Tales From the Trenches of a Media Lit Class
by Naomi Rockler-Gladen
I stroll into my Critical Media Studies classroom, drinking an icy bottle of Pepsi and wearing a Nike baseball cap. A few of my students glance up from their cell phones and iPods long enough to notice me. “Um, nice hat,” someone comments.
“Thank you,” I say. “Today’s class is proudly sponsored by Nike, a strong advocate of education. When it comes to education, Nike says, ‘Just do it!’.” I take a swig of my Pepsi. “Can you guess who else is sponsoring our class today?” The few students who have actually done the reading chuckle because they know that today’s class is about the pervasiveness of consumerism in popular culture and in the schools.
Over the years, I’ve resorted to lots of gimmicks like these in my quest to teach students about consumerism. I try to make my students more aware of how the media naturalize consumerism through advertisements, product placement, and especially through advertiser-friendly programming. You might be surprised to hear that I find this to be the single most difficult topic to teach. I teach about many controversial media issues — ownership, violence, race and gender representation — and students contemplate these topics enthusiastically. But when it comes to consumerism, it’s a brick wall. Five minutes into any such discussion, I brace myself for the inevitable chorus of, “Oh, come on. It’s just a bunch of ads.”
Corporations and advertising executives should rejoice, as this reticence of young people to think critically about the role of consumerism is money in their pockets. Advertisers have always coveted the 18-34 year old group—the legions of the so-called “Age of Acquisition” who have few established brand loyalties and lots of pocket change. Today’s Generation Y youth, born roughly between 1977 and 1997, are especially desirable because they are the children of Baby Boomers, and therefore represent a population explosion. Run the term “Generation Y” through a search engine, and you’ll find dozens of sites with information about how companies can take advantage of this marketing gold mine. Multinational corporations are deeply invested in the collective consumer choices of my students. When my students fail to show concern, these corporations become all the more powerful.
So why is it that Generation Y is so uncritical of consumerism? I offer you this report from the trenches, from my college classroom in Fort Collins, Colorado, with my insight into how students view consumerism and why lack concern. I also discuss how I have addressed these attitudes. My hope is that media activists of all stripes can draw upon my experience.
To demonstrate to my students how media content itself naturalizes consumerism, I used to show my students a clip from the movie Father of the Bride. In this clip, the father is horrified that his daughter wants him to spend about $130,000 on her wedding. He would prefer to have a simple wedding reception at the local Steak Pit, but the whole family rejects this idea. Even the adolescent son understands this is “unacceptable”; he comments, “I don’t think you want the word ‘pit’ on a wedding invitation.” When he complains that his first car cost less than the wedding cake, the wedding coordinators bursts into laughter and says, “Welcome to the ‘90s.” After the daughter agrees to downsize the wedding, her father discovers her, asleep, reading a magazine article with tips on how to throw a budget wedding. Suddenly ashamed of himself, he agrees to fund the extravagant wedding. Dad learns his lesson, so to speak. Consumerism-fueled expectations may be outrageous, but they are necessary, and failure to adhere to these expectations is silly, miserly, and downright unloving.
I quit showing this clip. It didn’t work. Oh, they got the point, that media content often promotes the agenda of advertisers. Unfortunately, the clip would...