During the middle school years, students are trying to figure out who they
are. Their identities are malleable and constantly changing based on different
life experiences. Social studies teachers need to utilize activities that build
students’ civic identities and prepare them with the knowledge and skills to be
future democratic citizens (Clabough, 2017). One area of civic education where
students need such learning opportunities is with deconstructing political media
messages in presidential commercials.
In this article, I discuss ways social studies teachers can utilize
presidential commercials to help students analyze political media
messages. First, a brief overview of presidential commercials is
provided. Presidential commercials contain multiple media tactics
to gain support for a candidate while negatively framing an
opponent. A graphic organizer with some analysis questions
of these different media tactics is provided that can be
used to help students deconstruct political messages
within presidential commercials. Finally, two
activities based on two of these media tactics are
given. The steps and resources to implement
these two activities are discussed.
Overview of Presidential Commercials
Presidential commercials have been a staple of
campaigns since 1952. All of the presidential
commercials from Republicans and Democrats can
be accessed at Living Room Candidate, http://www.
livingroomcandidate.org/. Presidential commercials
help students examine how words and images
are used to convey a candidate’s message. These
messages contain the values, biases, and beliefs of
candidates and their political parties (Mason, 2015).
Sometimes, the commercial has these items in plain
sight while at other times they are just below the
surface. For this reason, social studies teachers need
to set up learning opportunities to help students
grasp the straightforward and subtle messages within
presidential commercials. I provide two activities
in the next sections to show how teachers can help
middle school students analyze political messages
within presidential commercials.
Judging the Vision
Presidential commercials often have different
goals. Sometimes, they are designed to attack one’s
opponent, while at other times a candidate is trying
to articulate his or her vision for the United States.
Social studies teachers need to set up opportunities
for students to analyze these messages.
All presidential candidates articulate an argument
for why they are running for the office and how their
life experiences have prepared them. These reasons
can vary from previous government experience to
working in the business sector. Candidates use
presidential commercials as the vehicle to convey
these reasons to the electorate. The teacher can
use “Country I Love” from Barack Obama in 2008
as an example, http://www.livingroomcandidate.
org/commercials/2008. After students watch this
commercial several times, they can complete the
following questions. They utilize evidence from the
commercial to support their responses.
- What kind of message does Obama articulate in
- What qualifies Obama to be president from this
- What values will Obama bring to the White House
Then, the teacher guides a class discussion.
The focus of this discussion should be students
using evidence with phrases and images from
the commercial to support their arguments. For example, the teacher may stress how Obama tries
to connect his roots to the work he did in Chicago
to help everyday Americans to demonstrate that
he understands the needs of ordinary citizens. By
examining examples like this, students deconstruct
messages within commercials.
This class discussion prepares students for
the presidential commercial judge activity. Many
contemporary television shows use judges to
evaluate the effectiveness of candidates: American
Idol, America’s Got Talent, and Shark Tank. With
this activity, students score the effectiveness of this
presidential commercial to convey Obama’s vision
for the country on a scale of 1-10. They also write a
solid paragraph explaining their score by drawing on
evidence from this commercial. This writing activity
helps students articulate ways that candidates convey
their vision for the country.
As an extension activity, the teacher can have
students view multiple presidential commercials
from both Republicans and Democrats that convey a
vision for the country and score each commercial on a
scale of 1-10. Then, they decide the best commercial
from among the group. Some example commercials
that may be used include Reagan’s 1984 “Prouder,
Stronger, Better,” Clinton’s 1992 “Journey,” and
Bush’s 2000 “Successful Leader.” This activity helps
students deconstruct the ways candidates frame
arguments using words and images. This sets up
future class discussions to compare and contrast how
both political parties convey different solutions to the
Mudslinging Like a Champ
One consistent element present throughout the
history of presidential commercials is attack ads.
Candidates attempt to undermine the messages
and credentials of an opponent by framing his or
her policies as bad for the country. These negative
messages attempt to reframe the ways in which an
opponent is viewed by the electorate.
While Barack Obama ran a more optimistic
campaign in 2008, his reelection campaign in 2012
had a more negative tone. He consistently tried to
paint Mitt Romney as an out of touch elite that only
cared for the wealthy. There are several commercials
that the teacher can use to capture ways the Obama
campaign attempted to frame Romney such as “The
Cheaters,” “47 Percent,” and “Big Bird.” This shows
that all candidates rely on negative campaigning to
First, students watch “Big Bird” a couple of times
to catch the ways that Romney is framed. Then,
in groups or individually, students can focus on a
different element of this commercial and answer
the questions in the graphic organizer above. The
completion of this graphic organizer requires research
into issues of the 2012 presidential campaign.
The questions in this graphic organizer help
students explore the reasons certain media messages
are structured in particular ways.
Then, in a class discussion, groups or individuals
can share the elements of the commercial that they
analyzed and researched. This allows students
to learn from their peers. The teacher focuses the
discussion on the ways the Obama campaign used
words and images from this commercial to paint
Romney as only worrying about the wealthy. This
activity builds students’ research skills as they
contextualize issues within a campaign that drive an
In this article, I provided two activities middle
school teachers can implement to analyze political
media messages in presidential commercials. These
activities help students decode the ways words and
images are organized to positively frame a candidate
while undermining an opponent’s messages and policies. They can also be adapted to examine
presidential commercials from other election cycles.
These learning experiences prepare students to
be responsible consumers of media by analyzing
messages and then researching claims. With election
cycles on any level, students are better prepared to
make informed decisions about candidates and public
policies to support (Engle & Ochoa, 1988).
Clabough, J. (2017). Helping develop students’ civic
identities through exploring public issues. The
Councilor: A Journal of the Social Studies, 78(2), 1-9.
Engle, S. & Ochoa, A. (1988). Education for democratic
citizenship: Decision making in the social studies.
New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Mason, L. (2015). Media literacy: Analyzing political
commercials. Social Studies Research and Practice,
Jeremiah Clabough, Ph.D., is an associate
professor of social studies education at the University
of Alabama at Birmingham. Check out Dr. Clabough's
book, When the Lion Roars Everyone Listens: Scary
Good Middle School Social Studies, in the AMLE
Published in AMLE Magazine
, August 2020.