Using Toy Ads to Build Media Literacy Skills

FrankBaker-new-Nov13-130By Frank W. Baker

Another holiday season is upon us. Black Friday frenzy is in the air. And just like all of the previous holiday seasons, marketers of toys will be spending huge amounts of money to make sure parents and grandparents are exposed to the latest, the best and the brightest.

child-teddy-tvFor many years, I have been teaching with AND about toy advertising. My goal has been to demonstrate to teachers how easy it is to use these short commercials in instruction. And by “pulling back the curtain” on toy commercials, I hope media literacy teachers will begin to take them seriously.

Using toy ads and other popular culture texts in the classroom is also a way of meeting those all-important teaching standards (like persuasive techniques). In a previous post, I wrote about how we can meet standards and engage students in critical thinking through the examination of advertising messages.

Over the years many educators have told me that they are not comfortable using popular culture texts with their students. The fact is, most educators have no prior experience using these kinds of texts.

My suggestion is: dive right in. You’ll find that students are more likely to pay attention, become involved in discussion AND perhaps learn something important.

Saturday morning television has been the mainstay for toy commercials. Tune in and you’ll see what I mean. But with the advent of cable networks (and video-sharing websites) aimed at the young audience, those same ads can now be seen 24/7. Networks like The Disney Channel, Cartoon Network, and Nickelodeon (to name a few) are among a dozen venues now available to advertisers.

Shoppers can also purchase toys at manufacturers’  websites, where they’re exposed to the same high-concept ad pitches (as we see in the Mutant Turtles ad below, from the Playmates company site).


Even in cases where your students may be “too old” to be the targets of some toy commercials, as true veterans of the toy ad wars, they will respond eagerly to lessons that “deconstruct” the ads – and perhaps go on to educate their younger siblings.

Toy Ad Lesson Recommendations

In workshops I’ve conducted with teachers, I’ve suggested that they ask students to step out of their skin for a while and consider what it must be like to BE an advertiser trying to reach consumers. Here are some critical viewing/media literacy type questions for your students to consider:

► Where (which network, TV show, etc.) will you place your ad? What’s your reasoning for the placement?

► Who is the audience for the product you’re hoping to sell? (who is most likely to purchase this product? Students should be very specific here, considering gender, age, ethnicity, etc.)

► What do I want my target audience to know about my product?

► Which medium (radio, TV, newspapers, magazine, Internet) does my audience pay attention to the most? What’s the best way to reach them?

► What production techniques will I use in my ads to get them interested? (special-effects; happy kids; fun music)

► What on-screen words will be attention-getting and enticing? (limited time offer; on sale; this week only, etc. Other phrases might be used to excite – loads of fun; amazing adventure; surprise your friends – or even to inspire, as this Hearts for Hearts Girls ad demonstrates.)


In addition, consumers of toy ads might want to consider these questions:

What important information might be omitted and where can you locate this information?
In what ways might the commercial be deceptive? How might younger children be confused?
Will buying this toy make a child happy; more popular; contented?
Where can I read reliable, unbiased reviews from consumers who may have purchased/used this product?

Older students might go a step further. For example:

Seeking background information on the parent company of the toy;
Conducting a website evaluation of the toy’s homepage;
Investigating whether a “hot” toy is profiled visibly in holiday issues of parents magazines;
Looking for advisories from the Federal Trade Commission and other groups about unsafe toys.

Writing an Ad Script

Another activity to use with students is to ask them to write the script for a toy commercial. Many students believe that production is the first step in making a commercial when, in fact, production is the last step. Someone must first create the script. Frequently, an ad agency will also create corresponding storyboards (see below) to assist the production crew.


Most toy ads are 30 seconds in length (or less) and transcribing the words and image descriptions onto a TV script template is a great way to study descriptive and persuasive words, as well as production techniques and more. A simple two column script, with one column labeled audio and the other labeled video will be helpful here.

Toy Ad Gender Remixer

Oftentimes, ads aimed at boys and girls have subtle, or not-so-subtle, messages about gender and stereotypes. Here is a project that is designed to call attention to those messages. What if you could take the sound or picture from a commercial aimed at boys and replace it with the same from a commercial aimed at girls? That’s the idea behind The Gendered Advertising Remixer, a project that gives your students the necessary tools to experiment.

The project’s creator says “the goal … is to help empower youth of all genders to better understand, deconstruct and creatively take control of the highly gendered messages emanating from their television sets.”


The project’s creator also notes that using ads in this way is not a copyright infringement. “Fair-use remix video can be a fantastic way to combine critical media literacy, technical skills and creative play to help youth understand, deconstruct and remix mass media messages about gender roles.”

Let’s educate healthy skeptics

With the airwaves already crowded with toy ads, and with catalogs showing up in our mail daily, now is a good time to consider this “teachable moment.” Young people and their parents are paying attention at holiday time. Kids will be begging parents to “buy me that.” By instilling some critical viewing skills in our young people, we help them become more media literate and exercise healthy skepticism when they’re exposed to some of the most persuasive seasonal messages in our culture: toy commercials.

Check out Frank Baker’s Toy Ad Website

masteringmedialiteracyFrank W. Baker is a media literacy education consultant and the author of three books, including Media Literacy In the K-12 Classroom (ISTE, 2012). He contributed two chapters to Mastering Media Literacy (Solution Tree, 2014). In November 2013, Frank was a co-recipient of the National Telemedia Council‘s annual Jessie McCanse Award given for individual contributions to the field of media literacy. Follow him on Twitter @fbaker.


MiddleWeb is all about the middle grades, with great 4-8 resources, book reviews, and guest posts by educators who support the success of young adolescents. And be sure to subscribe to MiddleWeb SmartBrief for the latest middle grades news & commentary from around the USA.

2 Responses

  1. Terry Dugas says:

    For my class in media and culture, students had to find ads that defied gender stereotypes. Several of them found this Huffington Post article showing how the Swedish Toys “R” Us ads reversed gender roles. It might be an interesting discussion starter for middle school or older.

  2. MiddleWeb says:

    In a tweet about this article, library media coordinator Vicki Hansen @hansen_vicki suggested some topics for older students might include “cars, electronics, phone plans.” Our focus, of course, is grades 4-8, so cars might be a stretch. But are there any other consumer products associated with holiday gift-giving that could be included?

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