Ad Talk

Richard Goodwin, Ashford University


Quick guide

  • Keywords: Ads, magazines, discussion, speaking
  • Learner English level: Intermediate to advanced
  • Learner maturity: University
  • Preparation time: 15 to 20 minutes, depending on available resources
  • Activity time: Up to 60 minutes
  • Materials: Photocopies of print ads from magazines or the Internet


I’ve found that a lot of academic oral communication textbooks lack relevant prompts for discussion among my students. I’m always looking for interesting ways to supplement the course material. One topic my students seem to enjoy discussing is advertising. What makes an ad effective? Who are the advertisers trying to attract? How does advertising influence our spending habits? In the following activity students explore these questions and share their ideas in a fun, stimulating learning environment.


Magazines such as Rolling Stone, Details, Cosmopolitan, and GQ have an abundance of thought-provoking advertisements. I like to use ads with few words and a lot of bold imagery. If you don’t have access to print magazines, is an excellent source of old and new magazine ads you can print out.


Step 1: Start this activity by showing the class a print ad for a popular product: Coke, McDonald’s, Apple, Microsoft—something the students will immediately recognize and react to on a personal level. First, have them identify the product, and then ask them to describe the ad. What do they see? I want them to give as many details as they can. They can use single words or whole sentences, as long as they’re contributing.

Step 2: Ask what they think is the ad’s message. For example, what does the rugged cowboy on the prairie suggest about Marlboro cigarettes? After that,ask the class about the ad’s target audience. Who do they think the ad is trying to attract? Finally, have the students tell whether they think the ad is effective. Does it make them want to buy the product? Why or why not? After several students have spoken, it’s time to begin the next part of the activity.

Step 3: Break the students into groups of two, three, or four, depending on class size, and give each group a copy of a printed advertisement. Write four objectives on the board: (1) Identify the product, (2) Describe the ad, (3) Explain the ad’s message, and (4) Discuss the ad’s effectiveness. The students have about 15 minutes to accomplish the tasks. If a group finishes too quickly, join them to keep the ball rolling.

Step 4: When the groups have completed the tasks, choose one group’s ad for the entire class to look at. Each member of that group will say at least one thing about the ad. After that, open up the discussion to the whole class so everyone can share their ideas. Then move on to the next group, and so on until every group has had a turn. Encourage disagreements about an ad’s message or effectiveness, letting the discussion go where it needs to go. This creates a nice lively atmosphere and gets the students thinking critically about the material.


The process works equally well with TV commercials. If you have Internet access in your classroom, YouTube is an excellent source of old and new TV commercials.


I’ve had a lot of success with this activity, and I’m always gathering new advertisements to share with my students. No matter the medium, it’s important to choose advertisements your students can relate to, that will grab their interest and get them talking. By analyzing and discussing an ad’s power and effectiveness, students are not only developing their English skills but also discovering important things about themselves and the world they live in. I’ve found this activity to be a nice diversion from the often bland, dated material contained in many oral communication textbooks.