edited version of this article appeared in The Language Teacher, 21(3), 13-15.)

During recent years, there has been a great rush to jump on the video bandwagon and use this form of media in the language classroom. This paper points out that video, with its combination of visual and oral information, has an intrinsic attractiveness for students, and commercials with their 30 second barrage of language and culture are an excellent source of authentic material that are more manageable in length than sitcoms, full-feature movies, or programs. This paper then discusses that one of the most compelling reasons for using commercials is that they are the ideal source of innovative and fun classroom activities in content-based classes because they can be tied to a particular theme or chapter in a textbook. Finally, a sample lesson in marketing is outlined using previewing, language processing, consolidation, and follow-up activities to tap into the potential of the commercial medium.


It goes without saying that the use of video has and will continue to permeate into the language classroom. Obviously, many educators around the world find that teaching with videos enhances learning by stimulating the senses through the combination visual/audio medium. (For a more comprehensive look at the use of video in a variety of settings, see Lawrence, 1987; Skirble, 1979; Stempleski & Arcario, 1992; Stempleski & Tomalin, 1990). Still, other practitioners in the field are looking for shorter, more focused, pieces of video that are not only more manageable in length than situation comedies, full-feature movies, documentaries, or news programs, but can be used in teaching content-based courses (Stoller, 1990, 1992). TV Commercial messages are part of the answer.

Rationale Behind Using TV Commercials Messages: Commercials are authentic. First and foremost, commercials have not been fabricated, arranged, or simplified for the consumption of the language learner, but have been created for native speakers. For students, watching video materials like commercials helps them come in touch with true-life language’"an air of reality" (Lonergan, 1983, p. 69)’demonstrating to them to what extent they can handle genuine world input. Similarly, coming in contact with authentic materials like commercials while still in the classroom engenders a stronger sense of language autonomy’the feeling that students can actually function linguistically beyond the walls of the classroom. Finally, in EFL situations, images from a foreign country that are projected right into the classroom appeal to students who may not have a chance to travel abroad in the near future, but still want a taste of a foreign culture.

Commercials are short, focused, and thematic in content. In many cases, commercials possess some advantages over their video counterparts: (a) Attention is directed at entire encapsulated and freestanding message which can be presented, manipulated, and digested in less than one lesson; (b) students tend to stay on task longer and see a clear start and finish to the activity because of the concise aim and succinct duration of commercials; and (c) commercials can be easily tied to themes of any text to introduce, review, or wrap up lessons because they introduce one main concept, including topics ranging from sports, cars, restaurants to AIDS and environmental concerns such as global warming. This is paramount in an age of content-based teaching where the subject matter and language skills are intricately interwoven.

Commercials contain culturally-loaded slices of modern society. Furmanovsky, well-known for his work in Japan in the area of video instruction, states that CMs, "with their 25 second barrage of language and culture are an excellent source of authentic material" (1994, p. 1). Thus, watching commercials not only opens up the flood gates to a myriad of cross-culturally topics ranging from gestures and body language, which comprises about 65% of all meaning (Mehrabian, 1972), but to more probing slice-of-life issues regarding values, behaviors and ways of thinking, social problems, stereotypes, and idiosyncrasies. Furthermore, CMs are laden with cultural-specific imagery, symbolism, and subconscious messages that often serve as vehicles for social commentary.

Moreover, while feature films and other television programs do mirror how people live, this material often becomes dated very quickly (e.g., statistics, family roles, fashions, etc.). Yet, since the sole nature of commercials is to promote products on the forefront of change, they tend to appeal to a more contemporary audience.

Commercials contain both visual, verbal, and written images. Obviously, video provides a sense of realism and excitement which are so attractive to students (Stempleski & Tomalin, 1990) and, as Rawley and Smith (1995) have noted, CMs have been designed to capture the attention of the viewer (something politicians know all too well). Commercials contain their messages in words and pictures which complement and support each other. Furthermore, advertisers purposefully bombard listeners with key words and slogans that are often repeated over and over to the beat of some catchy tune or jingle that stays imprinted on students' minds for days. And while speaking specifically of closed captioned television programs, some researchers suggest that the combined effect of pictures and written words on the screen simultaneously increases redundancy, providing several sources to draw conclusions or confirm what the learner has heard (Holobow, Lambert, & Sayegh, 1984; Vanderplank, 1993).

Effective Use of Commercials in Topic-based Courses: Yet for all its merits, there has been a backlash on some fronts towards the use of video in recent years because some teachers have either abused or misused it (e.g., as a Friday afternoon respite from regular classroom activities) without actually using it. The major problem has been the tendency in the past to rely wholly on the medium to entertain without tying this input to the overall content of the class. This, in turn, has led to the decreditation or, in some extreme cases, abandonment of video because some school administrators see it as a tool by unprepared teachers to kill time during the waning minutes of class.

Thus, to validate its application in the eyes of administration, parents, and students, and take advantage of this informative medium, teachers should ride the current tide of using video as a vehicle to teaching English in content-based classes. This kind of theme-based instruction, characterized by Stoller (1992, p. 25) as the "integration of content with language teaching objectives," emphasizes the need to provide a context where students can use the language to explore current issues and topics within the curriculum.

The obvious benefits of such an approach include: (a) increased motivation and interest with topic- or content-based themes where students can actually see their English skills as a vehicle for real communication rather than instruction being limited to the passive learning of grammar rules; (b) enhanced preparation for those students who are learning English for specific purposes and will need this knowledge in the workplace; and (c) academic training in more advanced critical-thinking, presentation, and note-taking skills for EFL students who are preparing to enter into mainstream classes at foreign universities.

The Model: A Lesson in Marketing: The following lesson is one way I have taken advantage of the innate characteristics of commercials to teach topic-based courses As part of the process, I have combined previewing, language processing, and consolidation activities which serve as the scaffolding for successful classroom activities. Keeping in mind the merits of commercials and the concerns of using video effectively, a sample lesson is presented here which integrates listening, speaking, writing, and presentation skills.

What's that Product ?

Purpose Ä To teach critical-thinking skills about marketing strategies

Level Ä low intermediate and above

Skills Ä listening, writing, public speaking, and drama

Class Time Ä 3 hours over two class periods

Preparation and Materials

Step 1 - Previewing (15 minutes): The whole purpose of this warm-up phase is to activate students' background knowledge (content schemata) and vocabulary relevant to the task, encouraging students to anticipate what they will see and hear next and thus aiding in comprehension of the video (Helgesen, 1993; Stoller, 1992). This is particularly relevant in many EFL settings where students have studied English for several years in a very passive learning environment (e.g., teacher lectures; students listen). Yet, as Helgesen states, "listening isn't and can't be passive" (1993, p. 14), so our job must be to activate their listening along with speaking, grammar, writing, and reading skill areas.

In this example, tell students what kind of product they will see and its name, and then have them discuss in small groups the type of market (i.e., age group, sex of consumers, socioeconomic class, etc.), other competitors promoting similar goods, the product slogan, and the main selling points and possible misconceptions that might arise from using it (i.e., Beer commercials encourage drinking and driving). The teacher then elicits these ideas from the students and writes them on the board. Another method for generating these ideas as a class is mapping, also known as clustering or webbing (Troyka, 1990, p. 31).

Next, ask students to write down five words (or sentences using these words) they would expect to hear (e.g., Super Shoes are super comfortable or Super Shoes will help you soar over your opponents) and five images they expect to see in the commercial (e.g., a basketball player dunking the ball, a runner leaving the starting blocks in the 100-meters, or a tennis player lunging to return a shot).

Step 2 - Language Processing (20 minutes): This is a time for students to check their assumptions and predictions about the product. As part of this process, teachers may choose to create some sort of information gap by manipulating the audience (having half of the students face away from the TV) or the equipment (turning down the sound or covering part of the screen). This creates a task where students are on the edge of their seats trying to guess what is missing.

For example, cut out six or seven 3 x 3 inch-square holes spaced out randomly in a piece of dark construction paper the size of the TV, and secure it to the screen. Then, cover these "info-widows" with other small pieces of paper using tape, or use adhesive note paper. Next, have students listen intently to the content of the commercial, confirming whether any of the words or sentences they wrote down previously are mentioned while trying to surmise the situation. Allow students to remove several of the papers covering the info-windows depending on their level of understanding up to that point. These mini windows provide additional clues while preserving the anticipation and excitement of the exercise. Afterwards, give students a copy of the dialogue of the commercial that has been altered to serve as a spot dictation by deleting some of the words.

Step 3 - Consolidation (10 minutes): Now that the students understand the situation and language, have them watch it again and have them discuss in small groups any language and cultural similarities/differences that may appear. Facial expressions, body contact, clothing, gestures, culture-specific paralanguage (e.g., OOPS, WOW, etc.), market differences, and humor often are good points of departure for further discussion which is one way to enhance students' critical-thinking skills. For example, students are asked to write down four examples of non-verbal communication which appear in the commercial, with any verbalizations that accompany them, and then guess the meaning of this non-verbal behavior.

Step 4 - Going Beyond (Two class periods): This is an additional activity which actively engages students in their own commercial message production or class presentation. Whether you choose to do one or the other may depend on time or feasibility if you do not have access to a video camera.

Have students get into groups of three and write a commercial about their own original product. (Where and when possible, students should make use of library facilities to research the history, development, production, and promotion similar products to build academic reading and writing skills, and to acquaint themselves with the language of marketing.)

First, students should prepare a poster of the item using magazine and newspaper clippings, markers, and crayons. In their posters, they should include elements such as the price, customer service, unique features, or benefits gained from using the product. Next, students write a short script for a one-minute commercial and decide if they want to use background music to accompany them. After some practice, video their productions, including the poster somewhere within. Finally, students grade each others' commercials based on five criteria: (a) originality, (b) quality of the poster, (c) use of English, (d) persuasive arguments demonstrating knowledge of the subject, and (e) presentation skills (delivery), each judged on a five-point scale. Student evaluations make up 50% of the final grade and the teacher's evaluation comprises the other 50%.

In Summary

While many teachers have gotten on the video bandwagon, few have yet discovered the untapped potential of commercial messages. Authentic content, short duration, and the combination of words and visual images make commercials the ideal source for innovative, fun, and most importantly, meaningful classroom activities. Furthermore, the channeling of this rich video medium into content-based classes will allow students to use their English skills for academic or special purposes. It is one way to get your students hooked on learning.


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Helgesen, M. (1993). Creating active, effective listeners.The Language Teacher, 17(8), 13, 14, 24.

Holobow, N., Lambert, W. E., & Sayegh, L. (1984). Pairing script and dialogue: Combinations that show promise for second and foreign language acquisition. Language Learning, 34, 59-76.

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Mehrabian, A. (1972). Nonverbal communication. Chicago: Aldine, Atherton.

Rawley, L. A., & Smith, A. (1995, March). Using television commercials to teach listening & critical thinking skills. Demonstration presented at the 29th Annual TESOL Convention, Long Beach, CA.

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Stoller, F. L. (1992). Using video in theme-based curricula. In S. Stempleski & P. Arcario (Eds.),Video in second language teaching: Using, selecting, and producing video for the classroom (pp. 25-46). Alexandria, VA: Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc.

Troyka, L. Q. (1990).Simon & Schuster Handbook for Writers (2nd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Halls.

Vanderplank, R. (1993). A very verbal medium: Language learning through closed captions. TESOL Journal, 3(1), 10-14.

"A condensed version of this article appeared under a different title in the TESOL Matters, 4(6), December 1994/January 1995), published by Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc."

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