Monday, February 3, 2014

Step Right Up and Teach Ad Appeals with Tom Waits

The pitchman cometh! Given the Superbowl blowout last night, most viewers likely paid more attention to the ads than the game. Here's an amusing old song from Tom Waits' Small Change album (1976), "Step Right Up," which I recommend as a fun way to introduce a session on advertising techniques.

Using the lyrics, try grouping the various types of ad pitches in categories and them giving names to the techniques or types of appeals. Compare what you come up with to a classic list of ad techniques, like this or this. Challenge students to find or create commercials to exemplify the pitch techniques in Waits song.
The ultimate challenge: Make a mash-up of bits from commercials with a soundtrack lined up with the song. If you have a big enough group, with a few savvy video editors in it, the work could get done reasonably quickly to great effect--everyone will know and recognize those techniques! [So what?] Here's why that could be a good thing...

By practicing recognition of ad techniques, we become accustomed to seeing the constructedness of media messages, which gives us the time and space to think about them and assert how we would like respond rather than just reacting or absorbing the message. Not that we'd fall for every persuasion aimed at getting stuck in our heads, but we get a little more proactive when we see what the ads are trying to do and how. We arrange our mental furniture, so to speak. That's especially important with so much ad clutter in our eyes and ears in daily life.

For a deeper conversation, you might discuss what Tom Waits' message is with this song. To quote a question from another of his songs, "What's he building in there?" After making me laugh, "Step Right Up" always calls my attention to how all pop songs seem to be ads for themselves. Songwriters refer to the catchiest bits as "hooks," after all. I like to think of Waits doing a little bit of self-parody here, casting himself as an old-timey, PT Barnum-style pitchman/auctioneer (a character still alive and well in infomercials--think Sham-wow!). So, what's your take?

Bonus: Here's a great conversation starter article about the relation between pop songs and commercials. 

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