This week, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released an interactive game designed to increase ad literacy in grades 5-6, called Admongo. Or, rather, that is the name of the online world packed with advertisements which players analyze on their way to the top of Admongo. The ads are all for fake products, but resemble things sold to young people in the real world, with names like American Auditions, Delish Bits and Cleanology. Players are shown one of these ads, and then have to answer a question about it, like what the ad is trying to sell, what company is responsible for what audience group the ad is targeting. Answers are provided in a multiple choice format, and the questions get more complex as players advance.
In general, I’m impressed with Admongo. I appreciate what it is trying to do, and the additional resources around it are a great space for teachers and parents who want to encourage advertising literacy in school and at home. If nothing else, Admongo could raise the profile of ad literacy itself, as the FTC continues to grow it and Scholastic continues to promote it in schools. It is a key skill to have in a media-saturated world, but when I mention advertising literacy to people I frequently get raised eyebrows.
And, as expected, at least one such eyebrow has been raised so far, by Hamilton Nolan over at Gawker. He implies that the program is ultimately trying to get teens to buy more stuff, adding, “…by ‘educate,’ they mean ‘indoctrinate,’ as enthusiastic consumers.” First off, I take issue with using the word ‘indoctrinate’ which seems to be the buzzword of choice when people disagree about what children are taught, as it was when a New Jersey school was vilified by Fox News for celebrating Barack Obama in song during Black History Month, and when Obama kicked off the school year with a public address to students emphasizing the importance of education and wishing them luck for a good year. I also don’t buy the argument that Admongo is building a more enthusiastic consumer base, primarily because the products in the game is encouraging consumer education, and using fake products as examples. I actually think the FTC did a pretty good job of neither demonizing nor lionizing the business of advertising, but instead points to its purpose, which is to sell things. It’s a pretty basic theory of marketing that products sell when people feel an emotional connection to them, and advertisements try to exploit that. As Admongo points out, this is even done in the case of public service advertising–one ad used in the game is a PSA encouraging kids to play outside.
My main criticism about Admongo isn’t even really about Admongo itself: I worry about media being the only way people gain media literacy. What I mean by this is that it is not enough to plop kids in front of a game, and even though the FTC has compiled some wonderful resources to supplement the game, this doesn’t take the place of physical teaching. No two people learn in the same way; for example, Admongo may have less value for people who do poorly with multiple-choice formats. I think of resources and lesson plans like those provided by the FTC and Scholastic as “curricula in a can,” which does not and cannot address the specific needs and concerns of the school or community where it is taught. At The LAMP, we don’t teach media literacy in exactly the same way to different schools, because our students are products of unique communities with unique lifestyles. We distribute LAMPlit Resource Guides to supplement our workshops, but they do not replace teaching. I don’t know exactly what other plans the FTC has for increasing advertising literacy, but I hope that some of it involves professional development for teachers. Nobody knows a classroom better than its teacher, and once we empower teachers with the skills they need to develop and implement their own curricula inclusive of advertising literacy, then the learning can really begin.
This post was first published here on the IFC Make Media Matter blog.