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Health and Media Literacy: Advertising Practices in the Tobacco Industry

Adam Yeargin, Shayna Pond, Daniel Schwarz | Published: June 30th, 2022 by K20 Center


This health and media literacy lesson is intended to raise awareness of predatory advertising practices in the tobacco industry.

Essential Question(s)

How can media influence my choice to use or not to use tobacco? How can I manage the influence of advertising for tobacco and electronic smoking devices (ESDs)?



Students view vintage advertising campaigns for tobacco products and compare them with current marketing campaigns for tobacco and ESD products.


Students read two articles about ESD advertisements and discuss how and why tobacco companies target youth in their advertising.


Students research facts from the CDC about e-cigarette ads and their effects on children and teens. Then, students discuss suggestions for deterrence.


Students deconstruct an advertisement to analyze common advertising strategies.


Students create their own anti-tobacco marketing campaign products.


  • Lesson Slides (attached)

  • It’s OPTIC-al handout (attached; one per group)

  • Deconstructing an Advertisement handout (attached; one per student)

  • Anti-Tobacco Ad Campaign handout (attached; one per group)

  • Computer

  • Projector

  • Speakers

  • Student devices with internet access


20 Minute(s)

Introduce the lesson using the attached Lesson Slides. Display slide 3 to share the essential questions. Display slide 4 to go over the lesson’s learning objectives. Review these slides with students to the extent you feel necessary.

Place students in groups of four. Then, pass out a copy of the attached It’s OPTIC-al handout to each group. Have one student in each group cut the handout in half to create two It’s OPTIC-al half-sheets.

Display slide 5. Student groups will use a modified version of the It's OPTIC-al strategy to make observations and inferences about vintage tobacco marketing materials.

Provide students with this link to examples of vintage cigarette marketing: "33 Vintage Cigarette Ads That Are Now Hilariously, Tragically Absurd." Alternatively, you may show the images to the class using a projector.

Ask students to focus on the images in the ads, not the text. Specifically, ask students to look for common marketing themes and details among the images. Have student groups write their ideas on the first It’s OPTIC-al half-sheet and then share out.

Once students have discussed the vintage ads, go to slide 6. Provide students with the following links, which contain examples of recent tobacco/ESD advertising campaigns, or show the images to the class using a projector:

Have student groups use their second It’s OPTIC-al half-sheet and the same strategy to analyze the examples from the above links. Again, ask students to focus on the images throughout and common marketing themes and details among the images. When student groups finish writing their ideas, invite them to share out.


25 Minute(s)

Display slide 7. Inform students they will read two articles about ESD advertisements. Ask them to consider the following questions as they read:

  • How do advertisers make ESDs appealing?

  • How would you describe the types of people whom these ads target?

Go to slide 8 and split students’ original groups of four into two groups of two. Have student pairs use the 4-2-1 strategy to analyze the following articles. Assign each student in a pair to read one of the articles:

After students have finished reading, have each student share what they believe are the four (4) most important ideas from their article. Then, ask student pairs to compare their articles and reach a consensus on the two (2) most important ideas from the readings. Finally, have student pairs rejoin their original groups of four and decide what they believe is the single (1) most important idea from the readings.

After enough time has elapsed, bring everyone back together for a whole-class discussion and have student groups share the ideas they found most important. If it does not come up in the discussion, ask students to comment on how advertising campaigns have evolved over time.

Connect this activity with the previous activity from the Engage portion. Ask students to recall any strategies they identified that companies use to target their audience (teens in particular).

Wrap up the discussion by inviting students to share out examples of advertisements for products other than tobacco/ESD that influenced or targeted them. Ask students how they feel about being a deliberate target of advertising campaigns.


25 Minute(s)

Display slide 9 and explain the role of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in monitoring and regulating advertising for tobacco products.

Inform students whether they will use the Stop and Jot strategy or the CUS and Discuss strategy for the next activity. Depending on the chosen strategy, display slide 10 or slide 11. Then, provide student groups with the following CDC links and have them analyze the two sets of information:

After enough time has elapsed, go to slide 12. Ask students how the information from the CDC readings applies to tobacco/ESD companies’ focus on teen audiences. Invite students to engage in a whole-class discussion of why these companies intentionally target teen audiences with their advertising.


25 Minute(s)

Display slide 13 and pass out the attached Deconstructing an Advertisement handout. Have each student choose one of the current tobacco/ESD advertisements from the Engage activity and use their ad of choice to complete the handout.

Go to slide 14 and have students look at the first section of the handout. Ask students to make observations about the ad and evaluate its aesthetics:

  • Are there people depicted? If so, have students make note of their gender, race, class, age, and/or facial expressions.

  • What is the general color scheme? Is the ad bright and colorful? Dim and dark? Black and white? Does it use neutral tones or contrasting colors?

  • Is there any text in the ad? If so, encourage students to consider the font type and size, as well as the color of the text. Ask students to hypothesize the purpose and/or the effects of these choices.

Next, go to slide 15 and have students look at the second section of the handout. Ask students to focus on the purpose and theme of the ad and determine what product or idea it is promoting.

  • Who paid for the ad? Have students decide whether this information is clear or hidden and why.

  • What is the age group of the target audience (e.g., children, teens, adults, the elderly)?

  • What feelings or ideas are associated with the product?

    Have students look for any value-based or lifestyle messages that the ad conveys.

Go to slide 16 and have students look at the third section of the handout. Ask students to determine the overall message the ad sends through the assumptions and connections it makes.

  • How does the ad portray people of different backgrounds? Ask students to think critically about their observations from Part 1 regarding the ad’s portrayal of people and their gender, race, class, and/or age. Have students consider whether the ad portrays people realistically, as well as whether it reinforces stereotypes or challenges them.

  • Is the information in the ad accurate and fair? Have students look for any potential biases.

  • Is there any subtext? Ask students to consider whether the ad makes any assumptions or has any underlying messages that are not stated explicitly.

Finally, go to slide 17 and have students look at the fourth section of the handout. Ask students to consider possible short- and long-term consequences of the ad’s message. Guide students with the following questions:

  • Does the ad create unrealistic expectations?

  • Is it socially responsible?

  • Is it glamorizing a particular lifestyle or choice?

Emphasize to students that their hypothesized short- and long-term effects are not the only possible outcomes.

Once all students have completed the activity, bring everyone back together and have them share their findings in a whole-class discussion. Ask students for their overall interpretations and impressions of the ads they chose to deconstruct.


50 Minute(s)

Display slide 18. Revisit the essential questions and use them to elicit class discussion.

  • How can media influence my choice to use or not to use tobacco?

  • How can I manage the influence of advertising for tobacco and ESDs?

After the discussion, use slides 19–24 to show students several examples of anti-smoking and anti-tobacco advertisements. Explain to students that they will create a similar anti-tobacco advertisement. Have students reflect on and apply the four parts of the ad deconstruction activity (i.e., observations about aesthetics and design, purpose of the ad, message it sends, and consequences of the message).

Go to slide 25. Have each student group create an anti-smoking marketing campaign product. Pass out the attached Anti-Tobacco Ad Campaign handout for students to review the guidelines and the rubric. You may provide old magazines to student groups if they wish to cut and paste pictures for their advertisements. Otherwise, share the following links to provide students with options for creating digital ads.