Selling Sleeping Pills – Common Core and Close Reading


I was streaming a show on Hulu last night and saw this ad for Intermezzo sleep medication. (Video below)

I was amused by the disparity between the cute animation and the ominous narration of the mandated health warning. I thought this would make a good exercise to illustrate techniques in “close reading” and demonstrate the approach advocated by William Kist’s in New Literacies and the Common Core Educational Leadership ASCD March 2013.

Close reading requires students to consider text (in it’s different forms) through three lenses: what does it say, how does it say it, and what does it mean to me?

Here’s the steps to follow:

  1. Visual elements: Turn the sound off on your computer and watch the Intermezzo commercial (below). Make a list of visual details you observe – character, mood, lighting, editing, set design, shot composition. 
  2. Narration: Now turn the sound on and listen to the soundtrack without looking at the screen. Outline the verbal information given about the product in a T-chart. List benefits on one side and possible adverse effects on the other.
  3. Musical soundtrack: Listen to the ad without watching the screen again. This time focus on the musical soundtrack – instrumentation, tempo, mood. Write some adjectives that come to mind while listening to the ad (ignoring the narration.)

Compare your three lists – visual elements, narration and musical soundtrack. Be ready to use specific textual evidence to defend the observations in your lists. Here’s a few guiding questions to consider:

  • How do your three lists compare? To what extent do the visual elements, narration and musical soundtrack reinforce (or contradict) each other?
  • What do you think the ad’s creators were trying to communicate?
  • What artistic and narrative choices did the creators make to communicate their message?
  • How successfully did the ad sell the product? Would you consider using this product? Why?
  • Drug companies are required by the FDA to list all a drug’s possible risks. What impact does that requirement have on the content of this ad?

Congratulations – you’ve been exploring Common Core:  Reading Standards for Literature, Integration of Knowledge and Ideas, Standard 7, Grade 7. Compare and contrast a written story, drama, or poem to its audio, filmed, staged, or multimedia version, analyzing the effects of techniques unique to each medium (for example, lighting, sound, color, or camera focus and angles in a film).

Reading Standards for Informational Text, Integration of Knowledge and Ideas, Standard 7, Grades 11–12. Evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of using different mediums (for example, print or digital text, video, multimedia) to present a particular topic or idea.

6 Replies to “Selling Sleeping Pills – Common Core and Close Reading”

  1. Thanks for posting this Peter. You may remember Lesley Stahl’s story from her time covering the Reagan White House for CBS News. One night she narrated a particularly harsh criticism of an administration action, and was afraid she might lose her accreditation. She got a call from Communications Director the next morning. To her surprised he thanked her for her report. She asked why given her withering criticism of the administration in the piece. He told that what she said made no difference, there research showed them that viewers paid no attention to audio. On the other hand, video was crucial and she had used White House provided footage of the President that showed him in very flattering ways.

    The same goes for the drug companies TV advertising (which is relatively new by the way, beginning only in the mid 1990s). The companies fill the soundtrack with all these dire warnings because they are required to do so, but they know that people pay them no attention.

    I have a very good friend who is a family practice doctor. He told me that after drug companies began advertising on TV, patients began to come in demanding drugs they saw advertised, whether they really needed them or not. He said he resisted the pressure, but knew many who did not.

    As for close reading of ads, I taught this process for many years when it was called ad deconstruction. Kids liked it, but I never saw any evidence that they used the skills on ads that formed the backgrounds of their lives. Really, how can it? We each are exposed to several thousand ads a day (in one form or another). If we close read even a small fraction of them, we’d have time for nothing else.

  2. Thanks for sharing the video, Peter. You and I must have begun teaching about the same time. I got my credential in June 1970, spent almost two years in the army, and began my first full time teaching job in September 1972, in Palos Verdes, CA. For the last 20 years or so that I taught, I worked in a private middle school in Berkeley, developing and teaching a course we called Communications – which took us into interpersonal communication, individual and group problem solving, and media of all types (personal and mass). I remember mimeo, and ditto too. I think it was the ditto masters that had that unforgettable fragrance. When teaching media, did you ever come across materials produced by Jeff Schrank and his Learning Seed Company?

    1. Shrank / Learning Seed sounds familiar – but that was so long ago.

      I was student teaching in ’70-’71. After I finished, the principal called me back to tell me he fired the sponsoring teacher and wanted to hire me full time. I went on independent study my senior year of college and took a FT teaching spot. (The firing had nothing to do with me.)

      BTW – here’s relic of my fledgeling days as an educator – my Student Teacher Evaluation 1971

  3. I agree with your comment on your 1971 evaluation – learning can definitely go on when students are talking.

    I had both a great master teacher and a terrific supervising teacher when I student taught from December 1969 through June 1970. When I met with my master teacher the first time, he told me he was giving me three of his classes and would be in the department’s office while I taught them. He said if I had problems or questions, he would always be available, and he was; but I don’t think he ever sat in on any of the classes I taught. My supervising teacher from UC Santa Barbara came periodically to visit and did sit in. She always had helpful comments. In fact, her first visit was probably the most helpful to me; but not for anything she said or did. She came to visit my low track 11th grade US History class a few weeks after I began student teaching. That was the first class of the day, and of the week; and had been problematic for me from day one when I got “tested” by a boy who pulled out a cigar and began playing with it, then started pulling the pigtails of the girl who sat in front of him. I somehow managed to deal with that in an acceptable way. But I believe it was that first day’s experience that set me on the path of searching out ways to offer engaging instruction. Anyway that group continued to be stressful for me, and then my supervising teacher told me she would be visiting that class for her first observation. The day before she was to arrive, I told the students that she would be coming the next day. I said that I wasn’t asking them to behave any differently, but that I just wanted them to know who the stranger was who would be sitting in the next morning. I honestly had no idea what to expect. I was flabbergasted when every one of them were models of decorum, attention and participation while she was there. Even more surprising to me was that they remained so for the balance of the semester. Ah, those were the days. Thanks so much for prompting me to bring all of that back into memory. I hadn’t thought about it for a very long time; and find that I still don’t really understand it, but I do still appreciate it.

  4. Your story reminds me of the challenges of student teaching.

    Looks like this fall I’ll be teaching a graduate SS methods class to a group of students who will doing their student teaching. I’m really looking forward to supporting them during those critical days.

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