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Teaching Children About Advertising Through Art Criticism Strategies

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Purpose of Research

The purpose of this research is to investigate art criticism teaching strategies in relation to advertisements targeted toward children.

Research Question

How does applying art criticism teaching strategies help children understand targeted advertisements?

Definition of Terms

The following are the key terms in the problem or question that are not clear and thus need to be defined:

Visual literacy: “a working knowledge of the highly influential and unique ways that images and objects mediate the construction of meaning” (Freedman, 2010). In other words, visual literacy is how and to what extent we interpret images.

Children: This essay focuses on the age demographic of roughly five to eight years old. Some theories proclaim that children younger than eight are not cognitively developed enough to understand the persuasive intent of advertisements, but studies suggest that students as young as three may be able to learn to criticize media to some extent (VanderBorght, 2009).

Targeted advertisements: Targeted advertisements are, simply put, advertisements that target a particular demographic. Targeted advertisements typically utilize avenues such as television channels, YouTube videos (called pre-roll ads), and websites that are intended for the audiences that are sought after. This essay focuses on media advertisements targeted toward children who watch age-appropriate viewing material on the television and internet, inadvertently exposing themselves to these advertisements (ReversoDictionary, 2017).

Literature Review

Advertising targeted toward children has grown considerably over the years, and children are constantly “inundated with visual messages” (Noro, 2009). Most often, these images portray sugary snacks and toys (Calvert, 2008). Starting in the 1920’s, advertising leaders realized that they could sell more products to consumers if they could exploit their emotions and belief systems (Calvert, 2008). Due to the growth of technology, advertising has become a part of daily life. Technology is so pervasive that children between ages two and eleven spend on average over 20 hours a week watching television (del Mar Pàmies, Ryan, & Valverde, 2016; Freedman, 2010). While the presence of media grows, so does advertisers interest in the attention of children. According to Calvert (2008) this interest has erupted significantly due to children’s persuasion over their parents and the growing array of television channels for children. However, it is not known whether young children are cognitively equipped to understand the persuasive intent of advertisements (Priya, Baisya, R. K., & Sharma 2010).

According to Lopatovska, Hatoum, Waterstraut, Novak, and Sheer (2016), young children have a limited ability to understand abstract elements of visual images on their own but were able to improve their visual literacy after instruction. VanderBorght (2009) also agrees that instruction given to preschools may also help improve their visual literacy skills. Instruction is absolutely necessary in order to help children “comprehend the visual media world in which they live” (Noro, 2009). In this essay, Feldman’s method of teaching art criticism is discussed as a tool for teaching about targeted advertisements (Lopatovska, Hatoum, Waterstraut, Novak, & Sheer, 2016). Visual thinking strategies are also discussed as a method for scaffolding instruction to younger students (Jaros, 2012).

The Gap: Why Young Children Need Instruction

Because young children are the focus for targeted advertisements, they require specific instruction for dealing with them. According to the Federal Trade Commission (1981), it is misleading and unfair to advertise toward students younger than six years old. However, in the United States, there is no ban on advertising toward children. Therefore, there is a gap between the age at which a child can cognitively assess a persuasive message and the age at which they are being presented with these messages. Visual media can affect children’s belief system, sexuality, tendency for violence, and tendency to make choices such as smoking and drinking alcohol. Barring the possibility of fixing the dilemma at its root, one can only attempt to prepare children for the world in which they reside. It is a world of pervasive, constant screen time which students must learn to navigate if they are to be sophisticated, knowledgeable consumers beyond childhood (del Mar Pàmies, Ryan, & Valverde, 2016; VanderBorght, 2009). On their own, young children cannot fully understand the persuasive intent of advertisements, which makes them the perfect consumer (Calvert, 2008). Therefore, it is imperative that educators provide instruction for students at an early age.

Theoretical Basis

There are several developmental theories relating to children as consumers. Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development has been a foundation for understanding and instructing children on this matter. Piaget divided children into several groups based on age and cognitive ability. Based off these stages, Patti Valkenburg and Joanne Cantor developed a model of consumer socialization. From two to five years old, children can express their desire for a product, as well as bargain for products they desire with their parents, but cannot yet understand the persuasive intent of commercials. Children at this stage tend to take stimuli in at face value, without question of intent or skepticism. (Calvert, 2008). This is a vulnerable stage for children because they are being marketed to but do not yet have the visual literacy or critical skills to deal with their desires. Therefore, instruction for young students is important.

Methods for Instruction

Teaching students to be visually literate is paramount in a consumer society. There are several methods that have been developed to teach visual literacy. This essay focuses on the teaching of Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) and Feldman’s method of teaching art criticism. These methods can be applied to teaching about advertisements and support student’s overall visual literacy. Before students can master the nuances of interpreting advertisements, they must be given instruction on basic visual literacy skills such as identifying color, line, salience et cetera. The connotations of an image, what is seen, must first be recognized (Lopatovska, Hatoum, Waterstraut, Novak, & Sheer, 2016). This falls in line with many educators who choose to teach art criticism in their classrooms. However, many educators fail to go beyond this surface level understanding of art criticism. What makes advertisements possible to interpret as persuasive tools is in the denotations that can be drawn from them. Feldman’s method of teaching art criticism is outlined in four steps: description, formal analysis, interpretation, and judgment (Lopatovska, Hatoum, Waterstraut, Novak, & Sheer, 2016). For this method to be maximally effective, educators must also present the question of intent within the interpretation and judgement of an advertisement. One challenge of teaching young students how to interpret targeted advertisements is the need for scaffolding. VTS is a way to present analytic inquiry to students who have never experienced the process before. According to Jaros (2012), instruction is scaffolded by asking specific questions to students: What is going on in this picture? What do you see that makes you say that? What else do you see? By asking these questions, educators can provide a starting point for students. It is important to use these methods in tandem with examples of visual media advertisements. The examples should also contain subject matter that is not only appropriate, but relatable to the age group of students.

Case Study

The teaching of critical thinking skills is paramount to analyzing visual media such as advertisements. The following case study suggests that the use of VTS is a useful tool for teaching children about media literacy in the classroom. This study measures the effect of VTS on students critical thinking skills and aesthetic literacy. The findings suggest that teaching VTS in the classroom using advertisements would not only enhance their critical thinking skills, but also provide tools necessary to interpret advertisements.

In the study provided by Karing DeSantis and Abigail Housen (2007), 25 students in grades three through five were taught VTS in the classroom, while 25 control students were not. The students included a wide range of individuals of different genders and ethnic backgrounds. The study was conducted over the span of three years. Using VTS methodology, experiment students were asked to analyze different works of art. After three years of instruction, experimenters saw a significant difference in critical thinking skills between the experiment and control groups. The students were also able to transfer their newfound critical thinking skills to analyze non-art objects successfully. The students’ ability to generalize instruction to fit new situations suggests that students would be able to transfer their skills to the critical analysis of advertisements as well.


Young children’s lives are inundated with advertisements targeted toward them in American society through television and internet. Although children are presented with persuasive messages daily, there is little focus on educating students about the role of advertisements and their persuasive intent in consumerist society. Young children are not cognitively equipped to respond to advertisements on their own. Through the teaching of art criticism, children can learn critical thinking skills and tools needed to respond to targeted advertisements and be skeptical of what they see on the screen.

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