Douglas Gentile is trying to manipulate children. As he stands alongside his partner, Peter Komendowski, in front of a classroom full of wide-eyed St. Joseph School students, he uses gimmick after entertaining gimmick in an effort to change the way these learners think about advertising.
But Gentile is one of the good guys.
“Fight fire with fire,” says Gentile, an associate professor of psychology at Iowa State University. “It’s done intentionally. We recognize that if we don’t get their attention, it doesn’t matter how good the content is. … Keeping attention is critical.”
He and Komendowski — who present to middle schoolers under their respective alter egos of “The Professor” and “The Ad Man” — are spreading their message throughout Iowa, one classroom at a time.
“We’re trying to say that we need to empower that relationship between children and the environment in a way that parents and teachers are involved,” says Komendowski, president of Partnership@DrugFreeIowa.org.
The duo piloted the Iowa Media Literacy program last year with a $25,000 grant from the Wellmark Foundation and support from the AEGON Transamerica Foundation allows the team to visit Eastern Iowa now. In addition to their afternoon at St. Joseph’s in Marion, Gentile and Komendowski are scheduled to present at Vernon Middle School, also in Marion, later this school year. They are aiming to visit even more local classrooms this spring and next fall.
The pair pop brightly colored balloons — used to demonstrate social learning — and show logos and commercials, all while encouraging student participation, spending their hour at St. Joseph demystifying the advertising-industrial complex.
The Professor and The Ad Man have bright colors and a logo too, but it’s part of the lesson.
“We hope that draws them into it more,” Gentile says.
The duo allows students to see behind the curtain, illustrating the ways executives code print and television campaigns to explicitly target adults and implicitly appeal to children.
Tobacco and alcohol ads are a significant portion of the discussion and Gentile points out the “Easter eggs” and “bonus features that make kids feel more comfortable” within them. Gentile peppers his speech with words, including “trick” and “manipulation,” to reinforce that programming isn’t really what’s being sold.
“They sell you,” he says to the students. “They sell your eyes watching the advertising.”
St. Joseph Principal Cathy Walz says the media literacy curriculum, which includes pre- and post-tests and teacher materials, fits into the digital literacy and technology integration pieces in the school framework for middle schoolers. For example, eighth-graders create public service announcements as part of a persuasive essay assignment.
“It drives the point that we need to create thinkers,” Walz says.
As the principal stands to exit the classroom following the presentation, Komendowski prods her to tell her colleagues about the program in the hopes of gaining invitations to more local schools. The exchange bears a striking resemblance to viral marketing, which the duo explained to students minutes earlier.
“Fighting fire with fire,” Gentile says, grinning.