Global Studies and Media Education: Survival Skills for the New Millennium

Global Studies and Media Education: Survival Skills for the New Millennium

Introduction

It seems that more than ever, we need the resources of global education and the insights of media literacy to help our young people gain the knowledge and develop the values, attitudes and skills to be effective participants in a world rapidly becoming more interdependent and interconnected. Much of the work being done in global education involves examining the impact of globalization on virtually every aspect of our lives.  

The following definition by Chris Barker (Global Television, 1997) succinctly covers much of the territory:

“As a concept, globalization refers to both the compression of the world and the intensification of consciousness of the world as a whole, that is the ever increasing abundance of global connections and our understanding of them.  The compression of the world can be understood in terms of the world capitalist economy, the economic  system, the world military order and the global information system.”

Within the context of global education, media literacy involves analysing media texts for the representations of global events and issues and the ways in which these representations help to shape the meanings we assign to them.  It involves understanding the ways in which ideology and values can be constructed and defined in the media, and asking questions about who benefits from this construction.  It also involves examining the ownership and control of media and technology, and asking questions about the impact of current policies and practices on access, choice and range of expression.  It includes an examination of the Western media for the way relationships between the North/South and the East/West are defined, and for the positions of dominance and oppression that may be reinforced through them.

Within the frameworks of media literacy and global education there are several major media and cultural challenges that educators can address today:

  • The forces of globalization have created a market driven, global economy, promoting privatization, downsizing and deregulation.
  • The corporate take-over of public space embraces everything from shopping malls to the changing role of art galleries and museums. Sponsored culture is now common place. For example, in Toronto, the Royal Ontario Museum had an exhibition on Santa Claus which was sponsored by Coca Cola.  Subsequently, the Art Gallery of Ontario brought the prestigious and lavish Barnes art exhibit to Toronto only because big corporations agreed to sponsor it.  Finally, we have witnessed increased commercialization of our schools through such initiatives as Channel One, the Cola wars, and environmental curriculum from Lever Brothers.
  • Corporate merger mania and concentration of ownership and control profoundly influence our choices in entertainment, both locally and globally, and even our sources of news. (CNN is often the major source of international news in the developing world.)
  • The public relations industry has created the  spin doctors, the skillful lobbyists, the  image consultants and crisis managers for governments and corporations.  The work of Noam Chomsky and the notion of manufacturing consent is essential here.  Today business has shifted from selling products to creating a brand image/presence.  Comparing sweatshop workers’ paltry wages with Nike’s obscenely extravagant advertising contracts given to Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods highlights a huge social and economic disconnect. Finally, in our current marketing bonanza, teens are the targets of cool hunters who learn what will motivate young people to buy into the next big marketing trends, many of which, like the clothing of Nike and Tommy Hilfiger, will be embraced globally.

Corporate Power: Examining the Global Forces at Work

Corporations hold enormous power, not only in North America but around the world. Large corporations, usually American, have a strong presence in many countries and hence the term ‘transnational’ is used to describe their activities.  Examples would include McDonalds, Shell Oil and entertainment conglomerates such AOL Time/Warner and Disney. The wealth of the biggest corporations is larger than the total financial assets of many developing countries.

The power and reach of major corporations and their strategies for branding and ‘cool-hunting’ have not gone unnoticed by many of today’s youth. Student activism is being documented across North America and around the world as many young people, frustrated by increasing corporate control and the hollow rhetoric of advertising, have begun to ‘follow the logo’.

Put simply, following the logo means that many young people are tracing the logos on their clothing, shoes and knapsacks back to their origins and learning about where these logos come from.  Many students are seeing through the catchy slogans and looking behind the glossy visuals of advertising campaigns to discover the reality that exists behind the corporate image.

Students begin this process by analyzing the emotional appeals of advertising and the marketing strategies developed by cool hunters.  They analyze corporate PR campaigns and the construction of the ‘good’ corporate image by asking questions about who owns what products, where they are made, and by whom.  What students discover is a world far removed from the advertising slogans and promises they are bombarded with daily. The world they discover is the world of the sweatshop.

In recent years, many transnational corporations have subcontracted their manufacturing operations to factories in developing countries, where workers toil in sweatshop conditions. These sweatshops are characterized by long workdays, extremely low wages and very poor working conditions. Because manufacturing their products costs very little, corporations have been able to reap huge profits and invest millions in celebrity endorsements, “cool hunting” and sponsorship strategies.

Because they subcontract their work, many North American corporations have tried to escape accountability for the human rights violations that occur in these factories.  But this has not deterred many students, who believe these wealthy corporations are responsible for what happens in the manufacturing of their products whether they have subcontracted the work or not.  Aware of the millions of dollars corporations pour into advertising campaigns–campaigns many believe are designed to distract us from the controversy over sweatshops–students are not willing to let these corporations off the hook.

The result?  Young activists are exposing the reality behind today’s popular brand images. They are exposing the exploitative practices of corporations and calling them to accountability in ways that many
politicians have failed to do. They are demanding that corporations accept codes of conduct and independent monitoring mechanisms in order to guarantee workers rights.  In examples of Internet activism, students have organized campaigns to spread their message about corporate practices and their plans to take action.  Their consumer power, combined with their campaign strategies, have made corporations sit up and take notice.

SUGGESTED STUDENT ACTIVITY:  FOLLOWING THE LOGO

The following activity provides students with the opportunity to deconstruct the images and public relations techniques of a transnational corporation.   The activity explores a number of key questions, including:  What images are these corporations presenting to their target audiences?  How are consumers responding to these images?  What is the reality behind these images?  Consider, for example, the manufacturing and environmental practices of these corporations.  What is important for today’s consumer-and today’s global citizen-to know?

Try your hand at following the logo:

  1. Examine the labels or logos on your clothing. What company manufactured this clothing and where was it made?
  2. Visit the official website for the company that manufactured one item of your clothing.  What message or image about the company is conveyed through its website ?  Is the company part of a major corporation?  Where is it located?  What message or image of the company is created through its website?  How is the image created?  Consider the use of colour, graphics, visuals, vocabulary, etc.
  3. Deconstruct a current television or print ad for this company.  Pay close attention to the logo, the brand image, and the techniques used to appeal to the emotions of the viewer.
  4. Now move beyond the product and company image.  Visit an ‘alternative’ website such as the one for Corporate Watch or the National Labor Committee.  (See the resource list for suggested organizations and websites.) These organizations monitor the activities of major corporations and document environmental and human rights violations.
    a) What companies have been investigated by these organizations?
    b) What companies have been praised for being ‘good’ corporate citizens? What have they done to earn this praise?
    c) What companies are receiving criticism?  Why?
    d) What can you learn about the company that manufactures the clothing you are wearing?
  5. Investigate the campaigns being undertaken by these organizations in an effort to make corporations more accountable for their manufacturing practices.  Describe one campaign in detail.  How effective do you think this campaign is?  Explain.
  6. If you are able to find information about the company that manufactures your clothing, explain how this information compares to the image the company constructs in its advertising.   Account for any contradictions.  Who benefits from the preservation of the corporate image as it is presented in advertising campaigns?  Who loses?
  7. Visit the company website to see what strategies they might be using to counter any criticism from corporate watchdog groups.   What PR techniques are at work?  What do the company’s critics say in response?
  8. Summarize the insights you have gained from your research.  What do you think consumers should do with the information you have discovered regarding corporations and their manufacturing practices?  Prepare a report in which you outline your recommendations for consumers and for the corporation.   Create an alternative “ad” that tells all potential customers about the reality that exists behind the corporate image.

Consider consulting the following websites for information and inspiration:

Amnesty International:  www.amnesty.ca
Behind the Label – www.behindthelabel.org
Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA): www.acdi-cida.gc.ca
Clean Clothes Campaign – www.cleanclothes.org
Corporate Watch – www.corpwatch.org
National Labour Committee:  www.nlcnet.org
No Logo – www.nologo.org
Maquila Solidarity Network – www.maquilasolidaritynetwork.org

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