“The Merchants of Cool”

Author: Jill Torrey Emmons

Time: 2 class periods
20 minutes to reserve TV/VCR and make copies
Materials: “Merchants of Cool” video, handout


Students are often unaware of just how prevalent persuasive techniques are in the media, and they are exposed to persuasion on a daily basis. As an introduction into the genre of persuasion, students will examine the complex ways in which the marketing industry targets teenagers with persuasive advertising in the PBS film “The Merchants of Cool.” This provocative, documentary style piece, which was aired on Frontline in 2001, is an intriguing and eye-opening introduction to the subject of media propaganda. Students generally enjoy it and learn a great deal, but teacher discretion should be used since the film does contain some offensive images and foul language.

Purpose – This is an engagement lesson that is sure to catch the attention of students concerning the powers and subtleties of persuasive information.

Students will be able to:
1. Examine the ways in which persuasive appeals are used in advertising by watching the film “The Merchants of Cool”.
2. Discuss the influence of the media in the lives of teens.

National English Education Standard
Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and non-print texts.

Teacher Background
Teachers should be familiar with the persuasive appeals used by the media, both in printed and visual texts. A synopsis of “The Merchants of Cool” and a variety of other teacher friendly resources are available at the web site listed below. A VHS copy of the film can be purchased for about $20 online, or you can watch it in its entirety via the internet.

Resource Websites

Merchants of Cool http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/cool/
Persuasion in the Media http://go.hrw.com/elotM/0030526698/student/ch07/lg1607322_324.pdf



Day One
1. Before students enter the room, write the following question on the board: “What is the difference between information presented persuasively, and information presented without bias?”
Allow students about 5 minutes to consider this question and write down their thoughts. Ask a few students to share what they have written, and begin a short class discussion.

2. In the class discussion, use student answers to the prompt to steer the conversation. Some student responses to the prompt might be “persuasive information tries to get you to do something” and “unbiased information is just to inform you”. If students do not see this distinction right away, ask them: What is the purpose of presenting information in a persuasive way? What is the purpose of the unbiased information? Help students to understand that more often than not information is presented in persuasive ways in order to attain desired aims. Ask the class: Where do we see persuasion most often in our daily lives? Discuss student responses, and make sure they make note of advertising as one main source.

3. Tell the class that as an introduction to our unit on persuasive reading and writing, we are going to watch a film that will discuss the various ways that advertisers use persuasion. Handout the study guide questions to each student. Tell them to pay close attention to the film, and to answer questions from the study guide as they watch. Spend 25-30 minutes watching the first half of the video. You may want to provide a location for students to go if they are offended by the material in the film.

4. If time allows, discuss issues raised by the film at the end of the period.

Day Two
1. At the beginning of the period, have students take out their study guides for “The Merchants of Cool”, and answer any questions they may have about the film. Clarify confusions, and continue watching the film.
2. Watch the remainder of the film, which should take about 25 minutes.
3. After the class has finished the film, you will prepare the students for the next day’s discussion by having them write a short reflection piece. This assignment can be started in class, or assigned for homework (see below).

Prepare students for tomorrow’s discussion by asking them what they learned from the film.

Embedded Assessment
Make sure that students understand that the media (radio, television, printed media) is major influence on teens in our society, and that the information they present to teens has a specific purpose and bias. Study guides should be collected for assessing student understanding of these and other concepts related to persuasive advertising. Student responses during discussion also serve as a valuable means of assessment.

Reflection writing: Have students respond to the film by writing down their observations, opinions, reactions, and questions. Minimum length should be 1 page. Students usually have a lot to say about the film. You may also ask them to write a summary of the film if you wish.

Embedded Assessment



PULSE is a project of the Community Outreach and Education Program of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center and is funded by:

NIH/NCRR award #16260-01A1
The Community Outreach and Education Program is part of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center: an NIEHS Award


Supported by NIEHS grant # ES06694

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Last update: November 10, 2009
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