No Ifs, Ands, Or Butts
|Mix media literacy with an anti-smoking crusade, and you get a program that has students battling the tobacco industry with tools of their own.|
Debra Cline's 6th grade students tumble into her classroom like 6th graders everywhere—in a chaotic knot of noise and commotion. Then the bell rings, and something odd happens. Very quickly, the 25 children settle quietly into their seats. Cline, a computer graphics teacher at the Manatee School for the Arts in Palmetto, Florida, has the floor, and everybody is paying attention.
It isn't her demeanor that keeps the kids in line. Cline, at 45, is slight of build and soft-spoken. She doesn't threaten or cajole. Occasionally she reprimands, albeit gently, but what 6th grade teacher doesn't?
And it isn't that Manatee is a bastion of rigid discipline. The grades 6 through 9 arts charter school is housed in what used to be a bowling alley. Walk in the front door, and you're greeted by office staff from behind a semicircular desk where, years ago, you would have rented bowling shoes. The school has three dance studios and a theater. In one classroom, an illustrator who used to work at Disney World is teaching students how cartoons are made. In another, a kid is wailing away on an electric guitar. Creative endeavor, not conformity, governs this place.
It certainly can't be the subject matter that has Cline's students rapt with attention. Today's lesson, in fact the topic for a whole quarter, is tobacco. Smoking is bad. Smoking causes cancer. Smoking is expensive. Could anything be more boring?
So it must be the curriculum. Cline is making use of a program called "Artful Truth," which, unlike many anti-tobacco curricula, doesn't preach about deleterious health effects. Instead, it teaches kids how to decode the advertisements they're bombarded with every day. What is it about ads that makes them persuasive? How do advertisers use "created realities" to manipulate their audiences? What goes into ads, and more importantly in the case of tobacco, what gets left out?
Once students learn the basics of this visual "language," they create ads and marketing tools themselves. In the three years that Cline has been using Artful Truth, her students have made everything from posters to CD cases to bumper stickers.
curriculum packages are reproductions of advertisements that
teachers help students analyze and deconstruct.
Right now, they're working on doorknob hangers, the kind that say "Do Not Disturb" in hotels. Here, they convey anti-tobacco messages. The boys in the class seem to be into before-and-after themes: a healthy kid vs. a skull and crossbones, a majestic lion vs. a pile of fur and bones. The girls, on the other hand, are personalizing their messages: "If you smoke, stay out of my room."
Some approaches defy categorization. Twelve-year-old Chris Hunt, for example, has emblazoned his doorknob hanger with a rocket ship piloted by a hip-looking alien. What is the tobacco connection exactly? "He [the alien] went to outer space, his parents smoked, and they died since he was gone," Chris explains. "Now he is back, and he's worried." Fair enough.
After Cline finishes the first part of her lesson, the students drag chairs to classroom computers and log on to Adobe Illustrator, a graphic-design program widely used in the advertising and publishing industries. The room, suddenly, is completely silent except for the clicking of mice and the mood music playing through Cline's computer. "It is phenomenal," she says while watching the students work. "I am teaching something they didn't think about before."
Artful Truth is just one component of Florida's groundbreaking anti-tobacco effort, which began several years ago and, in one respect—evident in the jarring "Truth" ads seen on TV screens across the country—has gone national. But these are lean economic times, so implementation of the program is no longer supported by the grants offered a year or two ago. Next year, in fact, the state plans only to print extra copies of the curriculum. Some teachers, like Cline, however, are committed to Artful Truth, even if it means scrounging for resources at the local level. Why? Because media literacy is one of the program's benefits, but even more importantly, it has prevented many kids from giving tobacco a try.
Artful Truth was paid for by cigarette companies—not willingly, of course. In 1994, the Florida Legislature passed a law enabling the state to sue the tobacco industry in order to recover state Medicaid money spent caring for sick smokers. After signing the law, then- governor Lawton Chiles told reporters: "For decades now, tobacco companies have turned an enormous profit—while their victims have turned to taxpayers for treatment. It's time that those responsible are made to pay."
The companies fought back, managing to get the law repealed in 1995. But Chiles vetoed the repeal, and the state sued to recover Medicaid money that same year. The case was settled out of court in August 1997 for $11.3 billion; subsequent negotiations raised the total to $13 billion, to be paid over a period of more than two decades. The companies also agreed to remove vending machines from places where kids could get to them and to stop advertising outdoors and on public transportation. In fact, all marketing aimed at children was abolished. It was up to the state, itself, to determine how much money, if any, it wanted to use for education.
With some of the settlement funds, Chiles created the Florida Tobacco Pilot Program, operating under the auspices of his office. His first step was to set up a Summit on Tobacco Education, which in March 1998 drew 600 teenagers from across the state to discuss effective ways of spreading anti-tobacco messages. He then formed Students Working Against Tobacco, a front-line organization charged with putting into place the plans hatched at the summit.
If kids can read propaganda, the theory goes, they're less likely to be manipulated by it.
Chuck Wolfe, who worked in the governor's office, supervised the FTPP as it got off the ground. Back then, he recalls, critics thought focusing so heavily on students was a mistake. "When we started our program, nobody had reduced youth tobacco usage rates anywhere," he explains. But giving kids the opportunity to help run an anti-tobacco campaign proved prophetic. For one thing, the students helped create the Truth ad campaign, which began in Florida and went national after Wolfe joined the Washington, D.C.-based American Legacy Foundation, an anti-tobacco group funded by the 1998 multibillion-dollar settlement between tobacco companies and 46 states. (Four states, including Florida, settled separately.)
Truth is an edgy TV, print, radio, and billboard campaign that purports to turn the tables on Big Tobacco. Its slogan is "Their brand is lies. Our brand is Truth." And the overall message is that tobacco companies are manipulative, dishonest, and uncaring. One TV ad called, appropriately enough, "Dog Poop" notes that cigarettes and canine feces, placed in piles on the sidewalk in the spot, share a common ingredient, ammonia-the name of which is written on little flags stuck in the piles. "Something smells like truth," a voice deadpans.
"It was new and unique stuff," Wolfe says of the ads when they first appeared in Florida. "People have been doing tobacco campaigns forever, but basically all they said was that tobacco was bad. Everybody already knows that."
The other groundbreaking component of Florida's pilot program was Artful Truth. But instead of offering an in-your-face campaign, the goal was to develop a curriculum that would teach students in grades 4 through 6 the visual language of advertising. If kids can "read" propaganda, the theory goes, they're less likely to be manipulated by it.
Of course, to learn any language, you need help from those who are fluent in it. As it happens, one of the country's most comprehensive collections of propaganda art is located at Florida International University's Wolfsonian Museum. And the experts there are the folks Wolfe and his team asked to design Artful Truth.
Housed in a renovated warehouse in Miami Beach, the Wolfsonian is seven stories of artifacts and exhibits displaying, as a placard puts it, "the arts of reform and persuasion" from 1885 to 1945. Collections include furniture, sculpture, paintings, ceramics, and appliances. Each contributes to the central idea that design is deliberate, pervasive, and, often, persuasive.
Kate Rawlinson, a 49-year-old woman with a bright, almost mischievous, smile, is the museum's educational programs manager. She worked with teachers throughout the state, as well as colleagues at the Wolfsonian, to create Artful Truth in 1998. She's both artist and educator: She holds a master's of fine arts degree, she's taught art at the high school and college levels, and her specialty is graphic arts. "I've loved developing the curriculum," she says, "because I get to work with teachers and students. I don't think art is a mystery. It can be taught."
She has a museum full of teaching materials at her disposal, but one of the best visual aids, at least for Artful Truth, is the Wolfsonian's extensive collection of vintage propaganda posters and ads. Reproductions of these items are included in the curriculum package and illustrate effective uses of logos, fonts, slogans, and brands.
"These images are constructed to send a message, be it from a government, a corporation, a politician, whatever," Rawlinson says, pointing to a 1941 poster printed by the Canadian National Film Board. In the image, two arms cradle a factory drawn in silhouette against an orange sky. One of the arms is bare, muscled, and glistening with the sweat of hard work. The other is clothed in a conservative suit sleeve, a crisp starched cuff emerging at the wrist. The caption reads: "This is our great strength, labour and management."
Nearby is a poster from 1900, selling sunny Florida to freezing Northerners. Published by the Ocean Steamship Company, it shows, in the upper right-hand corner, a woman in a wool jacket huddled against wind and snow. Near the center is a large image of a steamship, orange blossoms, and an elegant lady in a white cotton dress carrying a parasol. The caption reads: "To Florida and the South."
Admiring the poster, Rawlinson says: "It's put together in a way that makes you want to go. It's really a nice piece of design work."
The Artful Truth curriculum is packaged in a flip-top box that resembles a gargantuan pack of smokes. (It's also available at www.artfultruth.org.) The top is blue, the bottom a mesmerizing orange-swirl pattern. In the center, like a target, is a red circle with the Artful Truth logo printed in a font that mimics a brand of cigarettes; it's hard to say which one, but the inspiration is clear. In the lower left-hand corner, where you'd normally find the surgeon general's warning, is the message: "WARNING: This pack contains materials that will expand student perceptions of art, advertising, and contemporary culture."
Each package contains a teacher's manual, an interactive CD-ROM, 20 student workbooks, a supplemental booklet with work sheets and assessment forms, and four sets of cards that are reproductions of posters and cigarette ads from the Wolfsonian collection. The curriculum offers 12 lessons, and each takes about an hour, including time to work on projects. "Blast from the future" is the overarching theme, and students are charged with helping Dezel Kewl, a grade schooler living 200 years hence, do his homework. Dezel is a clever kid who's created a computer program that allows him to travel backward in time via the Internet. His assignment is to study Artful Truth "because it changed the way kids thought about advertising and tobacco use."
"Mock Ads like this
one show how certain techniques can be used against
Dezel shares information about life in the future while probing students for details of the past. His world is even more message-saturated than our own: Pink ad blimps sail by his window as he eats breakfast, traffic signs float in the air, and gigantic silver spirals identify "McGalactic's." In Lesson One, Dezel wants to get to know his friends from the past, so he asks each one to create a "True Pic," a self-portrait collage of words and images collected from newspapers, magazines, photos, and ads. The objective is to demonstrate that, just like text, images carry a message, one that can be manipulated by the designer.
Lesson Two, titled "You're a Living Target," emphasizes the ubiquitous nature of advertising. What ads do kids see while getting ready in the morning? While traveling to school? Do these ads tell them about something, identify something, or persuade them to think or act in a certain way?
The next nine lessons build on the idea that messages are everywhere, many of them designed to sell a product. The student workbooks offer chapters on logos, persuasion, how words and fonts work together, constructed reality, and deception. As part of the final lesson, students design postcards that are supposed to have a positive influence on their peers. Examples from Debra Cline's 6th graders in Palmetto include a cooked turkey on a platter accompanied by the words "Smoke a turkey, not a cigarette"; the Superman logo linked to the message "Be brave, don't smoke!"; and a piggy bank in chains under the headline "If you smoke, you will live like this."
The Artful Truth curriculum was first made available during the 1998-99 school year when, with tobacco-settlement money, the state covered the cost of printing 500 packages, at about $60 a pop. In addition to the curriculum, 188 educators in public and private schools, after-school facilities, and arts institutions received state grants to create anti-smoking projects. Teachers in all subjects, not just art, were eligible.
Judi Bludworth, an art teacher at H.L. Johnson Elementary School in Royal Palm Beach, got $3,000 for a project called "Leaders Lift Us." Her students created portraits of people they admired, then wrote letters asking them if they'd ever smoked. The students' heroes included TV personalities, sports figures, and Florida governor Jeb Bush, brother of George W. "Most of them were very honest," Bludworth says of the responses. (And, yes, Gov. Bush admitted that he used to smoke.) Bludworth used the money to buy a computer, a flatbed scanner, and a digital camera.
Timothy McNamara, a drama teacher at South Miami Elementary Arts Magnet School, was given $15,000 to stage a play titled Do You Mind If I Smoke? McNamara says he put the money into set design and a laptop computer that helped pull the production together. "It was a good experience," he recalls. "The kids got an awful lot out of it. Being an ex-smoker, I feel I funded it in part."
|What ads do kids see while getting ready in the morning? Do these ads tell them to think or act in a certain way?|
In fact, the state provided anti-tobacco grants for three years, and a show at the end of each school year was testimony to just how creative teachers and their students can be, given a little time and a nice chunk of money. The first year's projects, exhibited at the Wolfsonian in June 1999, included "Trash Cigarettes," a life-size plaster sculpture of two elementary-age kids throwing smokes in the trash; "Buttheads," a collection of fired-clay busts with snubbed- out cigarettes for hair; and "Smoke Yourself to Death," a series of X-raylike images depicting a smoker's damaged heart, lungs, brain, and arteries.
Year two, displayed at the Tampa Museum of Art in June 2000, was more creative still, featuring everything from music videos to puppet shows. "Diablos" was a three-foot-tall metal cigarette pack that proclaimed "I'm going to kill you!" at the press of a button. In "Tobacco Town-Where Beauty Becomes Polluted," images from art and cigarette ads were used to depict the residents of a cigarette-box city. And the painting "Holy Smokes" showed the Marlboro Man's hat resting at the gates of heaven.
In year three, the display went on the Artful Truth Web site, featuring 33 exhibits ranging from a "Smoking Lung" made of papier-mâché to photos of a dance performance to a claymation video called "No Smoking in Our Neighborhood."
Not all of it was "art," admits Rawlinson. But the emphasis was on the process, not the product. "As an art teacher, I feel the quality of the student productions wasn't always as high as I would have liked," she says. "However, we worked with a lot of teachers who were not art teachers."
Evaluations of Artful Truth, conducted by an independent consulting firm in 2000 and 2001, showed that the program was effective in increasing students' "visual literacy" and in changing their attitudes about tobacco. The evaluations were based on student surveys conducted before and after the curriculum was put into use. Two surveys were distributed; one focused on tobacco consumption, the other on media literacy. The former is a modified version of one already used by the Florida Department of Health to gauge student habits. The media survey was developed by the staff at the Wolfsonian. It had students look at tobacco ads and answer open-ended questions such as: "What is going on in this picture? What do you see that makes you say that?"
The first evaluation, taken from a survey of 3,000 students who used the Artful Truth curriculum during the 1999-2000 school year, showed dramatic results. Fifty- three percent of those who'd used tobacco at the beginning of the year reported quitting by year's end. And only 4 percent said they'd sampled tobacco while participating in the program. The evaluation also noted a "statistically significant" increase in visual literacy skills, especially among those students who'd completed all 12 of the curriculum's lessons.
The next year, a survey of 1,300 Artful Truth participants indicated that 42 percent of those students who were using tobacco when the program began had quit by the time it ended. Less than 1 percent of the group took up smoking during the program. In both evaluations, the consultant concluded that Artful Truth should receive more state funding so as to increase the number of students who can participate.
For Rawlinson, these statistics are proof that teaching media literacy is an effective way to get students to question tobacco use. "We've empowered young people to decode the advertising that persuades them to think or feel or act in a certain way," she explains. "The tobacco companies are incredible manipulators of that language, but now the students can turn it around, take it apart, see how to respond. Is it truthful or not?"
Media literacy has proved effective in other states, too, notes Dearell Niemeyer of the Tobacco Technical Assistance Consortium. "We know the strategy of saying 'the tobacco industry is manipulating you' works with young people," he says. "It gives power back to [students] rather than telling them not to do something. These are great skills, no matter whether you are buying soap or cigarettes."
"Artful Truth is not
designed solely for art classes, so some of the projects students
have produced may not be aesthetically pleasing. But they do make
their point. "Smokin' Lung" is one good example.
The consortium, affiliated with Emory University in Atlanta, is a clearinghouse of information on states' anti-tobacco efforts. Media literacy as a tactic has been around for about eight years, says Niemeyer, and it's been incorporated in two other commonly used curriculums: Project TNT, or Toward No Tobacco Use, and Life Skills Training.
Project TNT is a 10-lesson, two-week curriculum for 7th graders that emphasizes the course of tobacco addiction and disease and teaches coping skills so kids don't get hooked. Its media literacy component identifies how tobacco ads influence teens. Life Skills Training is for 6th through 9th graders and features 10 lessons the first year with follow-up lessons the remaining years. As with Project TNT, showing how advertisers manipulate consumers is an aspect of the curriculum.
Other states are following Florida's lead in creating regional anti-tobacco media campaigns similar to Truth. Ohio, for example, recently launched "Stand," which is aimed at reducing tobacco use among 11- to 15-year-olds.
Although the Truth campaign has gone national and been imitated, Artful Truth has yet to leave Florida. "I don't know of anybody doing a propaganda art program in any other state," says Chuck Wolfe, who's now a private consultant.
Even within the Sunshine State, the program may be destined for obscurity. Funding for all of Florida's anti-tobacco efforts has been cut significantly since Lawton Chiles, a Democrat, died of a heart attack in office in 1998. The Florida Tobacco Pilot Program (now called the Division of Health Awareness and Tobacco and operating under the state's department of health) had a first-year budget of $70.5 million. Under Republican Jeb Bush, the program's budget was reduced to $38.7 million in 1999, and this year, due to a budget shortfall, it amounts to just $28.7 million.
From the beginning, Artful Truth was conceived as a three-year project. Its budget, during 1998-99, started at $1.4 million, then dropped to $675,000 the second year, and $350,000 the third. Any schools making use of the curriculum this year have had to fund tobacco-related projects themselves. Ironically, the state plans to cover the cost of printing 1,300 Artful Truth packages next year, enough for at least one in every elementary school in the state. But there isn't any money in the budget for teacher training or support.
Wolfe, for one, is saddened by these developments. "It is disappointing to see a state that made such great strides give it all up," he says.
Money or no money, Debra Cline is still sold on Artful Truth. As her 6th graders click away on their computers, she circles the room, quietly critiquing their work with the trained eye of a former ad-agency creative director. "Think about your visual hierarchy," she says to one girl working on a doorknob hanger that reads: "If you smoke, don't disturb the princess."
It's obvious that these kids are creatively engaged. And for Cline, that's about as good as it gets.
"This is what I love about my job," she says. "When I was a creative director and I had people under me, it was like pulling teeth to get them to come up with ideas. They would say, 'Tell me what to do, tell me what to do.' Here I say, 'Go,' and they go."
Vol. 13, Issue 8, Pages 29-33Published in Print: May 1, 2002, as No Ifs, Ands, Or Butts