1Since fall 2002, the Institut National des Télécommunications (INT) and Virginia Tech (VT) have been teaching an intercultural, collaborative project based on advertising within the context of two language courses. Conceived of by Avril Andrews and Jim Armstrong, teachers at the INT, and Professor Sharon Johnson at VT, the project is designed to provide students with an opportunity to engage in discussions about the formal and cultural dimensions of the production and interpretation of French, American, and/or International advertising. The ads are discussed using a web-based asynchronous forum and video conferencing. The students from both institutions of higher learning select advertisements from their own countries, and work in the target language: American students discuss and write in French and the French students discuss and write in English.
2At the INT, the project is comprised of 6 lessons, as part of a 30-hour English module entitled “Advertising.” There are two groups of first year students. At Virginia Tech, the project is incorporated into a 45-hour Advanced French for Business course and represents one learning objective among six others taught. One section of Advanced French for Business is offered every fall semester and meets three times a week for 50 minutes. At the INT, classes meet once a week for a three-hour period. Class sizes range from fifteen to twenty-five students.
3The neologism “Advertainment” encapsulates the essence of our project in three ways. First, advertisements are the authentic, cultural documents that are used to refine all four areas of students’ language skills as well as develop students’ intercultural sensitivity and critical thinking. Second, serious work is achieved while students and teachers enjoy the process. The ads elicit topics for discussion that can be both challenging and entertaining. Lastly, “advertainment” resonates with a third meaning, that of attainment. The teachers reach their curricular objectives and the students attain a higher level of linguistic and intercultural proficiency.
4Our article will first situate our teaching practices within the context of task-based learning and the pedagogical use of advertising. Next, we will present the project’s timeline used at the INT, while occasionally highlighting slight modifications within the American curriculum. Third, we will focus on the intercultural complexities that the project generates, leading to some concluding remarks about student and professorial motivation regarding this project, as well as its challenges and rewards.
5Collaborative student projects transform the learning environment instantaneously. At least two cultures and their respective value systems come together and at times collide. All facets of classroom dynamics are internationalized for language, tone, and one’s manner of presenting ideas are culturally specific. Therefore, different styles of communicating, negotiating, and evaluating come to the fore and must be recognized while accomplishing the project’s tasks. As a result, all participating students experience the very real challenges of international partnerships while they refine their intercultural communication skills.
6Our pedagogical objectives mostly are achieved by using a task-based approach, as defined by David Nunan. A pedagogical task can be characterized as class work that involves the learners in understanding, manipulating, producing or interacting in the target language while their attention is focused on meaning rather than form (Nunan 1989: 10). Using Nunan’s terminology, real world, or target tasks, are communicative acts we “achieve” through language in the world outside the classroom (Nunan 2001: 3). In this project, students perform real world tasks in class, on the forums, and via video-conferencing.
7In each of the aforementioned contexts, students must explain and nuance their ideas effectively in both their native tongue and the target language. French and English are taught through the medium of the subject matter (ads), rather than simply through examples of correct usage. In this way, the project emphasizes successful communication rather than absolute accuracy. Videoconferencing is increasingly used as a medium through which one conducts business. Hence, by incorporating it in our project, students not only learn about the types of problems that can impede such a conference (image or sound distortions, lack of compatibility of systems etc.) but also how to negotiate their way through linguistic and/or technological difficulties. Such insights and know-how are needed in order to execute real world tasks.
8A great emphasis is placed on intercultural communication and understanding, for it permeates everything we do. The scholars Adler (1991: 15-17), Iribarne (1998: 255-56), and Morain (1986: 124, 134-36) define intercultural sensitivity similarly: to be aware of how oneself and others read and interpret messages, usually based on cultural norms. In the “real world”, intercultural competency is becoming a requisite in many professional and personal contexts. One does not need to leave France or the US to experience the veritable challenges of an internationalized work environment, for it occurs both locally and abroad. Moreover, if one aspires to be successful in national or international enterprises, it is no longer enough to speak a foreign language: one needs to be knowledgeable about intercultural differences.
9Advertising is a superb medium to study the interconnectedness of language and culture, for it reflects the needs, desires, rites and rituals of the culture which created it. For example, Williamson maintains that ads sell us ourselves (1978: 13), while Cook notes that ads are extremely revealing about the needs of contemporary society (1992: 225). In our project, although marketing strategies are analyzed, these are stressed within their socio-historical contexts.
10Students live in a media-dominated world. Surrounded by images and marketing ploys, they are highly adept readers of visual messages. Therefore, the use of advertising builds on strengths students already possess, while refining their ability to take their thinking further. The images draw students in immediately, and pleasure is derived by reflecting on and trying to decode the various aesthetic and marketing strategies used to sell products. Prior to the collaborative lessons, INT and VT students have had one or two introductory advertising lessons, concentrating on basic advertising techniques and image analysis from a semiotic and rhetorical point of view.
11What follows is the timeline used at the INT. On occasion, we highlight slight modifications within the American curriculum.
During the first week, the students have an introductory 50-minute videoconference so they can see their actual transatlantic classmates and begin to get to know each other. Both languages are used exclusively (all French, then all English) for a half period each. To prepare for their first exchange, students are asked to practice introducing themselves and to reflect on advertising and brand names in general. (See Appendix 1). In preparation for the next class, we ask that each INT student bring in one ad.
Students will automatically look for ads that give a favorable impression of France and French culture. In class, students present their advertisements, explaining why their choice is the most representative ad to send to VT students. The in-class discussions help students to clarify their ideas about advertising. Their exchanges also center on the image of France they would like the American students to have. Students select their ads with great care and thought. Hence, they defend their choices vehemently. At Virginia Tech, students also are divided into small groups. The two images they select are based on two principal criteria: whether the ad represents a facet of American culture they consider “true” and whether it lends itself to a sustained analysis and commentary. Students are often drawn to more visually sophisticated images, but feel they would have little to discuss.
By the third week, all four ads (2 from France and 2 from the US) have been posted on a jointly used forum. Each transatlantic class works in small groups, preparing an analysis of all four ads, following the same guidelines (see Appendix 2). All discussions and written exchanges are done in the target language. INT students write their analyses individually, outside class time. This individual work becomes collective work during the fourth week. VT students meet outside of class and also are given in-class time to work on their analyses. It is challenging for students to explain their ideas and do consensus building in French. The professor’s role at this point is to brainstorm with each group, to involve students in the process of analysis, to have them work on expanding their ideas and to feel comfortable expressing differences of opinion.
In class, the INT students compare their individual commentaries, taking the best ideas and reformulating their sentences to produce a single coherent text per ad. Both transatlantic classes finish and then post their commentaries of the 4 ads (8 texts in total) on the jointly used forum. The initial analyses represent the first set of commentaries.
The students read and discuss the first set of commentaries received from their transatlantic partners. The divergent views or different interpretations of the same ad produce multiple responses in both groups of students such as surprise, delight, confusion, or increased interest and intellectual engagement, depending on what is presented. The second writing phase (this time without a preparatory text being written at home) consists of reacting to the commentaries written by the other side. Students typically request or provide additional clarifications in these commentaries, which are posted on the forum for the next week’s lesson. For the first five weeks, students work autonomously and are responsible for their written work. Once the project is completed, however, the texts are corrected with the INT students in class.
The students read and discuss the second set of commentaries received from the partner institution in order to prepare for the second and final 50-minute videoconference. This time, the videoconference allows students the opportunity to broaden the discussions that were initiated on the forum. Typically, during the first 25 minutes, students speak in French to discuss the French ads. English is then used to discuss the American ads, for the remaining 25 minutes. These spontaneous exchanges also lead to questions concerning how each class perceives the other and the way of life in the target country.
18Our intercultural collaborative project encourages our students to experience the benefits of leaving behind the familiar and discovering different ways of understanding the world. Similar to other cultural documents (literature, painting, photography, cinema etc.), ads are produced within a specific socio-historical context. They rely on cultural codes to be understood; however, once published, they are open to several possible interpretations. Our project therefore engenders multiple perspectives wherein there is not necessarily a uniform understanding of any given ad, whether it’s between INT/ VT students or among students at the same institution. Hence, intercultural skills are developed because students are required to contend with nuance and complexity.
19Confronting cultural differences can evoke different reactions in students: excitement, confusion, appreciation or consternation. The analyses of student commentaries on two ads from fall 2002, Touchstone Energy Cooperatives (TEC) and Aubade (illustrations 1 and 2), highlight how differing opinions and interpretations of the same advertisements can bring forth a real (ex)change for all involved. In this manner, students develop an awareness of how the self and the other interact.
Ad nr 1. Touchstone Energy Cooperatives
20The discussions on the TEC ad revealed fascinating discrepancies regarding the type of information that each group included or omitted. It is in those interstices that differing socio-historical contexts seem to have shaped what each side noticed or overlooked when analyzing the ad. In the American context, the VT group used current events to elucidate TEC’s concern with its brand image:
- 1 All student quotes are cited as they appeared on the forums chats. We decided not to edit the Frenc (...)
Il y a aussi un contexte historique. Après le scandale d’« ENRON », les entreprises d’énergie ont besoin d’inspirer la confiance des citoyens américains, et cette pub est un effort de faire cela. Cet entreprise n’est pas comme ENRON, mais toutes les entreprises d’énergie maintenant doivent améliorer leurs images1.
21Cultural differences in attitudes towards energy could explain why French students, familiar with state-owned Électricité de France (EDF), were not aware of the importance of the subject of energy for Americans:
Another important point we missed is the historical background you added: being French we didn’t give any consideration to the ENRON drama. (we have never experienced any lack of energy in France).
22Although both the INT and the VT commentaries mentioned 9/11, the VT students emphasized the concepts of unity and patriotism, which were strengthened by the event, whereas the INT group saw only the stereotypical image of the fireman as a reference:
Aussi, le onze septembre a changé la manière dont les Américains ont vu eux-mêmes. Cette date a changé l’idée d’unité et tous les Américains ont un plus grand sens de patriotisme après cet événement. La pub veut tirer sur ces émotions.
What’s more you gave more importance than we did to September the 11th (we only quoted the presence of the fireman, while you considered the impact on the whole ad).
23Stereotypes equally are embedded in a socio-historical context. They therefore inform a culture’s perception of self and the other. It is highly probable that the enduring representation of the Western frontier led the INT students to think of Indians when considering American demographics. Interestingly, the VT students did not notice that the ad omitted Native Americans in its patchwork of ethnic groups. Moreover, they failed to observe that their commentary made no mention of Native Americans. Each group sought further clarification:
Why are not Native Americans considered part of the American culture?
- 2 Jeep Cherokee was one of the four ads used in the 2002 project.
Aussi, vous parlez de les indiens, vous parlez de comment il n’y a pas un photo d’un indien. Je pense que c’est intéressant, parce que quand je regardais a cette publicité, je n’ai jamais pensé de le manque des indiens. Oui, les indiens doivent avoir une parte important dans la culture des Etats-Unis, mais j’ai peur que le plupart des americains ne pensent jamais des indiens, parce qu’ils sont plus facile oublier de leur, parce que nous ne les avons jamais vu. Il semble que vous pensez que les indiens sont une grande parte de la culture des Etats-Unis, parce que vous mentionnez les indiens dans votre commentaire de TEC et la commentaire de Jeep Cherokee2. Est-ce que vous pensez que les indiens sont une grande parte de les Etats-Unis.
24It would seem that the VT students did not consider Indians when thinking about ethnic groups and they therefore questioned the INT students’ perception of the United States.
25What is omitted in an ad may be more important than what is included. Shared ideologies and all that is specific to a culture are not necessarily shown in an ad.
26The omission of the obvious is disturbing for the student of another culture. The various inclusions and omissions serve to make students aware that what is taken for granted within a culture is precisely what needs to be made explicit to the outsider. Attempting to understand the other’s point of view leads one to a reappraisal of one’s own perspective.
Ad nr 2. Aubade
- 3 “Catchphrase” refers to a phrase or sentence that connects the image to the brand or product being (...)
27Discrepancies emerged across cultural lines when French and American students analyzed Aubade’s advertising techniques. Specifically, the classes offered different interpretations regarding the target audience when discussing the use of a woman’s body to sell lingerie and the catchphrase3
28Both classes commented on Aubade’s strategic use of a female body. Whether it was the lighting (INT) or the positioning of the model (VT), the female’s slightly arched back guided one’s eyes and accentuated both the brassier and the woman’s bosom. Since the model’s head was not shown in the image, INT students felt that it “allowe[d] women to identify with the perfect body.” The VT students saw this identification slightly differently: “chaque femme s’imagine qu’elle porte la lingerie d’Aubade.” The INT students recognized that feminists might respond negatively to the ad, but then seemed to disassociate sensuality from objectification: “feminists would think that the woman is reduced to her body, [an] object of seduction used for the ad, while she is mostly the embodiment of perfection and sensuality.”
29Scholars have objected to the dismemberment of women’s bodies in advertising, arguing that women are objectified if an ad separates body parts or does not include the head (Sheehan 2004: 110). Kilbourne posits that in advertisements, women’s bodies are often dismembered in order for the ad/target audience to focus on the parts in need of change or improvement (1995: 124). Although both groups of students commented on the use of dismemberment in the ad, they viewed its effects positively.
30Clearly, Aubade’s 2002 advertising campaign was selling a body image that its product enhanced. The ads were also selling a type of fantasy, evoked by the catchphrase placed on the model’s right knee and hand: “Leçon no 32. L’inciter à méditer.” Both classes proposed that men and women could identify with the ad; yet, their reasoning and interpretations varied considerably. For the INT, Aubade targeted men “because they could buy the product for their wives.” Men would also be “attracted by the pretty body” while women would be “attracted by the product.” As for the catchphase, INT students offered these two interrelated readings, in the order they appeared on the forum:
The ad targets all women who want to seduce and men who want to be seduced.
The lesson is given to women who want to seduce men.
31For VT students, women (rather than uniquely men) would be drawn in by the woman’s beautiful body and the lingerie it was selling. In the quote below, because the authors of the commentary were three women (of which 2 were American and 1 was Japanese), the first person plural subject pronoun and possessive adjective refer to women looking at the ad.
En regardant cette publicité nous voyons que ce qui attire notre attention n’est pas seulement ce que la femme porte, mais son corps. La femme dans la publicité est très belle et si elle n’était pas belle, elle n’attirerait pas notre attention. (Emphasis added.)
32Here we see that VT students felt that both men and women would find the model physically attractive. VT students felt that Leçon 32 could be targeting men or women. Two questions were raised with regards to the catchphrase that challenged a strictly male, heterosexual gaze. Grammatically, Leçon 32 could be inviting both men and women to contemplate the model.
Le slogan ou le léçon est un aspet de cette pub duquel nous ne sommes pas sûr. Nous comprennons que le léçon est court donc il est simple pour la public à souvenir. Mais, « L » apostrophe peut être le ou la, les hommes ou les femmes. Nous nous demandons, qui est incité à méditer. Aussi, on peut demander: méditer sur quoi?
33The INT students’ reply provided an answer but ignored the translation/ interpretation problem:
We are surprised that you didn’t understand the catchphrase: first, the « l’ » refers to the man the model wants to seduce. There is also a subtile humour as the play on words linked to the position of the woman is quite ironical: it seems difficult for a man to stay calm and meditate in front of such a beautiful woman.
34The catchphrase is deliberately ambiguous. The “l” apostrophe signifies that the lingerie can incite either him or her to reverie. Equally the ad could refer to the model herself, as she is, in fact, sitting in a position of meditation.
35The INT group, composed of 4 men and 2 women, assumed that “L’inciter à méditer” was targeted exclusively at heterosexual men. When the VT class presented an alternative interpretation, based on the grammatical indeterminacy of l’, the INT students were unable to see or understand that viewpoint. Equally, the INT students felt “they knew” to whom the ad was addressed, without taking into consideration that the grammar of the Aubade ad made their “absolute” position open to interpretation. Foreign eyes were more sensitive to the grammar in a way that was not transparent. We have found over and over again that one’s culture and/ or academic environment not only opens up new interpretations but also makes one blind to other possible ways of reading. One’s culture informs how one sees or does not see information, be it visual, textual or cultural.
36At the INT, students choose their English modules according to level and topic. They therefore sign up for this course not only because the subject of advertising interests them, but also because the module includes several weeks of exchanges with an American university. The course’s design and methodology engage students, for they are able to select the visual texts that they wish to study over the semester.
- 4 Crookes and Schmidt’s list of motivating factors includes interest in and enthusiasm for the materi (...)
37McCombs argues that choice affects motivation (1996: 1)4. Students feel more responsibility for the outcome when they choose the ’content’ in the first place. They invest more in their class work when their contributions shape the course’s curriculum. Although we supply the guidelines for analyzing the ads, the commentaries represent students’ reflections and analyses. The project sparks a genuine need to ask questions and a real desire to know answers. During the writing phases, we are struck by the way the students tackle the work. Students are very focused and discuss language choices and correctness together as well as content. They want to express themselves with accuracy and ensure their English or French makes sense. When students write to and for their peers, they are more careful about all facets of their writing. Writing is no longer an artificial activity for the teacher to correct and grade.
38As research has corroborated, our students’ comments have revealed that cooperative learning (they work in small groups) has been more successful in helping them discover and understand cultural differences when compared to traditional modes of instruction, such as lectures or readings (See Cooper, Robinson, and McKinney [1994: 77-79] and Cross and Steadman [1996: 175-76]). Small group work brings together those with sound grammatical knowledge and those with high fluency skills. Weaker students are motivated by working with the stronger ones; the stronger ones are motivated when they realize their skills are appreciated by the weaker students.
39Intercultural student projects require that professors be facilitators and mediators in the classroom. They also need to be interested in using new technologies, while accepting the problems that arise with computers, forums, and videoconferencing. Moreover, one realizes very quickly that teaching an authentic, intercultural course results in lessons which are more spontaneous than grammar-based language lessons. Although one cannot map out one’s course entirely because of the unexpected discussions that ensue, the rewards greatly outweigh the perceived “loss of control” over the content of one’s lesson plans. Intercultural collaborative projects heighten student and teacher enthusiasm because thinking about one’s own culture through a new lens is an engaging process. It is also very gratifying to see students excited, troubled, or angry about the commentaries on the forum, for their desire to write increases as does their will to communicate their ideas to their classmates both at home and in the target culture.