Communication Currents

Instructor's Corner #2: Creating Parody to Understand Advertising

October 1, 2014
Instructional Communication

College students are faced with advertisements on a near-constant basis, from billboards to television advertisements to ads on phone apps. Teaching students to critique these persuasive communication appeals is an important step in building good critical thinking skills and responsible consumer behavior. Given their and our love for creativity and humor, we have found parody to be a fun and useful way to encourage students to critique advertising messages.

 Parody involves creating an imitation of an original work (e.g., painting, writing, advertisement), but also using deviations from the original that create humor and insight into the message in the original work. These deviations provide cues to the audience that the message serves as parody. Parody can serve as a form of criticism in that it allows viewers or readers to humorously question taken-for-granted assumptions or unquestioned conventional wisdom. Parody is distinct from satire, which does not rely on mimicry to exaggerate or use irony to challenge or critique.

In our persuasion classes, we take time to talk about advertising as a persuasive communication genre, as well as humor and parody as a strategy for persuasion. We highlight persuasive humor in multiple contexts so students are aware of the diverse strategies advertisers, politicians, and artists use to make us think, to critique social norms, and to encourage social change. We find students have a strong sense of humor and appreciation for sarcasm and parody, but they often do not understand how it can be used as a persuasive force for change or public messages.

To help our students understand parody as a social critique, they create standard advertisements for popular or made-up products and then develop a parody advertisement that makes a social commentary or criticism about advertising practices. Criticisms of advertising may include the use of deception, language that violates grammar rules, targeting children, stereotyping, and promoting consumerism and negative social expectations. The parody ads used in our classroom allow students to critique one or more of these practices. 

Because of time limitations, we also instruct students at the time of the reading assignment to plan ahead in groups of three to five for the images and ideas they will use in the parody, even as they create their serious ad. We show examples of parody ads from the website Adbusters. The Adbusters site includes a “Spoofs” section with advertising parodies. In following years, we have used our students’ examples as well to show the potential for their own power to create parody ads.

We use one full day of class for students to create standard print ads. Student ads have included existing products (e.g., perfumes, skincare products, alcoholic beverages), new products (e.g., invisible toasters, everlasting pens), and public service messages for the environment, volunteering, and safe sex. Students begin the project by brainstorming ideas for a target audience product or service, and then discuss verbal and visual strategies they will integrate into the ad. We instruct them to create an ad that resembles a real ad in terms of layout, advertising copy, and persuasive appeals, using software like Microsoft Word or Publisher. We visit each group over the course period to ensure they understand the assignment, to clarify their purpose as they work, and to answer specific questions.

The following class day, the students meet again to decide on making a parody of their original ad. We start class with a reminder of the purpose of parody in persuasive critique. From there, the students work in the same group to develop a parody ad that connects to their original work from the prior class. The follow-up parody ad then requires students to insert discrepancies that add humor and a critique of advertising practices.

Like real advertising, student ads range from family-centered holiday scenes to sexist scenes featuring scantily clad models. More specifically, one group of students created ads for Playtex Sport tampons featuring images of Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova. The serious ad contained a large image of Sharapova smiling in triumph. The largest print in the ad copy read, “Don’t let that time of the month distract you from being a champion.” The small print read, “Playtex Sport is a revolutionary tampon with advanced features for protection and comfort that moves with your body every day of your period.” The background colors were shades of pink to match the hues on the product container.

The parody ad served as a criticism of exaggerated claims in advertising. The parody ad used the same colors, fonts, and sizes as the serious ad, but featured an image of Sharapova with eyes closed and head down in defeat. The largest ad copy read, “During your period, no tampon on Earth will make you feel like a champion.” The small print read, “Only Playtex Sport tampons have sport level protection and comfort, but they will not help your cramps, bloating, or irritability. Good luck.”

On the third day, students show their ads to their classmates and discuss the implications of their parody. Each group is asked to answer several questions about their work, including the purpose of their criticism in the original versus the parody, how they decided to distinguish the original and parody ads with words and visuals, what cultural assumptions might be made in each ad, and how they would summarize the nature of their critique in the parody ad.

Typically, the images of people in the student ads are of white women. When students start to see this trend in their classmates’ ads, we discuss how race, class, and gender stereotypes are represented in the student ads and advertisements in general. Students learn that even their attempts at parody include hidden assumptions about their cultural backgrounds. We use other trends that emerge as further discussion of cultural assumptions embedded in advertising. Finally, students offer their overall impressions of how they will understand and decipher advertisements in the future based on this experience.

Students embrace the activity enthusiastically, and thoroughly enjoy the creative processes required to create the ads. This enthusiasm serves as a learning point, as we discuss the cultural knowledge (including years of exposure to advertising) they have that allows them to create the ads.

About the author (s)

Michael Tollefson

University of Wisconsin-La Crosse

Associate Professor

Dena Huisman

University of Wisconsin-La Crosse

Associate Professor