In Your Face: 6 Simple Tips for Teaching Advertising [ESL Business Students]

In Your Face: 6 Simple Tips for Teaching Advertising [ESL Business Students]

After teaching ESL for twelve years, I felt like a new challenge.

My school was struggling to hire ESL Business teachers, so I volunteered. I’m not trained in business or economics, but I found that a few hours’ research equipped me sufficiently to guide ESL students through the most important topics. Ultimately, it’s just another subject area, like the weather, or sports, or family life, and if you’re looking for a fresh challenge, I encourage you to give it a try.

Our students are surrounded by more advertising than any previous generation has been. Whether they accept it, complain about it, or just find it interesting, they’re bound to have opinions on this controversial topic, and this is a good place to start when teaching classes on advertising and marketing for ESL students.

Using what the students already know – their life experience as consumers, and the English this naturally brings with it – we can move on to expand our students’ understanding of how and why companies advertise, how the field has changed, and what the future of advertising might look like. Here are some tips for topic areas, vocabulary and practice methods to try out when teaching advertising to upper-intermediate or advanced ESL students:

6 Tips for Teaching Advertising for ESL Business Students

  1. 1

    Comparing Experiences

    Put together a brief questionnaire (or, even better, have your students write the questions) to discover the class’ relationship with commercial advertising. Where do they mostly experience it? Do the positives (laughs, memes, and increased product awareness) outweigh the frustrations?

  2. 2

    Bringing In Examples from Home

    A little cross-cultural discussion can be a great way to raise awareness of how advertising is practiced in other countries. Are there restrictions on content? Are there any famous, long-running ads? (e.g. the Nescafe Gold Blend ‘couple’, who played out a nationally discussed ‘will they, won’t they’ romance in a sequence of British TV adverts in the 1980s.) How often are adverts funny, and how often simply practical and informative?

  3. 3

    Examining Famous Examples

    The list of ‘most influential adverts of all time’ changes constantly, but thankfully, they’re all available on YouTube. Look at some recent influential TV ads, and some from a few years ago, and then perhaps go back to the beginning of TV advertising in the 1950s and see how things have changed. How much dialogue is there? Are there characters with which we can identify? Is there a sense of narrative? How much are the specifications of the product discussed, versus the ‘lifestyle’ effects of owning it? (see below)

  4. 4

    Consolidating Vocabulary

    Throughout these discussions, keep the target vocabulary on the board, or available on a handout:

    Types of advertising: Cinema, TV, newspaper, radio, leaflet, banner, pop-up, billboard, poster, mailshot / junk mail, word-of-mouth
    Advertising tactics: saturation, celebrity endorsement, product placement, event tie-ins, viral marketing, sponsorship
    Marketing: target audience, demographic, market segment, market share, market segmentation
    The Creative Process: brainstorming, focus groups, test audiences, prototypes, speculative ads, innovation

  5. 5

    How Advertising Is Created

    Track through the process of receiving a request for proposals, brainstorming potential approaches, testing out designs and slogans, revising and going ‘back to the drawing board’, and finally presenting the finished campaign. Make the point that at least 90% of advertising ideas go nowhere.

  6. 6

    The Notion of ‘Lifestyle’

    Advertisements from the 1950s seem quaint to us, but I’m prepared to bet that showing any commercial TV break from 2016 to an audience from the 1950s would completely blow their minds. How has this change happened?

    Examine the idea of selling products which seem to promote or create a certain ‘lifestyle’; simply by buying and owning the product, the consumer’s life is apparently changed for the better. Furthermore, this improvement might not be restricted to the way they shave, or which coffee they drink; products are imbued with almost magical powers to make us more attractive, better at our jobs, sleep more easily, or enjoy family life more. Are any of these apparent claims really true? Do your students have experiences of life-changing consumer decisions (for good or ill)?

Practicing the Concepts

My students have great fun when these notions are moved from the theoretical to the practical. Inviting my classes to unleash their creative energies reveals hidden talents, and some discovered abilities in design and writing slogans, for example, that they never knew they had.

Write a Simple ‘Classified’ Ad

A straightforward place to start:

Family seeks piano teacher for nine year-old son. Must be experienced with this age group, and have good references. Thursday evenings preferred.

Briefly examine the truncated, chopped-down grammar of these advertisements, and ask your students to create something very direct, intended just to convey information.

Design a Radio Ad

The next step up is to create a script without worrying about visuals. Assign a standard product (soap, engine oil, a vacation rental) and see what your students come up with. Provide some classic openings:

(Sultry voice) Do you need a vacation?

(Woman’s voice) Oh, no, look at all these dirty dishes!

(Rugged man’s voice) You care about your car. But are you caring enough?

Yes, they’re rather hackneyed (and, for that matter, a bit sexist), but they’re a place to start.

Design a Superbowl Ad

Here’s where things get really cool. With a virtually unlimited budget, access to Hollywood stars, and a large design and production team, almost anything is possible. There’s enough time to involve a narrative, develop tension, and build to a climactic ‘reveal’ of the product. My students tend to really shine when tasked with this kind of open, creative, blue-sky exercise.

Design a Strategy for Product Placement in a Hollywood Movie

We’ve all noticed that James Bond drinks a certain brand of beer, or that the Transformers have a preference for wrecking a particular make of car. Give your students a product type and a movie genre, and see how the two might combine. Could the shampoo brand become visible during the murder scene in the shower? Maybe the car dealership can be the setting for a showdown, or the introduction of an attractive new character.

Stretch an Existing Brand

Pose this problem to your students: Helios is a world-renowned brand of sunglasses, but they’re looking to diversify. How can we ‘stretch’ the brand, making use of its existing customer base, social cache and media presence, to include other types of products? Perhaps a clothing label, or another lifestyle product? Or we might go further afield into specialist coffees or an adventure travel company.

Design a Logo, Taglines and Slogans

This can be really enjoyable, but more importantly, it’s a discursive team exercise which requires lots of communication using the target language. Give your students a product which needs a ‘revamp’: a new logo or label, and some new slogans to really put across its benefits.


It’s been great fun to watch my students’ creative potential link together with lots of good language production, and advertising classes are those to which I look forward the most when teaching ESL Business.

With the ready availability of examples, and an ever-expanding field of possibilities, it’s a great way to practice vocabulary and get your students talking about concepts which are both familiar and relevant to their lives.

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