COMM 109D Advertising and Society and COMM 109P Propaganda and Persuasion
Instructor: Assistant Professor Caroline Jack
As our nation increasingly witnesses the social, political, and even environmental implications of a “post-fact” news and social media landscape, our faculty and graduate students continue to tackle these topics through both their research and teaching. This series of articles highlights undergraduate courses currently being taught in our department and how instructors approach teaching these complex and often sensitive topics in ways that are both accessible and useful to our Communication majors and other students taking these classes.
This quarter we interviewed Assistant Professor Dr. Caroline Jack about her upcoming courses COMM 109D: Advertising and Society and COMM 109P: Propaganda and Persuasion available in Winter and Spring quarters respectively. At the crux of Jack’s teaching and research is the relationship between persuasion and subjectivity.
COMM 109D: Advertising and Society
Tuesdays and Thursdays 12:30-1:50 pm PST
In the upcoming Winter 2020 quarter, Dr. Jack will be guiding students through concepts and issues around the history and impact of advertising, particular in the U.S. context. This upper division elective course examines advertising as meeting at the intersection of commercial and social practices. Students will have a chance to discuss some of the most famous advertisements as well as how advertisements influence our daily lives.
“Advertisements invite people to think of objects–such as a couch–as expressions of what kinds of people we are, both within ourselves and in our relations with other people and the wider world.”
The first half of the course focuses on core concepts, history, and the political economy of mass media while the second half of the course focuses on digital media and its relationship with surveillance and commodification. While this course is not designed to instruct students on the technical aspects of designing and integrating marketing strategies or other advertising practices, this course will help aspiring marketers and media critics alike to build their understandings of advertising’s role in, and influence upon, U.S. society.
Dr. Jack will be proposing the following questions to students:
- What factors influenced the historical development of advertising in the United States?
- What practices and problems defined the political economy of mass media in the twentieth century?
- How do advertisements impart meaning to consumer goods?
- What practices and problems define the political economy of digital media?
- How do advertising and promotion shape content creation on social media platforms?
- Can advertising be subversive?
“If you talk to someone in marketing about the purpose of advertisements, there’s a foundational assumption that advertising is a way for companies to communicate with the public about what they have to offer. Let’s say I’m looking to purchase a couch, for instance. An advertiser who is targeting me might say that they are doing me a service: they are reducing the amount of work that I need to do to find a couch that is right for me. But that’s not all that’s happening.
“From our vantage point in Communication Studies we can think about an ad for a couch as offering ideas about the particular kind of person who might own that couch, cues about the kind of home that the couch would be right for, and assumptions about who lives in that home–and who takes care of it. An advertisement also alludes to the funds retailers assume I have at my disposal to purchase that couch, and what kinds of financing offers will be extended to me based on what retailers know about me. If I go to repost that ad on Instagram and say ‘Oh! I love this living room!’ that’s about more than just the couch, it’s about an imaginative process of engaging with the social cues the advertisement offers.
The advertisement is about the couch as a functional object, but it’s also about the layers of culture and commerce that have been brought into relation with this functional object.”
In addition to attending Zoom lectures, students will be asked to read seminal and critical texts on the history and practice of advertising in the U.S. context, post in group discussions, complete a team-based project, including a briefing, proposal, and final draft, as well as one Midterm and a Final Exam.
COMM 109P: Propaganda and persuasion
Tuesdays and Thursdays, 2:00-3:20 pm PST
This class focuses on different ways of understanding persuasion and propaganda in its everyday forms with a special focus on these practices often include information that is inaccurate, inappropriately attributed, presented in misleading ways, or made up altogether. Students will learn about the history of persuasive messaging in non-advertising settings such as communication about wars and conflicts, and science and medical communication. These practices are complicated and even enhanced by digital communication platforms and the ways technology is used to transmit messages. Through readings, lectures, quizzes, a midterm, and a final exam, this course aims to build students’ historical, critical, and analytical capacities to make sense of media, technology, and persuasion.
“This class is a lot of fun to teach because of what the students bring to it. What I want to do with this class is to examine complicated cases that are present in our everyday lives like disagreements about what we call propaganda when there are multiple perspectives. We will be looking at what sorts of assumptions come to that conversation and how those assumptions tell us more about our beliefs about concepts like democracy and subjectivity (who we are as people), and truth. We will be talking about the history of these topics as well as anxieties about technological myths like subliminal advertising and unconscious persuasion which, in combination with technologies like social media, have obvious parallels in the present day. ”
For instance Jack points to the example of how journalists make choices in how they describe the language politicians use: some will report on a quote as being “racist” while others will describe it as “racially charged. “There’s a deliberately chosen term and it is interesting how this touches on some of the topics we discuss in this class. It’s possible for students to recognize the different professional commitments of journalists and how training to be “objective” can work as a strategy for plausible deniability.”
The first half of the course will focus primarily on core concepts before moving on to historical and cognitive models for understanding why and how people believe what they do. The second half of the course is devoted to understanding how digital media technologies shape, and are shaped by, problematic information. Students will have a chance to investigate controversies and cases that show how new media interact with deep-rooted ideas about democracy and media.
Dr. Jack will be guiding students towards the goal of understanding and critiquing commonly held notions about propaganda and persuasion in a media-rich and highly technologized society as a foundation for future use rather than practicing actual persuasive techniques. “Engaging deeply with this course’s material will help you develop a critical and nuanced set of tools for understanding and assessing the exercise of power through media,” Jack summarizes in her syllabus for this course.
Primary goals in this course include:
- Understand and apply descriptive concepts, analytical concepts, and theoretical frameworks for understanding persuasion and mediated influence.
- Summarize and evaluate claims about the stakeholders, systems, configurations, and contexts of communication on digital platforms.
- Analyze and critique historical and emergent narratives about communication technologies and mediated influence.
- Approach course materials from an informed perspective that draws upon intellectual preparation, critical analysis, and personal experience
Teaching and Research
Jack’s recent publications illustrate the kinds of research behind teaching courses on complex topics like persuasion. In 2017 she published a white paper entitled Lexicon of Lies: Terms for Problematic Information through Data and Society Research Institute (2017). This white paper is available free for download accompanied by a set of Teaching Resources co-authored by Monica Bulger (2017). This recent publication acts as a report and guide aimed at the undergraduate student or others interested in the ways in which we discuss concepts like “fake news” and “propaganda.” In an interview with Dr. Jack about this recent publication she discussed the ways in which this report might be useful in opening up discussions about these terms and “the assumptions we make about how the news should work, how democracy should work, and how different kinds of democratic decisions should be happening.”
Jack intentionally wrote this report in a format that is brief and accessible to the general public as well as available for free download. Lexicon of Lies takes a Media and Communication Studies point of view to explore some of the different meanings attached to concepts like misinformation and disinformation, and connecting those different meanings to the foundational tensions in the field of Communication.
“It’s tempting to think of categories like misinformation or propaganda as being quite stable and objective. When we dig into these categories, however, we find that they are embedded in historical and social forces, and they are dependent on particular assumptions about how the world works.”
Rather than simply defining “fake news,” in an attempt to counteract it, for instance, Professor Jack’s suggests digging into the social systems of meaning that make it possible to define a given piece of content as “fake.”
“I think my hope with this piece was that it would open up a little more of that aspect of the conversation as opposed to ‘Let’s define what is fake news so we can stomp it out because the issue isn’t just about what media you choose to label fake news. Who are we as people and what kinds of systems are we moving through?”
Professor Jack’s long term research project stems from a previous dissertation on ephemeral materials like educational pamphlets and films aimed at educating people about economic concepts such as supply and demand. Jack argues that this media might be dismissed as “corny” or “cynically made,” or simply used to ask whether or not these efforts were effective in cultivating a culture of capitalism. However, Professor Jack is more interested in looking at how the production of these materials is consequential in itself as a “coordination of meaning between powerful constituencies making direct and implicit claims about what they believe society is like and what it ought to be like.”
Course Highlights in Communication is a series of articles exploring upcoming undergraduate courses in UC San Diego’s Department of Communication. If you are a prospective student you can more about applying to UC San Diego at this link: https://admissions.ucsd.edu/.