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Medicine and Madison Avenue Research Guide

Suggestions for Classroom Use

Instructor's Guide to Medicine and Madison Avenue

The MMA database is designed for use in secondary schools, colleges and universities, and medical, nursing, dental and public health schools. It provides material relevant to a wide range of courses, including American history, history of health and healing, American studies, sociology, women's studies, and communications. The database may be used not only to stimulate discussions of advertising and health, but also to build critical thinking skills in general. This guide aims to help course instructors design effective assignments based on the documents included in MMA. The first section discusses issues specific to discussions of advertising; the second section explores ways in which documents can be used to develop critical thinking skills.

Exploring Attitudes Toward Advertising

As any instructor who has used ads in the classroom can attest, they are excellent sources for provoking discussion and reflection. It will be a rare student indeed who does not express some strong feelings and opinions about advertising's influence on Americans' health. The very intensity and volatility of those feelings can make classroom discussions of advertising difficult as well as rewarding.

Many students come to the historical study of advertisements with certain preconceptions that need to be acknowledged and challenged in order to facilitate a more informed discussion of the subject. Some students will insist that advertising does not "mean" anything; they may feel that ads have little effect on the way people think and act, that they are trivial subjects not worth discussing. These views reflect the ironic, relatively sophisticated view of popular culture that most young Americans have today. Few people want to admit that advertising has any significant influence on the way they act.

To get students to reflect more seriously on the subject, it is useful to remind them of advertising's impact on the American economy. In the year 2019, American businesses spent nearly $250 billion on advertising and nearly $560 billion worldwide.  It's estimated that the average American consumer is exposed to nearly 5,000 advertising messages per day. At a more personal level, asking students to think about ways they have modified their behavior in response to specific advertisements helps facilitate discussion. Exercises 27 and 28 in Section 3 of the Student Guide can be used to get students to reflect on how ads may influence behavior and attitudes.

Some students will insist that far from being insignificant, advertising is an insidious form of brainwashing created by a single-minded capitalist elite, that it is a totally evil institution with no redeeming social value. Disabusing students of the assumption that advertising represents a coherent, well orchestrated form of capitalist mind control can be difficult. Modern consumer capitalism does indeed rely upon advertising to promote its long term profits. Yet even the most cursory review of advertising history suggests that its power to mold popular opinion has been limited and unreliable. As Michael Schudson has pointed out, we have little hard evidence that advertising works the way its creators hope, that is, to promote sales of a specific brand. More ad campaigns fail than succeed, suggesting that whatever mind control is being proposed does not work very consistently (Schudson, 1984). In addition, advertising does provide consumers with potentially useful information about new products and services. The case studies on Fleischmann's Yeast, Listerine, and Scottissue included in MMA (see below) are useful in getting students to move beyond overly simplistic views of advertising as an infallible form of capitalist mind control (see also Exercise 23).

A related set of issues has to do with the nature and extent of individual choice in a consumer-oriented economy. Precisely because views of consumers are so intertwined with assumptions about individual rationality and self-realization, the question of how much "free will" people exercise in their response to ad appeals is a matter of controversy. Students are likely to disagree vigorously over whether modern day consumers are best thought of as passive victims or sovereign shoppers. The history of advertising provides them an excellent opportunity to think through their assumptions about individual choice and social responsibility, and to ponder the cultural forces at work shaping expressions of need and desire.

As students will easily recognize, advertising is intimately connected with conceptions of the American Dream. Comparing advertising's image of the "good life" with the reality of Americans' ability to afford that lifestyle will likely lead to debates about income inequality in the United States and other parts of the world. Ads invite students to think about the equation of success with specific goods, and the implications of barring some people from ever obtaining that "success" because of poverty. Students should also be encouraged to think about the global implications of the American consumers' lifestyle, both economically and environmentally. Exercises 6 and 7 can be used to get students thinking about the disenfranchised consumer.

Building Critical Skills

Having students work with primary sources, that is, first hand accounts and evidence of life in the past, provides excellent practice in what educators term critical thinking skills. Critical thinking, as opposed to rote learning or memorization, requires identifying problems, collecting relevant facts or data, and making and testing generalizations. History courses, especially those that incorporate the regular use of primary sources, develop many skills considered essential to critical thinking, such as: seeing multiple or layered meanings in a text or event; appreciating the importance of context and perspective in interpreting a text; learning to "play" with ideas, through speculation, induction, deduction, hypothesis, counterfactual and metaphorical thinking; discerning themes and patterns in the past and devising interpretations to explain them; and developing the ability to comprehend divergent points of view (Craver 1999).

In more concrete terms, the MMA databasecan be used to teach the following conceptual skills (loosely adapted from Craver 1999):

1. Comparison: have students note similarities and differences between or among advertisements for different products or from different time periods.

2. Classification: have students group advertisements into categories based on commonalities in message, imagery, or the like.

3. Inference: have students use groups of ads to help develop hypotheses about widely held values and behaviors of the time.

4. Argument: have students use ads to build support for an argument or debate about the past.

5. Perspective: identify and articulate the point of view or perspective presented in the ad or supplemental document. 


Apple, Rima. 1996 Vitaminia: Vitamins in American Culture.

Craver, Kathleen W. 1999 Using Internet Primary Sources to Teach Critical Thinking Skills in History.

Jacobson, Michael F. and Masur, Laurie Ann. 1995 Marketing Madness: A Survival Guide for a Consumer Society.

Linnett, Richard. 2001 "The Numbers Game," Ad Age, July 30, 2001.

Marchand, Roland. 1985 Advertising the American Dream.

Pierce, Russell. 1991 Gringo Gaucho: An Advertising Odyssey

Schudson, Michael. 1984 Advertising, the Uneasy Persuasion.

Whorton, James C. 2000 Inner Hygiene: Constipation and the Pursuit of Health in Modern Society