Don Draper’s Teaching Tips

Educators can learn a lot from the advertising industry.

In Mr. Draper’s classroom, students ask him for homework. Mad Men Smoke” by Amira_a via CC-by-2.0

Madison Avenue, and the advertising industry, is the greatest educator in the world. It teaches us what to buy, what to wear, how to act, who to be. From our cars to our phones, brands are everywhere. Especially with our students.

As a teacher, my skills pale in comparison to those of the ad industry. And my impact pales in comparison to their impact on our students (and… just everyone). They also are at a disadvantage. I at least am tasked with teaching students information that is based in reality and makes logical sense. The Mad Men and Women have no such luck — they’re stuck teaching us why Tide is better than Bounty. And yet, they’re doing a much better job teaching kids to buy American Eagle than I am at teaching my kids to not reveal too much personal information on the internet, or how the aperture of your camera works.

Too often, I feel educators and education gets itself stuck in the rigid box of “education,” and the motifs of chalkboards (or whiteboards… or smartboards…), desks and lectures. Advertising never gets itself stuck in its rigid box — if it did, commercials would still be based on the ingredients in the soap, rather than social experiment films or whimsical fantasies. Those social experiments and whimsical fantasies are working extremely well, think of how many of your students can recite a jingle but not the information you need them to know.

Advertising is known for being a copycat industry, so I’d say it’s time for us teachers to copy the copycats.

You are a Brand (and Your Image is Everything)

I’ll never forget my experience as a marketing intern of a large data company. I was in an hour-long meeting with some of the top advertising brass of the company, in which we were preparing our materials for an upcoming trade show. The meeting went like this:

0 minutes-5 minutes: Annoying business-world small-talk. Heated discussion of whether the cerulean shade of the company polo would work better than the sky-blue polo.

6–60 minutes: Rabid debate of whether the logo would be better on the left or right side of the shirt.

A loooot of well-paid people spent a looooot of time putting that logo there. Denken/Thinking” by Sebastiaan ter Burg via CC by 2.0

THAT WAS THE WHOLE MEETING. We spent fifty-five minutes debating whether the logo would be more prominent to a person when right-handers shook hands, versus when we handed out a business card, versus engaging a small group in a discussion, versus bowing to our international constituents… it was maddening, it was insane, it was a sure sign that I was in an alternate reality in which the marketing world drives the universe and hospitals are only designed to keep people alive to watch more ads and schools are only designed to make people literate enough to read the ads and…

Whoa. Sorry. But the advertising industry really cares about image.

So why don’t we? Why don’t we more meticulously consider the image of our classroom space, ensuring it drives home the key values we want to embed in our students (Jonah Lehrer’s book Imagine shows that red drives alertness while blue drives creativity, for example). Why don’t we pour over the images of our online classroom spaces, or develop consistent fonts and colors for our class brand (used in all materials — project instructions, worksheets, tests, etc.)

Too often as teachers, we think of our classroom as our space and our materials as ours, and that students need to adapt to us. If advertisers thought that way, a failing product would never be able to bounce back. As a teacher, I’m a brand. And I want kids and parents to like my brand and engage with my brand, because then they’re subconsciously willing to work with me. Apple people are much more forgiving when their Macbook crashes than they would be if a PC did.

Colors, fonts, and aesthetics build a brand, and don’t require me to give up anything. The brand earns me some forgiveness and automatic engagement. But there’s another factor to a brand that’s absolutely critical…

Language is Everything

From “undocumented immigrants” to “illegal aliens,” “Climate Change” to “Global Warming,” “do you have a moment to answer a brief survey” to, well, “do you have a moment to answer a brief survey,” politicians have found that language is critical to aiding our understanding and beliefs on an issue. Dozens of focus groups, hundreds of hours, and millions of dollars are spent to determine the subtle effects of different phrases in slogans. I don’t even want to imagine the debate spent over whether it should be “I’m lovin’ it” or “I’m loving it,” let alone the impact of that apostrophe on the 18-to-24-year-old demographic.

Words are important, not just in conveying meaning, but in conveying emotion. And the education field is due for a re-branding. Words like “homework,” “tests,” “quiz,” “research,” and “essay” make me nauseous.

Of course, kids are suspicious of what they’re being sold and tend to be in a sour mood based just on their environment. I know I’d feel a burning desire to punch a teacher who called homework “homeFUN,” and that’s as an adult.

But play around with words like “activity,” “explore” and “design” (which miraculously seems to still get a positive response from students). Or leave the world of education in general and try to connect with areas of interest for the student — “rehearsal,” or “game,” or “contest.”

“Unit” sounds like the military forcing me to sit in a seat for a 90-minute class. Maybe “module” works better, or “adventure,” or “level.” Gamification is a topic for a future post, but you can bet Nintendo isn’t bothering calling Mario’s final challenges “tests.” They’re going with “gyms” in Pokemon, or “bosses” in Mario. Take from them!

From the text of your assignments, to the text of your syllabus, to the text of your emails, every word you write can help create an emotional connection with your students. I want to make sure that emotion is a positive one.

Focus on Emotional Resonance

Advertising gave up on trying to win over potential consumers through logical appeal a long time ago (save the occasional Pepsi/Bing challenge). That’s why we’re able to have all of these wonderful products and options and companies that can shill out worse goods and spend all of their money on advertising instead of research and development and designing a better product since there really can only be one best product and it’s much easier to build a brand than to build a great product and there are thirty freaking different types of peanut butter at the grocery store and…

Sorry, doing it again. But car companies aren’t boasting about their state-of-the-art airbags. They’re focusing on their sex appeal. Jeans aren’t focused on denim quality, they’re focused on being worn by pioneers and Walt Whitman. Smartphones aren’t boasting about their call quality, they’re boasting about allowing you to contribute a verse to the poetry of the human race. Take it in, and try to not to feel.

What would your classroom’s commercial be?

And yet in our classroom, we simply tell kids “you’ll need to know this when you grow up,” and stumble when explaining why calculus is important or why we’re reading a James Joyce short-story. Build a little flourish into your routine!

Or at least find ways to celebrate the good times. There’s so much research that talks about the power of looking forward to things and reflecting back on things. Build that into your class — give kids a list of projects and ask them to determine which one they’re looking forward to most. Or, at the end of my semester my students build a website that requires blogs such as “most memorable moment” or “things you enjoyed the most.” This forces students to look back fondly on certain works, and nudge the memory into their brain’s “positive bin.”

Personal Connections are Critical

The social media revolution has given companies the chance to masquerade as people, creating Twitter accounts, responding in memes, and interacting with other brands as if they’re persons. Brands know that corporations are faceless entities of old men sitting in dark board rooms, their faces hidden in shadows. But Snapchats are fun and goofy! So it makes sense to pick the latter as the face of your brand, and try to get people to make personal connections with this “fun” brand. Every April Fool’s Day is an arms race to see which company can act the most human.

The opportunity is there for teachers as well. Think of ways to make your class more personal, from sharing your musical interests with a class, to an email newsletter that’s written in a lighthearted fun fashion (perhaps weekly, or monthly, or quarterly, perhaps to parents, perhaps to students). As teachers, we work hard to create a formal, professional image, and there are plenty of times that that is important (class management and student-teacher interactions). But there are also times where letting down that guard can create more personal connections, which develops students who are more interested in learning from you and the class.

Remember: You are a Brand (and Also More Than a Brand)

It’s a callous way to think, but you are a brand, and you want your students to associate positive things with your brand, whether it’s warmth, respect, or creativity. Brands calculate every single move they make — whether their color should be forest green or lime, what time they should tweet at, whether “totally” is a word they should use (Too young? Too nineties? Too retro? Just right?). The more thoughtful you can be about the impact your decisions are having on your students, the more you can try to manipulate those decisions to bring about the best results.

But don’t forget that you have a weapon in your arsenal that the advertising industry doesn’t: you have the best interest of your consumers at heart. You can back up your decisions with kindness and empathy, and work with your students to create the best environment possible for them. And they know you’re looking out for them.

You don’t know how much companies wish they had that.

Let’s create that environment, together!

If you want more ed tips from a Mad Men fan, I’d love if you took a look at my personal website New Sequence, subscribe to its email newsletter, or listened to my podcast Student Teacher. Thanks for reading!

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