Persuading an audience requires intensive research and scrupulous fact-checking – or, you could just figure out what your audience wants to hear and tell them that. Politicians, advertisers and others with something to sell choose words and images that will appeal to their target audience, enticing them to accept claims unquestioningly. Some of these manipulators, like the animal activism site peta2.com, focus their attentions on teenagers and young adults. In this lesson, students won’t check peta2’s factual accuracy, but will learn to spot their manipulative tactics and why they should be skeptical about them.
In this activity students will:
- Learn what a “target audience” is and how it can be manipulated.
- Identify some characteristics of a particular target audience.
- Check the peta2 Web site for tactics that exploit these characteristics.
- Understand the importance of detecting audience manipulation.
PETA, the vocal animal rights organization, has been criticized for insensitive advertising and for targeting children. The peta2.com website is aimed at teens and includes homework help, testimonials from popular actors and musicians, and ways to earn activism “points” that can be redeemed for merchandise. Whatever their positions on animal rights might be, students need to be able to tune out propaganda and make their own decisions. This means understanding how organizations, advertisers and politicians can appeal to particular audiences, and how to tell if they’re part of a targeted audience.
- peta2.com Web site.
- Student handout #1: Web site worksheet.
- Student handout #2: Questions on audience manipulation.
- Student handout #3: “Don’t Be Fooled: A Process for Avoiding Deception.”
Before class, make enough copies of Student Handouts #1 and #2 for small groups of 3 to 5 students. Make enough copies of Student Handout #3 for each student.
In the full class, ask students some general questions:
- Are you more likely to buy products that are advertised to teenagers? (If they say “no,” ask them to name some cool brands or products – they are likely to name the same products, most of which will use teen-centric advertising.)
- Would you be more likely to support organizations or politicians that appealed directly to teenagers?
- What reason might an organization have for tailoring its message to a particular audience?
Now explain to the class that they will be examining some claims about peta2.com, a teen-focused website coordinated by the organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Explain that they should apply the five steps we have outlined in “Don’t Be Fooled: A Process for Avoiding Deception.” Have them refer to their handout on this. Specifically, they should:
- Keep an open mind. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking a claim is correct just because it appeals to you or fits your biases.
- Ask the right questions. Examine whether a statement is purely factual or employs language or images that will influence the audience. Ask whether the facts can be verified or whether they are appealing to emotions or fears instead of logic.
- Cross-check. Look for more than one source of evidence before making up your mind.
- Consider the source. Think about which sources of information can be trusted, and what makes a source trustworthy.
- Weigh the evidence. Do the facts support peta2’s message? Can peta2’s message stand alone without manipulation?
Exercise #1 – Keeping an open mind, asking the right questions
To the teacher: Emphasize to students the need to keep an open mind in their research and analysis. People tend to accept any information that supports what they already believe and reject information that conflicts with those beliefs, and they are particularly susceptible when the presentation is tailored to appeal to them. Students need to make an effort to listen to all sides and separate fact from propaganda to avoid accepting inaccurate information as truth.
For advertisers, organizations and politicians to be convincing, they need a keen knowledge of their audience. For instance, a politician won’t get votes from 18-year-olds by focusing on Social Security and Medicare benefits, or from 50-year-olds by setting up a Facebook page. If a politician knows what motivates his or her audience, however, he or she can entice that audience to believe and trust the politician unquestioningly. Avoiding deception means being aware of audience manipulation.
Ask students to think about their class as an audience. First, solicit some demographic facts: What is their age range? What is their occupation? Where do they live? Based on these facts, ask the following questions:
- What motivates this audience?
- What does this audience fear?
- What do they desire? What are their goals?
- How do they spend their free time?
- Who does this audience trust?
- How might organizations and politicians appeal to an audience like this? What types of words and images would they use?
Exercise #2 – Considering the source
To the teacher: Explain that determining whether an organization’s facts need cross-checking can sometimes be difficult, especially if you are the target of propaganda. Sources may present erroneous or misleading information in an appealing way in order to disarm people who might otherwise be skeptical. Recognizing audience manipulation can help students determine whether a source can be trusted.
Divide students into small groups of 3 to 5, and have them look at the peta2 Web site. Explain to students that the peta2 site is intended to appeal to young people like them – its target audience is the same audience they just discussed.
Allow them a few minutes to look through the site, and ask them to consider how convincing they find it. Are they inclined to trust what PETA has to say?
After this initial examination, distribute handout #1 and have the groups comb through the site, compiling two lists on the handout: one list of claims that could be cross-checked against other sources, and one list of attempts to appeal to the particular audience. Have students check the following when generating the second list:
- What words and phrases does the source choose?
- What images appear in the source?
- Who does the source present as an authority – someone the audience should listen to?
- What rewards and incentives are being offered?
You may want to assign separate starting points on the Web site to ensure that groups follow different paths through the site.
After 5 to 10 minutes of searching, have students discuss their findings within their groups. Distribute Student Handout #2 and have them discuss the following questions, which appear on the handout:
- How does the source promise to allay the audience’s fears?
- How does the source promise to fulfill the audience’s desires and goals?
- How does the source motivate the audience?
- How does the source gain the audience’s trust?
Exercise #3 – Weighing the evidence
To the teacher: Help students understand what all the evidence means. They need to evaluate the credibility of the sources of information presented and the tactics that these sources may be using to manipulate them. They also need to understand the difference between “manipulative” and “false.”
Discuss the findings with the full class. Use the following questions to guide discussion:
- Which list is longer – the list of checkable facts or the list of manipulative elements? What does this mean?
- What techniques does the peta2 Web site employ in order to gain the trust of its audience?
- As members of this audience, how well do you think these techniques work? Which ones would be most effective? Would your peers be likely to accept peta2’s message based on these tactics?
- What about you – are you likely to accept peta2’s message?
- How would you go about determining whether the checkable claims are true?
Emphasize that it’s important not to over-interpret these findings. (If your class has completed the lesson plan on fallacies, you can explain that they should avoid the genetic fallacy). The PETA site may be manipulative, but this does not mean that all of its claims are false – indeed, students who cross-check their list of facts will find that, while the issues are complex and multifaceted, many of the points are factually accurate. What the findings do mean is that PETA’s claims require further scrutiny and that students must resist accepting these claims unquestioningly.
Optional Exercise #1a
Bring in a variety of magazines and have students work in groups to determine the magazines’ target audiences. Remind students to look at article length, writing style and word choice, images, and advertising as well as subject matter. Consider: How would the magazine’s producers describe their target audience? What do they think motivates their audience? What do they think their audience desires and fears, and how educated do they expect their audience to be?
Optional Exercise #1b
Ask students to imagine that they are editors for one of the magazines they analyzed. Considering that magazine’s audience, how would they present the issues that PETA addresses – either animal rights in general or one of the sub-issues, such as veganism or wearing fur? What words and phrases would they choose? What kinds of images, incentives or testimonials might they offer?
Optional Exercise #2
If your class has completed the lesson plan on fallacies, have students search for fallacious reasoning on the peta2 website. They should be able to find examples of red herring, straw man, false cause, appeal to authority and vagueness, and indicators of suppressed evidence and questionable use of statistics.
Discuss what it means for these fallacies to show up in a source that is so well-tailored to its audience. Are such fallacies more likely to slip by unnoticed? Does the presence of fallacies mean that PETA’s facts are false?
About the Author
Jessica Henig earned her BA in history of science from Smith College and her MA in English from the University of Maryland. While at Maryland, she taught digital literature and rhetorical writing. In addition to working at the Annenberg Public Policy Center, she has worked for the National Academies Press. She has also worked for the National Institutes of Health and as a freelance researcher and editor.
- English Language Arts Standards
- Health Education Standards
- Information Literacy Standards
- National Educational Technology Standard
- National Mathematics Standards
- National Social Studies Standards
- Social Responsibility