Selling Emotions, Buying Ideas: Teaching Italian Through Advertsing

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 22–23, 2019

University of Miami
Miami, Florida


The description and analysis of students’ emotional experience when learning a foreign language has only become a serious subject of study among scholars of second language teaching and acquisition in the last decade (MacIntyre, Gregersen, Mercer-2016; Piniel, Albert 2018 among others). From an initial focus on the emotions of anxiety and enjoyment, the analyzed spectrum of emotional experience has been broadened to include many other emotions and their role in the acquisition of a foreign language, including general interest, contentment, sadness, fear of failure, etc.

Our study focuses on the nature of such emotions when our students are prompted to discuss sensitive topics, such as sexual discrimination, diversity, intolerance, and others, in the target language: Italian. To this end, we used Italian advertising, because we believe it is imbued with cultural and social elements that prompt critical thinking among our students.

Our study analyzed the responses of intermediate/advanced students of Italian language in both private and in public school settings, with a total of 50 students. We sought to evaluate the Italian word choices of students with respect to visual and textual cues present in Italian advertisements.

Our study detected a lower anxiety level and greater willingness to discuss these subjects when viewed through the lens of advertising, perhaps due to the relevance of the topics discussed in class, but also, we believe, due to the urge to provide an opinion about a disconcerting or unpleasant topic.

Keywords:  second language acquisition, advertising, emotions, motivation, teaching foreign language.

Emotions in the Humanities: Visual arts and Language

From Barbara Rosewein’s groundbreaking theory on “emotional communities” in medieval society (2006), to Brian Massumi’s definition of affect and differences compared to feeling (2009), the relevance of emotions in the humanities and society has grown, and has proven that emotions have a history and can provoke cognitive process.

Emotions are no longer neglected and labeled as useless or irrational in the interpretation of a text or a behavior. Emotions are central for the interpretation of a text and an author’s intention; for the analysis of an author’s word choice; and for contextualizing the time period and society of any particular author.

Emotions are even more powerful and direct when they exist in visual form. In movies, paintings, statues and other forms of visual art, the viewer’s experience of emotions involves “vicarious learning.” The viewers will compare themselves to the self that is presented in the work of visual art. Sometimes the viewer will positively accept and acquire the model’s behavior, other times they will reject it for fear of having or displaying that model behavior1.

Either way, in a text or in a painting, emotions move outwardly, towards the reader (or viewer) building an internal emotional experience that in turn will travel outwardly again to affect other readers and viewers. For this reason, we can say that we all form and live in  “emotional communities2 at large.

When our emotions move outwardly, we use words and language. While we understandably find it easier to describe our emotional experience in our mother tongue, it is slightly more difficult to express ourselves in a second language.

Indeed, as MacIntyre and Gregersen explained, anxiety and fear of failure are often obstacles to the acquisition of a foreign language because “the feelings associated with language anxiety [..] include tension, nervousness, worry, dread, upset, and similar terms3 (2012, 103).

Emotions and language

Why is language important in expressing emotions? By consolidating (or establishing) the existence of that emotion, language gives permanence to that emotion. In order to facilitate the process of expressing emotions in the target language, we provided students with words, idiomatic expressions, and translations of the vocabulary of emotions.

This step certainly lowered their level of anxiety and sparked some curiosity. In particular, students noticed that some of the vocabulary about the emotions are cognates of their first language: English.





A first step towards engaging in critical thinking in a foreign language class is to guide our students towards the “familiar,” and therefore immerse them in a linguistic environment they recognize. Identifying a word as similar to their first language also triggers comparisons between two different cultures, in our case: Italian and American.

Advertising and language

Is advertising authentic cultural material? Can it be considered emblematic of language and culture, or is it simply sales language riddled with shortcuts and idioms? Can it be used to teach?

It is our strong belief that advertising can be used as material to teach a foreign language (FL). Furthermore, advertising is created in order to trigger the emotions and influence the behavior of viewers. Advertising is a literary device that offers students full immersion in the language, culture, and history of the target language. Advertising is a flexible tool that allows for the repetition of verbs, nouns, and adjectives due to the brevity of the message. The idea of teaching a foreign language and sensitive topics through images and videos is not new.

Mollica (1979) states that “the language of advertisement is interested in provoking the reader’s behavior.4In the same way, we believe, the language and images of advertising can be used to provoke a student’s response, for example with social issue ads, or simply with ads that exploit stereotypes. Doering (1993) claimed that, “analyzing advertisements provides meaningful communicative activities by giving extra-linguistic support in the form of visual realia that prompt discussion of topics familiar to the student5. We believe every generation of Italians, or young American students, can come up with a jingle or advertisement indicative of their generation. For instance, Coca Cola achieved near universal recognition, and lasting remembrance, in the 1970s for their classic “I’d like to buy the world a coke” which in the 80’s in Italy, became “Vorrei cantare insieme a te.”

Davis (1997) has argued that “commercials have not been fabricated, arranged, or simplified for the consumption of the language learner, but have been created for native speaker6, which is the type of authentic environment we want to create as Italian language instructors: the context of a native speaker.

Furthermore, studies in neurology have demonstrated that the human brain is already good at remembering images. Actually, our brain is better at remembering images than words7, and therefore, better at remembering images before words when learning a foreign language.

Having used the above theories as theoretical support, this article aims to demonstrate how carefully selected examples of advertisements from billboards to TV commercial can result in productive teaching materials, providing the content and visual impact for students at all levels, and activating critical thinking in a classroom.

Case study n.1
How we prompted critical thinking in a foreign language classroom

For the purpose of our study, we choose different advertisements that display sensitive topics in modern day Italian and American society, but for the purpose of this article, we will focus on one: Seduction-Fiat 500 Abarth (2012)

While most of the commercials we selected are addressed to an Italian audience with the goal of sensitizing Italians to multiculturalism and tolerance for cultural stereotypes, the FIAT ad was created specifically for the American audience during the 2012 Super Bowl.

The FIAT advertisement shows a beautiful young Italian woman bent over to fix her shoe before realizing that a vapid, innocuous man is staring at her. She castigates/metaphorically castrates him and at the same time teases him seductively with the idea of a possible future in which he can “purchase” her body.

Here is the translated dialogue:


Lei: Che cosa guardi, eh? Che cosa guardi?
Mi stai spogliando con gli occhi? Poverino..
Non puoi farne a meno… ti batte forte il cuore?
Ti gira la testa?
Sei perso pensando che sarò tua per sempre.

Lui: (non parla, non si muove)


Her:—What are you looking at? (2x)
—you are undressing me with your eyes? poor guy
—you can’t help it…is your heart beating?
—is your head spinning?
—Do you feel lost thinking that I could be yours forever?

Him: – (he doesn’t speak, he doesn’t move)

Although the model speaks Italian the narrative is unmistakably clear to the audience: the depiction of a beautiful woman portrayed as a seductive tool.

However, among the Fiat aficionados and commercial brand critics, this spot received accolades, receiving the award of “Best TV commercial honor” at the D show in Detroit, in 2013. Furthermore, journalists commented that the commercial, “represents the unique characteristics of the Fiat 500 Abarth as a sensual and strikingly stunning model and what happens the first time a consumer encounters the race-ready vehicle;>8  and Brian Lowry of Fox Sport adds that it is “the best illustration of the relationship between buying a car and testosterone,” a disconcerting comment which reinforces the analogy of car/female body and consolidates the meaning of objectification among the female demographic.

Furthermore, Francesca Giuliani observed that such a commercial amplified the stereotypes about Italians because Fiat sent the American audience the message of “The Italy we like […] the same old postcard from Italy, where seductive cover girls and flashy cars are the same thing and nothing more9.”

For this case study, our audience is represented by young American students of Italian language and culture. What was their reaction?

In our classroom of intermediate/advanced Italian we showed the FIAT advertisement and asked our students to write down their emotion response and the ideas the images spawned.

Here are the most common emotions: “Disgusto [disgust], ribrezzo [repugnance], antipatia [dislike], fastidio [displeasing], offesa [anger], resentment”

Although commonly grouped under “negative emotions,” we found they can function as “activating emotions” causing the irresistible impulse to communicate their own opinion and irritation. Indeed, the emotional experience of repugnance activated communication in class. For the purpose of language learning, the activation of communication in Italian was successful. After identifying and defining those emotions in Italian we focused on context. What specifically caused disgust, anger and dislike?

The students listed 4 main items that caused the emotions mentioned above:

  1. Use of woman’s body as a tool of seduction
  2. Hyper sexualization of woman’s voice/action and men’s response.
  3. Objectification of women  (woman=car)
  4. Portrayal of man as an inept, harmless, defenseless, “svilito” [emasculated]

The process of identification with one or the other protagonist provoked these responses. Mizerski and White explain “Vicarious Learning […] can be acquired through observing a model’s behavior in the ad.”10  In the case of the FIAT ad, students paid attention to and understood the actors’ roles and what they represented. The experiences portrayed by the actors were ‘vicariously’ experienced by students, and subsequently translated into negative emotions.

Students have been prompted with questions to further analyze and investigate the nature of their emotions, along with grammar exercises to review fundamental verbs and vocabulary, and therefore to build their own sentences and opinions.

Italian Grammar review

An intermediate/advanced group of students already knows the basics of Italian. For this reason, we put more effort into focusing on new vocabulary to aid communication in class.

For example, students studied adjectives and their opposites to describe the two protagonists in the commercial, such as bello/brutto, alto/basso, timido/sfrontato, lento/veloce,… among others. They also worked on the description of objects and places in the commercial, such as città/ campagna,  ufficio/strada, a piedi/in macchina, pantaloni/vestito, among others.

Additionally, they recognized verbs in present tense in the monologue of the commercial, such as guardare, stare, fare, pensare etc.

In order to stimulate critical thinking and activate classroom discussion, we divided our classes into groups so they could start brainstorming on how they felt about the commercial and to give them the opportunity to compare and contrast their sentences.

The compare and contrast activity became more stimulating as students found out that the Seduction spot was created for an American audience, potential Fiat consumers.

By comparing two different cultures, students reached the astounding conclusion that the tendency to objectify women’s bodies goes beyond any particular culture and is instead deeply rooted in many societies.

This leads to other questions, such as who benefits from this commercial? Fiat, Italian consumers, or American consumers? What is the purpose of the ads? What is the message that viewers receive? Why is it problematic?

In order to open students’ minds to a global view of this sensitive topic, we invited them to look for other commercial with a similar narrative. They found many of them, and from different countries around the world.

Finally, we concluded the exercise by asking how they would rewrite such a commercial? For the purpose of demonstrating how much vocabulary and grammar structure students have been able to absorb, they were beenasked to re-create the advertisement, focusing on possible answers to the questions above.

Students were given freedom to express their ideas using videos, pictures, drawings, and digital story-telling, as long as they offered a “visual” idea of their final project.


In a time and age where psychological and physical wellbeing have become paramount in student and faculty life, we believe is extremely important to include emotions, both positive and negative, in our teaching. Through the use of emotions we encourage students to be personally involved in the material presented to them and to prompt them to participate by expressing their thoughts, feelings and reactions to what was shown. Emotions embedded in teaching materials have become relevant to create successful, productive conversations that favor critical thinking. In addition, we establish a safe, healthy learning environment in our classes where all students feel comfortable in participating and sharing their view, creating internal and spontaneous debates among them.


1 For more information about vicarious learning in advertising see Albert Bandura, Social Learning Theory, Englewood Cliffs, NY: Prentice-Hill, 1977; Dennis Gioia and Charles Manz, “Linking Cognition and Behaviour: A Script Processing Interpretation of Vicarious Learning,” in Academy of Management Review,  Vol. 10, N.3 (1985).

2 Barbara Rosenwein defined emotional communities as “a group in which people have a common stake, interest, values, and goals” (25), Emotional Communities in the Early Middle Ages, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006.

3 Peter MacIntyre, Tammy Gregersen, “Affect: The Role of Language Anxiety and Other Emotions in Language Learning, ” Psychology for Language Learning: Insights from Research, Theory and Practice, New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2012. (103-118)

4 Anthony Mollica, “A Tiger in your tank: Advertisement in the Language Classroom,” The Canadian Modern Language Review, Vol.31 issue 4, May 1979, 691-743.

5 E. Jane Doering, “Gaining Competence in Communication and Culture through French Advertisements,” The French Review, Vol.66, n.3, Feb.1993. 420-432.

6 Randy Davis, “TV Commercial Messages: An Untapped Video Resource for Content-based classes,” The Language Teacher, 1997.

7 Cheryl L. Grady, Anthony R. McIntosh, M.Natasha Raja, and Fergus I.M Craik, “ Neural correlates of the episodic encoding of pictures and words” PNAS, March 3, 1998 95 (5) 2703-2708. Pauline Dewan, “Words      Versus Pictures: Leveraging the Research on Visual Communication,” Partnership, The Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research, vol. 10, n.1 (2015).
Stephen K. Reed. Thinking Visually. New York: Psychology Press, 2010.  

8 Fiat of Scottsdale

9 Francesca Giuliani, “Fiat’s Seduction Super Bowl Ad: the Same Old Postcard from Italy?” i.Italy, February 8, 2012.

10 Richard W.Mizerski, J. Dennis White, “Understanding and Using Emotions in Advertising,” Journal of Consumer Marketing, Vol.3, n.4. 57-69. 1986.


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