Amy Jussel is the Founder/Executive Director of Shaping Youth, a consortium tapping the same persuasive tools & techniques of industry insiders to flip media and marketing messages in a healthier direction. As a former ad agency writer/producer and journalist, Amy has over 25 years of experience in applied science in this realm. Using entertainment as a conduit for media literacy and health sciences, she’s created hands-on games for critical thinking that have been a hit with adults and children alike to “m-power” learning. She’s working on new ways to scale her content in the digital realm so that it’s ultimately open source for all to use and is interested in consulting on ways media literacy can be embedded into entertainment to improve public health.
Q: What do you do?
A: I create “AHA!” moments. Those cartoonish lightbulb-over-the-head imaginary thought bubbles that hover over kids when they learn something new. (AHA!)
I have 25 years of branding in my head, so my most impactful work is flipping the knowledge of industry tactics to achieve media literacy in a playful, fun form that appeals to kids. Sometimes it’s a ‘lift and reveal’ video showing vested interests or product placement, nuggets of backstory to seek further clues of who’s behind the message, insights embedded in a point/counterpoint analysis of a popular movie or show, or hands-on label lingo, product demos and “m-power” media games that use inquiry to tease out the “aha” enlightenment.
The concept of placing kids “in the know” and “behind the scenes” is a marketing maneuver in itself. That’s why it works so well. So “what I do” is use the same persuasive tools and techniques of industry insiders to change the channel of influence in a healthier direction.
Q: Tell me about your work/media literacy projects
A: Kids don’t like being ‘played’ especially by adults, so if you can be patient with the process asking open ended questions “and then?” “why would?” “how did?” “who said?” “what if?” in a participatory style (whether via Skype, group chat, in person or hands-on game) achieving that “aha” moment is one of the most fulfilling, sustainable, solid opportunities for learning to ‘go viral.’ When words come out of their own mouths, the messages stick and get shared with peer to peer enthusiasm.
It’s bittersweet to watch the rebel yell of adolescent rebellion turn into a facepalm, “ugh, omg, I totally fell for it…That’s what they wanted me to do, right?” because naïveté gives way to a “can’t be unseen” worldliness of media literacy that arms kids with a protective coating.
Q: Do you draw upon pop culture? Shows? Products? What’s an example?
I always try to pull examples that are current in pop culture to keep it relatable and relevant. If you honor the youth experience by delving into what matters in their world and tailor the content to call out, incentivize, and reward via empowerment, both the behavior change and knowledge gain becomes intrinsically vs extrinsically motivated and ultimately lasts much longer. It’s a win-win.
I use a lot of “follow the money trail” games in different sectors to trace disconnects in media messages. In celebrity and athlete endorsements for example, it might be Beyonce’s hawking Pepsi while declaring her backstage green room a “no junk food zone,” or seeing firsthand what Olympians eat at training tables vs what they’re shilling at the Rio Summer Games 2016. (Here’s one on body image talking points drawn from antics at the last Olympics, for example)
Finally, one of the more unique aspects about the way I approach media literacy is leveraging ‘workarounds’ to reverse engineer any ‘perceived problem’ into part of the solution.
I often hear, “parents are part of the problem, they’re the ones buying the kids xyz” or “parents want to be friends, they can’t say no” so I purposely use that dynamic to put the knowledge in the hands of the youth who then ‘upsell’ the learning and knowledge gain into the family. It’s like a flipped classroom but it’s a flipped teacher, with the student teaching the family using a school to home model.
If kids are such strong influencers of purchasing power, imagine the shift when they’re cajoling peers or parents NOT to buy something. It can become an ethical bypass in the toy or clothing aisle, or a “nah, that’s gross, do you know what’s really IN that?” as kids begin to connect “where it all comes from” and choose their own pathways. It’s about using media with mindfulness and channeling the message to a whole different frequency.
Q: Why is media literacy important to you?
A: Like Harry Potter’s protective cloak of invisibility, I’ve always found media literacy to be a powerful shield in the battle for hearts and minds of children, capable of an almost magical form of inoculation against some of the more toxic cues being served in our cultural zeitgeist.
Kids naturally ask a lot of questions early on; I strongly feel we need to seize that moment to instill a lifelong lens of inquiry. Using the ‘get ‘em while they’re young’ marketing tactic, it’s easy to see why early questioning of narratives is key…stereotypes, gender, race, privilege, power, portrayal. Giving kids 21st century critical thinking tools is essential for social emotional growth, empathy, communication and ultimately resilience.
The earlier kids are able to see through their own lens with their own “hmn” moments, the less we need a “protectionist” framing which can tamp down children’s rights rather than expand their sense of agency and access.
Q: What are you most excited about in the media literacy field?
A: If I had to pick a best/worst moments drawing from recent experiences, I’d say the best was seeing NAMLE’s role in advocating education policy and practices slowly get traction state by state, with groups like Media Literacy Now helping push actions forward.
I’m also excited to see the success of curriculum entering schools more often, as well as convening groups starting to share research across a variety of sectors to include stakeholders like schools, parents, industry, government and students themselves. (See Part One and Part Two of current series of Q&A with White House “Breaking Stereotypes” attendees on gender, diversity in media & toys)
Most disheartening? The fact that “media literacy” and the need for it drew blank stares among multiple districts of PTA/parenting people here in my Silicon Valley circles. Despite high education, credibility and clout, the entire definition and concept of media literacy seems ‘off the radar’ of many if not most.
I wanted to yell, “Seriously? How do you NOT know what media literacy is, coming from 24/7 surround sound of always on technology and digital influence?” NAMLE has a challenge…to ‘brand’ media literacy and give it the importance it deserves with the funding and value it should rightfully represent in 21st century skills. It’s a daunting task, and it’s long overdue.
Q: Why did you become a NAMLE member/how will it support your work?
A: I’ve known and respected Renee Hobbs and many of the thought leaders behind NAMLE for a long while and have only recently put a toe into the water, since it always felt more ‘academic’ than grassroots, hands-on, teacher in the trenches. It seems to be changing into a more open source hub for inclusiveness, new ideas, and seasoned professionals like me who use media literacy as applied science in everyday work but don’t have a PhD or published academic journal detailing methodologies with outcomes and measures.
There are tons of ways to instill critical thinking into everyday aspects of life, whether it’s guiding girls through the media morass via mother/daughter media literacy book clubs, sharing a new animated cartoon short to prompt kids thinking about ‘fairness at the county fair’ or using a blockbuster Disney film like Frozen to deconstruct portrayals, step into the shoes of a child, or talk about bullying or social shunning when kids are iced out of friendships, or deconstructing ‘boy culture’ and the packaging of boyhood …Point is, learning doesn’t all have to be structured to be effective.
Informal learning tidbits plucked from kids’ circles of life across all platforms will help raise the bar for critical thinking in this ever-morphing sphere of content fluidity. In fact, many tiny snacks of media literacy over big bloated meals might even be digested better. I’m thrilled NAMLE is open to what’s new, fresh, current, cool, and most of all…tapping into what works.
NAMLE’s resources and members share a ton of collective knowledge and Shaping Youth is proud to be one of them, with over a decade of posts on topics germane to media and marketing’s impact on kids, including a category devoted exclusively to media literacy itself. For teaching tools from Shaping Youth’s NAMLE presentation:
NAMLE blog post
Short sheet sample of a wellness game for lesson plans