Japanese TV Ads: A Video Resource for the English Discussion Class

Ken Schmidt, Tohoku Gakuin University


Quick Guide

  • Key Words: Video, Discussion
  • Learner English Level: intermediate to advanced
  • Learner Maturity Level: College/University, Adult
  • Preparation Time: one hour or more to tape commercials and prepare rating sheets
  • Activity Time: several class periods


Last year in this publication, Davis (1997) highlighted the value of English television commercials in language teaching. Another resource that should not be missed are TV ads in the students' native language. Although they do not provide input in the target language, they do offer great potential for facilitating English discussion based on students' understanding of their own society and culture. In this article, I will describe a video unit I used in an adult, intermediate to advanced level discussion class at an English conversation school in Japan. Parts or all of what the students and I did should be applicable to a wide variety of classroom situations.
Our interest in TV ads was initially piqued by an article in The Japan Times Weekly (LaPenta, 1989, p. 2) on a series of television spots for Asahi Super Dry beer. After assigning the students to read the article at home, we watched several of the commercials together and shared our own responses to the ads and LaPenta's article. Finding this an interesting line of inquiry, we decided to continue analyzing Japanese commercial messages.

In the next class meeting, we watched several more beer ads (Asahi, Sapporo, Kirin, Yebisu) and analyzed each based on these questions:

1. What is the target audience? Who are the advertisers trying to reach?
2. What message is the commercial trying to convey? How is it related to the product?
3. Why was this model/actor/music/setting/location chosen?
4. What image are the advertisers trying to give the product?
5. How do the advertisers hope to influence us?
6. How effective is it? Will it have the desired effect on viewers?
7. What might make it more effective? How would you change it?
After viewing the first commercial, we discussed the questions as a whole class, giving me an opportunity to explain question meanings, guide discussion in profitable directions, and demonstrate useful language and strategies students could employ themselves (e.g., asking students to elaborate on their answers or to rephrase statements to confirm understanding). As each subsequent ad was viewed, small groups of students discussed the questions they felt were appropriate or interesting, and then shared highlights of their analyses with the whole class. This small group/large group sequencing allowed students time for self-directed discussion and negotiation in comfortably small groups, while still giving an opportunity to hear the views of others and interact with the instructor. Whole class discussion was also facilitated by the fact that many contributions had already been rehearsed in small groups and often reflected a group consensus rather than individual opinions which can feel risky to share in front of a large group.

After all the ads had been viewed, we went on to compare them using questions like the following:

1. Which ad was the most entertaining/memorable?
2. Which was the most motivating/effective in reaching its audience?
3. Which did you like best? Why?
4. Which would you buy if you went to the store tomorrow, your choice was limited to these products, and you had no other knowledge of any of them? Why?
This was also done as small group work followed by whole class discussion.

In the following class meeting, we went on to view a series of canned coffee commercials and then a variety of intriguing ads for products from cars to fax machines. The analysis and discussion process remained much the same as before, but prior to discussion we focused on several language points in response to needs I had observed in the previous class period, specifically ways to soften questions, statements of opinion, and negative responses to opinions (e.g., "Which [would you say/do you think] is most effective?" "It's difficult to say, but the Georgia commercial seemed more effective to me." "Do you think so? I'm not sure, but I thought..."). We then made a conscious effort to employ these devices in our discussion.

As we watched the commercials I had brought to class, students frequently mentioned ads they had seen, and it was decided that in our next meeting we would hold our own "Clio Awards" program. Students brought their favorite commercials on tape. Following each viewing (two times each), groups of three rated the ad, using a zero to five scale, on criteria such as strength of image, effectiveness, visual quality, hardest sell/softest sell, use of humor, and use of music. Finally, each group announced their top-three in each category along with their reasons. Other groups were free to question them on their choices. We then totalled the results from all the groups and named the winners. Stars of the show were a series of convenience store commercials tracing the development of a community among the nightly customers and a group of humorous JR Nishi Nihon spots. We finished the lesson by discussing the best and worst commercials we remembered ever seeing.

Fortunately, one of the students had taped a group of commercials on a recent trip to the U.S., and in our final class, we compared these with the Japanese spots we had been observing. The most marked differences noted were a heavy emphasis in U.S. commercials on verbal and graphic delineation of distinctive features and advantages of the products, while Japanese commercials tended to emphasize emotion and image, often with little obvious relation to the product.

Throughout this series of lessons, these mature students brought a great deal of cultural knowledge and personal experience to bear in analyzing the ads and looking behind them to the meanings and messages they carried. Discussion in small and large group settings was active throughout, and many students reported a strong sense of having learned something beyond language. A key factor in this process was that the students acted as informants for me. Many ads were beyond my comprehension on linguistic and/or cultural levels, and for several, I could not even identify the exact product being advertised. Class members were eager to fill me in, not only on the language used, but on the underlying cultural and historical background. Thus, they became teachers, and this role reversal had a lasting positive effect on class participation patterns and the development of a cooperative and community atmosphere.


As we finished the last in this five class series, two members approached me and in mock pleading said, "Ken, please no more advertisements. We enjoyed it, but now we can't enjoy TV. Every time a commercial comes on we're thinking, 'What's the target audience? What image are they trying to create?'" It appeared that one goal of the course-that content would have relevance to students' lives-had been accomplished.

Although Japanese language commercials do not provide the language input of English ads, they do provide plentiful opportunities for input and practice through discussion in English based on students' knowledge of their own society and culture. For a foreign instructor, students also have the opportunity to act as informants and teachers themselves-sharing their linguistic and cultural knowledge with a relative novice and in the process, increasing their own awareness in an area with immediate relevance to their lives.


  • Davis, R. (1997). TV commercial messages: An untapped video resource for content-based classes. The Language Teacher, 21(3), 13ュ15.
  • LaPenta, J. (1989, October 21). Beer ads tap multimedia. The Japan Times Weekly, 29, 2.