ETA Newsletter, Volume 5, Number 1, April 2001, pp. 15-17.

         Using TV Commercials


Johanna E. Katchen

This a summary of a presentation given at the Seventh International Symposium and Book Fair on English Teaching, 1998, supplemented by more recent ideas.

We are fortunate in Taiwan these days that our schools are generally equipped with the latest technological aids to our teaching.   Thus most schools have at least one VCR, perhaps in the language lab.  Students as well as their teachers use VCRs in the home; the basic functions are easy to use.

Teachers may rightly feel that using long pieces of video, such as movies, is just too time-consuming.  If you do not determine your own syllabus and feel you seldom have time for extras, there may still be a way to bring video into your classroom—with TV commercials.

Why Use TV Commercials in ELT?


The greatest advantage to using TV commercials is that they are short—30 to 60 seconds—so the teacher can easily play a commercial more than once and construct a short activity lasting 5 - 10 minutes around one commercial.  However, depending on the activity(ies) and the commercial, the teacher may be able to exploit one commercial for up to a whole class period.  Commercials allow for great flexibility of time.  They may form an activity on their own or fit in with regular lessons as an illustration, for example, of some language function or grammar point; moreover, they are often funny and may lift the spirits of the class.


Where Can Teachers Find TV Commercials in English?


TV commercials in English are not that easy to find.  In Taiwan, advertisers normally use Chinese or Taiwanese, the languages of their audience.  Nevertheless, those stations broadcasting in English that have an audience wider than the Chinese-speaking area have advertising in English.  The best sources are CNN International, BBC World, CNBC Asia, and Star World (where available; for example, in the Hsinchu area, only CNNI is currently available from 6 p.m. to 4 a.m. and some CNBC Asia programming through afaweb with Chinese subtitles).  Note, though, that stations which use Chinese subtitles (e.g., The Discovery Channel, HBO) have ads in Chinese.  Moreover, some cable operators replace the TV channel’s ads with their own local ads; in the Hsinchu area this situation is most evident with STAR (English) movies, where one often sees several seconds of the Hong Kong STAR-TV’s English ad before a Taiwan ad replaces it.


Provided that the teacher has access to stations with commercials in English, how can s/he obtain them?  Unlike movies or other shows, which are listed in TV program schedules in newspapers or advertised in advance on the TV stations, commercials just pop up unpredictably.  By the time you run to the VCR and turn it on, the ad is almost over.  So what can the teacher do?


You can watch programs at various times of the day on those stations that have English ads.  The same ads usually appear with the same programs.  If you see an ad that you might want to use, record the program the next few times it airs and chances are you will also record the ad you want.  Another option is to set your VCR on slow speed (6 hours recording time) and record when you are not watching.  Usually you can do his with the VRC on but the TV off; if you use this option, you later have to watch the video (fast forward if you like) to see if you’ve captured something useful.  You can later record/edit the useful parts on to another tape if you or your language lab has two VCRs connected for editing.


Some expatriate teachers like to record commercials and other programs back in their home countries; these are made for US or British audiences and need interpretation by native teachers even more than commercials shown in Taiwan.  These can indeed be good teaching material.  I talk here only about commercials available on local TV because for most of us, that is all we have available.


Other Characteristics of English Commercials


Who watches stations like CNNI, stations that often do not provide Chinese subtitles?  Other than a few expatriates, the target audience are professionals with a good command of English.  They are probably upper middle class with some disposable income, and they travel abroad.  We see commercials for airlines, hotel chains, banks, luxury cars, multinational companies, and even diamonds.  These tend to be big budget ads that are extremely well-made and often a pleasure to watch, a far cry from the cold remedies and washing powders that are the staple of local TV stations everywhere.  While these latter kinds can also form teaching materials, the higher quality ones can usually be exploited on more levels.


Because of their shortness, commercials have to say a lot in the most concise way.  Every millisecond counts and is packed with information.  There are visual images and there may also be writing and other symbols.  Aurally we may hear language, music, and other sounds.  The language is often quite clever and may include double meanings and plays on words.  Messages may be quite complex and include all sorts of cultural and historical material.  Their creators depend on the viewers’ experience to interpret these meanings in the way intended.  This means that when we watch a commercial from another culture, we may grasp only some of the intended interpretations.  This situation should not deter teachers from using ads as we do not have to do a thorough analysis in order to enjoy an ad and practice language.


Possible Activities


Here I talk about a few activities I have used with TV commercials that I have found.  Commercials are changed every few months and those I have used are no longer seen on local TV.  Nevertheless, the ideas and activities can be used with the new commercials that come along.


Silent Viewing and Prediction


About 10 years ago I was fortunate to record an ad for a BBC World Service News Program “World News Week”.  While aurally we were being told about the program, the images showed people rushing about on fast forward.  It was only during the last few seconds we saw writing on the screen indicating the program.  This sort of commercial is perfect for silent viewing because the images tell nothing about the product being advertised.


I show the ad up until just before the words appear on the screen, and then I stop it.  I show it two or three times to let students soak up the details.  Students are asked work in groups, to guess the product being promoted and to come up with a slogan, such as “If your life is too busy, you need a vacation.  Come to our travel agency and let us help you.”  Their slogans don’t have to be too slick because I teach a conversation class and I’m more interested in the spoken interaction.  Students come up with some very interesting interpretations—all sorts of products for busy people, from herbal tea, instant noodles, and running shoes to travel agencies, insurance, watches for keeping track of your time, and more recently even PDAs.  When I finally show the original ending, it’s almost a bit of an anti-climax.


At a conference a number of years ago I experienced an example of the opposite—a commercial for a luxury car that was obvious from the visual but totally obscure from hearing just the aural track.  The presenter played the aural only and the audience as students had to guess the product.  Such commercials—where either the visual or aural reveals no more than a hint of the product, are rare, so you are quite lucky if you can find one.  Moreover, if your students are likely to have seen the commercial, the activity won’t work.


Check Off What You See


With other commercials where the product may be obvious, we can still focus on the visual for one activity—remembering what we saw.  This works best with commercials where the images are shown very rapidly.  I’ve used an ad for a BBC travel show where various images of holidaymakers were shown and I made a list and asked students to check off what they saw.  If we show it only once and then give the list, no one remembers everything and then the groups or pairs can disagree about what they saw.  What matters is that they have something to talk about, not whether they are right or wrong.  In the end, we of course show the commercial again and let students check if they really saw the items. More recently, Siemens, General Electric, and Time Magazine have used the same technique—rapidly-changing images—which are good for challenging students’ memory.


Variation on Dialogue


Holiday Inn put out a clever commercial a few years ago.  We see two “men” packing for a trip, and then when they discover they are going to stay at Holiday Inn, they unzip their “men” suits to reveal alien creatures, who then travel on to and are welcomed at Holiday Inn in their true alien identities.  The text is quite simple:


Alien A:         What are you doing?

Alien B:         We’re going to the Earth Summit, aren’t we?

Alien A:         But we’re staying at Holiday Inn.

Alien B:         Oh, good.

Narrator:       One hotel is making business travelers from all walks of life truly welcome.

Hotel Clerk:   Welcome to Earth.

Narrator:       Welcome to Holiday Inn, where you can feel at home and just be yourself.


At a lower level, we could get students to practice different settings.  The text is quite appropriate for those working in the service sector—in restaurants, hotels, other businesses.  I’ve used the following variations:


A:               What are you doing?  [B is looking in wallet; getting dressed up]

B:               We’re going ________ (shopping; out to eat), aren’t we?

A:               But we’re going to _____ (Lucky Department Store; Wang's Beef Noodle Shop).

B:               Oh, good.

Narrator:    One ____ (department store; restaurant) is making _____ (shoppers; diners) from all walks of life truly welcome.

Clerk:        Welcome to _____ (our store; our restaurant).

Narrator:    Welcome to _______ (Lucky Department Store; Wang's Beef Noodle Shop), where you can _______ (get everything you need at a low price; have a good meal in a relaxed atmosphere).



Grammar and Vocabulary Practice


A few years ago, a Siemens commercial with a few variations appeared.  The text, which was sung, was a bit unusual: 


Before you do this, you’ve got to have this and this and this.

Before you dial this, you’ve got to have this, this, this, this, and this.

Before you drive or you ride or you float or you fly,

Somebody’s got to make this and this and this.

And you cannot make this or this or this

Until you have this, this, this, this, this, this, and this.

You gotta have a lot of these or you can’t have this.

And if y….o….u want to have these,

You want to have this and this and this.

[SPOKEN: No matter there you are, anywhere in the world, You’re never very far from a Siemens product.]

So if what you need is this, this, this, this, this, this, and this,

[SPOKEN: We’re Siemens.]

We can do that!


While these words play on the aural track, we see a number of images presented at a fast pace and reflecting the text.  Thus at the very beginning “Before you do this” we see a hand turning on a light bulb, after which we see wires and circuits. When we hear “You gotta have a lot of these or you can’t have this” we see lots of oranges and then a child pouring orange juice, lots of paper running through a printing press and then a man reading a newspaper, and other images.


This commercial is great for practicing vocabulary, grammar, and stress timing.  The visual images show the concepts and objects, but can students say them in English?  Some of the items are quite technical (an appropriate time for the teacher to teach the new items).  Notice that the structures are worth practicing, and the images on screen provide the pattern practice stimuli.  Moreover, as we listen, we can’t help but hear a ready-made jazz chant, again quite useful for those students who have difficulty moving from the syllable timing of Chinese to the stress timing of English.  


Persuasive Language and Euphemism


Persuasive language has certain characteristics, among them the use of euphemism.  In salesmanship as well as in face-saving, this is not considered lying, just not telling one hundred percent of the truth in the most straightforward way.  Consider the text of the following commercial, which appeared on STAR-TV a few years ago.


Man: I’m not so young anymore, so my health is very important to me.

Woman: That’s why I drink Sunraysia one hundred percent Natural Prune Juice every day.

Man: Yes, it has many important vitamins and minerals, like Vitamin C, Potassium, Calcium, Iron.  It’s a good source of dietary fiber.  It keeps me regular—naturally. 

Woman: Sunraysia may be a little more expensive than other brands, but I trust Sunraysia.  You can’t put a price on good health.


The product, prune juice, is usually associated with old people, and the couple in the commercial, sitting around their kitchen table, is over 60 years old.  However, some older people, particularly in English-speaking cultures, don’t like being called “old”, and since businesses don’t want to anger their potential customers, they avoid terms that may cause offense.  Thus, the man doesn’t start by saying “I’m old now,” but rather “I’m not so young anymore.”  


Similarly, the company does not want to say directly that their juice costs more than other juice brands because consumers usually look for lower prices.  However, we can assume that the price difference is more than minimal because the commercial actually admits this (Sunraysia may be a little more expensive than other brands) but then gives a reason, an appeal to health, with the unstated assumption that this brand of prune juice is better for one’s health than other brands of prune juice.  The appeal is directed to the target age group, whose most important concern is thought to be health.  We are not told that the juice tastes good, nor that it’s cool or sexy to drink prune juice; that’s not considered to be important to the target audience.


Most people in English-speaking cultures know why people, especially older people, drink prune juice every day.  It’s not usually for the taste.  However, the seller does not want to remind viewers of a problem by using the word “constipation”.  Instead, the focus is on the positive aspects: the juice has “dietary fiber”, which we know has positive effects on the digestive tract.  The words “dietary fiber” as well as the use of the word “naturally” reaffirm the popular idea that natural ingredients are better than artificially-produced medicines.


Another use of euphemism is in the man’s use of the sentence It keeps me regular—naturally. As he says this, he gives a knowing look—like he’s conveying some unspoken information.  That is, in English-speaking cultures, one doesn’t usually speak of excretory matters in public, and if one has to, one uses euphemisms.  Here the word “regular” means daily bowel movement; it is highly unlikely students have learned this meaning of regular.  This commercial gives teachers the opportunity to introduce this cultural difference as well as to explore with students the range of vocabulary for certain taboo areas in English—generally, words for excretion and sex (see Claire, 1980). 


Comparison of English and Chinese Commercials


Many multinational companies make their commercials in several languages; therefore, we can see the same commercials in both English (from CNNI or CNBC Asia, for example) and Chinese (on local stations). If we can record the commercials in both languages, one approach would be to play the Chinese version first. We could then help the students to find the English vocabulary (which the teacher can take from the English version) to talk about it: for example, describing what they see at a lower level, discussing the meaning, including the images/symbols, at a higher level.  The next step would be to ask students to make a verbal text for the commercial in English.  For a lower level this could be just a slogan; a higher level could try a more complete narration/translation. Note that these activities could also be used with Chinese commercials for which there is no English version.  Finally, we could play the English version, helping students with the text where necessary and comparing their texts with the commercial’s text. Students need not guess the exact English text; they are to be praised when they create reasonably grammatical sentences that render an appropriate meaning. Because the language of commercials must be succinct, and because they often incorporate plays on words and double meanings, they contain a particular style of language not usually found in ELT textbooks.  This activity provides a good opportunity to point out stylistic differences, from students’ basic descriptive sentences to the commercial’s persuasive use of language.


Follow-up Role Plays


After doing activities with one or more commercials, it is possible to do a follow-up activity in which we have students make up and then act out their own commercials in English.   These are usually a lot of fun.  Students often use Chinglish expressions (e.g., Trust me, you can make it), and the activity provides an opportunity for students to explore alternative, more appropriate ways of expressing their ideas.




Claire, E. (1980). A foreign student’s guide to dangerous English. Rochelle Park, NJ: Eardley Publications.


Johanna E. Katchen (柯安娜), professor at National Tsing Hua University, was chair of the TESOL Video Interest Section from 2000-2001 and has been using video in teaching since 1989.


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