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Creativity in Advertising: When It Works and When It Doesn’t

  • Werner J. Reinartz
  • Peter Saffert

Ask a professional in the business what the key to success is in advertising, and you’ll most likely get an answer that echoes the mantra of Stephan Vogel, Ogilvy & Mather Germany’s chief creative officer: “Nothing is more efficient than creative advertising. Creative advertising is more memorable, longer lasting, works with less media spending, and […]

Reprint: R1306H

Do highly creative ads really inspire people to buy products? Studies have found that creative messages get more attention and lead to positive attitudes about the products, but there’s little evidence linking those messages to purchase behavior. To address this gap, Reinartz and Saffert developed a consumer survey approach that measures perceived creativity along five dimensions—originality, flexibility, elaboration, synthesis, and artistic value—and applied the approach in a study of 437 TV ad campaigns for 90 fast-moving consumer goods brands in Germany. The study then linked the assessments to sales figures for the products.

The findings confirm that creative campaigns are, in general, more effective than other types of ads. The research also shows that the various creativity dimensions deliver different results. Elaboration, for instance, had a far more powerful effect on sales than did originality, a more commonly used dimension. Indeed, many companies focus on the wrong dimensions in their campaigns. This article reveals which product categories are best suited to creative advertising and which dimensions of creativity have the most influence on sales.

Ask a professional in the business what the key to success is in advertising, and you’ll most likely get an answer that echoes the mantra of Stephan Vogel, Ogilvy & Mather Germany’s chief creative officer: “Nothing is more efficient than creative advertising. Creative advertising is more memorable, longer lasting, works with less media spending, and builds a fan community…faster.”

  • WR Werner J. Reinartz , director of the Center for Research in Retailing (IFH) and professor of marketing at the University of Cologne, researches firms’ customer strategies and is a coauthor of Customer Relationship Management: Concept, Strategy, and Tools (Springer Books, 2018).
  • Peter Saffert is a research associate at the University of Cologne in Germany.

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  • Articles / Close reading

Close Reading of Advertising Promotes Critical Thinking

by MiddleWeb · Published 07/22/2014 · Updated 06/08/2020

This is the third article in a four-part series by expert Frank Baker, drawing connections between the Common Core’s emphasis on “close reading” and media literacy. Also see Part 1 (media text) and Part 2 (photography).


Advertising: it’s everywhere. As media literacy educators work to engage students in conversations and study about commercial marketing, we have to encompass more advertising in more mediums (radio, TV, film, internet, newspapers, magazines, social media) than ever before.

In the pre-Common Core era, we were teaching students “techniques of persuasion.” Now the terminology has shifted to “argument.” The study of advertising fits nicely in many CC standards, including these two:

▶  Speaking & Listening Standards ( Grade 8 )

Analyze the purpose of information presented in diverse media and formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) and evaluate the motives (e.g., social, commercial, political) behind its presentation. ▶  College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading ( Integration ) Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.

Deconstructing ads through the school year

As a media education consultant, I have used a number of print and non-print ads in my teacher and student workshops. As a result, I created these advertising resource web pages to assist teachers who may want to engage students in advertising analysis, deconstruction and production.

For example, during the holiday time of year (November-December), upper elementary teachers might want to take advantage of the resources on toy ads .  The start of the New Year is good time for secondary teachers to consider engaging their students in examining all the hoopla around Super Bowl ads — or the marketing messages that Hollywood producers use to promote Oscar-worthy films.

During Drug-Free Schools week, educators might want to have students analyze smoking imagery and tobacco advertising .

Top-10-political-attack-ads-logo (1)

Some teaching strategies

I recommend that teachers start first with print ads, taken from magazines or newspapers.  (After students excel at these, you can move on to non-print ads.) I teach that ads are “informational texts” and there are many ways to approach learning about them. The media literacy approach recommends that we challenge our students to think about:

• how an ad was constructed; • for what audience(s); • using which techniques; and • who benefits from the message and its placement.

An art approach might involve studying layout, design, color, font and image composition.

For ELA and social studies teachers: Think about the words “purpose” and “motive” in the CC 8th grade standard. Ask students “what is the purpose of advertising?” and most will probably say to sell something. But I would argue that advertising is much more than simply selling.

More than anything, it’s about persuasion. Challenge students to create a log of all the ads they come into contact with during a typical day. Where did they see the ads? What do they recall? Are they influenced by ads? (Just ask them to explain the logos on their clothes.)

Deconstructing a pizza ad

Here is an advertisement for pizza, taken from a magazine aimed at the tween audience.


I introduce this ad by recommending that my audience:

• read every word on the page (even words in small font) • make a list of all of the images • consider the layout, color, design, and font

I advise students to raise their hands if they come across any unfamiliar words.

Speaking of words, did you notice those words in small font running along the left margin of the ad? That might be something important, and I like to get my audience to rotate the ad horizontally in order to read those small words.

So how else might we use this ad? We might ask students to identify the slogan; tell the story; notice the colors and other attention-getters; identify the point-of-view; who has the power; how does your eye move as you read the ad?

We can take the ad deconstruction even further by challenging students to consider these questions:

– who created this ad (the answer is not on the ad) – what is the purpose of the ad? – who is the audience for the ad: what are the clues; – what magazine would you expect to publish an ad like this? – what is omitted and why? and where can students find the answers to what’s missing?

(Here is a lesson plan I did for a South Carolina project, using this pizza ad. You can find all the background information about the ad you need. There’s also an 8.5 x 11 download – large enough to read all the small print.)

After your students have gained experience at analyzing ads, you should consider giving them opportunities to create ads. (Creation sits atop the list of higher order thinking skills in this proposed Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy .)

Using VoiceThread

Several years ago, I discovered a middle grades teacher who was using Voicethread to engage her students in ad analysis and deconstruction. Take a look and listen to how her students responded to the NIKE ad and the questions she posed:


(If you don’t see the Voicethread window above, you’re likely using an Apple iOS device and need to install the Voicethread app .)

Deconstructing commercials

Where print ads rely on words and pictures, television commercials rely on words, sounds and moving images. Commercials are more complex because there are so many elements to study and analyze.

Most of us have never been inside an advertising agency (no, “Mad Men” on AMC does not count). But it is inside ad agencies that ads are born. I wish more educators embraced the work product of ad companies as they engage students in the study and investigation of the persuasion business. (Books by and about David Ogilvy , one inspiration for Mad Men, can be illuminating.)

Despite the fact that, thanks to technology, we now have more opportunities to skip ads on television and streaming media, commercials remain an inevitable part of our lives. In fact, ask students what is the purpose of TV and they’re not likely to know that it is, with few exceptions, to deliver an audience….us…to advertisers through the “allure” of programming.

Writing ad scripts

tv boy ad

Before showing students commercials, you might begin by having them write their own commercials or PSA (Public Service Announcements). A simple two-column script has AUDIO and VIDEO. If students try their hand at writing a commercial, since they’re not shooting the video they should concentrate on AUDIO (what is being said and heard). Audio includes not only the narration (on camera or voice-over), but also the music and sound effects.

Scriptwriting alone is a valuable CC-related activity, and it can be made more valuable by also having your students “storyboard” (draw) the action that the script describes. ( I spotted several introductory storyboard videos on TeacherTube .)

Should you decide to let students work on video, remember, it is both the script and the storyboard that must precede production. So before your students turn on those cameras, make sure they’ve completed the first two steps.

Studying commercials

Choose a commercial spot that you think will resonate with your students. For younger students, I recommend a toy commercial; for older students it might be one for fast food, diet products, or a candidate running for office. Plan to show the spot more than once: that way, students will pick up elements they may have missed on first viewing.

One element that teachers can call student attention to is production techniques. How might understanding camerawork, lighting, sound, editing, etc. help students understand how these elements imply meaning?


My lesson plan “Deconstructing Television Commercials” has a link to a 60-second commercial (above) as well as questions and additional resources to simulate discussion. It’s a cellphone ad from earlier days, when everyone didn’t routinely have such a device in their pocket or purse. Students can think of what that might have been like, and how the atmosphere created in this commercial, complete with howling wolves and a dark stranger, might have boosted sales.

In the fourth and final article in this series. Frank Baker will explore the connection between close reading and the language of moving images.

Part 1: Close Reading and What It Means for Media Literacy

Part 2: Close Reading: Visual Literacy through Photography

Part 4: How to Close-Read the Language of Film


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  • Published: 30 June 2023

Do I question what influencers sell me? Integration of critical thinking in the advertising literacy of Spanish adolescents

  • Beatriz Feijoo   ORCID: 1 ,
  • Luisa Zozaya 1 &
  • Charo Sádaba 2  

Humanities and Social Sciences Communications volume  10 , Article number:  363 ( 2023 ) Cite this article

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  • Cultural and media studies

Engaging with influencer posts has become a prevalent practice among adolescents on social media, exposing them to the combined elements of promotional content and entertainment in influencer marketing. However, the versatile and appealing nature of this content may hinder adolescents’ ability to engage in critical thinking and accurately interpret this hybrid form of advertising. This study aims to investigate adolescents’ capacity to critically process persuasive content shared by influencers, utilizing the five components of digital critical thinking outlined by Van Laar ( 2019 ): clarification, evaluation, justification, linking of ideas, and novelty. To analyze minors’ online experiences, a qualitative approach was employed involving twelve discussion groups with a total of 62 children and adolescents aged 11 to 17 in Spain. The findings indicate that the exercise of critical thinking in response to influencer marketing is closely associated with the cognitive and affective dimensions of advertising literacy in adolescents, while wamong them.

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In a consumer society, the cultivation of advertising literacy has long been recognized as culturally and socially necessary (Malmelin, 2010 ; Rozendaal et al., 2011 ). However, the relevance of advertising literacy has significantly increased with the widespread influence of digital technology throughout all stages of the consumer journey encompassing discovery, information search, offer evaluation, purchase decisions and product/service recommendation (Kietzmann et al., 2018 ; Shavitt and Barnes, 2020 ). The urgency for adolescents to develop advertising literacy has intensified due to the omnipresence of commercial information in various formats (Braun and Garriga, 2018 ; Cheng and Anderson, 2021 ; Humphreys et al., 2021 ; Kietzmann et al., 2018 ), such as the emergence of hybrid advertising that poses challenges in identification (Feijoo and Sádaba, 2022 ; Ikonen et al., 2017 ). Additionally, the accessibility of technology to audiences, of all age groups, including adolescents, and across various educational levels, particularly through mobile devices (An and Kang, 2014 ; Chen et al., 2013 ; Terlutter and Capella, 2013 ), exacerbates the need for promoting advertising literacy. The personal nature of screens and the exposure to commercial content amplify the urgency of addressing this issue (Oates et al., 2014 ).

Advertising literacy, which has existed even before the digital era, has now emerged as a distinct category among the various literacies that have evolved (Malmelin, 2010 ) due to the increasing digitalization of our daily lives (Selber and Selber, 2004 ). In addition to advertising literacy, other important literacies include algorithmic literacy (Dogruel et al., 2022 ; Shin et al., 2021 ), visual literacy (Avgerinou and Ericson, 1997 ), informational literacy (Behrens, 1994 ), and data literacy (Sagirolu and Sinanc, 2013 ), among others. While these literacies may primarily focus on specific perspectives that are currently of great interest, the knowledge, skills, and attitudes required for acquiring these literacies can be widely applicable across various domains. Some scholars argue that simplification is necessary to facilitate efforts in operationalizing these literacies (Kacinova and Sádaba, 2022 ).

Numerous studies on advertising literacy have emphasized that understanding advertising is necessary but insufficient for accurately processing digital messages (Rozendaal et al., 2011 ; An et al., 2014 ; Rozendaal et al., 2013 ; Vanwesenbeeck et al., 2017 ; Van Reijmersdal, 2017 ). This holds true particularly for content where the persuasive intent is more subtle, such as influencer marketing (Borchers, 2022 ; Van Dam and Van Reijmersdal, 2019 ). In addition to the cognitive dimension, considering the attitudinal dimension of advertising literacy is crucial as it plays a significant role in encouraging children to question and interpret advertisements. Attitudes such as skepticism (valuing a critical approach to advertising) or liking/disliking the phenomenon are instrumental in facilitating low-effort processing when children encounter new advertising formats. However, an examination of the results from the latest EU Kids Online questionnaire reveals that Spanish children aged 12–16 demonstrate some of the lowest levels of browsing and critical appraisal skills in Europe (Smahel et al., 2020 ).

Hence, programs aimed at enhancing advertising literacy among adolescents should not solely focus on the cognitive aspects but should also encompass the attitudinal domain, where critical thinking skills play a pivotal role. This article seeks to contribute to the ongoing discourse on advertising literacy in adolescents by employing a qualitative approach to assess their level of critical competence when confronted with influencer-generated branded content, characterized by subtle persuasive intent. The World Health Organization has coined the term “infodemic” to describe the overwhelming abundance of information individuals encounter on the internet, particularly on social networks. Therefore, it is imperative for individuals, especially children who are vulnerable during their formative years, to develop essential skills such as discerning content, identifying and selecting credible sources, curbing the spread of misinformation, and refraining from propagating falsehoods. All these skills foster responsible digital consumption.

The attitudinal and ethical dimension of adolescents’ advertising literacy in the face of influencer marketing

Leisure and social relations content holds significant relevance for children and adolescents in today’s digital landscape. Although screens have been used for educational purposes, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, entertainment continues to be a prominent component of digital device usage (IAB Spain, 2022 ), particularly among adolescents. The content consumed by minors on social networks often consists of sponsored posts and advertisements, encompassing both traditional and hybrid formats. Influencers frequently utilize this combination of formats to produce content that appeals to the varied interests of young audiences.

The traditional understanding of advertising literacy in children encompasses both cognitive and attitudinal dimensions (Rozendaal et al., 2011 ). The cognitive dimension requires the awareness of specific elements such as recognizing the intent to sell, the source, the persuasive intent, the employed tactics, and the advertising bias (Friestad and Wright, 1994 ; Livingstone and Helsper, 2006 ; Rozendaal et al., 2011 ). However, the rapid evolution of commercial tactics presents challenges in accurately processing advertising. Advertisers now employ branded content, adgames and influencer-generated content to quickly capture consumer attention and intention (van Berlo et al., 2021 ; van Dam and Van Reijmersdal, 2019 ; Hudders et al., 2016 ). Strategies used by advertisers include strategically placing content, appealing to audience emotions, offering customized experiences, and providing rewards and gifts in exchange for exposure (Feijoo and Sádaba, 2021 ). The increasing demands for stricter regulations in digital advertising sometimes surpassing those of television (Feijoo et al., 2020 ), and the suggestion of timely labeling of commercial content to facilitate identification (Lou and Yuan, 2019 ; Zozaya and Sádaba, 2022 ) further emphasize the need to address evolving advertising formats. Given the rapid evolution and ubiquity of advertising formats, developing persuasive knowledge is crucial for navigating this content, particularly among vulnerable audiences.

The attitudinal dimension of advertising literacy encompasses fostering a healthy level of skepticism and promoting critical reflection on the content individuals hear or see in terms of biases and persuasive intentions (Waiguny et al., 2014 ). Ideally, through this process of critical analysis, individuals would develop an informed response to advertising exposure.

When children come across formats that combine advertising and entertainment, they tend to engage in low-effort cognitive processing and fail to activate their developed associative knowledge network regarding the phenomenon (Mallinckrodt and Mizerski, 2007 ; Rozendaal et al., 2011 ; Rozendaal et al., 2013 ; An et al., 2014 ; Vanwesenbeeck et al., 2017 ; Van Reijmersdal et al., 2017 ). Numerous studies have focused on advergaming formats and have shown that merely recognizing the advertising intent of a message does not automatically translate into the ability to question or interpret the received content. This limited cognitive processing of non-traditional advertising formats is further influenced by several factors, such as the child’s primary attention being directed toward the recreational aspect of the format, often overshadowing the processing of the persuasive message. Consequently, advertising literacy programs should adopt an attitudinal perspective, emphasizing the promotion of critical attitudes towards advertising (Hudders et al., 2017 ; Vanwesenbeeck et al., 2017 ; Van Reijmersdal et al., 2017 ).

In recent years, the dimension of ethics has been recognized as a crucial aspect of advertising literacy (Adams et al., 2017 ; Hudders et al., 2017 ; De Jans et al., 2018 ; Sweeney et al., 2022 ; Zarouali et al., 2019 ). This addition reflects the growing pressure and diversification of advertising messages, as well as the utilization of various elements and resources aimed at achieving commercial objectives. Some advertising campaigns employ images, stories or tactics that deviate from social values or norms in order to capture the attention of potential consumers. Others attempt to circumvent legal restrictions by employing hybrid or inaccurately labeled formats or promoting unethical or illegal products or services, which may vary across cultures (Lee et al., 2011 ). To assess the potential impact of an advertising message or action on themselves, others, or society as a whole, consumers must enhance their ethical dimension (Adams et al., 2017 ; Zarouali et al., 2019 ).

The increasing digitization and its impact on consumption practices underscore the heightened necessity of advertising literacy across its three dimensions (Sweeney et al., 2022 ). Therefore, this study aims to integrate advertising literacy with the development of digital competence by emphasizing its interconnectedness with critical thinking. This integrated approach seeks to facilitate the comprehensive advancement of all three dimensions of advertising literacy. By exploring these synergies, the research intends to equip citizens, particularly adolescents as consumers of commercial content, with the ability to engage with such content in a healthy and conscientious manner. This endeavor aligns with prior research that examines the essential skills adolescents need to cultivate in the face of ubiquitous and pervasive commercial content (Hudders et al., 2017 ).

Critical thinking as a key competency in advertising literacy for adolescents

The development of critical thinking is recognized as a fundamental skill for educating new generations. Critical thinking entails an intellectually disciplined process of conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and actively evaluating information derived from reflection, reasoning, or communication which serves as a guide to belief and action (Scriven and Paul, 2007 ). It involves acquiring skills such as identifying the source of information, analyzing credibility, reflecting on information, and drawing conclusions (Linn, 2000 ; Shin et al., 2015 ). Additionally, critical thinking encompasses attitudes towards inquiry, a commitment to the accuracy of evidence, and the practical application of these attitudes and knowledge (Watson and Glaser, 1980 ).

During adolescence, the development of critical thinking becomes more prominent, relying on the advancement of formal thinking. It represents a sophisticated ability to solve complex problems, but prior training is essential to cultivate the skills necessary for evaluating one’s own thinking and the thinking of others (Delval, 1999 ). In Spain, the Royal Decree 1105/2014 of 26 December establishes the basic curriculum for Compulsory Secondary Education and the Baccalaureate. While critical thinking competency is not considered fundamental throughout the curriculum, it is addressed in a cross-cutting manner within the Secondary and Baccalaureate content.

The constant participation and immersion in the global online environment have elevated critical thinking to one of the seven essential digital skills necessary for engaging with 21st-century online content. Consequently, critical thinking is considered a priority competency by the European Union’s Innovation, Research, Culture, Education, and Youth Council ( 2022 ) in their efforts to promote digital literacy and combat misinformation. In the digital context, critical thinking serves as the foundation for developing reflective reasoning, which relies on evidence to validate or challenge the encountered information. This enables users to make informed judgments and decisions by considering the intentions behind publications and examining multiple perspectives (Amabile and Pillemer, 2012 ; Van Laar, 2019 ). An essential characteristic of critical thinking is the ability to independently evaluate arguments and evidence, detached from personal beliefs. This capacity to contrast ideas fosters the emergence of new viewpoints and contributes to meaningful discussions (Voskoglou and Buckley, 2012 ).

Van Laar ( 2019 ) identifies five components of digital critical thinking: clarification (asking and answering clarifying questions), evaluation (assessing the credibility of sources), justification (providing arguments based on personal experiences, reasoning, etc.), idea linking (connecting facts and ideas from personal experiences), and novelty (suggesting new ideas for discussion).

Figure 1 illustrates the advertising literacy model that serves as the foundation for this study (Rozendaal et al., 2011 ; Hudders et al., 2017 ). This model outlines the components of digital critical thinking that play a vital role in the attitudinal and ethical dimensions of the literacy process.

figure 1

Advertising literacy model used in this study, which includes Van Laar’s critical thinking components.

However, evidence from the European research network EU Kids Online (Garmendia et al., 2011 , 2016 , and 2019 ; Livingstone et al., 2011 ; Smahel et al., 2020 ) indicates that Spanish children consistently demonstrate the lowest levels of critical information literacy in Europe. These findings have remained consistent since 2015 (Garmendia et al., 2016 ) when Spanish children aged 9 to 16 displayed significantly lower levels of information literacy skills, such as contrasting information from different sources, compared to other activities. Only 48% of 9 to 16 year olds claimed to possess this ability, with notable gender and age differences. The most recent EU Kids Online questionnaire, which compares digital skills among children in 18 European countries, reveals alarming results, particularly for Spain. Spanish children aged 12 to 16 exhibit the lowest levels of browsing skills and critical appraisal in Europe (Smahel et al., 2020 ). Authors such as Van Deursen et al. ( 2016 ) argue for the necessity of new qualitative studies that enable a more in-depth exploration of digital skills, particularly those related to Web 2.0 activities and the technical aspects of internet use, to avoid oversimplifying the findings.

Adolescents may encounter difficulties in recognizing dynamic or entertaining advertising formats as advertisements and may face challenges in developing critical attitudes towards them. This is particularly evident in the case of influencer marketing, where influencers serve as brand ambassadors and promote products and services aligned with their personal profiles. They engage with their followers in a manner that resembles recommendations rather than sales pitches. Consequently, distinguishing between genuine product suggestions and paid collaborations can become challenging for the audience (van Dam and van Reijmersdal, 2019 ; Feijoo and Sádaba, 2021 ).

Previous research has investigated adolescents’ ability to recognize and respond to influencer-generated content with persuasive intent (Boerman and Van Reijmersdal, 2020 ; De Jans and Hudders, 2020 ; Van Reijmersdal and Rozendaal, 2020 ; Van Dam and Van Reijmersdal, 2019 ; van der Bend et al., 2023 ). Qualitative research conducted by Borchers ( 2022 ) with 132 German adolescents aged eleven to fifteen revealed their awareness of sponsored influencer posts. However, the study highlighted a tension between their understanding that sponsored content is advertising and the need to critically scrutinize it. Consequently, there is an urgent need for additional qualitative studies exploring adolescents’ online behavior and the strategies they employ to navigate the impact of persuasive content disseminated by influencers. Adopting an advertising literacy approach and aiming to foster the development of critical consumers, it is crucial to gather data on the presence of critical thinking dimensions when children and adolescents encounter messages disguised as entertainment but containing commercial intent (Feijoo and Sádaba, 2021 ).

The acquisition and development of critical thinking skills among adolescents are fundamental for advancing their advertising literacy. This serves as a crucial foundation for enhancing media and digital competence, especially considering the significant portion of content exposure occurring through internet-connected screens. Examining how critical thinking evolves during exposure to influencer marketing enables questioning, investigation, and learning. This perspective helps envision approaches that go beyond automatic responses influenced by biases against the commercial relationship between advertising and celebrities (McShane et al., 2013 ).

In light of these underlying factors, this article aims to address the following research question:

RQ1. To what extent do adolescents’ reactions to commercial content created by influencers encompass the components of critical thinking as defined by Van Laar ( 2019 )?


The objective of this study is to investigate how adolescents use critical thinking when exposed to influencer-generated content. A qualitative methodology will be employed to accomplish this aim. In assessing critical thinking, the study will adopt the five dimensions proposed by Van Laar ( 2019 ) as a framework.

Participants and selection process

For this study, a sample of 62 students between the ages of 11 and 17 ( M  = 14.14, SD = 1.9) was selected, comprising 59.7% female participants and 40.3% male participants. These students were drawn from multiple schools located across different regions of Spain, with 41.9% from the South, 22.6% from the Levante region, 19.3% from the North, 9.7% from the Canary Islands, and 6.5% from the central area.

Twelve virtual focus groups were conducted using platforms familiar to the participants, namely Zoom and Microsoft Teams between April and June 2021. To ensure more specific data across different segments of the sample, three focus groups were organized for each age group, categorized by socio-economic status (low, medium, and high). This approach allows for a comprehensive examination of the research participants’ perspectives. Additionally, the number of focus groups aligns with previous studies on children and adolescents in Spain, which commonly utilized 10 to 12 focus groups (Iglesias et al., 2015 ; Nuñez-Gomez et al., 2020 ). To create a comfortable environment for the younger interviewees, the focus groups were structured to include adolescents of the same age, minimizing any potential inhibitions caused by interactions with older participants.

The sample selection process for participation in the focus groups was conducted as follows. A non-probabilistic sample was chosen in collaboration with educational centers. The sample was defined based on two filtering criteria: age and the socio-economic profile and location of the school attended by the students. Regarding age, the participants were divided into four categories corresponding to their grade level: elementary students (6th graders), 1st cycle of ESO (7th and 8th graders), 2nd cycle of ESO (9th and 10th graders), and Baccalaureate (11th and 12th graders).

To classify schools, two criteria were employed: funding sources and geographical location. Schools were categorized as private, charter or public based on their funding sources. In terms of geographical location, it served as an initial indicator of the socioeconomic level of the households from which the participants came (Andrino et al., 2019 ). Subsequently, students were classified as attending high-income (+€30,000), medium-income (€11,450-€30,350), or low-income (-€11,450) SEG schools, using data provided by the Spanish National Institute of Statistics (Andrino et al., 2021 ).

Table 1 illustrates the distribution of the focus groups based on two predetermined filter variables:

This project encompassed various ethical considerations, particularly concerning the involvement of adolescents in the fieldwork. To address these concerns prior informed parental consent was obtained, in accordance with the guidance and oversight of the University Ethics Committee, which both financed and reviewed the research project and approved the final report.

Structure of the focus groups

This study employed a qualitative research design, utilizing focus groups as the primary data collection method to explore the opinions and attitudes of participants towards social networks. The use of focus groups facilitated the recording of adolescents’ perceptions, and their online behaviors through peer discussions. By analyzing the recorded sessions, researchers gained valuable insights into the online dynamics of the participants, including how adolescents share their experiences and engage in idea exchange with other users (Gómez et al., 1996 ).

The group session commenced with an overview of the objectives and an introduction of the group members. A preliminary exploratory question was posed to the participating students, seeking insights into their social media usage and their preferred platforms for engagement. Subsequently, the researchers delved into the central research questions, inquiring about the influencers they follow and the motivations behind their choices. This led the discussion towards an examination of the credibility and trustworthiness of these influencers. Lastly, the researchers gathered information on the participants’ perceptions of influencers as brand collaborators.

Table 2 shows the precise questions that served as a guide during the discussion.

The protocol for the focus groups began by individually verifying the audio and video settings for all participants. Additionally, they were reassured regarding the confidentiality and privacy of the recordings, with specific mention that access to the files was restricted to the participating researchers. It was emphasized that participation was voluntary, and participants were free to withdraw at any time. Each discussion group lasted approximately 50 min, and consisted of 4–6 participants, with one, exception where three participants were present due to an unforeseen circumstance preventing one attendee from joining at the last moment.

The information analysis process is outlined as follows:

Phase 1: Verbatim transcription. During this phase, the recordings of each focus group were transcribed in a word-for-word manner.

Phase 2: Dimension identification. A team of researchers specializing in education and communication, with expertize in the use of social networks, collaboratively reached a consensus on identifying the dimensions of critical thinking. This process involved referring to the scientific literature reviewed in this study.

Phase 3: Categorization process. During this phase, the transcripts were carefully reviewed, and the statements were categorized based on the dimensions identified in the previous phase. The NVivo 12 Plus software was utilized to conduct content analysis of the transcripts.

Table 3 presents the adapted components of critical thinking, based on Van Laar’s ( 2019 ) framework, used by the authors to analyze the critical thinking abilities of adolescents when exposed to persuasive content from influencers.


Instagram emerges as the most popular social network across all age groups, comprising 33.53% of total mentions, followed by TikTok at 23.87%, WhatsApp at 14.05%, and YouTube at 12.54%. However, platform preferences vary among different age groups. Primary school and first-cycle ESO students, show a preference for Tiktok, Youtube, Twitch, and Discord. As students’ progress to the second cycle of ESO and beyond, there is a decline in their usage of these platforms, with Instagram becoming the dominant choice, accounting for 47.10% of mentions in Baccalaureate. These usage patterns also reflect differences in users’ motivations. Younger users tend to consume more entertainment-oriented content on platforms like YouTube, TikTok, or Twitch, while older users focus move on communication with friends and family and information consumption. However, recreational usage remains prevalent, particularly among Baccalaureate students.

Participants’ opinions regarding influencers, displayed a high level of consistency across different age groups. They consistently acknowledged the commercial intent and economic nature underlying influencers’ activities and they deemed product promotion as an essential attribute defining an ‘influencer’. Consequently, influencers who do not meet this requirement are excluded from the definition.

Components of critical thinking in advertising literacy


During the focus group discussions, participants shared their daily interactions with influencers and their understanding of their role as content creators. They expressed familiarity with influencers’ practices and their ability to question the intentions behind the shared content, which led adolescents, including children as young as 11 years old, to associate influencers with advertising. For instance, a female participant from the 6 th grade, belonging to a high socio-economic group provided the following insight:

“If a company wants to sell a product, they often approach a highly popular individual, and request them to feature the product in videos. Many people are influenced to desire the product simply because that person possesses it” (FG1, female, elementary school, high SEG).

Furthermore, participants engaged in discussions questioning the authenticity of influencers’ appearances and raised concerns regarding the negative effects of such alterations. A participant from Baccalaureate, belonging to a low socio-economic group, shared,

“They edit their photos to create an unrealistic image of themselves, which makes us feel uncomfortable because we don’t look like them. They want us to believe that they look like that in real life” (FG9, female, Baccalaureate, low SEG).

This discussion also addressed the use filters, prompting questions about the credibility of recommendations. Another participant shared the following observation:

“Once, an influencer claimed to love a makeup product and wore it in the video, but I noticed she was also using a beauty filter. It surprised me because if the makeup was truly good, why did she need to rely on a filter?” (FG5, female, 2nd cycle ESO, high SEG).

Participants expressed skepticism regarding the authenticity of influencers’ content by examining their language, product presentations, and app usage.

Teenagers and adolescents view repetitive and unoriginal messages with suspicion often questioning the content when they detect common elements that deviate from the narrative:

“When I see someone excessively advertising and repeatedly saying things like ‘oh, this is so good, it’s super, super good, super cheap, super…’, I immediately become suspicious because it doesn’t seem normal to insist so heavily on the greatness of a product… I can tell that someone’s economic interests are involved” (FG3, male, 2nd cycle ESO, low SEG).

The characterization of influencers was identified as a crucial filter through which adolescents evaluate advertising sources. Influencers who solely exist on social networks were categorized in a way that limits their persuasive impact. One participant shared his perspective:

“Influencers and others who engage in gossip, they are less trustworthy. It’s possible that some are solely motivated by money, followers and similar motives. The genuine ones are perhaps the ones who pursue their passions without solely focusing on external gains” (FG3, male, 2nd cycle ESO, low SEG).

The participants recognized the significance of influencers having direct experience with the advertised product when assessing the appropriateness of influencer collaborations and validating recommendations on specific topics. Adolescents expect influencers to have a genuine connection with the product rather than promoting it solely for advertising purposes. One participant offered her viewpoint:

“’If someone says ‘Buy this racket because it’s the best’ …in this case, maybe yes, but if this person were an influencer, which is what we are discussing, someone who relies on social networks and is obligated to engage in this type of advertising, well, no” (FG7, female, 1st cycle ESO, medium SEG).

However, interviewees also emphasized the emotional connection and inspiration they felt towards influencers, extending beyond simply evaluating their expertize in content creation. A participant expressed

“I believe that when you follow someone and aspire to be like that person it’s because they fulfill certain emotional and inspirational criteria that validate you in a certain way” (FG4, male, 2nd cycle ESO, medium SEG).

Among the interviewed adolescents, the physical appearance of influencers was considered a valid criterion for providing dietary and esthetic recommendations to their audiences. As one participant explained:

“She has an amazing body, and she’s not very young anymore… she has three children, if I’m not mistaken, and she’s doing great. So, in the case of diets, I understand that their appearance serves as a reference. I don’t believe this girl has a reason to deceive me, I don’t think she does, because no one is paying her” (FG5, female, 2nd cycle ESO, high SEG).

However, it is important to note that this argument was not universally accepted and was not deemed valid for all recommendations.


Participants in the study justified the use of exaggerated content by influencers, considering it part of the social media game. They acknowledged the artificial nature of influencers’ online personas but found it entertaining. One participant shared her viewpoint:

“Even though they present a false life and such, it entertains us, you know? They somehow captivate us with their actions and that’s why we choose to follow them” (FG2, female, 1st cycle ESO, high SEG).

Additionally, participants noted that certain practices including controversy, were necessary for influencers to build their social media profiles, based on stories shared within their close circles. Another female participant explained:

“When you have over 15,000 followers on TikTok, you start getting paid based on the number of views. That’s what they do. They intentionally create controversy, and some TikTokers with 5 million views get paid around ten euros per video, or even more. I know this because my brother’s coworker gets paid, you know…” (FG10, female, 1st cycle ESO, low SEG).

Adolescents justify their decision to follow non-authentic profiles by emphasizing their appreciation for other aspects displayed by influencers such as shared interests and new content. As one participant expressed:

“I follow her because I enjoy seeing her fashion choices, discovering new things, and I also admire her style and what she does. Despite the possibility of her portraying a false life, I still appreciate her content” (FG2, female, 1st cycle ESO, high SEG).

Linking ideas and novelty

Participants leveraged their understanding of sales strategies to explain the persuasive techniques employed in advertising. A male participant explained:

“In argumentation there’s this one thing which is, to sell something or to promote an idea, you need to incorporate the endorsement of a respected individual” (FG4, male, 2nd cycle ESO, medium SEG).

In several focus groups, participants referenced lessons taught by their teachers to help explain the phenomenon of influencer marketing. As one participant stated:

“Our teacher informed us about how they try to sell things. It’s true, that if you’re selling a product, you can’t directly say ‘buy this’ or ‘buy it from me’. Instead, you might highlight its quality and durability, which could sway undecided individuals towards making a purchase” (FG3, male, 2nd cycle ESO, low SEG).

Participants drew on their academic knowledge to both explain and critique advertising techniques employed by influencers. For example, one participant provided a critique of the repetitive and tiresome nature of English instruction in YouTube videos. One male participant mentioned:

“The typical YouTuber who promotes Letyshops, and promises refunds, or excessive branding” (FG5, male, 2nd cycle ESO, high SEG).

Furthermore, participants engaged in a critical analysis of the ethics behind certain influencer collaborations highlighting the promotion of bookmakers as an example. As a participant explained:

“Several influencers, particularly Spanish ones, started endorsing bookmakers. They would tell all their followers ‘Hey look, I’ve earned so much by betting on Atleti or Madrid’ and they would display screenshots claiming their winnings… I believe they are exploiting people’s vulnerability” (FG3, male, 2nd cycle ESO, low SEG).

Despite criticisms directed towards content creator practices, participants engaged in debates regarding the impact of exposure to influencer content on the mental health of adolescents, as well as the potential distortion of reality it can cause. A participant stated:

“The problem with influencers and everything surrounding them is that above all, it affects the personality and imagination of everyone, right? It creates this image of a perfect world, a phenomenal life that, ultimately even affects our mental well-being” (FG6, female, Baccalaureate, high SEG).

In addition, some participants made connections between body and diet recommendations from influencers and their own struggles with eating issues. They also questioned the suitability of influencers as spokespersons for such matters, arguing that there are certain topics in which influencers should not offer opinions as they lack the necessary qualifications. As one participant expressed:

“There are certain things that can be promoted, but others are like ‘it’s not your business’ and should be left to a doctors or other medical professionals” (FG7, girl, 1st cycle ESO, medium SEG).

Some adolescents mentioned seeking clarification and guidance, from their parents, bringing new insights to the discussion. One participant shared his experience:

“My mother works as a publicist, and she recently collaborated with an influencer to promote a shopping center. The influencer visited the stores in the mall and promoted them” (FG2, male, 1st cycle ESO, high SEG).

Figure 2 summarizes the critical thinking components in the discourse of the participants.

figure 2

Source: Compiled by the authors.

Consequences resulting from critical thinking

As a result of discussing persuasive practices and influencer marketing, interviewees demonstrated a critical attitude towards the latter and expressed the need for content creators, brands, and platforms to provide a less invasive social media experience. One participant from the same group stated:

“So, what I did was I read it the first time they published it, and then I directly personalized it to prevent similar recommendations” (FG2, male, 1st cycle ESO, high SEG).

The critical engagement of baccalaureate students from different socio-economic levels with influencer content was further outlined through three specific actions:

Not following influencers: Baccalaureate students from various socio-economic backgrounds displayed a critical attitude towards influencer content which was reflected in their actions. One of these actions involved the decision not to follow influencers, recognizing the potential negative impact on their self-esteem and well-being. While this practice was not common among the interviewees, one participant explained her decision as follows:

“I have set a goal for myself to not follow any influencers […] because I don’t want to compare myself to anyone. I understand that what they show may not be entirely true, and I don’t want to idealize or view them as role models. It’s not something that contributes to my well-being” (FG6, girl, Baccalaureate, high SEG).

Following influencers and considering their advice: Some participants, particularly adolescents rely on influencer recommendations when making purchase decisions. They evaluate the influencers’ profiles and the quality of their content before trusting their advice. One participant shared her experience, stating:

“I needed to buy a specific type of paint called Watch and what I did was look for paint artists, YouTubers (laughs) who recommended it and whose opinions I liked the most. I used them as a reference to purchase the drawing supplies” (FG12, female, Baccalaureate, medium SEG).

Following influencers while being selective about their recommendations: In this scenario, an interviewee acknowledges that they priorize following influencers, but prefers the advice of true experts over influencer recommendations, particularly when the influencers lack expertize in a specific field, and are solely motivated by financial gain:

“Somehow I don’t always trust the products they promote, because I feel like they do it just for money. They don’t really care if it works for you or not. In those cases, I prefer to go to the pharmacy and listen to the recommendations of the pharmacist rather than relying solely on an influencer” (FG9, female, Baccalaureate, low SEG).

Overall, there was a noticeable trend towards more complex, critical, and well-informed discussions on influencer marketing among older age groups. This was particularly evident in the focus groups conducted with students in the 2nd cycle of ESO and Baccalaureate, as they demonstrated a greater ability to connect influencers’ activities with various outcomes, including the impact on body satisfaction for users.

Consequently, older age groups expressed concerns about the potential effects of influencer content on young people, such as the creation of unrealistic stereotypes that do not reflect the reality of the population., This can lead to feelings of frustration and dissatisfaction with life or one’s body. It is important to note that in the 12-13 age group, thinking tends to be concrete, as they may not perceive the future consequences of their actions and decisions. This age group is characterized by a more narcissistic view of self. However, as adolescents progress beyond this stage, they develop increasingly abstract thinking, abilities, enabling them to engage in critical analysis and discussions while seeking solutions and articulating well-founded arguments (Casas-Rivero and González-Fierro, 2005 ).

Figure 3 shows the consequent steps related to advertising literacy.

figure 3

This article explores the cognitive, attitudinal, and ethical dimensions of the advertising literacy model proposed by Rozendaal et al. ( 2011 ) and Hudders et al. ( 2016 , 2017 ) which comprehensively encompass the processing of the advertising phenomenon. Understanding these dimensions becomes especially relevant when addressing the more subtle advertising formats that resemble entertainment (Feijoo and Sádaba, 2022 ; Ikonen et al., 2017 ). The present study provides insights into the questions raised by previous researchers (Hudders et al., 2017 ) regarding how adolescents engage with these new hybrid advertising formats and the essential skills that strengthen their associative networks, particularly at the ethical and affective/attitudinal levels (Mallinckrodt and Mizerski, 2007 ; Rozendaal et al., 2011 ; Rozendaal et al., 2013 ; An et al., 2014 ; Vanwesenbeeck et al., 2017 ; Van Reijmersdal et al., 2017 ). It is increasingly crucial to comprehend this area as adolescents are increasingly exposed to influence marketing, an advertising format characterized by the mingling of persuasive and entertaining content (Borchers, 2022 ; Van Dam and Van Reijmersdal, 2019 ). Within this context, the development of critical thinking skills becomes paramount for adolescents, making it relevant to examine its application at a dispositional level in the current advertising landscape.

Van Laar ( 2019 ) identified five dimensions clarification, evaluation, justification, linking ideas, and novelty for assessing critical thinking in the digital context. This study provides evidence that adolescents generally apply these dimensions when encountering influencer marketing. The findings are based on an analysis of statements made by adolescents during the discussion groups. Participants demonstrated an understanding that product and brand promotion are inherent to the role of an influencer and recognized their intentional and persuasive strategies. They were critical in evaluating influencers by questioning and assessing their experiences and origins before granting them credibility in their storytelling.

Similarly, the emotional connection that adolescents feel towards influencers is crucial in determining the credibility of their commercial arguments (Feijoo and Sádaba, 2021 ). Adolescents demonstrate a tendency to contextualize the content displayed by influencers and exercise caution in detecting the use of reality-altering tools, such as filters. They also recognize that social media portrays only the positive and friendly aspects of influencers’ lives aiming to foster an aspirational relationship between followers and celebrities. Older adolescents, particularly those in the 2nd cycle of ESO and Baccalaureate, contribute new ideas to the discussion highlighting the expectations generated by such publications, the promotion of ideal esthetics, and the potential impact on their audience’s well-being. Notably, older participants demonstrate a more advanced ability to link ideas and add nuance to the discussions, indicating a higher level of abstract thinking (Casas-Rivero and González-Fierro, 2005 ).

However, it appears that adolescents are willing to accept exaggeration and superficiality as inherent features of influencer content and social media platforms. As a result, they tend to incorporate these traits into their digital routines, sometimes creating two profiles on the same platform. One profile serves as a curated showcase of their “public life” accessible to relatives, friends, and acquaintances, while the other remains more personal and private, accessible only to their closest circle.

Thus, it can be concluded that the adolescents interviewed in this study demonstrate a thoughtful approach when confronted with influencers’ persuasive messages. They exhibit awareness of and engagement with the cognitive and attitudinal dimensions of advertising literacy as they filter and evaluate these messages. In fact, they apply critical thinking skills by questioning the tactics used, assessing the influencer’s connection to the promoted product and their own preferences recognizing exaggeration and relativism as inherent to the influencer industry, and considering the emotional impact of these publications on their lives. They also propose solutions to counterbalance any potential negative effects on their self-esteem. It is worth noting that influencer marketing is a familiar advertising phenomenon to young audiences. It would be valuable to investigate whether adolescents apply the same components of critical thinking when faced with other hybrid practices, such as advergaming.

The scope adolescents’ critical thinking now extends recognizing the advertising phenomenon. They are aware of the rules of the commercial game (Borchers, 2022 ; van der Bend et al., 2023 ), and incorporate them into their digital behavior. However, they do not appear to thoroughly examine the ethical appropriateness of the resources employed (Sweeney et al., 2022 ). As previous research by Hudders et al. ( 2017 ) suggests, the ability to evaluate advertising from a moral standpoint is increasingly crucial, especially considering the intertwining of advertising formats with entertainment in the digital realm.

Individual ethical analysis of advertising relies on people’s knowledge and life experience regarding societal values and norms (Lee et al., 2011 ). It is worth noting that in Spain, where this study was conducted, there is currently no specific regulation concerning influencer marketing, despite the launch of some self-regulatory initiatives promoting more ethical use. None of the adolescents mentioned the normative dimension or the moral implications of whether promotional content should be explicitly identified as such, as observed in the investigations conducted by Van Dam and Van Reijmersdal ( 2019 ) or Sweeney et al. ( 2022 ) regarding influencer-sponsored videos.

Thus, while this research indicates that adolescents are employing critical thinking in cognitive and affective aspects, particularly, at the attitudinal level (Borchers, 2022 ; Rozendaal et al., 2011 ; Hudders et al., 2017 ), the moral dimension is largely overlooked. Although topics such as the use of filters and the utilization of personal data to tailor commercial messages were mentioned, no explicit references or reflections on the moral suitability of influencer marketing or evaluations of moral exaggeration were observed.

In the context of hybrid digital formats, it is crucial to incorporate the ethical dimension into advertising literacy for younger generations. This dimension enables adolescents to distinguish between right and wrong and to understand its impact of their choices the individual and societal behavior. Only by integrating ethics into advertising literacy can we truly claim that critical thinking has been achieved (Van Laar, 2019 ). This is especially important in an ever-changing digital environment where commercial content continually evolves (Borchers, 2022 ; Braun and Garriga, 2018 ; Cheng and Anderson, 2021 ; Humphreys et al., 2021 ; Kietzmann et al., 2018 ; Feijoo and Sádaba, 2022 ; Ikonen et al., 2017 ).


In a context where children and adolescents are spending an increasing amount of time on the internet, it is crucial to ensure that they possess the necessary competences to navigate the digital environment effectively, both in terms of managing risks and capitalizing on opportunities. While commercial interests are prevalent in Western societies (Kietzmann et al., 2018 ; Shavitt and Barnes, 2020 ), it is of utmost importance to teach young users to identify, process and understand the ethical implications of advertising (Chen et al., 2013 ; Terlutter and Capella, 2013 ; An and Kang, 2014 ; Oates et al., 2014 ;; Ikonen et al., 2017 ; Braun and Garriga, 2018 ; Kietzmann et al., 2018 ; Cheng and Anderson, 2021 ; Humphreys et al., 2021 ; Feijoo and Sádaba, 2022 ).

Digital competence programs have gained attention in recent decades, but it is essential to incorporate the perspective of advertising literacy to address the experiences of young users online, where ads are present in various forms, including subtle and difficult-to-identify modes such as influencer marketing (Rozendaal et al., 2011 ; Adams et al., 2017 ; Hudders et al., 2017 ; De Jans et al., 2018 ; Van Dam and Van Reijmersdal, 2019 ; Zarouali et al., 2019 ; Sweeney et al., 2022 ; Borchers, 2022 ; Kacinova and Sádaba, 2022 ). This advertising literacy should encompass cognitive, attitudinal and ethical dimensions, with critical thinking playing a crucial role.

Implications and future research

The findings of this study have significant implications for the design of advertising and media literacy programs for adolescents. The digital literacy for the younger generation should incorporate an ethical dimension to help them differentiate between good and bad content and understand its impact on individuals and society. This is crucial for fostering critical thinking, a vital skill in the digital landscape where content can often be ambiguous. In an educational context, it is imperative to equip future citizens with digital intelligence and cultivate humanities that align with the demands of the digital age.

The present study, conducted through qualitative methodology, offers valuable insights into the critical capacity of adolescents in interpreting emerging digital advertising formats that combine persuasive intent with entertainment. However, the study acknowledges its limitations in terms of the exploratory nature of qualitative approaches and the inherent constraints of the research design: the sample size precludes generalization of conclusions. For this, further research is needed to replicate and expand on these findings in different cultural contexts, as in the recognition of the ethical dimension of advertising can be influenced by cultural factors. Additionally, it is essential to explore how critical thinking manifests among adolescents when exposed to other digital advertising formats like advergaming or native advertising. This future research should also delve into the ethical dimension of advertising literacy, taking into account the influence of adolescents’ home and educational backgrounds.

Data availability

The data presented in this study can be made available upon request from the corresponding author.

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This work was supported by the Ministry of Science and Innovation of the Government of Spain under I+D+i Project ref. PID2020‐116841RA‐I00. The research was also funded by the Research Plan of the International University of La Rioja (UNIR). We also wish to thank Angela Gearhart for her translation of the original manuscript into English.

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advertising and critical thinking

Teaching Critical Thinking Through Tourism Advertising

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This paper proposes a tool for teaching advertising through case studies, enhancing critical skills, media and visual literacy. Using a three-letter acronym and relying on Observation, Research and Conclusion, O.R.C. is here applied on a print ad that promotes Greece as a tourism destination. The paper shows how O.R.C. may lead students to understand the underlying advertising strategy. The tool is considered suitable for advertisements of different product categories in different media. It can initially be used in class, with the instructor’s guidance, and later in written assessments, formative and summative, since it allows for the formation of specific grading criteria that are process oriented. The tool may be of use both in marketing and media departments and relies on the premise that stimulus-based research rather than a priori research helps students discover knowledge and develop their critical thinking.

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Miliopoulou, GZ. (2020). Teaching Critical Thinking Through Tourism Advertising. In: Kavoura, A., Kefallonitis, E., Theodoridis, P. (eds) Strategic Innovative Marketing and Tourism. Springer Proceedings in Business and Economics. Springer, Cham.

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Critical Thinking: A Crucial Role in Achieving Marketing Excellence Today

advertising and critical thinking

The ability to think critically is one of the most important skills marketers need to develop in today’s digital world. Consequently, marketers can make smart decisions backed by facts and logical arguments, leading to better company performance and success. Additionally, professional marketers must be capable of making and implementing decisions quickly. Learning to distinguish intelligence from critical thinking is vital to your marketing team’s success.

Moreover, critical thinking can take many forms in marketing, such as decision-making, content and brand auditing, prioritization, troubleshooting, case analysis, correlation, and data interpretation. Marketers employ critical thinking strategically in several ways, like:

  • Creative strategies: Critical thinkers can use creative strategies to look for creative messages that they want people to see.
  • Problem-solving and decision-making: Critical thinking helps marketers develop their problem-solving and decision-making skills.
  • Customer engagement: Critical thinkers are sure about the reasoning behind their decisions, allowing them to communicate with employees clearly. This level of communication enhances employee engagement.
  • Dealing with difficult customers: Critical thinking skills are essential for dealing with difficult customers because they help your team make informed decisions while managing stressful situations.

Would you consider critical thinking to be one of your strengths? Why do you need it? Do you enjoy analyzing situations, thinking outside the box from different perspectives, and making informed decisions through thoughtful consideration?

Furthermore, the ability to evaluate the credibility and accuracy of information, ask good questions about it, and act based on its importance to success is essential in critical thinking. An interesting article in HBR about how to develop critical thinking mentioned three elements. It requires the ability to recognize weakness in other arguments, a love for good evidence, and a willingness to reflect on your own perspectives, beliefs, and values.

Developing critical thinking takes practice, openness, and a willingness to challenge your assumptions. Incorporating these strategies into your daily routine will contribute to the development of robust critical thinking skills over time.

Examples of Critical Thinking

Certainly, the ability to critically analyze marketing campaigns is crucial to developing successful campaigns that resonate with your target audience and stand out from the competition. Further, marketers can drive business success by analyzing data, identifying market gaps, and generating creative ideas.  To illustrate, here are some examples:

  • The “Share a Coke” campaign by Coca-Cola is a great example of successful marketing through critical thinking— analyzing customer data to personalize products with popular names, fostering social media sharing, and a powerful call to action to engage customers and create a sense of community around the brand and achieving a 2.5% sales increase in the US, and winning prestigious awards, demonstrating how critical thinking can drive innovative and effective marketing strategies that resonate with customers and drive sales.
  • Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign showcases critical thinking in challenging beauty norms . Featuring diverse women, the campaign recognized shifting beauty perceptions, prioritizing authenticity, and relatability . Dove’s marketing team decided to break away from the industry norm of using airbrushed models, Dove celebrated natural beauty, resonating widely, fostering brand loyalty, and setting a new standard for inclusive marketing. Dove challenged beauty norms, resonating with consumers, fostering loyalty, and redefining inclusive marketing, setting a new industry standard.

Effective Critical Thinking

Moreover, many articles suggest different habits to help improve your critical thinking—tailor them to your style and practice consistently.  Cultivate keen observation, probing questions, deep reflection and analysis, creative synthesis, and decisive judgment for optimal results.

“In the words of Zig Ziglar, ‘It’s Attitude, Not Aptitude, Which Determines Altitude.’ This powerful statement highlights the importance of mindset over natural abilities.  This quote encourages critical thinking, prompting reflection on attitudes, and mindsets and emphasizing their impact on success and growth.

To sum up, being good at critical thinking is like a superpower for achieving success. It helps make smart decisions, boost company performance, and handle the challenges of the digital age. Whether it’s creative ideas, problem-solving, talking with customers, or dealing with tough situations, critical thinking is the key to clarity, good communication, and engaged employees. Succeed in marketing by practicing, embracing new ideas, and questioning the status quo—it’s the key to success in this dynamic field. Therefore, it is not just a valuable skill; it’s a cornerstone for success in today’s digital age. Marketers can enhance decision-making, customer engagement, and problem-solving in the dynamic and competitive field of marketing.

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10 Visual Arguments, Media and Advertising

Andrew Gurevich

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Visual Arguments

In this chapter, we will be exploring the use of visuals (images, charts, graphs, etc.) in the presentation of arguments. Like any other piece of support, images and other visuals are compelling when used correctly. They also can be used in ways that contribute to all of the flaws, fallacies, and faulty reasoning we have been exploring all along. Images can support written or spoken arguments or become the arguments themselves . They hold great power in advertising, journalism, politics, academia, and many other areas of our media-managed perceptions of the world around us. As such they deserve our attention here as we continue our discussion of the analysis and construction of valid arguments.

When we say “argument,” we usually think of either spoken or written arguments. However, arguments can be made in all forms, including visual arguments. Visual arguments rely on images to persuade a viewer to believe or do something. Advertisements in magazines are often types of visual arguments. But there are many other examples to consider, each with their own particular set of parameters to evaluate in pursuit of analyzing and constructing valid arguments.

Basically, a visual argument is a supporting (or rebuttal) statement. It utilizes various images to intensify the effect on the audience. It is undoubtedly true that pictures or other visual art pieces help engage a wider range of people. In addition, images sometimes may reflect the values and beliefs of the culture. Thus, visuals arguments are more appealing to the public than verbal ones.

Exploring the usage of the images as a way of conveying the message requires substantial research. That is why visual rhetoric should be examined. The desire to watch a movie, streaming series, or a cartoon is probably familiar to everyone. Though, not everyone notices when it happens after seeing a poster. Most of us are unaware of how bombarded we are with visual rhetoric and the extent to which it actually does influence our thoughts and behaviors. But it’s not all nefarious. A bright advertising picture can lead to taking part in a charity event, as well, or lead people to donate money or blood to victims of a natural disaster or war. Such experiences may be deeply personal and at the same time shared by the majority of people within a society, culture, or subculture. These are just a few examples of the vast impact of visual rhetoric on the public mind. By employing visual rhetoric, the author can lead the reader/viewer to different outcomes. For instance, they can induce compassion, anger, fear, curiosity, etc.

Marketing companies often use visual rhetoric to the advantages. It can become an effective way for a successful product or a service promotion. Visual argument advertisements are often the most effective in persuading consumers to make a purchase, because they can communicate a lot of information, and more importantly emotional impact, very quickly. The “father” of this science, first called “public relations,” was a man by the name of Edward Bernays, who was none other than the nephew of the famous Swiss psychologist Sigmund Freud. In fact, Bernays used many of his uncle’s theories about the human mind to craft the basic models of the advertising industry that are still very much employed today. We will watch a film about the history of the advertising industry, and Ed Bernays in particular, below. But for now, it is important to understand how visual argument works and what the best practices are for using it effectively, ethically, and creatively to support the arguments you make in academic contexts.

Say you are at the doctor’s office in the waiting room, and you see an advertisement that has a beautiful model sitting in a Lexus driving down a long, open road. The image may evoke some feelings of inadequacy (“I’ll never be as pretty as her”), freedom (the long, winding road), and envy. All of these work together as an “argument” to convince you that a Lexus will change your life, and you will be as beautiful and as free as the model if you only had one. On a rational level, we know none of this is true. But the ad does not speak to our rational minds. It speaks to a more irrational place, the subconscious, where our desires and thoughts often mix with memories, projections, fears, and other phobias to encourage an irrational response to the stimulus. As we can already see, like with other forms of arguments, visual arguments may contain logical fallacies or use (and misuse) rhetorical appeals to persuade the viewer. Our job is to learn to spot the misuse of them, and to also use them ethically, accurately, and responsibly in our own argumentative contexts.

Learning to decode visual arguments can be challenging. We are bombarded with images every day and are often unaware of how they affect us. For instance, did you know that red, yellow, orange, and green make us hungry? Think about fast food chains. How many of them use one, or more, of those colors in their logo or design? In movies, we associate black with bad and white with good. In Star Wars , Darth Vader wears a black cloak, while Luke Skywalker often has light clothing. If a political cartoon showed a politician speaking in Times New Roman font and another politician speaking in Comic Sans, then it could be implying that one politician is serious while the other is childish. We tend to think of “visual” to mean only pictures, but learning to recognize how not just images, but color, layout, perspective, and even font choices, can affect people and influence their thoughts and choices  can help you to hone your visual literacy and learn how to identify and evaluate visual arguments.

Adding visual elements to a persuasive argument can often strengthen its persuasive effect. There are two main types of visual elements: quantitative visuals and qualitative visuals .

Quantitative visuals present data graphically. They allow the audience to see statistics spatially. The purpose of using quantitative visuals is to make logical appeals to the audience. For example, sometimes it is easier to understand the disparity in certain statistics if you can see how the disparity looks graphically. Bar graphs, pie charts, Venn diagrams, histograms, and line graphs are all ways of presenting quantitative data in spatial dimensions.

Qualitative visuals present images that appeal to the audience’s emotions. Photographs and pictorial images are examples of qualitative visuals. Such images often try to convey a story, and seeing an actual example can carry more power than hearing or reading about the example. For example, one image of a child suffering from malnutrition will likely have more of an emotional impact than pages dedicated to describing that same condition in writing.


The Venn diagram above is a great example of how an image can be used effectively to communicate a complicated idea rather quickly and efficiently. Here, we can see that “sustainability” is defined as the intersection of environmental, economic, and social concerns, for instance. Proper use of visuals can help us connect with an audience’s emotions and values, build credibility, and share data and logical information in memorable and engaging ways.

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  • Review the document: Conducting Visual Arguments

Visual Argument Example: Gatorade Ad

Among the diversity of visual arguments,  advertisers provide some of the most powerful examples. Let’s examine a visual argument for Gatorade—a drink for sportspeople. It illustrates the supposed superiority of the Gatorade drink, among other beverages. A bright picture of the bottle and a memorable slogan are a marketing specialist’s craft. It combines three main aspects of a successful visual ad: use of colors, “supernatural” power, and shock appeal.

Gatorade advertisement as a visual argument.

The developers of the given visual ad reached a perfect mix of colors. The dominating ones of the poster are blue and green, which are generally considered to be “natural” ones. Nothing can be more powerful than “nature.” These are also the colors of “sport”. The colors of the grass and the sky. This idea serves as the hidden message of this color combination. As a result of this color mixing technique, the ad creator reaches its primary goal—the assurance of success in the race!

In addition to an effective color combination, the advertisement reflects a concept in advertising often referred to as “supernatural power.” The image illustrates the bright container with the Gatorade drink pulling away from the others and dramatically winning the race. Moreover, it seems that the bottle with the advertised drink is “reaching for the sky.” This detail makes the ad even more eye-appealing and further suggests the one who has the drink will have the same power.

The rhetorical analysis helps to understand that the trick of placing the bottle ahead of other beverages is exceptionally effective. It persuades the audience to believe that Gatorade provides the drink takers with supernatural power. Hence, it motivates the target audience to purchase the beverage. The advertisement compares the athletes to the Gatorade. Thus, it convinces them that they will show excellent performance in the competition, as Gatorade does in the visual ad.

Apart from the use of colors and supernatural power, the given visual argument image implements other methods. For example, it uses a shock appeal technique. The ad demonstrates a real-life race, but with a metaphorical contestant—the Gatorade bottle. Consider the effect of “reaching the sky” by the container. It creates a vision of an incredibly strong nature of this beverage. As a result, the audience is “shocked” by Gatorade’s supernatural power and encouraged to buy it. Consequently, a shock appeal makes the visual argument images more effective. We will return to the ways advertisers and politicians use visuals to persuade us later, but for now let us look at the academic ways to both analyze and use visuals in argument.

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  • View the video: Visual Arguments Essay
  • View  the video:  Visual Arguments

Visuals in Advertising and Social Media

The following video content explores how visual stimuli impacts the ways we think, believe, and behave in the world. We begin by returning to the beginning of the discussion about Edward Bernays, the “father” of modern advertising and the nephew of Sigmund Freud. After that, we look at the more modern impacts of visuals on social media in young people with an informative Frontline episode with the media analyst Douglas Rushkoff:

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  • View  the film:  Generation Like

Critical Thinking, Second Edition Copyright © 2023 by Andrew Gurevich is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

Search Strategy, Eligibility Criteria, and Information Sources

Data extraction, assessment of quality, data synthesis, narrative synthesis, study selection, study description and results, narrative synthesis of understanding outcomes, impact of age on understanding, impact of advert content on understanding, meta-analyses of attitudinal outcomes, narrative synthesis of attitudinal outcomes, impact of understanding on attitudinal outcomes, quality assessment, implications, limitations, conclusions, advertising and young people’s critical reasoning abilities: systematic review and meta-analysis.

Contributed equally as co-first authors or contributed equally as co-senior authors.

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Jessica Packer , Helen Croker , Anne-Lise Goddings , Emma J. Boyland , Claire Stansfield , Simon J. Russell , Russell M. Viner; Advertising and Young People’s Critical Reasoning Abilities: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Pediatrics December 2022; 150 (6): e2022057780. 10.1542/peds.2022-057780

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Young people are exposed to an abundance of advertising for unhealthy products (eg, unhealthy foods, tobacco, alcohol). Because of their developing cognition, children may not be able to understand the intent of advertising. However, advertising restrictions often assume that adolescents have critical reasoning capacity and can resist the effects of advertising. This review seeks to assess whether the evidence supports this assumption.

Ten databases were searched in December 2020. Inclusion criteria were participants aged 6 to 17 years, any advertising exposure, objectively measured understanding or attitudinal outcome, a comparison, control, and between-group comparison. This study included all languages and excluded studies published pre-2010. Two reviewers independently extracted data and assessed study quality.

Thirty-eight articles were included. Meta-analysis of 9 studies with attitudinal outcomes indicated that unhealthy product advertising generated more positive brand or product attitudes compared with neutral or no advertising control in all ages. There were significant effects for digital and nondigital advertising formats. We found greater understanding did not protect against the impact of advertising on brand or product attitudes. Limitations include the inability to meta-analyze the impact of advertising on understanding or the influence of age.

Evidence shows that the attitudes of young people were influenced by advertising. Critical reasoning abilities did not appear to be fully developed during adolescence and not found to be protective against the impact of advertising. Policymakers should ensure regulations to restrict marketing of unhealthy commodities protects adolescents as well as younger children.

Young people are exposed to an abundance of advertising and marketing, primarily for toys and food products (mostly high in fat, salt, and sugar [HFSS]). 1 – 4   Advertising can lead to behavior change through direct and indirect pathways, which leads to harm through unhealthy behaviors. 5   The hierarchy of effects model suggests that advertising creates awareness of and interest in a brand or product, which leads to heightened preference and then to a decision to purchase and consume. 6   Much of the advertising children are exposed to is for potentially harmful products (eg, HFSS food, alcohol) which may increase unhealthy behaviors that are associated with a number of detrimental and harmful effects. 7 , 8   Direct tobacco advertising is banned in most countries, but young people are still exposed to indirect advertising, for example, through viewing tobacco use on television (TV), shown to result in smoking initiation in young people. 9   Electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) have also grown in popularity over the last decade, and provaping advertising are prevalent on social media, with emerging evidence of harm. 10 , 11   Research on the impacts of advertising on children over the past decade has focused particularly on HFSS food advertising. 12   Young people are exposed to large amounts of food advertising through various media, which is often child-targeted and mostly for HFSS foods. 13 , 14   Meta-analyses show that food advertising increases acute calorie intake in children. 15 , 16  

There has been a strong policy focus on tightening regulations around food advertising, although restrictions frequently only apply to children up to 12 years of age. 17   There are widespread restrictions to prevent alcohol and tobacco advertising that targets children, since these products are illegal for children to purchase or use, 18   with calls to make these restrictions worldwide to address noncommunicable diseases. 19   Researchers have raised concerns over the ability of children and young people to identify, understand, and apply critical reasoning in response to advertising. Thus, they are more susceptible to the influence of advertising, especially in digital formats (including embedded content on webpages, social media platforms and advergames), making this a policy target and active research area. 20  

There is substantial literature on the understanding of advertising. A prominent framework has been the “Persuasion Knowledge Model,” which proposes that to resist advertising, individuals must first recognize that an advert is trying to sell something (persuasion knowledge). 21   Various aspects of understanding have been identified: recognizing advertising; perception of who pays for advertising and audience targeting; understanding the selling intent of advertising (ie, that advertisers are trying to sell products), persuasive intent (ie, that advertisers are trying to influence behavior via changing attitudes toward products or brands), tactics (ie, specific strategies used), and bias regarding the product (ie, discrepancies between advertised and actual product). 22   Evidence suggests that “advertising literacy” (ie, knowledge and understanding of advertising intent and tactics) does not fully develop during childhood; therefore, children do not possess the necessary cognitive ability to resist advertising. 22 , 23   For this paper, we view critical reasoning as the ability to recognize and understand advertising (advertising literacy) and how it impacts children and young people’s response to advertising. Much of the work around children and advertising, and children’s broader position as consumers, has been informed by Piagetian theory, which presents age-specific stages in children’s development driven by cognitive ability. 24 , 25   This suggests progressive growth in understanding, showing that as children get older, cognitive ability increases along with an increased ability to understand and resist advertising. This understanding was largely developed when TV was the main advertising medium, but the applicability to the digital age of advertising has been questioned (even for older children), as entertainment and advertising content are not clearly distinguished. 26  

Social-cognitive models present the effects of advertising occurring automatically without any information processing, suggesting that understanding alone is insufficient to counteract the potentially harmful effects of advertising. 25   Concerning food, the Food Marketing Defense Model posits that awareness, understanding, ability (including cognitive capacity), and motivation (to resist advertising) are all required to withstand food advertising. 25   Advertising, especially when digitally embedded, is designed to bypass conscious and rational decision-making and instead rely on emotional responses and unconscious processing, thereby inhibiting the ability to resist effectively. 27 , 28  

Reasoning abilities are not fully developed by the age of 16, older than the 12-year threshold used in many regulations; other faculties associated with decision-making also continue to develop into adulthood. 29   It is established that teenagers engage in riskier behavior than both children and adults, attributed in part to changes in reward sensitivity occurring from early adolescence and the later development of self-regulatory competence. 29   In addition, they may be particularly susceptible to the social influence of their peers. 30   This evidence may be relevant to young people’s critical reasoning of advertising, since developmentally, they may not be cognitively equipped to protect themselves from the potentially harmful effects of advertising. Studies indicate that children of all ages have difficulties identifying digital marketing. 26 , 27   Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to digital advertising because of their engagement with digital technology and media, which plays an important role in their social identity development. 17 , 27  

Existing reviews and meta-analyses have shown that children of all ages are impacted by advertising, 13 – 16   but the notion that understanding of advertising and older age are sufficiently protective remains pervasive. This review focused on 2 areas of interest; the ability of young people to recognize and understand advertising and how they respond to advertising in terms of attitudes toward the advertised brand or product (ie, the impact on diet and attitudes). The review aimed to explore whether evidence supports the notion that critical reasoning ability affects behavioral responses and how this may differ across childhood and adolescence. Critical reasoning relates to the former, but response is likely to include broader factors that could impact on what decisions young people make and their subsequent behavior. For example, attitudes to the advertised product or brand and level of motivation to resist the impact of advertising exposure.

We conducted our systematic review using EPPI-Reviewer 4 software. 31   The study was preregistered with PROSPERO (CRD42018116048), and the systematic review is reported in accordance with the Preferred Reporting Items for Systemic Reviews and Meta-analysis checklist. 32  

The search strategy was created in collaboration with an information specialist (C.S.). The search was based on terms for population (children and young people), intervention (eg, marketing, advertising, advergame*), and a measure of “understanding” or “attitudes” (eg, reasoning, psychology, advertising literacy, cognition). Systematic searches of the following databases were conducted: ASSIA (Proquest), Child Development and Adolescent Studies (EBSCO), Cochrane Central Database of Controlled Trials, Medline (OVID), PsycINFO (OVID), Sociological Abstracts (Proquest), Social Policy and Practice (OVID) and SCOPUS, and Web of Science – databases (Social Science Citation Index, Emerging Sources Citation Index). The full search strategy is included in a supplemental file ( Supplemental Tables 2A , 2B , and 3 ). Searches were conducted on November 7, 2018 and updated on December 10, 2020. The search results were imported into Endnote reference manager software and duplicates removed. The remaining articles were imported into EPPI-Reviewer 4 software and duplicate records screened and removed; this software was used to manage the screening.

The focus of the review was initially broad, as the scope of the literature was unknown. Following the initial search, a mapping exercise was undertaken to determine the full-text inclusion criteria. A decision was made to focus on experimental studies with an administered exposure ( Supplemental Fig 4 ) for full details of this initial stage and mapping diagram).

Eligible for inclusion during full text screening were: studies with participants aged 6 to 17 years of age inclusive; intervention criteria of any form of advertising for any product (including HFSS products, tobacco, toys); and outcomes of objectively measured understanding (including recognition or identification of advertising, understanding selling, or persuasive intent) or attitudes (toward brand or product including liking or perceptions). Experimental and intervention studies, including randomized or quasi-randomized studies, were included and required to have an appropriate comparison or control group, including no advert, a neutral advert, or a between group comparison (age, gender, socioeconomic status [SES]) with an advert exposure. Neutral adverts were defined by the studies and included adverts that were not the focus of the study, eg, a toy or nonfood advert for studies with a food advertising exposure and food product outcome. Studies were included from 2010 onwards as these were considered most relevant to contemporary advertising practices. There were no restrictions by geography or language. Exclusion criteria were date (pre-2010), intervention (any exposure that evaluated health promotion prevention programs, charity advertising, creation, and testing of models of cognition, media training or advertising literacy, branding only), outcome measures (any nonunderstanding or attitude measures including dietary intake or purchases), study design (qualitative studies, reviews, and dissemination format [nonpeer reviewed], eg, dissertations, conference abstracts, magazine abstracts). A random sample of studies were double-screened by 2 reviewers (H.C., and J.P.) on title and abstract using EPPI-Reviewer 4 software. All screening queries were reconciled by the reviewers. We used the machine learning capabilities of the EPPI-Reviewer software to assist with the screening because of the anticipated number of records from test searches (over 10 000). We employed an “active learning approach,” where the prioritization of records was frequently refreshed so the most relevant articles were screened first. The algorithm was trained using our screening decisions. Articles screened were plotted against studies included, and this was used to indicate when to stop screening (ie, the rate of inclusion plateaued indicating that there were unlikely to be unscreened relevant articles). A classifier model was then created and applied to all unscreened records, with a score based on relevance (0–100) generated and used to double-check exclusion. For full details on the machine learning approach and updated search methods see Supplemental Table 4 and the following reference. 33   Full-text screening was then independently completed by the same 2 reviewers (H.C. and J.P.) using EPPI-Reviewer 4 software and queries were jointly reconciled.

Descriptive data were extracted by 1 reviewer (J.P.) and checked for accuracy by another reviewer (H.C.). Data from experimental studies for inclusion in meta-analyses were independently extracted by 2 authors (J.P., and H.C.) and any discrepancies resolved by reextraction. Corresponding authors were contacted to provide raw data where necessary; 15 authors were contacted for additional information, and 9 provided additional data and 6 did not (1 was contacted regarding understanding outcomes only).

Risk of bias for the experimental studies was assessed by 2 reviewers (H.C., and J.P.) using Cochrane methods, 34   either RoB 2.0 for randomized trials 35   or ROBINS-I tool for nonrandomized studies. 36   To assess publication bias, funnel plots were created to assess asymmetry using Egger’s test. 37  

For inclusion in meta-analyses for understanding of advertising or brand or product attitudes, studies were required to compare the effect of an unhealthy product (eg, food, alcohol, tobacco) advert exposure to a nonadvert control, or to a control advert (advert for unrelated products).

Studies measuring attitudinal outcomes were required to have mean values with standard deviations. Because of differences in reported outcome measures, which included a variety of different scales (eg, 1–5, 1–3, dichotomous), the DerSimonian-Laird random-effects model was used to allow for synthesis of studies and standardized mean difference (SMD) was used as the outcome for the meta-analyses. All analyses were conducted using Stata 16 (16.1, StataCorp LLC, College Station, TX, USA). 37   Further details of how advert exposure conditions were combined; the outcome measures and scales and criteria for inclusion in the meta-analyses are provided in a supplemental file ( Supplemental Table 5 ).

Two meta-analyses comparing an advert exposure to control or neutral advert were conducted, by attitude type (brand or product) and by advertising format (digital or nondigital). For this review, we define brand attitude as the attitudes toward the advertised brand and product attitude as the attitudes toward the advertised product. Digital advertising formats included advergames, webpages, social media platforms, and influencer marketing, whereas nondigital advertising formats included TV and printed adverts, and product placement on TV or in movie clips. For all studies except 1, 38   a single combined advert exposure group was calculated for each group using Cochrane methods. 34   The exception was a study where 3 separate data points were included with the advert exposure of a specific product matched to the specific product attitudinal outcome measure. 38   We additionally conducted meta-analyses examining the impact of advertising on attitudes by age (children ≤12 years, teenagers >12 years because of legislation cut-offs).

Findings of studies not included in the meta-analysis are reported narratively, presented by outcome (understanding or attitudinal) and by impact of age and advertising features.

The database searches yielded 15 656 papers, resulting in 9325 studies once duplicates were removed. A random subset of 1790 studies were screened on title and abstract to trigger the machine learning from the original search and a further 208 screened on title and abstract from the updated search. Screening on title and abstract ultimately resulted in 272 studies to be screened on full-text and assessed for eligibility. This resulted in 39 studies, from 38 articles, which met the inclusion criteria. Nine of the studies that reported an attitudinal outcome were included in the meta-analyses ( Fig 1 ).

Preferred Reporting Items for Systemic Reviews and Meta-analysis screening flowchart.

Preferred Reporting Items for Systemic Reviews and Meta-analysis screening flowchart.

A summary of the descriptive data are provided in Table 1 , including details on setting (country, study), participants (sample size, age details), design, advertising exposure, outcomes measures, and findings.

Descriptive Summary of the Included Experimental Studies

NS, not stated.

Half of the sample may be reported in both.

Same sample but reporting of different outcomes.

May be the same participants across all 3 studies.

May be the same participants across the 2 studies.

Three out of the 4 schools may be reported in both.

Participant ages ranged from 4 to 18 and were broadly categorized as 12 years and under ( n = 19), 38 , 39 – 52   over 12 years ( n = 7), 53 – 59   or had participants in both age groups ( n = 13). 60 – 75   Most of the studies were conducted in Europe ( n = 16; Austria n = 5, Netherlands n = 4, Belgium n = 3, UK n = 3, Portugal n = 1), followed by the United States ( n = 12), Australia ( n = 6), Chile ( n = 2), and Israel ( n = 1), India ( n = 1), South Korea ( n = 1). Studies were mostly conducted in classroom settings ( n = 21). Advertising exposure was most commonly for food ( n = 29; all included a HFSS product or brand, eg, fast food or sugary cereal; in addition to some non-HFSS products), followed by e-cigarettes ( n = 7) or an assortment of products ( n = 3, including games, banks, and a financial services company). Majority of the advertising exposures were nondigital ( n = 25, including TV adverts, product placement, print advert, TV sponsorship, or movie trailers), compared with digital ( n = 18, including advergames, banner or pop-ups, social media). Outcomes, related to the advertised product, measured either understanding ( n = 10, eg, identification of commercial content, selling intent, persuasive intent, perceived advertising intentions) or attitudinal ( n = 23, eg, product liking, product perceptions, perceived benefits, appeal) or studies that measured both ( n = 13).

Meta-analysis was not possible for understanding measures, owing to the heterogeneity of exposures and outcomes for relevant studies. Many studies had control groups where, because of the nature of the questions, understanding of advertising was not able to be assessed (ie, cannot assess understanding about an advert the group did not see).

Where compared across age groups, understanding of advertising increased significantly with age (8 studies, mostly assessed as some concerns of bias and 1 as low risk of bias), 39 , 40 , 41 , 46 , 47 , 49 , 62 , 74   although no significant effects were found in 4 studies (mostly assessed as having some concerns of bias and one as low risk of bias), 45 , 48 , 66 , 67   and understanding decreased with age (assessed as low risk of bias). 75   Most of these studies were conducted with children under 12 years, so evidence was limited for teenagers. Of 2 studies conducted with teenagers, 1 study assessed as having some concerns of bias directly compared children aged 9, 12, and 15 years and found that advertising recognition significantly increased as age increased 74   ; the other study assessed as low risk of bias found 12 to 14 years olds had significantly higher recognition of sponsored content in a YouTube video compared with 15 to 16 year olds, but there was no significant difference between age groups for understanding persuasive intent. 75  

One study with some concerns of bias reported that persuasion knowledge increased with higher brand integration (in relation to advergames), but persuasion knowledge was very low across all groups and the magnitude of differences modest. 47   In relation to child “involvement” with advertising (ie, engagement with advergame), 1 study with some concerns of bias showed that children more involved with an advergame were less likely to identify commercial content. 48   One study with low risk of bias looked at differences in recognition of commercial content in advergames between a familiar HFSS brand and a fictitious or unbranded pizza game and found that recognition of the familiar brand was significantly greater than the unbranded game. 58   A similar study with some concerns of bias assessed persuasion knowledge between a branded advergame and a noncommercial advergame and found no significant difference. 52   Seven studies of mixed bias assessments (4 with some concerns, 3 low risk) measured different types of understanding; 4 found that awareness of selling intent was higher than persuasive intent in children aged 4 to 12 years (2 were significant 39 , 45   ; 2 did not test significance) 46 , 48 , 62   ; 2 found recognition of advertising in 7 to 16 year olds was greater than understanding persuasive intent 76   or advertising literacy 44   ; finally, 1 found skeptical attitudes toward advertising were greater than recognition of advergames as advertising, because of very low recognition in 7 to 11 year olds (62.5% to 72% vs 48.5%). 49   Four studies with some concerns of bias measured the impact of advertising format and found significantly greater understanding with nondigital advertising (TV) compared with digital advertising (primarily advergames). 46 , 48 , 62   Overall, understanding of the persuasive intent of adverts to impact on attitudes and behaviors was generally low across studies, for example, only 40% in 11 to 12 year olds, 39   and only 1% of 7 to 9 year olds and 12% 10 to 12 year olds. 44  

A meta-analysis comparing all advert exposures to no advert or neutral advert control by attitude type ( Fig 2 ), showed that overall, any advertising exposure significantly increased positive attitudes toward the brand or product, SMD = 0.397 ( P = .001; 95% confidence interval [CI] 0.154–0.639; I 2 = 91.4%). The subgroup meta-analysis by attitude type also showed that the effect of an advertising exposure was significant for both product attitudes (SMD = 0.430 [ P = .014; 95% CI 0.087–0.774; I 2 = 85.7%]) and brand attitudes (SMD = 0.369 [ P = .049; 95% CI 0.001–0.736; I 2 = 94.0%]).

Forest plot showing SMD in brand and product attitudes between any advertising exposure and no advert or neutral advert controls; 95% CIs and study weights are indicated. Overall SMD was generated by a random effects model. (1) Data from cola product placement vs control with cola attitude question; (2) Data from juice product placement vs control with juice attitude question; (3) Data from milk product placement vs control with milk attitude question.

Forest plot showing SMD in brand and product attitudes between any advertising exposure and no advert or neutral advert controls; 95% CIs and study weights are indicated. Overall SMD was generated by a random effects model. (1) Data from cola product placement vs control with cola attitude question; (2) Data from juice product placement vs control with juice attitude question; (3) Data from milk product placement vs control with milk attitude question.

A meta-analysis exploring the effect of advertising by format ( Fig 3 ) showed overall that any advert significantly increased positive attitudes, compared with no advert or neutral control, SMD = 0.36 ( P = .009; 95% CI 0.14–0.58; I 2 = 91.2%). When examined by advertising format, both digital advertising exposure and non-digital advert exposures had a significant positive effect on attitudes, SMD = 0.35 ( P = .005; 95% CI 0.01–0.068; I 2 = 93.2%) and SMD = 0.36 ( P = .005; 95% CI 0.08–0.65; I 2 = 84.5%), respectively. Egger’s regression analysis found no evidence of bias for either meta-analysis, although funnel plots showed some evidence of asymmetry ( Supplemental Figs 5 and 6 ). Trim and fill analysis showed no strong evidence of missing studies for either meta-analysis ( Supplemental Figs 7 and 8 ). Sensitivity analysis was completed running a fixed effect model; none of the findings changed in significance in either direction.

Forest plot showing SMD in brand or product attitudes between digital and non-digital advertising exposure and no advert or neutral advert controls; 95% CIs and study weights are indicated. Overall SMD was generated by a random effects model. Matthes (1) brand attitude outcome; Matthes, (2) product attitude outcome; Royne (1) data from cola product placement versus control with cola attitude question; Royne (2) Data from juice product placement versus control with juice attitude question; Royne (3) data from milk product placement versus control with milk attitude question.

Forest plot showing SMD in brand or product attitudes between digital and non-digital advertising exposure and no advert or neutral advert controls; 95% CIs and study weights are indicated. Overall SMD was generated by a random effects model. Matthes (1) brand attitude outcome; Matthes, (2) product attitude outcome; Royne (1) data from cola product placement versus control with cola attitude question; Royne (2) Data from juice product placement versus control with juice attitude question; Royne (3) data from milk product placement versus control with milk attitude question.

An additional meta-analysis was conducted, which looked at the impact of advertising on attitudes by age ( Supplemental Fig 9 ). Advertising had a positive impact on attitudes compared with the control condition for both age groups (ie, >12 years and ≤12 years). A further meta-analysis was carried out as a sensitivity analysis ( Supplemental Fig 10 ) to explore whether the effect held when the largest effect size was removed and the effect was still seen.

The majority of controlled studies not suitable for meta-analysis supported the above findings, namely that adverts brought about more positive attitudes (7 studies, mixed bias assessments: 3 low, 3 some concerns and 1 high) 41 , 42 , 47 , 48 , 53 , 57 , 59   ; however, 5 studies found no significant differences between groups (mixed bias assessment: 3 low, 2 some concerns). 51 , 57 , 58 , 69 , 73   One study, assessed as having a high risk of bias, explored the impact of e-cigarette adverts designed with low and high youth appeal and found the low youth appeal advert resulted in more positive attitudes than a none-cigarette control advert, but there was no difference between the high youth appeal and control adverts. 56   One study, assessed as low risk of bias, found that the younger group (5–6 years) had significantly more positive product attitudes following exposure to TV advert for HFSS cereal compared with the older group (10–11 years). 50   Another study with some concerns of bias found that brand preference following exposure to product placement decreased significantly with increasing age (9 vs 12 vs 15 years). 74  

Two studies with low risk of bias examined the impact of glamorized e-cigarette advertising on perceptions of cigarette smoking or e-cigarettes, compared with neutral or no advert control. They found the adverts led to occasional cigarette smoking being perceived as less dangerous and harmful 63 , 71   and the use of e-cigarettes by children as being more common. 63   One also found there was no difference in the appeal of e-cigarettes between adverts that glamorized e-cigarettes compared with adverts that associated e-cigarettes with health. 63  

Seven studies measured the interaction between understanding and attitudinal outcomes and reported interactions. Five studies found no interaction, showing that greater understanding of advertising did not limit favorable attitudes toward the advertised product 44 , 47 , 48 , 58 , 65   and 2 found some evidence of an interaction. 62 , 67   Six of these studies were found to have some concern of bias, and the other was assessed to have low risk of bias. 58   This study found, for children aged 13–18 years, recognition of commercial intent had no effect on brand attitude for either an unfamiliar or familiar brand. The age range for children from studies that found no interaction was broader than those that found interactions (5–18 vs 7–14 years). Of the 2 studies that found an interaction between lack of persuasion knowledge and greater attitudinal outcomes, the first had online pop-up adverts, which are heavily embedded, as the advertising exposure, 72   whereas the second only found an interaction among children that understood the snack was unhealthy (the interaction was not observed if children thought the advertised snack was healthy). 67  

For nonrandomized studies, 2 were rated as low and 11 as moderate risk of bias ( Supplemental Fig 11 ). Moderate risk of bias was mostly caused by the domain “bias caused by confounding,” as not enough information was provided or confounding variables were not included in analyses. Of the randomized studies, 10 were rated as low risk of bias, 13 as some concerns, and 3 with high risk of bias ( Supplemental Fig 12 ). The studies with some concerns were mostly because of lack of detail about the randomization process or unreported information about the selection of the reported results. Results were consistent between studies rated as low to high risk of bias. Sensitivity analyses were run excluding studies rated as high risk from the meta-analysis ( Supplemental Fig 14 ). The overall impact of advertising on attitudes remained but product attitude subgroup was no longer significant.

In this systematic review, data suggested that children’s understanding of advertising intent was limited and not nuanced, ie, children could recognize that adverts intended to sell a product but not that these were intended to change their attitudes and behavior. There was limited evidence that understanding increased with age, but more research is needed in this area. Understanding was lower for digital compared with nondigital formats, and lower when children were more involved with the medium (eg, advergames or online advertising). In terms of attitudes, meta-analyses indicated that advertising brought about more positive attitudes to both brands and products compared with controls; this was observed across all age groups. There was no evidence that adverts with high “youth appeal” were more effective, but evidence was limited for these exposures. Findings suggested that greater understanding of advertising is not protective, with evidence that attitudinal outcomes were impacted positively regardless of level of understanding. These findings collectively indicate that advertising impacts children, regardless of age, level of understanding, format, or specific targeting or youth appeal.

Our findings indicate that children and young people of all ages have some difficulties in understanding advertising. This fits with the developmental perspective that young people’s critical reasoning abilities continue developing into late adolescence. 29   We found that greater understanding does not necessarily protect against advertising, consistent with the Food Marketing Defense Model that challenges the focus on understanding to counteract the effects of advertising. The model instead proposes that advertising influences young people without conscious processing and that motivation to resist is also required, which may be lower among young people. 25   We did not include disclosure or media literacy intervention exposures in this review, but our findings suggest that the inclusion of disclosures (eg, declarations stating “this is an advert”) or media literacy training designed to increase understanding or advertising literacy would not necessarily protect children and adolescents from the influence of advertising. 76   This is supported in the literature as 1 experiment found that children who viewed food marketing with a disclosure actually consumed significantly more of a marketed snack than a control group. 76   A study in adolescents found that disclosures did not mitigate persuasion and increased brand memory, despite increasing understanding of persuasive intent. 77   Media literacy programs are a strategy often suggested by the food and beverage industry to increase persuasion knowledge in children, in lieu of improved regulations, such as industry-funded Media Smart (see ). 78 , 79  

Our findings that advertising had a positive impact on attitudes are consistent with previous research on food advertising. 12 , 14 , 80 , 81   Further supporting these findings, adverts (TV and advergames) for “unhealthy” unfamiliar food products have been found to elicit positive attitudes in children (aged 7–12 years) to a greater extent with advergames compared with TV advertising. 82   We found effects on attitudes regardless of age, consistent with other studies in different age groups. There is evidence that preschool children exposed to adverts for a range of child-directed foods had positive attitudes about these foods, 83   and that adolescents reported positive attitudes after viewing online adverts for fast food and confectionery. 84  

Comparing digital and nondigital advertising formats, we found no difference in impact on attitudes in subgroup meta-analysis, but narrative synthesis indicated that understanding was lower for digital formats. This is unsurprising since digital advertising is more integrated and, therefore, may be less explicit and more difficult to identify and understand, in addition to greater personalization and targeting. 21 , 25   This is important given the ubiquity of these formats, especially for adolescents, who because of their extensive engagement with digital media with less supervision, may be more susceptible to digital advertising. 85   For adolescents, media plays an important role in their social identity development, as they place more value on the opinions and actions of peers and figure out their perception of how they fit with others. 17 , 18 , 27   Digital marketing, especially on social media, is designed to target these unique developmental vulnerabilities. 86  

The findings from this review support understanding not being fully developed during childhood or adolescence. We also found that advertising influences the attitudes of young people of all ages, suggesting a need to protect older as well as younger children. Our results suggest that understanding does not protect children from the harmful impacts and influence of advertising, as per the Food Marketing Defense Model. 25   Reducing exposure to advertising is therefore likely to be more effective than improving understanding through disclosures or media literacy training. Existing regulations typically only apply to children up to 12 years of age, as they have historically been regarded as more vulnerable to advertising, therefore needing greater protection. 87   Our findings do not support lesser restrictions for advertising to teenagers, as there is no distinct evidence-based threshold for understanding that supports a cut-off of 12 years and suggest that appropriate protection from advertising exposure would benefit all young people. 17  

The limitations of this review include a lack of suitable data or studies to meta-analyze the impact of advertising on understanding or the influence of age. Meta-analysis limitations include the high heterogeneity of studies, despite using a random effects model and standardized mean difference outcome. The machine learning method has limitations, as a large number of articles were excluded without screening on title and abstract. The majority of the included studies were assessed as having some concerns of bias, which needs to be taken into consideration when interpreting the findings, although sensitivity analyses removing studies with high risk of bias and the largest effect size were conducted and not found to impact results. We may not have identified all product placement exposure studies, as this term was not included in our search strategy; however, studies with advert or marketing key words were included. Some of the studies may have been conducted in the same or similar group of participants (Tarabashkina 66 – 68   ; Duke and Farrelly 53 , 54   ; Uribe 69 , 74   ; van Berlo 57 , 58   ; Castonguay 40 , 50   ), but these do not interfere with the meta-analysis as only 1 was included. The time since the searches were completed is a limitation, with original searches completed in October 2018 and then updated in December 2020. This subject area is complex, so the review process is time intensive. Updating the searches would be low yield as the substantive findings of the work remained unchanged following the update searches, and we have no reason to believe the main findings of the paper would be subject to change. The main strength of the paper is that it meets an evidence gap, specifically addressing if children over 12 years of age have critical reasoning capacity and can therefore resist the effects of advertising. We were also able to quantitatively assess the impact of advertising on attitudinal outcomes. The search was carefully planned and executed, with double screening and data extraction. Studies were contemporary, adding to the relevance for current policy. Because of the delay observed in research, we found fewer studies using digital advertisement exposures, which is an area where more primary research is needed. There is also a need for further primary research in teenagers in relation to critical reasoning and advertising, and especially digital formats.

This systematic review and meta-analysis provide evidence that advertising impacts upon the attitudes of children and young people of all ages, regardless of their level of understanding and critical reasoning abilities. These findings may be useful to inform the thinking of policy makers, particularly in terms of restrictions based on age and changing patterns of media consumption.

Ms Packer designed the study, screened the studies, extracted all data, conducted the meta-analysis, completed bias assessment, and codrafted the initial manuscript; Dr Croker conceptualized and designed the study, screened the studies, extracted quantitative data and checked descriptive extraction, and codrafted the initial manuscript; Dr Stansfield assisted with the design of the study and provided expert assistance with the methodology; Dr Russell and Goddings provided input for the design of the study and assisted with methodological queries throughout the process; Drs Viner and Boyland conceptualized the study; and all authors reviewed and revised the manuscript, approved the final manuscript as submitted, and agree to be accountable for all aspects of the work.

FUNDING: This report is independent research commissioned and funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research Policy Research Programme Grant Number: 174868. The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the NHS, the National Institute for Health and Care Research, the Department of Health and Social Care or its arm's length bodies, and other Government Departments.

CONFLICT OF INTEREST DISCLOSURES: The authors have indicated they have no conflicts of interest relevant to this article to disclose.

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Learning Objectives

  • Perform strategic analysis and assessment
  • Frame problems using a systematic, repeatable process
  • Identify key stakeholders and ensure their needs are met
  • Develop and test solutions, employing adaptive problem solving
  • Collaboratively overcome obstacles
  • Leverage failures to optimize future performance

Find out what you will learn from instructor Mary Czarnecki in the video below.

Estimated Length of Completion

Approximately 90 minutes. This timing reflects the basic run time, but seat time varies by user and  could be significantly longer .

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Registration Pricing



Mary Czarnecki

Mary Czarnecki is a co-founder of MAC Marketing Partners, the customer-centric marketing agency for market-leading brands. Mary has 20 years of experience driving revenue and customer impact growth for Fortune 100 companies and is no stranger to the "virtual environment," having delivered consulting and training services "remotely" since 2015. She is a regular advisor to market-leading brand teams and in addition to her work with MAC Marketing Partners, she applies her expertise in brand building and social media strategy to develop personal brand platforms for high-impact female entrepreneurs and executives to accelerate both career and business success.

Mary has been acknowledged as a top instructor for the ANA’s Marketing Training & Development Center and has developed several online courses for business leaders and entrepreneurs. She also leads live virtual group coaching programs for executives and entrepreneurs on topics such as virtual leadership, brand development, and online business growth.

Mary received her M.B.A. and M.E.M. from Yale University and B.A. from Princeton University.

advertising and critical thinking

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Lesson Plans

  • Free Lesson Plans
  • Teacher Videos
  • State Standards

From buses to TV to the Web, ads are everywhere, and many target kids ages 8 to 12! Do your students have the critical thinking skills to understand ads, what they're saying, and what they want kids to do?

To help you equip your students with these valuable skills, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the nation's consumer protection agency, has created a comprehensive advertising literacy program, which includes free lesson plans. Developed for 5th and 6th grade classrooms with Scholastic, Inc., the lesson plans meet national standards for language arts and social studies, and many teachers report using them successfully in grades ranging from 3-9. As part of the FTC's Admongo campaign, the program helps kids learn to ask three key "critical thinking" questions when they encounter advertising:

  • Who is responsible for the ad?
  • What is the ad actually saying?
  • What does the ad want me to do?

Do you want to teach your students to better understand advertising? Use the lessons and tools below to help your students answer critical questions and guide them toward becoming smarter consumers.

Hard Copies

Hard copies of the Admongo lesson plans are available for free. To order, visit .

Electronic Files

Use the below links to print out the entire program in just three files.

Classroom Poster

This printable poster can be hung in your classroom to get students excited about advertising literacy and serve as a reminder of the three key critical thinking questions.

Part 1: Lesson Plans and Student Worksheets

This packet has all of the in-class materials in one document, ready for review and reproduction. It includes an Education Standards Chart so you can easily see how Admongo fits into your requirements. Additional online lessons can be accessed and downloaded by clicking on Lessons 1 and 2 below.

Part 2: Bonus Activities and Family Handouts

This packet contains materials for continuing ad literacy at home, including homework assignments, a letter to parents, and a variety of family activities.

Lessons, Worksheets and Take-Home Handouts

The below links will allow you to explore and access the individual components of the Admongo classroom program.

Your students are exposed to advertising throughout their day. Use these lessons to equip your students with the critical thinking skills they need to navigate today’s media-rich world.

Lesson 1: Ad Awareness

This lesson invites students to explore what advertising is, what ads do, and who's responsible for the messages in ads.

Lesson 2: Ad Targeting and Techniques

This lesson allows students to learn how (and why!) advertisers choose certain techniques to reach a certain target audience.

Lesson 3: Ad Creation

This lesson lets students see how research affects how ads are created and targeted - and lets students create their own ad.

Lesson 4: A Smarter Consumer

This lesson asks students to reflect on how understanding ads helps them make better buying decisions (and be smarter consumers).

Student Worksheets

Use the printables below to support your teaching of the Admongo program. Each worksheet accompanies a lesson or bonus activity and can be used in the classroom or sent home with students for homework.

"Be Ad Aware" (PDF)

This worksheet asks your students to work in groups to review and compare advertisements.

"What's in an Ad?" (PDF)

This homework activity will encourage students to evaluate an ad and discuss what they think about it.

"Ad Techniques" (PDF)

This printable provides your students with details about different techniques that advertisers use and how to recognize them.

"What is an Ad Saying?" (PDF)

Students will compare and contrast two ads to determine how different ad techniques are used.

"Create an Ad!" (PDF)

Give your students a chance to work together to create their own ads, including discovering their audience, choosing techniques, and placing the ad.

"Ad Literacy Quiz" (PDF)

Test your students’ knowledge with this helpful assessment tool.

Family Handouts

Encourage ad literacy at home by sending the following activities home with your students.

Super Ad-tastic Scavenger Hunt (PDF)

Ads are everywhere! Embark on a home scavenger hunt to see all the ads you can find—the results might surprise you!

Track Your Ads (PDF)

Are advertisers aiming their ads in the right direction? Watch your favorite family TV show and complete this ad-tracking activity to find out.

Promote Your School! (PDF)

Use your new understanding of advertising to create an ad promoting your child’s school!


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