I’ve been working on this book for young people on media literacy which is a big focus of the Common Core. (If you’ve been hiding in a Tibetan Cave, the Common Core is the latest national attempt at early education in the United States. It aims to create higher level thinkers and has come up with a protocol for that.)
Media literacy is replacing media protective theory: rather than just saying “don’t engage in any way” the goal is to teach our 21st century humans (and by default, their parents) how to navigate the very creative language that is media. Not in a media bashing kind of way, but rather in a “check out these super tricks to create effects you need to know about” kind of way.
My particular focus is on television. My friend and publicity consultant Jess Todfeld from New York said an industry insider told him “the shows are just the things stuffed in around the commercials.” That makes you think, doesn’t it? Television is a business, pure and simple.
Well, maybe not so pure. Or simple. Personally, I’m a television lover. I love the way the hero’s journey made its way into livingrooms around the world and gives people a point of reference to share. I can often tell I’ll like somebody right away when they tell me the shows they like. But I’ve also worked with the media behind the scenes people in enough capacities to be skeptical.
To watch the news knowing it’s not the news. (Think “Nightcrawlers,” Jake Gyllenhaal’s Academy worthy performance as a stringer for KTLA news.) To watch the product placement in our favorite films and realize the reason viewers want to buy an Apple computer when the movie is over is because their subconscious was just hit with 23 Apple images in the course of two hours. (This is so obvious on repeated viewing versions, but hardly noticeable at all on an action-packed first run.)
I remember this fantastic assignment in Mr. Bonin’s freshman English class at UCLA. The year was 1982. Levi’s was doing these spreads with a group of friends all hanging out and laughing. The clear message was “If you wear Levi’s, you’ll have friends. Beautiful friends. Lots of beautiful friends.” But when you folded the spread and held it up to the light, the friends were all groping each other! The hidden message was, “If you wear Levi’s, you will have lots of sex with beautiful people. And you will be so happy.”
Conspiracy theory? I think not. I saw it with my own eyes. I never looked at visual images as passively after that, more out of curiosity than skepticism at first. But it took that discussion to set me down the path. Because of this trajectory, I’m a huge fan of The Core’s new approach to equipping our babies to decipher what they’re being fed. It’s so key that they (indeed, we) learn to distinguish clear from hidden messages, and be able to vet healthy from unhealthy messages in both.
For example, in the coke advertisement above, what’s the clear message? The clear message is “Coke is your friend. It is, in fact, the friendliest (drink) friend on the entire earth. Drink it.” The hidden message is that “Coke makes you powerful and strong. When you drink coke, your hand is almost as big as the entire earth! And you will never be lonely when you drink Coke. In fact, you will be friendly, too, because now Coke is inside you and you will take on all its attributes. YOU are the friendliest, most powerful person on earth”….or something like that.
Nobody mentions the fact that police have been known to carry liters of coke in their trunks to clean the blood off the street after an accident. Or that it works nicely as a toilet cleaner to remove all the grime. Or that it dissolves meat, teeth, and a slue of other things.
Health or unhealthy media messages? Look closely and you decide.