Teaching genre analysis with cheeseburgers

Kate Upton Carls Jr
Kate Upton hawking Carl’s Jr. Image used under Fair Use guidelines.

“I’m really sorry for what I’m about to do to you,” I told my late afternoon class yesterday.

Flickers of concern and confusion reflected back to me as I laughed. “I hope none of you skipped lunch, because we’re watching cheeseburger commercials for the next hour.”

And it turns out, cheeseburgers are a great way to teach genre analysis.

Over the last couple weeks, my rhetorical criticism class has pondered classical theory a la Aristotle and Cicero, and recently, audience expectations for certain types of messages. They spoke easily about what we expect to see from different genres of movies and books, and how to differentiate between comedy or horror or drama or action. But what about the Cheeseburger Ad genre? It’s a real thing, as of yesterday.

Using Foss’s Rhetorical Criticism textbook, we focused on Description and Participation, specifically looking to see if our collection of artifacts constituted a genre, and how well artifacts fit into our classification.

We started by watching this Carl’s Junior ad featuring super model Kate Upton. The ad, which made a lot of students uncomfortable, capitalized, as only Carl’s Junior can, on sexy cheeseburger eating. I asked the students to list out the persuasive elements of the message. Our list included things like sexuality, close-up imagery, physical reactions to food (in this case, Upton needing to remove her clothing due to the jalapeno burger’s intense heat, ahem), fulfilling desire, and humor.

Then we viewed Wendy’s “All by Myself” Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger ad which depicted “Wendy” pining dramatically over an old menu favorite. I asked students to compare the Carl’s Junior and Wendy’s ads, note which of our current categorizations fit and what we would add to the list, etc. For instance, instead of overt sexuality, the Wendy’s ad used nostalgia, humor, and the promise of emotional fulfillment.

Basketball star LeBron James followed in a McDonald’s ad hawking their new bacon clubhouse burger which emphasized exclusivity and prestige. Yes, a prestigious cheeseburger. Missing from this message was sexuality and humor.

But we found some laughs in Jack in the Box’s “Munchie Meal” spot titled “Would you Rather?”  where a stoned or otherwise tripped out chick asks Jack crazy questions while they hunt up one of the most disgusting looking grease traps I’ve seen in quite awhile. While my students emphasized the use of humor, they also critiqued Jack in the Box for targeting certain demographics–in this case what they called the “stoner crowd”–and capitalizing on taboo behavior to sell unhealthy products.

At this point, we honed our list–the makings of our Cheeseburger Ad genre–and I showed them a longer video by Burger King which portrayed reactions to the “Proud Whopper” at San Francisco’s Pride Parade. Covered with a bold rainbow wrapper, the burgers included the message “We’re all the same on the inside” which made several cheeseburger eaters get emotional.

We continued with our list making, but found that the Burger King commercial deviated from the previous ads that used sex, humor, deviance and nostalgia to sell products. My students very smartly identified Burger King’s use of emotion and inclusiveness to sell their value system and company, as opposed to just Whoppers. Together we decided that the Burger King ad did not “participate” in the genre as Foss says, and we discussed how values-based ads might influence people.

In about 45 minutes, we covered several ways to accomplish genre analysis and discussed how messages fit within and push against boundaries. Best of all, the students practiced critiquing messages and developing important insights about persuasion in advance of their first major written assignment.

How do you teach genre analysis or other types of critical thinking skills?

–dr. shawna

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