Merritt Writing Program Formal Writing Assignment One: How Does Popular Culture Stereotype Us?

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Merritt Writing Program

Formal Writing Assignment One:

How Does Popular Culture Stereotype Us?

Advertisements are selling us something else besides consumer goods: in providing us with a structure in which we, and those goods, are interchangeable, they are selling us ourselves.”

Judith Williamson


In a five-page essay rhetorically analyze a print ad of your choosing; i.e. conduct a “close reading” of the ad “to find how and whether it works to persuade” (EA 97). How is your chosen ad stereotyping us in terms of gender, ethnicity, age, or our system of values?

To get you started, respond to the list of questions on page 98 of Everything’s an Argument. Furthermore, the following list of questions will help you generate ideas for writing beyond the close reading of the ad. Responses to these questions should generate ideas useful in discussing the social, cultural, and personal consequences and implications of the ad. Answering these questions is a good place to start as you move toward developing your own argument.

  • What stereotypes does the ad draw from and add to?

  • What assumptions does the ad make about us?

  • What are the social consequences of this ad and others like it? Beyond what it does or doesn’t do to individuals, what kind of effect, if any, do you think advertising has on our culture and society?

  • Do there tend to be differences in the ways men and women are portrayed in advertisements? If so, what kinds of differences, specifically?

  • According to the editor in chief of Advertising Age, the major publication of the advertising industry, “Only 8% of an ad’s message is received by the conscious mind. The rest is worked and reworked deep within the recesses of the brain.” What are the implications of this statement?

  • According to Jean Kilbourne, ads create an environment. Just as it’s difficult to be healthy in a toxic physical environment, if we’re breathing poisoned air or drinking polluted water, it’s difficult to be healthy in a “toxic cultural environment” that surrounds us with unhealthy images and constantly sacrifices our health and well-being for the sake of profit. Do you agree? What environment is your ad creating?

  • Ads sell more than just products. They sell values, images, and concepts of love, sexuality, success, and normalcy. They tell us who we are and who we should be. What are the implications of this statement?

  • What’s missing or not there in the ad or program? What’s the effect of this absence? Is it an obvious or simple lack that weakens the ad or program? Or does the absence try to trick you into not thinking about what’s not there — or about something else you ought to think about?

We will do some preparatory writing leading up to this essay — and you will get a chance to write a conference draft and get feedback on it before the final stage of substantive revising and copy editing.

A note about organizing this essay: There is no ideal or correct way to organize an essay of analysis. For your exploratory writing or a rough-rough draft (note this is not the same as your conference draft), just make as many observations and hypotheses as you can. For your conference draft, try to use this material to create an extended explanation of what you see and how it functions. It can help to think of your essay as a story of thinking. Think of yourself telling someone what you see and what you’ve figured out. Build something that will make sense to a reader.

But remember that the conference draft is not your final version. It’s okay if it has a bit too much in it and uses a provisional order — while you wait for feedback to help you revise and figure out a better organization. With feedback (and putting it aside for a few days), you might reshape your story or even change some of your hypotheses.


In this essay we shall pay close attention to the following concepts and writing skills:

  • Ethos, Pathos, Logos,

  • Rhetorical Analysis,

  • Motive/Thesis,

  • Introduction,

  • Revision,


Be aware of the content and number of ads around you in magazines, on TV, on the streets, on clothes etc. Reflect on them and how they affect our society. What is it about them that catches your attention and draws you in? What assumptions do these ads make about gender, race, and class? Use the set of questions above to steer your reflections.


  • Pre-Draft #1: Briefly (less than one page) answer this question: What was your favorite toy growing up? What does that toy say about being a man or woman in our society? Due 9/7

  • Pre-Draft #2: Three parts to this assignment. 1.) Describe your advertisement in less than one page. 2.) In one sentence, what is the claim your chosen ad is making? Then list 3-5 elements in the ad that support the claim. Bring your ad to class. 3.) In exactly 25 words (and in a grammatically correct sentence) define stereotype in your own words—no quotations or paraphrases. Due 9/12

  • Pre-Draft #3: Write a short summary (3-5 sentences) of the article you found using the Academic Search Complete. Document your source using proper MLA style. See pages 575-576. Due 9/14

  • Conference draft due on Monday, September 19. In addition to four copies of your conference draft, bring THREE (3) copies of one your body paragraphs.

  • Revised Draft due one week after our conference.

Helpful Resources:

  • Lynn Peril’s Pink Think excerpt on pages 280-283 of EA.

  • Jean Kilbourne “The More You Subtract, the More You Add: Cutting Girls down to size” from her book Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel.

  • About Face is an organization devoted to equipping women and girls with the tools necessary to understand and resist harmful media messages. Check out their gallery of offenders.

  • Media Education Foundation produces a lot of great videos about popular culture and its impact on our society. Check out their “Study Guides” for Killing us Softly #3 and #4.

  • Also, you may want to take a look at the 4 minute video of Killing us Softly #4.

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