Media Theory

98.1% (1) of American households have a television, while 99% of people in America can read (2). This means that being able to read barely beats out having a television in your home. Most of us were taught to read when we were very young, but did we ever learn how to watch television?

We watch our television shows, and many of us get annoyed when a commercial interrupts our program. But what if we stopped to consider for a moment, that maybe we have it all wrong. Maybe the television show is an interruption to the commercial? This is because the main way for a television station to make money is to sell commercial time.

We're exposed to these commercial everyday, but we rarely realize their true impact on us. They can influence us to buy things we don't need, to vote a way we might not normally vote, and to desire a lifestyle that we wouldn't necessarily agree with. 

This is why analyzing television commercials is so important. Below are some things to consider to help us better understand the messages in television commercials. Since commercials are more complex than many other types of media (including the addition of motion mixed with sound), there are more things to consider.

1. What is the product or service being sold? Can you easily figure out what the product is? 

2. What is the general mood or feeling of the commercial? Since we know the product or service being sold, what methods are the advertisers using to make us interested? How do they portray the product or service in a positive light.

3. How does the soundtrack play a role in your interpretation of the commercial? Is the music cheery, dreary, suspenseful, whimsical, fun, or exciting? Does the music affect our perception of the mood? Is there a voice-over of someone telling us something? What is the voice over trying to tell us? Does the person speaking coincide with the overall mood of the commercial? Would our perception of the voice change if the voice was of a different gender or race?

4. How do the actors playing the characters affect your interpretation of the commercial?Would your interpretation change if the characters were of a different race or gender? What if the characters dressed differently or spoke differently? How would that change your perception of the character?

5. How does the commercial try to get your attention? Does it use flashy graphics with fast music? Does it alter the way we see the world, either through the use of special effects or through the story line?

6. Who is this commercial aimed towards? Is it you or someone like you? How do you know? Why do you think the advertiser created this commercial the way they did? Would it have been as effective if it was just black and white text on the screen? Why or why not?

Here are some television commercials that might be worth analyzing.

Classic Television Commercials (from

A History of Coca-Cola Commercials (from the Library of Congress)

Ads from Super Bowl XL (from

Want more ideas on how to analyze advertising? Visit our forums and join the discussion.

You can learn a lot more about this topic by buying our book, Practical Media Literacy: An essential guide to the critical thinking skills for our digital world. You would be supporting our work so that we can bring you more great resources.

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Media Literacy: 3rd Edition

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Media Literacy is a critical skill students must learn to succeed in today's tech-driven, media-saturated society. This book helps students understand media literacy, and how to implement and share that knowledge with others. As an experienced media literacy expert and professor, Nick Pernisco provides a well-researched guide for learning this important critical thinking skill and using it in everyday life. This is a must-read for anyone interested in learning how to interpret the enormous amounts of information we are exposed to every day, both in traditional media and online. Buy it now!