Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Carcinogen of Real Americans: Colbert analyzes Cain's Smoking Ad

On October 25, 2011, Stephen Colbert offered an excellent model of media literacy practice as he analyzed a political ad for republican frontrunner for presidential candidacy, Herman Cain, and then offered his own parody versions of the same ad. Notice the thoroughness of the interpretation, the use of textual detail in the deconstruction, and then the balance of analysis with production through the parody responses. This is a version of what media literacy teachers strive to create opportunities for their students to do...
Stephen Colbert closely analyzes the use of smoking in Cain's campaign ad.
After the opening jokes introducing the context of who Herman Cain is and what he's been up to in the news, Colbert shows the entire ad--a rarity on news and news parody shows alike. Then he interprets messages from the visuals, the music, and the spoken parts of the ad, linking these meanings to the values and lifestyles represented in the message. He touches on how different people might think differently about the message through the clip of the Fox News anchor interviewing Cain's campaign manager. He plays with the ideas of representation and reality as he coughs his way through his commentary while smoking two cigarettes and disrupting the message of "cool" that he claims the images of smoking construct in the ad. The parodies satirize the message of the original ad by choosing obviously dangerous and derelict activities to insert in the place of the cigarette--the huffer, the revolver, and the Listerine. Finally, Colbert makes fun of Cain's "8 second smile" at the end of the ad by upstaging him with his own, slower smile. Again, the joke reveals the technique through exaggeration.

The entire progression is a condensed version of a thorough media literacy lesson: 1) introduction to who is telling the story; 2) deconstruction of the textual messages and production values used; 3) consideration of how others might understand the messages; 4) evaluation of the values and lifestyles embedded in the message; 5) consideration of representation vs. reality; 6) taking action in response to the message through media production, using the techniques learned through analysis.

A teacher could introduce the core concepts and key questions of media literacy by using this video as a model, and having students find where Colbert addresses each question. They could also make their own responses, as Colbert did, or do so in response to other political ads. All this would make for fun and effective media literacy practice.

However, at a certain point, the students should ask about the purpose of the parodies. What do you achieve, and what does Colbert achieve, in the mockery? Does he make political ads seem foolish, or the candidate? Or, does he reinforce Cain's messages through the analysis and parodies? Do the parodies of risk behavior reinforce and celebrate or ridicule and deter such behavior? Is Colbert's only agenda the laughs? Can the students do something more with their own video responses than Colbert did with his?

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