Humorous Commercials, Millennial Students, and the Classroom
By Brent Kice
Frostburg State University
By Brent Kice
This essay posits that in-class analyses of television commercials satisfy millennial students’ appeals to technology and community. Television commercials create a humorous setting that instills a positive classroom environment in order to encourage student participation. So, communication educators should consider television commercials as artifacts for analyses in the classroom in order to adapt to the characteristics of millennial students.
Humorous Commercials, Millennial Students, and the Classroom
Adapting to an audience is essential to effective communication, and with this in mind, it is only natural that communication educators would seek to adapt effectively to their students, more specifically, current students in the millennial generation. We have all found ourselves in a consultation with a student, and as we reach to grab a file the student sees the moment as an opportunity to glimpse at her or his phone for what we can only imagine must be a vital message…right? As CBS’s 60 minutes reports, millennials see themselves as the center of attention, with Morley Safer stating that “Their priorities are simple. They come first,” and describing millennials as “self-centered” with short attention spans (Textor, 2008). If this is in fact the case, then any message sent to millennials is important. The message itself might not be seen by others as important, but the simple fact that it is designated for the millennial might constitute its importance in the millennial’s eye. As the instructors of these millennial students, we can only wonder what those text messages on their phones could possibly say. Kenneth Burke (1974) would probably tell us that we are in the parlor with the “unending conversation” taking place. So, as instructors of millennial students, we are left attempting to be a part of this unending conversation. Millennial students are constantly using technology to exchange messages, making Burke’s unending conversation literal. Text messages can be sent without any real end in a conversation taking place, the messages seem to be a constant communication act.
This assimilation with technology is a characteristic that defines the millennial generation. As communication educators, we are presented with an opportunity to walk in the hypothetical parlor and converse with millennial students in ways they understand. Technology must be used not in a forced manner where an instructor merely puts a course on Blackboard, but in a manner that directly integrates aspects of technology into course lecture. This integration can be accomplished through the analysis of advertisements, such as television commercials and online advertisements. These advertisements present available artifacts of visual communication and they are accessed through technological media. Visual communication is already taught by many in our discipline, but these visual aspects of communication can be combined with numerous lectures, ranging from identification, to perception, to listening, etc. The application of television commercials to course lecture satisfies millennial students’ needs for technology, while simultaneously establishing a communal spirit in the classroom environment through the use of humorous analysis. Many communication educators have told jokes to students only to receive the feedback of blank stares and yawns.
Nonetheless, this realization should not discourage educators from using humor in the classroom. Humor lightens moods. Wanzer et al. (2010) suggest that the use of appropriate humor related to course material enhances student learning in the classroom. Although the humor generated by television commercials does not come directly from the course instructor, the instructor still uses the humor as a tool to the instructor’s advantage. Although the humor contained within a television commercial might not directly relate to course lecture, the commercial’s use as an artifact in classroom analysis to demonstrate aspects of communication deems it relevant, thereby qualifying as appropriate humor. The blank stares on students’ faces can be wiped clean with the emotions brought on by humor. This humor already exists for educators to pick and choose in the form of television commercials. While not all television commercials are humorous, plenty exist to bring a chuckle from an audience. Advertising agencies have devoted large amounts of time toward making audiences laugh, so this humor can be applied to the classroom as well; there is no need for educators to stress over their own original humorous material.
Aside from technology, and with humor in mind, a sense of community seems to be an important aspect to the millennial generation as well. Howe and Strauss (2000) describe millennials as community-oriented team players. The usage by millennials of social networking sites such as Facebook affirms this communal spirit. Individualism appears less important in the face of group experiences. Although sites like Facebook allow users to create personal profile pages, the friends, comment walls, and group memberships seem to provide just as much identity to the user as the personal information the user provides. With this communal aspect in mind, communication educators should be cognizant of how ideas are exchanged in the classroom. Millennial students might be less willing to voice their ideas individually because they see themselves as part of a group. However, if an environment is established that creates the perception of a group experience, such as class discussion devoted toward a specified artifact, then they might feel more comfortable expressing their individual ideas in the classroom environment. Along these same lines, when students examine an artifact together as a class it diminishes individual attention and places focus on the artifact while simultaneously establishing a sense of communal accomplishment with the analysis of the artifact. Class time is valuable, and a 30 second television commercial takes up a small amount of class time. Since a commercial is so short, it can easily be replayed several times to aid in the analysis of the artifact. This directly contrasts with showing longer historic speeches in the classroom. For example, the length of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech makes it difficult to replay key aspects of the speech for analysis in a timely manner. On the other hand, television commercials provide short snippets, making their analyses in a classroom setting more manageable.
For an example of an in-class analysis of a television commercial in order to appeal to the millennial student’s sense of technology and community by using humor, examine the “Babies” commercial by BP (2008). Although appearing on television a few years ago, this commercial is now available on BP’s website, alittlebettergasstation.com. The commercial is accessed through the Internet, is only 30 seconds long, and is easy to replay several times. Upon viewing the commercial, students will immediately laugh because of the commercial’s silly nature of cartoonish babies driving a car. Students gain a shared group experience by laughing at the commercial together. The humor relates to the course material in that the class discussion analysis points out aspects of the commercial used to create division and identification with a product. In this case, the babies drive by dingy gas stations with storm clouds, “Gas” signs, and eye-patch-toting gas pumps, providing evidence of BP’s use of division with “the other” gas stations that merely provide “gas.” However, when the babies approach a BP gas station, they are surrounded by rolling green hills, wind turbines, a sign displaying “BP” instead of mere gas, whistling gas pumps, and flower-shaped exhaust. Analysis would reveal to students that BP attempts to establish its identity as something more than a gas station by associating itself with happy times, lush environments, and a flower-esque logo.
In conclusion, teaching millennial students requires that communication educators adapt to the characteristics of the generation, as any communicator would adapt a message to an audience. In-class analyses of television commercials satisfy millennials’ appeals to technology and community. The humorous aspects of commercials create a shared group experience where millennials will feel more comfortable offering critical ideas.
BP (2008). Babies [Video file]. Video posted to http://www.bp.com/heliospower/sectiongenericarticle.do?categoryId=1000019&contentId=7031573
Burke, K. (1973). The philosophy of literary form (3rd ed.). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Howe. N., & Strauss, W. (2000). Millennials rising: The next great generation. New York, NY: Vintage Books.
Textor, K. (Producer). (2008, May 25). 60 Minutes [Television broadcast]. Washington, DC: CBS News.
Wanzer, M. B., Frymier, A. B., & Irwin, J. (2010). An explanation of the relationship between instructor humor and student learning: Instructional humor processing theory. Communication Education 59(1). 1-18.