Introduction and Rationale

According to a recent “Cross Platform Report” on the state of the media by the Nielson Company, the average American teen (ages 12-17) currently watches approximately 100 hours of traditional television, 10 hours of online video via computer, and about 4 hours of video on mobile devices every month. Assuming these numbers are accurate representations of current trends, teens are watching a combined 6.5 hours of TV and digital video content every day. In general, Americans consume an amazing amount of television and digital media every year, and these numbers are continually on the rise. Naturally, corporations, political parties, and other groups view these outlets as opportunities to make money and to exert influence. Major corporations spend an astounding amount of money each year aiming to tempt consumers into buying their latest products. In fact, eMarketer concluded that in 2011 the overall American corporation advertisement expenditure was $158.9 billion, an extraordinary expense that is expected to rise to approximately $170 billion in 2012 (Chang). Much of these advertisements are viewed via television and the internet. Since teens are continually spending more and more time in front of the televisions, computers, and smartphones, it is crucial for them to possess the knowledge and skills necessary to comprehend the tactics corporations and other groups are using to influence their thoughts and behaviors.

Is this the future of America?

Media and consumer literacy should therefore play major roles in the modern high school curriculum. The steadily growing media literacy movement is aiming to address these new pedagogical necessities; however, administrators and communities have been surprisingly hesitant in responding to these needs, most likely because they conflict with traditional curricular designs. This needs to change. If schools are to adequately prepare students for the twenty-first century, we need to revamp outdated instructional models to reflect the realities of a “wired” world.

In the opening chapter of Digital and Media Literacy, Renee Hobbs points out that “it is through digital media, mass media, popular culture, and technology that we will get most of our information and entertainment across the span of a lifetime.” She continues, asking, “Shouldn't students get some meaningful opportunities to analyze and evaluate the way these messages and experiences work in contemporary culture?” (8). The answer to this question should seem obvious.

Though they seem characteristically modern, Hobbs’ pleas are, actually, nothing new. Several decades earlier--in 1969 to be exact--educational philosopher Neil Postman delivered a speech at the National Convention for the Teachers of English frankly titled “Bullshit and the Art of Crap-Detection.” In his speech, Postman stressed the need for teachers to engage students in thinking critically about the bombardment of corporate advertisements and political plugs they faced on a daily basis, underlining the reality that virtually “all human communications have deeply embedded and profound hidden agendas,” particularly messages heavy with commercial and political ideology, which are “saturated with bullshit.” Postman told educators, “As I see it, the best things schools can do for kids is to help them learn how to distinguish useful talk from bullshit. I will ask only that you agree that every day in almost every way people are exposed to more bullshit than is healthy for them to endure, and that if we can help them to recognize this fact, they might turn away from it and toward language that might do them some earthly good.” This sounds like an opinion that might be voiced in a modern department meeting, yet Postman delivered this caveat before the proliferation of television and well in advance of the creation of the personal computer and the cell phone. As he delivered this speech, he could not have imagined the remarkable technological advances that would follow in the preceding decades. Or maybe he did. Perhaps that was why he felt the need to voice his opinion in such a candid manner.

Neil Postman, media literacy advocate

At any rate, it is about time teachers paid attention to Postman and other teachers and theorists who have been passionately advocating media literacy. Postman’s assertions and Hobbs’ five essential dimensions of digital and media literacy serve as the theoretical underpinning of this unit plan, which aims to expand student understanding of rhetorical devices through the analysis of print and television advertisement, canonical persuasive texts, and documentary film. With any luck, the activities outlined below will provide students with meaningful interactions with various types of media, fostering the types of skills and knowledge necessary for them to become critical consumers of information.

Instructional Objectives

The primary goal of this unit plan is to strengthen student understanding of the essential components of argumentative writing: thesis (the central argument), persuasive appeals (Aristotle’s rhetorical triad of ethos, pathos, and logos), information verification (citations and/or source bibliography), and source validity. Advertisements provide a perfect example to explore rhetoric since, as rhetoric professor Renee Shea notes, "Ads are, after all, arguments. As such, they engage students in critical thinking about claims, assumptions, counterargument, types of appeals, logical fallacies, and audience--basic elements of rhetoric."

Ethos refers to ethics or character. An effective persuasive speaker will convince his listeners that he is trustworthy and that there is a legitimate moral cause behind his argument. Pathos refers to emotions. This is, perhaps, the appeal that elicits the strongest response from an audience. For example, companies who are trying to sell their products to families will often incorporate images of parents playing with children into their advertisements. This establishes a positive emotional connection with the consumer and thus makes him/her more likely to purchase the product. Logos refers to logical appeals, meaning our sense of reason. Substantiating a point by providing statistics, for instance, is one way to make a logical appeal. Aristotle illustrated the appeal of logos through the use of "syllogisms," such as the following: "All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal" (Edlund).

Common Core Standards

  • Informational Text #2: Determine a central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to supporting ideas; provide an objective summary of the text.

  • Informational Text #3: Analyze how a text makes connections among and distinctions between individuals, ideas, or events (e.g., through comparisons, analogies, or categories).

  • Informational Text #6: Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how the author acknowledges and responds to conflicting evidence or viewpoints.

  • Informational Text #8: Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is sound and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; recognize when irrelevant evidence is introduced.

  • Writing #2: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.

Common Core Standards

Basic Unit Progression

First, students will be assigned to work in small groups develop arguments addressing a high-interest controversial topic. This topic will be selected by the class. Student groups will generate short speeches that argue for or against the selected topic. After delivering their speeches, the teacher will facilitate a whole-class discussion on the quality and content of the students’ speeches, encouraging them to analyze the persuasive strategies they used to try to convince their classmates. This activity will serve as an activating strategy that will lead into a more specific examination of rhetorical techniques.

Next, the teacher should detail the components of rhetoric, starting with the concept of a thesis/main argument. Next, he/she should discuss the Aristotelian triad of persuasive appeals: ethos (ethics and character), logos (logic), and pathos (emotion). Lastly, the teacher should cover the importance of avoiding logical fallacy. To collect this information, students can record notes traditionally, or the teacher can provide them with a graphic organizer.

Subsequently, students will examine print advertisements in order to reinforce their understandings of the components of rhetoric. The teacher can select these advertisements himself/herself, or he/she can allow student groups to browse magazines and select the advertisements they would like to discuss. An example of an iPhone magazine advertisement is offered below as an example. Students could be tasked with determining the thesis/main argument of the advertisement, and/or they could be tasked with considering how the advertisement targets the consumer’s ethics, logic, and emotion. Again, they can either record their thoughts on notebook paper or on a graphic organizer provided by the teacher.


^ What types of appeals do you think Coke was trying to make in this advertisement? Would it work on consumers today? Why or why not?


^ What types of persuasive tactics are used by this cell phone advertisement? Do you find it appealing? Why or why not?

Next, students will continue their examination of rhetorical devices by analyzing the persuasive tactics utilized by television advertisements. Some suggestions are listed below. Students should add to their notes/graphic organizers as they watch the advertisements and should actively participate in the conversations about them. In a large class, the teacher should select specific students to analyze certain advertisements so that each student can have a say in the discussion.


^ What is the thesis/main argument of this commercial for Barack Obama? Do you see any persuasive appeals at work in it?

ETHICS: “Shame on You” -- Romney Attack Ad (

^ How does this attack ad appeal to your sense of ethics/character?

ETHICS/EMOTION: “Job One: Full Repeal” -- Romney Campaign Ad (

^ How does this commercial for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign target your sense of ethics? How does it target your emotions?

EMOTION: “I’ll Run to You” -- Nike Ad (

^ How does this Nike commercial use emotion to appeal to the viewer?

LOGIC: Apple iPhone/App Store Ad (

^ How is logic used to improve the appeal of the iPhone in this commercial?

Next, students will apply their understandings of rhetoric to canonical persuasive texts. The teacher should select a text that is both academically appropriate for and personally interesting to his/her students. There are plenty of texts available online and in common literature textbooks/anthologies. Examples include Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again,” and George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant.” Whatever text is selected, students should be tasked with determining the work’s thesis and analyzing its utilization of the three persuasive appeals. Students should also scrutinize the text for any logical fallacies.

Henry David Thoreau: Where I Lived, and What I Live For

Martin Luther King, Jr.: I Have a Dream

Langston Hughes: Let America be America Again

George Orwell: Shooting an Elephant

An examination of persuasive appeals in the documentary King Corn will follow. The entire documentary is currently available online via Hulu and YouTube.


At this point, students should have enough knowledge about rhetorical appeals to examine sources autonomously. The final academic product for the unit will be the production of two to three “evidence charts,” as described by Hobbs on pages 39 to 41 of Digital and Media Literacy. Each student will select a controversial topic of personal interest (it is essential that students are permitted to select topics on their own), after which he/she will use the internet to locate two to four credible sources of information on that topic. He/she will complete one evidence chart for each source. The teacher will use a contract grading system for assessment: students will complete two charts to receive a C, three to receive a B, and four to receive an A. They should be permitted to revise or revamp as many times as necessary to reach a satisfactory level of quality.

Using the information they gained while completing the academic final product, students will develop audio or video PSAs to voice their opinions on whatever issues they explored. This will be the creative final product for the unit. They will be required to deliberately incorporate the three persuasive appeals into their PSAs, and they will need to explain their persuasive strategies to their classmates after they play their radio spots or display their videos.


  1. Chang, Andrea. “Advertising Spending Online Expected to Surpass Print This Year.” Los Angeles Times. Technology: The Business and Culture of Our Digital Lives. 20 Jan. 2012. Web. 10 July 2012.

  2. “The Cross-Platform Report: Quarter 4, 2011--US.” State of the Media. The Nielson Company. 2012. Web. 10 July 2012.

  3. Hobbs, Renee. Digital and Media Literacy: Connecting Culture and Classroom. Thousand Oaks: Corwin, 2011.

  4. Postman, Neil. “Bullshit and the Art of Crap Detection.” National Convention for the Teachers of English (NCTE). Washington, D.C. 28 November 1969. Address.

  5. Shea, Renee. "The Rhetoric of Advertising." AP Central. College Board. 2012. Web. 8 July 2012.