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Advertising or education?
sometimes it's hard to tell

By Stephen Downes, Lisa Neal / January 2008

TYPE: OPINION
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It can be a fine line that distinguishes advertising from education. Each seeks to modify beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors through the timely presentation of information. Each seeks to engage the viewer, to address a particular need, to pose a solution to a problem.

Successful advertising, like successful learning, is remembered. The jingle plays in our memory, the brand jumps off the store shelf, and the phone number springs to mind when it's time to call for a pizza.

Sometimes it is nearly impossible to tell the difference between education and advertising. Take, for example, the message that plays when you call a business or service. Generally you're stuck listening to music that you would not normally add to your playlist, to say the least. With a speakerphone or wireless headset, it is easy to do something else while waiting. But instead, some companies make it a teachable moment.

At least one medical center we know now plays the "Health News Network" for those waiting on the phone. One can learn about the signs of diabetes and the advantages of early detection, anxiety disorders and their symptoms, what a heart attack feels like, and other medical information. Each snippet ends with a phone number to learn more, get a physician referral, or join a support group. While it was ultimately advertising, the emphasis was on good information.

The principles that make these messages successful are the same, whether they're instances of education or advertising. Over the course of a typical waiting period, the "Health News Network" is repeated a few times. As we know, this can aid learning. It is also effective advertising-which is why the typical ad repeats the brand being advertised three times in 15 seconds.

Learning is most effective when it is situated within an authentic context. Anyone who is calling a medical center has a health concern, or has a loved one with a health concern, and is likely to be a receptive audience. Similarly, advertisers are forever trying to target their message to exactly the right audience.

Advertising and education are so similar we might wonder what separates them at all. It is well worth making distinctions between the two, especially for those developing learning content.

One way is to consider the ethics of "teaching" to a captive audience, especially if the learning is involuntary. In some cases, it doesn't matter whether the person views an advertisement or a learning segment. Both are appropriate during television programs, for example, and both are tolerated in environments where there is little else to do and the audience is captive, such as public transportation, elevators, and grocery store check-out lines.

But in other cases, the ethics of advertising become more questionable. We might wonder about a driving school that pitches its lessons to people on hold during calls to the license bureau. During emergency calls, while advice and recommendations are desired, a plug for Uncle Stan's Tiny Heart Pills would be ill advised. With the advent of mobile devices, making appropriate use of teachable moments becomes crucial.

The more a person needs the information being presented, the less appropriate it is to offer advertising in place of education. This is because, typically, the primary purpose of education is to benefit the learner, while the usual beneficiary of advertising is the advertiser.



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ADDITIONAL READING

    Stephen Downes
  1. Cascades and connectivity
  2. E-learning 2.0
  3. Courses vs. content
  4. Ten web 2.0 things you can do in ten minutes to be a more successful e-learning professional
  5. Seven habits of highly connected people
  6. Reviewing Last Year's E-Learning Predictions
  7. Lisa Neal
  8. Predictions For 2003
  9. Storytelling at a distance
  10. Q&A with Don Norman
  11. Talk to me
  12. Q&A with Diana Laurillard
  13. Do it yourself
  14. Degrees by mail
  15. Predictions for 2004
  16. In search of simplicity
  17. eLearning and fun
  18. Everything in moderation
  19. The basics of e-learning
  20. Is it live or is it Memorex?
  21. The Value of Voice
  22. Predictions for 2006
  23. Five Questions...for Christopher Dede
  24. Five Questions... for John Seely Brown
  25. Five questions...for Shigeru Miyagawi
  26. "Deep" thoughts
  27. 5 questions... for Richard E. Mayer
  28. Designing usable, self-paced e-learning courses
  29. Want better courses?
  30. Just "DO IT"
  31. Five questions...
  32. Formative evaluation
  33. Senior service
  34. Blogging to learn and learning to blog
  35. My life as a Wikipedian
  36. Five questions...for Elliott Masie
  37. The stripper and the bogus online degree
  38. Five questions...for Lynn Johnston
  39. Five questions...for Tom Carey
  40. Not all the world's a stage
  41. Five questions...for Karl M. Kapp
  42. Five questions...for Larry Prusack
  43. Five questions...for Seb Schmoller
  44. Do distance and location matter in e-learning?
  45. Why do our K-12 schools remain technology-free?
  46. Music lessons
  47. Learn to apologize for fun and profit
  48. Of web hits and Britney Spears
  49. Five questions…for Matt DuPlessie
  50. Back to the future
  51. Serious games for serious topics
  52. Five (or six) questions...for Irene McAra-McWilliam
  53. Learner on the Orient Express
  54. How to get students to show up and learn
  55. Q&A
  56. Blended conferences
  57. Predictions for 2002
  58. Learning from e-learning
  59. "Spot Learning"
  60. Q&A with Saul Carliner
  61. When will e-learning reach a tipping point?
  62. Online learning and fun