Brave New World
|An educational group in New Mexico shows teachers how to dissect media information—and the consumer culture that kids inhabit.|
It was July 4, 2002, and it was hot. "Africa hot," as Matthew Broderick puts it in Biloxi Blues after his character, a Brooklyn native, arrives for his first day of Army training in summertime Mississippi. I live in Maryland, not Mississippi, but the climate in my hometown that day was more Deep South than mid-Atlantic: 95 degrees Fahrenheit, 98 percent humidity. And it was only 10 in the morning. Thing is, my wife and I had told the kids two weeks prior that, yes, they'd be allowed to march in the neighborhood parade. It sounded like a great opportunity for everyone, children and adults, to celebrate the first Independence Day after 9/11.
But, damn, it was hot.
The sweat was pouring by the time my wife and I, our 5-year-old son, and our 3-year-old daughter reached the starting point several blocks downhill from our house. The plan, we were told as we huddled in the shade of a small tree, was to walk back up the hill, make a U-turn, then finish where we were standing. At that point, I was planning to ditch about halfway through—and feeling guilty about it—when, suddenly, I saw a cow coming our way.
This was no ordinary cow. First of all, it was walking on its hind legs. I realized, of course, that it was someone dressed as a cow, in a furry, black and white costume that included an oversized head sporting shades. The faux bovine, passing out brochures for a new ice cream parlor, was flanked by two pleasant-looking teens—one boy, one girl—who seemed innocuous enough. But soon they were unfurling a banner, an advertisement for the store, and moving to the front of the line.
At first, I was too distracted by the heat to protest. But 10 minutes into the parade, after we’d trudged halfway up the hill, the line snaked around a townhouse court, where I had a clear view of the spectacle: the bulbous-headed cow; the banner-wielding teens; a boombox blasting a John Philip Sousa tune; and a mobof miserable-looking neighbors trailing behind. Happy Fourth of July!
I found out later that a parade organizer had approached the ice cream place, thinking its representatives would arrive bearing cones and popsicles. No such luck. But I also discovered, after informally polling a few neighbors, that no one seemed as bugged by the commercialization of the event as I was. A few chuckled over it, and one sarcastically uttered, "Welcome to America."
It was then that I recalled something I’d heard just a month prior at the Catalyst Institute, a four-day workshop put on by the New Mexico Media Literacy Project. Thirty trainees, half of them teachers at public or private schools, were in attendance, sitting in a cocoonlike hall in Las Cruces, New Mexico, listening to the NMMLP’s executive director, Bob McCannon. He told them during a discussion about critical thinking in schools that when it comes to teaching media literacy, there are no Ten Commandments. "It is a very, very subjective and changing field," he explained. Later, he added: "Everyone creates their own meaning from media."
Media, of course, is not just the electronic press. It includes newspapers, magazines, movies, TV news and entertainment, and advertising in every form imaginable. And literacy, in this context, is the ability not only to "read" the subject matter contained therein, but also to analyze it, so that you know exactly who’s sending out messages, why, and what effects they may have. The ice cream cow, literally a walking advertisement, had proved McCannon’s point; I obviously have my own notions about advertising and when it is and isn’t appropriate. But I’m also a journalist, a moviegoer, a TV watcher, and a consumer. So I decided that hot day in July that I should recount my experiences with the NMMLP in a personal way.
The nonprofit organization was established in 1993 by former TV reporter and 20/20 host Hugh Downs and his teacher daughter, Deirdre. A year later, they passed the baton to McCannon, who was teaching history and media literacy at Albuquerque Academy, a grades 6- 12 private school. That first year, McCannon likes to tell folks, he held 14 workshops; the next year, 140. Since then, the NMMLP—funded in part by the academy, the state of New Mexico, workshop fees, and McCannon’s speaking honorariums—has visited 300 to 400 schools nationwide each year, distributing subject-specific curricula and the organization’s CD-ROMs.
The institutes have trained more than 800 "catalysts," for the most part people in the education, health care, and community activism fields. Some are studying media for the first time, while others who already teach media lit are trying to hone their skills. All are expected to take home what they have learned and pass it to others. A catalyst, McCannon told the group I observed in June, "is something that causes things to happen. And we hope you will cause things to happen."
But what, exactly? When the media literacy movement began in earnest in the early 1970s, it was widely considered a waste of time. Why focus on ads, television, and movies, the thinking went, when what students really need is to learn the "basics"—the Western canon, for example—to excel in school?
In the past two decades, however, megamergers, corporate scandals, celebrity endorsements, and the commercialization of public schools have altered the views of many. How the media influence consumer behavior today looks a lot like the tip of an iceberg. When I hinted at this in Las Cruces, McCannon blurted: "There’s nothing that you can not study by studying media literacy."
These days, media lit organizations are easy to find in the United States—a fact I discovered as I explored Web sites last spring in search of a story. Some are politically active; others see "literacy" as the skills needed (marketing and filmmaking, for instance) to thrive in a media- saturated society; and many, like the NMMLP, focus on education. But even the "educators," I noticed, have philosophical differences, ranging from Christian fundamentalism to a more corporate-friendly approach. Some groups, in fact, receive funding from the manufacturers of sneakers, video games, and other products, the idea being that even they recognize a need for making sense of consumermania.
But the New Mexico Media Literacy Project, a name I kept coming across on Web sites’ hyperlink pages, is among those that refuse to take money from corporate interests. In Media Literacy: An Alternative to Censorship, a history of the movement recently published by the nonprofit Free Expression Policy Project, an account of the 1999 National Media Education Conference points up just how contentious the issue is. That year, in St. Paul, Minnesota, one of the conference’s sponsors was Channel One, the in-school, news-and-advertisement TV program. Several prominent media educators refused to attend the event. Afterward, McCannon told one journalist: "Media literacy is being hijacked by corporate interests who are using the movement to buy legitimacy and deflect criticism of their products."
Here was a guy who sounded serious. The fact that he’s executive director of a 10-year-old media literacy organization—in a state that includes media lit standards in its curricula—didn’t hurt, either. Plus, the Catalyst Institute was coming up.
‘On television, every seven minutes, you get a group of
messages that are, quite simply, the most powerful communication
that we can create as a species.’
Since 1993, the NMMLP has been holding its training workshops in the northern New Mexico cities of Albuquerque and Taos, the latter in conjunction with an annual film festival. But in 2002, McCannon and company wanted potential trainees in the southern part of the state to be able to participate. Although educators from across the country are welcome to take part—in fact, 12 out-of-state participants, one from as far away as Massachusetts, were in Las Cruces in June—at $395 plus traveling expenses, the cost is formidable. So most come from in-state.
I arrived in Las Cruces, 45 miles north of the Mexican border, between the Rio Grande and the Organ Mountains, on a Sunday, the day before the workshop began. The temperature was 100 degrees, the climate bone-dry. Most of the landscape was dirt, sand, and brush, and my tongue felt like sandpaper, even after several swigs of bottled water. I never did get a glimpse of the river, but almost everywhere I went, the rocky, tan, majestic Organs loomed in the distance. They’re called that because, collectively, they look like the pipes of an organ. But to me, they resembled dinosaur teeth, a primordial symbol befitting their age.
The NMMLP CD-ROMs, a few of which I’d viewed before my trip, offeras backdrops startling photographs ofnature—lakes, rivers, deserts, and mountains, most shot in and around Albuquerque. They wallpaper the pages you return to after viewing the media "samples"—clips from movies and TV, snippets of print ads—as if some form of frontal-lobe cleansing is necessary before continuing.
That’s what made the Las Cruces setting so appropriate. On the outskirts of the city, not far from brand-new neighborhoods with adobe-style homes and streets named after golf pros, sits the Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum. This handsome contemporary structure, featuring peaked roofs, tinted glass, and wood-beam rafters, fronts an enormous parking lot and, from its courtyard, affords a picture-perfect view of the Organ Mountains. Inside, however, McCannon set up shop in a dimly lit, walled-off section of the museum’s auditorium, where a projector hooked up to a computer threw his shadow against an enormous screen. Over the next few days, he would display plenty of media samples, but first he told the catalysts, after an introduction, to turn to Page 7 of the "hymnal," the workshop handbook, where they’d find a list of "media concerns." It was their job to rank the top three issues their future students—kids and fellow educators—would have to confront.
After a few awkward, getting-to- know-each-other moments, one group engaged in a spirited discussion about what should come first: "selling addictions" or "democracy." A few folks suggested that, in analyzing any aspect of American culture, you have to begin with the Founding Fathers’ democratic principles. But Nancy Harrison, an art teacher at the Hockaday School in Dallas, Texas, noted that at the elementary level, you’re dealing with kids not yet fully aware of the political system. Still, by no choice of their own, they’re targeted by advertisers. Hence, "selling addictions" is the starting point.
As the group took a 10-minute break, I pulled McCannon aside and asked him why—before launching full-throttle into a four-day, 12-hour-a-day workshop—he had allowed the trainees to help set the event’s tone. "If you come right out and say to somebody, ‘Look, the me-dia that you love sucks, and it’s really screwing you up,’ you know, that’s not a good way to motivate them to do anything," he explained in a rumbling baritone. "The secret to doing media literacy is to engage people in a conversation; so our first activity here is to get a conversation started. We like to teach in the way that we think people ought to do media literacy."
He talked some more—about how TV news is harmful to kids; about nature playing second fiddle, with deleterious results, to media in Americans’ lives. But the methodology McCannon would like his trainees to employ is best demonstrated by the man himself, in front of an audience.
First, a preface: McCannon, at 57, personifies charisma. Although his squared-off, wire- rimmed glasses are of the nerd variety, he resembles more the football coach he once was: well over 6 feet tall, with a bit of a paunch and, literally, a big head going gray at the temples. His attire is casual New Mexico—bolo tie, short sleeves, khakis, sensible shoes. It’s his personality that’s exceptional, however, not his appearance. When I first talked to him on the phone before my trip, he seemed blasé about his job, like any history teacher (which he’s been, at Albuquerque Academy, for 27 years) who’s repeated the same facts ad nauseam. But later, while listening to my tapes, I realized just how articulate, at times eloquent, McCannon is. And I soon discovered that he saves most of his energy for the "performance."
It was 10:30 a.m., two hours af ter the institute had begun, and McCannon clicked on a sample from the CD-ROM Understanding Media. Titled "Delightful Entertainment," the Dr Pepper commercial features multiethnic audiences watching various sports games with great enthusiasm (highlighted by an uplifting pop-music score). The focus is not the games, however, but the fans. McCannon didn’t mention it at the time, but he was making a basic observation about media, one listed this way in the hymnal: "Media is most powerful when it operates at an emotional level.... [Advertisements] seek to transfer feelings from an emotionally charged symbol to a product." The symbols in the Dr Pepper ad? An elderly man helped to his seat by a conscientious younger man. A woman moved to tears as her mate cheers their home team. A few kids waiting outside a locker-room door for their heroes to emerge.
As the commercial ends, a football player offers his hand to someone on the opposing team who’s just been knocked on his rear. McCannon froze the clip, saying this was the "key scene," the commercial’s big payoff—meaning it sums up, in a symbolic way, the relationship between product and consumer.
By the way, he added, "the average TV ad costs more to make than the average movie, on a per-minute basis."
This was delivered deliberately—as if it were gospel truth. When he lectures, McCannon is equal parts carnival barker, preacher, and college professor. He’s prone to pregnant pauses and speaks in italics.
"You are looking at a movie set. Right now. Only bigger," he told the hushed crowd.
He pointed to the screen, where the players’ hands—one black, one white—met. Pacing the floor, he added: "There’s light towers all over the place. You’re looking through a $750,000 Panaflex camera. There are people running all over the place who do nothing but lighting. It took them six to eight hours to set this scene up. Kids don’t know that. Kids don’t realize that this ad was focus- group tested after [the advertisers] got to the rough-out stage. And then they changed it some more. It cost a hundred grand to focus-group test. That’s chump change for every national advertiser."
The NMMLP gets its information from many sources, including books, studies, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of Education, daily newspapers, and Advertising Age, the magazine that keeps tabs on the ad and marketing industry. This Dr Pepper commercial, McCannon informed the trainees, was part of an $8million campaign that ran during a fall football season. The key scene, the one shoppers are supposed to remember as they’re perusing the soda aisle in the grocery store"It shows positive race relations," he revealed. "We can get along."
"Who’s in power?" he asked.
A mumble from the crowd: "The African American player."
McCannon: "What would we callit when a football player from oneteam helps a football player fromanother team?"
A few more voices: "Sportsmanship."
"That’s what the kids will tell you," McCannon responded, adding that he’s shown this commercial to tens of thousands of students across the country who usually have the same reaction: Wonderful story. But, he said, it’s not the kind of story network television focuses on during actual games. Here in the ad, which was designed to associate Dr Pepper with positive experiences, sportsmanship is highlighted in slow motion; in reality, slo-mo goes to the game’s "hardest hits," a euphemism for violence. Why? Because violence garners ratings. "That’s what keeps people tuned in—’til the commercial comes," McCannon claimed.
His methodology suddenly became clear: Throw out questions first, get the kids involved, slip some obscure facts into the mix, then compare fantasy with reality.
"The number one essential quality if you’re gonna do media literacy is, you have to be interesting," he said, finally. "You have to be fascinating because kids have grown up with television. And on television, every seven minutes, you get a group of messages that are, quite simply, the most powerful communication that we can create as a species, with the most advanced technology available to mankind. Every seven minutes. And they are all just vastly entertaining."
The ripple effect from this message was evident immediately. The trainees were given many opportunities to break into groups, primarily to discuss subjects raised by McCannon, a few guest speakers, and the CD-ROMs. But these sessions often got around to what each educator was hoping to do back home.
Damie Nelson, a friendly, petite, gray-haired woman, is a faculty member at the Cliff School, a K-12 public school with fewer than 300 students in rural southwestern New Mexico. For six years, her freshman communications class has included a media lit unit. This year, she’ll be using the CD-ROMs for the first time, in part to train her fellow teachers. Seven years ago, her school’s librarian attended a Catalyst Institute, then passed its materials on to Nelson. "I started reading through the stuff, and it just electrified me," she explained. "It just fired me up, and I’ve been doing it ever since."
"What exactly fired you up?" I asked.
"It scared me," she said, "to know that there’s all these very powerful, rich interests that are controlling what kids are digesting and that kids are, for the most part, clueless. And, unfortunately, so are their parents—bless their hearts."
But Nelson, wearing a button that reads "Television: Valet Parking of the Mind," made clear to four fellow educators during a group meeting that ignorance need only be temporary. She said of her media lit efforts: "I’ve had most parents tell me, ‘Thank you for what you’re doing because my daughter’s come home and shared what she’s learning with the whole family. So now, when we sit and watch television together, she’ll point out things to the rest of us that we were clueless about.’"
Christie McAuley, another trainee, once worked in advertising but left the business "because I couldn’t handle the way the ethics were, and the values," she explained. She’d already attended two NMMLP workshops and, in June, was gearing up for her 7th grade language arts classes at Eagle Ridge Middle School in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. She’s used the CD-ROMs as part of a unit in her classes, but this year, she told me, "I would like to center most of the year around a media literacy curriculum."
Her approach has always been kid-centered: She starts out with simple media lit terms, analyzes commercials with students, then has them keep journals on their favorite TV shows.
"And they’re really eager to jump in," the attractive, blond 30- something told me. "Of course, whenever I first ask them, ‘Do you think advertising affects you?’ they say, ‘No.’...They’re like, ‘Oh, I don’t do that because of advertising, I do it because I like it.’ ‘Well, why do you like it? How has it become popular?’"
This is where McCannon’s point—the one about TV commercials being fun—comes in. It serves as a tenet, really, for the media lit genre because, without entertainment, nobody would sit through commercials or pay heedto print and Internet ads.
But before driving home the idea with more CD-ROM samples, McCannon clicked on a quote from Neil Postman, who has written more than 20 books on education and media: "We must learn that every time we consume any technology or medium, we make a Faustian bargain; that is, something good and bad happens. The task is to know both."
The good: the "delightful entertainment" derived from watching the Dr Pepper ad, the soundtrack of which includes the lyrics, "Without you, I’m just a lonely melody/ But together, we are harmony." The bad, according to McCannon: what these lyrics really mean. Habitually drinking soda, he said, leads to a dependence on sugar and caffeine; stop imbibing it, and you go through withdrawal. Plus, he added, if you drink soda regularly—which many kids do—you visit the bathroom often. (Because of the phosphoric acid in soda, he explained, it’s considered a diuretic.) And if you’re urinating excessively, you’re excreting calcium, which kids need for growth.
‘If we talk just a little bit about things that kids don’t know, we can cause them to think about things in new ways. And that is education.’
This wasn’t earth-shattering news, exactly. There was at least one school nurse present, plus a handful of educators tied to health-related causes, such as teen pregnancy and tobacco-use prevention. But the seamless links McCannon was making, the interdisciplinary connections, impressed the trainees.
"If we talk just a little bit about things that kids don’t know, we can cause them to think about things in new ways," he said, as if completing their collective thoughts. "And that is education."
Go to the Centers for Disease Control Web site, he suggested. Find out about kids’ bones and teeth enamel being weaker these days, youth onset of osteoporosis, problems with diet and lack of nutrition. "I mean, who’s eating broccoli as a way of getting calcium?" he asked, rhetorically. "How many people are even aware of what constitutes a good diet anymore?"
Later that day, we broke for dinner. On the way out the door, David Thurston, a middle school social studies instructor at 21st Century Academy in Albuquerque, told me he was once a graphic artist in advertising. Thurston is a tall, gangly fellow in his late 40s who wears flower- print shirts and combs his thinning hair into something of a pompadour that matches his gray goatee. He’s gregarious and doesn’t mind speaking, at length, on any subject. As we made our way past "Sod Buster"—a larger-than-life outdoor sculpture featuring a farmer driving two enormous oxen—Thurston remembered an education professor who said that a school’s teaching staff is truly valuable if each member is an expert on something he or she actually likes to do.
Back in his advertising days, he recalled as I drove us out of the museum’s parking lot, he helped put together glossy menus. Because, by law, you have to use the genuine article in ad photos, he would cart food from restaurantto studio. "And this is like an art form, photographing food," he said, as we wound our way past brand-new houses on the right, a tract of desert on the left. To reduce the glare of the studio lights, the photographer would douse meat, potatoes, and veggies with hairspray, Thurston informed me. And if a juicy piece of meat had to look just right, "he would actually paint grill marks, beautifully, right on the steak," he said, relishing the memory. "Think of the picture of the perfectly grilled steak."
At Pete’s Hacienda, I skipped the steak and, like most seated at the L-shaped group of tables set aside for the trainees, sampled the local cuisine instead. McCannon sat next to me, at the head of the table; across the way was Wally Bowen, a media lit expert and Catalyst Institute guest speaker.
Bowen—a handsome, soft-spoken gent who at one time was a journalist, then a public relations officer for the University of North Carolina—is now an outspoken critic of media corporatization. "The biggest private plunder of our commonwealth in our lifetime—well, within the last hundred years," he told me as we sipped beer, "is the enclosure, or the capture, of the public airwaves by private enterprise."
He would cite as examples the next day: media conglomerates such as ABC-Disney, which, in vertical fashion, control everything from film production to the distribution and promotion of films; and the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which enables radio giants like Clear Channel to own and operate more than 1,200 stations, thus eliminating "local voices" in favor of Top 40 programming and syndicated talk shows. But Bowen is not just a critic these days. He’s president of the Mountain Area Information Network, a nonprofit Internet service provider for 14 counties in western North Carolina. Back in June, he and his outfit were also hoping to acquire radio and public access television licenses, so as to put those local voices back into the media mix.
At this point, I was beginning to catch on. Slicing into my burrito, I suggested that perhaps media literacy—at least for the two guys sitting in front of me—serves as an introduction to a more complicated set of studies.
In liberal arts education, Bowen told me, there used to be a specialty called "political economy." "That’s what this is all about," he added, "political economy."
"You throw in all the psychological stuff as well," McCannon interjected, his baritone bouncing off the arch-shaped windows at Pete’s. "You’ve got self-image, self-esteem. You’ve got body image, health, addictions. You’ve got everything that’s being sold in America today, and that includes politicians. It includes consumerism; consumerism as a religion, for God’s sake. I mean, today, if you want to be successful as a pure religion, what do you have to own? A TV station, a TV network. I mean, it goes on and on and on. The media is now so interconnected with our lives."
The next morning, McCannon wasn’t so doom-and-gloom. He couldn’t be. Some trainees were wondering if it wasn’t all too much: ads targeting kids, media conglomerates controlling the flow of information, the corporate scandals (Enron, Tyco) that were just beginning to unfold in June. As a media literacy educator, they asked, how do you avoid sounding like a conspiracy theorist?
You support everything with facts, McCannon told them. That’s why the New Mexico Media Literacy Project CD-ROMs (including Media Literacy for Health: A K-12 Activity Curriculum and Reversing Addiction in Our Compulsive Culture) are jampacked with them; Understanding Media alone offers more than 400 pages of text. What’s more, you supply students with some kind of historical perspective. "I am a historian," McCannon told the trainees, "so I know these things."
Indeed, he’s been fascinated by history most of his life. Born in Chicago, he moved at a young age to St. Petersburg, Florida, where his dad, Lyle, was first a maintenance man, then the teaching pro at a tennis club. His mother, Adele, stayed home, taking care of Bob and his older sister. Neither parent had much of an education, but, as McCannon tells it, "they were both really independent thinkers. They were people who questioned a great deal of what they heard."
Although McCannon got into Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, on a tennis scholarship, his focus was a passion he’d developed in high school: German history. He’d read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, then followed it with Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf and could not believe, based on the nightmarish blueprint laid out in the book, that Hitler had been elected chancellor and was, for a time, admired by various heads of state. But after McCannon saw filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, in which a fatherlike Hitler—all smiles and embraces—presides over the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, it suddenly made sense. With that film, McCannon told me, "his popularity went through the roof," and "modern, image-based, emotional-transfer selling was born."
|There are many historians willing to back their claims about consumer culture with facts. It's up to the individual to determine how to make use of the information.|
Is knowing all this reason for despair? Quite the opposite, McCannon and his guest speakers tried to make clear during the Catalyst Institute. Knowledge empowers because it provides perspective. The latest corporate scandals, for instance, are no worse than the savings and loan crisis of the ’80s, McCannon told the trainees. And before that, he added, "General Motors did go around and buy up 48 trolley systems in 48 different cities in the United States and destroy them, so that they could sell more buses. That’s a fact. John D. Rockefeller did buy up opposing rail systems and oil companies and make a monopoly, and then over here he would lower the prices...to drive people out of business. And that’s why Standard Oil was broken up."
The trainees were dead silent. Perhaps sensing that, to some, his presentation had taken an anti-capitalist turn, he added: "Believe me, I am not a communist. I think that capitalism has provided some wonderful things for all of us. But the thing that has made capitalism efficient is competition." Later, driving the point home, he added: "Merger also means monopoly, which also means lack of competition, which also means you guys get screwed. But nobody’s saying it that way."
At moments like these, it’s easy to see that McCannon has his own views of the world, views not always widely held. He even got me, a cinephile, a bit riled when he pulled up a scene from Training Day, the film that recently won Denzel Washington an Academy Award and Ethan Hawke a nomination for best supporting actor. Washington plays a Los Angeles police detective who specializes in narcotics in the city’s toughest neighborhoods. Although Washington’s a decorated cop, it’s obvious to rookie Hawke on his first day that the detective does not go by the book. "To protect the sheep, you gotta get the wolf," he tells Hawke. "It takes a wolf to catch a wolf."
Prior to showing the clip, which is not on any of the CD-ROMs, McCannon told his audience that he had compiled a list—should they want to view it later—of the awful things Washington’s character does in the movie. He then said that he’s a fan of the actor but that Washington shouldn’t have been given an Oscar for such a morally reprehensible role.
In talking to McCannon by phone recently, I reminded him that Washington’s character—despite his cool clothes, his hot car, his facility for hanging with gang members—does pay a price in the end: He’s foiled by Hawke’s good cop and brutally gunned down by Russian mobsters. There’s a moral there. McCannon conceded as much but claimed that the film’s merits are overshadowed by the fact that Hawke’s character was made to "look like a geek."
So I watched the film again. Although I’ll admit Hawke is no Steve McQueen, one of the reasons he got the Oscar nod was that his character, who starts out green, ends up the hero, with his integrity intact. During one scene, in fact, he takes on a handful of gun-wielding corrupt cops and outmaneuvers them all.
But as much as McCannon remains headstrong on some issues, the teacher in him usually wins out. He made clear throughout the Catalyst training that a media literacy educator absolutely must not ram his or her opinions down a kid’s throat, for the simple reason that everyone experiences media individually. "You have got to honor the differences in your audiences," he emphasized, at one point. "If you do not honor those differences, you will fail at media literacy."
That idea lingered long after I had left New Mexico, mostly because I had a pile of materials to sift through—the CD-ROMs, for example, and the "hymnal," with its media lit tools, techniques, articles, and curricular activities. The suggested-reading table at the institute had been piled high with volumes, some of which I had read before (including McCannon’s beloved Brave New World), many of which I hadn’t. So I chose five for their subject matter: No Logo (branding), Toxic Sludge Is Good For You (the PR business), The Overspent American (the personal-debt crisis), The Age of Missing Information (nature vs. media saturation), and Fast Food Nation (the history and influence of the eponymous industry). What I discovered is that, like McCannon, there are many historians willing to back up their claims about consumer culture with facts. It’s then up to the individual—a Catalyst trainee or, say, a journalist—to determine how to make use of the information.
But what McCannon taught still sticks, including a lesson from Training Day that I’m unable to dismiss. He set up the clip by saying, in essence, OK, this is the climactic scene of the movie. Hawke has a gun on Washington, whose own firearm is lying in the street, waiting to be picked up. You’re watching this in a theater, and after witnessing 90 minutes of physical and psychological violence—and seeing, by the way, Washington light up and smoke cigarette after cigarette—your nervous system is tense. And believe me, McCannon adds, focusing on the cigarettes, there’s a history behind the kind of product placement you’re about to witness.
"There are experts on this in Hollywood," he continues. "They know where they want their products placed. There are agents who do nothing but place products in movies; that’s how they make their money." Two notable examples: In ET, the cameo appearance of Reese’s Pieces drove up sales of the mini-candies by 78 percent, he says; and because of The Firm, in which Tom Cruise knocks over a bottle of Red Stripe during a crucial moment, sales of that ale jumped by 48 percent.
So here we have Washington, who, despite Hawke’s protests, is reaching for the street. The focus is on the gun. "Oh, my God," McCannon says, falsetto, "there’s gonna be a shootout!" He freezes the scene; then, one frame at a time, we see the focus shift—tick, tick—from the gun—tick, tick—to something fuzzy in the foreground—tick, tick. Now, not so fuzzy; now, crystal clear. It’s upside-down, it’s true, but even at this angle, there’s no denying what it is: a pack of Kools. Washington picks it up. He lights a cigarette. Takes a puff. Then, finally, the action resumes.
Vol. 14, Issue 4, Pages 30-35Published in Print: January 1, 2003, as Brave New World