The Internet TESL Journal

Using TV Commercials in ESL/EFL Classes

Frank Tuzi & Keiko Mori
ftuzi(at) nakajima(at)
Tokyo Christian University (Chiba, Japan)

Ann Young
Bunkyo University (Kanagawa, Japan) and Rikkyo University (Tokyo, Japan)


With the explosion of the Internet's vast repositories of media growing daily, language teachers are receiving almost innumerable amounts of teaching materials from online resources. One resource that fits nicely into the limited English abilities of many ESL/EFL students is the standard television commercial. These short 45 second sound and video bytes offer teachers a tool to teach not only language, but also culture and critical thinking.

Why Use Commercials in an ESL/EFL Class

Using TV commercials in the ESL classroom brings a number of benefits to language teachers. First of all, TV commercials are short, typically lasting 30 to 50 seconds. Their size is ideal for new language learners (Davis, 1997; Erkaya,2005). They are not so long as to drown the students in material like TV shows or movies do. Their brevity also makes them easier to select. Finding a good TV or movie segment generally requires more preparation and setup in order to be used. TV commercials are easier to select, manipulate and prepare because of their length. TV commercials are also catchy and designed to be entertaining(Smith & Rawley,1997). How many times have you found yourself repeating a song or phrase from a TV commercial?

Another great blessing is that commercials contain authentic content(Smith & Rawley,1997); they are written for native speakers and spoken in authentic English, and not just the native speakers from one culture; TV commercials are created in many different English speaking countries making it possible for students to have exposure to a variety of Englishes. Thus, by using TV commercials from a variety of different locations including the UK, USA, Australia, etc., language teachers can introduce different accents, dialects, and indeed different Englishes, and thereby allow their students to expand the reach of their listening abilities. Another advantage is the variety of voices that TV commercials can provide far outnumber typical listening materials in listening textbooks.

An additional benefit is the visual elements of TV commercials that further enhance the ability of students to understand a commercial's meaning. A number of studies suggest (Davis, 1997; Lee, 1994) that students who are exposed to commercials improve their listening skills and augment their motivation to learn. The visual clues of a TV commercial provide scaffolding for students to assist them to understand the linguistic meanings in the commercial. At the same time, teachers can use the original intent of the commercial and the cultural elements contained therein to teach critical thinking and culture (McGee and Fujita, 2000). In any teaching context, it is crucial that the curriculum teachers use is based on clear and specific goals so that they can appropriately find materials, methods, and forms of assessment (Richards, 2001).

How to Find and Select TV Commercials

One way to begin searching for a commercial is by determining objectives. Teachers should define the cultural, linguistic, and logical objectives that they desire to focus on when searching for an appropriate TV commercial. For other teachers, identifying specific objectives first and then hunting for appropriate TV commercials makes finding TV commercials more difficult; they prefer to have general objectives in mind while browsing TV commercials so that that expand their options. Still others have no specific objectives at all; they simply go hunting and locate commercials that appear to be good for teaching language. Then they collect them and devise objectives and make materials later. Whatever process you choose, you will need the TV commercials and the teaching objectives.

Developing Activities with Commercials

One of the more time consuming activities in the past was locating commercials. Today, they are easily available on the Internet. So, when you are ready to collect URLs or even the TV commercials themselves, you need a place to go hunting. There are a number of sites to locate good commercials, commercial parodies, and short amatuer videos. A list of some of the currently popular sites to find commercials is located in Appendix B.

The next step after selecting objectives and finding a good TV commercial is developing activities. The following example will demonstrate the steps we use to develop TV commercial activities. The standard approach we use is:
  1. Pre-viewing activities  
  2. Viewing the TV commercial
  3. Securing adequate comprehension
  4. Exploring linguistic components
  5. Discussing cultural and values laden components
  6. Practicing critical thinking skills by examining the TV commercial critically
After searching for good TV commercials, we discovered a useful one from Club 18-30.  The commercial occurs in a cosmetics shop where a young lady is trying on some lipstick.  It is a very simple commercial that contains only three sentences.

Customer: Does this make me look cheap?
Clerk: Oh no. Not at all.
Customer: Do you have any that does? (Club18-30)

It is short and yet it is a complete moral and cultural experience. It also contains limited linguistic information and is entertaining.

Pre-viewing Activities

As is true with most activities, the initial segment is intended to pique the curiosity and enliven the motivation of the students. This can be accomplished by beginning a discussion with open ended questions about attraction. Ask students why they dress the way they do or why they wear makeup? What is the message they are trying to send? It is also to begin asking moral type questions about what is appropriate dress? Still other teachers may want to create a survey or handout, or develop predicting activities for this brainstorming activity.

Show the Video

Show the TV commercial several times until you are certain the students understand the scenario and content. As they are viewing the commercial, ask for clarifications. You may want to view the commercial without sound initially to allow students to experience it with less input (Smith & Rawley,1997). Some teachers show the commercial in class; others make this a homework assignment, in which case the commercials should be reviewed prior to continuing to the other activities

Focus on Linguistic Components

Since this commercial contained a limited amount of linguistic and lexical data, it was easy to focus on the 2 only grammar areas available: Yes/no questions and noun clauses. For the lower level grammar element, we created a number of Yes/No question drills and dialogs for the students to complete and act out. Upper level students received noun clause focused activities.

Although there existed few words in this commercial, the topic of appearance allowed us to introduce many new words related to appearance. These new words and explained grammar can be included in production activities, like drills, scripts, surveys, information gap activities, and presentations that students can practice or develop and thereby strengthen their language skills.

Explore Culture and Values

In addition to the grammar and vocabulary focus, this commercial also enables teachers to explore the cultural and values laden components. For example, this commercial allows teachers to explore the issues of appearance, why it is or is not important, the rationale for developing an appearance, the cultural importance of identity, etc. Lower level students will need more scaffolding for these discussions, but their interest will be high. Teachers may need to write up communicative forms for students to use in a discussion. More advanced language students can practice discussing topics like identity, appearances, human value or any other cultural/value component evident in the commercial.

When teaching with authentic short videos, it is important to remember that all four of these components are being transmitted at the same time and is therefore sometimes difficult to separate them when teaching; they tend to overlap and that is actually beneficial. Better language learning is usually in a context that includes culture and values. So TV commercials make a great snapshot from which to teach all four of these elements. Although that may be true, teachers would be wise to model the process of analyzing a commercial for culture or values.

Practice Critical Thinking Skills

Although the teaching of critical thinking skills is a common objective in many ESL textbooks and materials, several authors suggest that many Asian cultures do not lend themselves to overt critical thinking, and to a certain extent, that is true. But we recognize that Asian students can think critically; they simply have not been taught, have not been given the opportunity, or have been discouraged to do so because of their culture. There are even cultures that discourage critical thinking (Atkinson, 1997).  Although that may be true, we would favors Brown's (2004) approach which encourages students to think critically and to take advantage of learning opportunities available to them. In light of its benefits, instructors should consider the value of teaching critical thinking. In fact, since culture, language and critical thinking are inexplicably intertwined in Western English, anyone desiring to master English needs to understand the need for self expression. We also agree with Day's (2003) conclusion that the benefits of teaching critical thinking outweigh any possible problems. Finally, As some of us are Japanese nationals who speak and teach English,, we recognize that critical thinking is also a part of our culture, but the expression of those  thoughts is different.

So teaching critical skills is linked to English language acquisition, and analyzing TV commercials is an excellent way to learn and practice critical thinking. Teachers can remind students that commercial makers are trying to convince or manipulate the audience to buy a product or service. Students can use that information to critically analyze the commercial. In our example, teachers can ask students about the intended audience and about the choices the producers made in designing the commercial. For example: These questions can form the basis for in-class or online discussions, or analysis papers.


Television commercials can provide a treasure trove of language learning opportunities. The materials are easily accessible and many times are free to use in classes. They not only provide jumping off points to learning discrete linguistic and lexical elements, but also provide an avenue to exploring culture and values.


Appendix A

Lesson plans for using an Apple commercial (Think Different- Here's to the Crazy Ones)

Lesson Plans - Lower Level

1. Pre-activity
2. First viewing
3. Check pre-activity
4. Research one person in the commercial
5. Listening only (words they hear)
6. CLOZE activity
7. Pronunciation practice
8. Analysis of components of commercial

Lesson Plans - Higher Level

1. Show the commercial & comprehension check
2. Discuss the purpose & explain why you agree or disagree
3. Identify the characters
4. Research the people in the commercial
5. Rank the characters
6. Add/remove characters
7. Make your own list from (e.g. historical, personal)
8. Create your own commercial

Appendix B

Websites to find commercials and short videosNote

If the goal is more than merely identifying the web address of the site or video, then you may need a plug-in to assist you. We recommend using DownloadHelper - a plugin that works with Mozilla's Firefox The plug-in allows users to download any Flash video file from dozens of sites. Simply install the plug-in,restart the browser and head to your favorite video site. Once a page you are viewing contains a TV commercial, click on the download button next to the web address window and save the file. Now you can use this file in your teaching. If you are tech savy, you can insert the TV commercial into a webage or add it to your course content management system. It is also possible to simply add a link to the TV commercial and thereby avoid downloading TV commercial altogether.

The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XIV, No. 5, May 2008