ENG101 -- English Composition I

Prof. Eileen Joy (Fall 2003)

Essay 2

Cultural Critique

In-Class Draft Workshop Wed., Oct. 29th
Final Draft Due Wed., Nov. 5th
Format 4-5 pages, double-spaced, 1"-margins

In this essay, you are going to practice your hand at cultural critique. By "culture," I mean "the artistic products of a society at any given moment in history," but that is also a broad definition. For your purposes in this essay, "culture" refers to contemporary youth culture and its ideas about style and "coolness," and also to advertising and marketing campaigns that revolve around the selling of products (clothing, food, cars, music, games, etc.) to American high school and college students. For the purposes of this essay, "culture" also refers to the different ways people on the inside and the outside of youth culture perceive its beliefs and values and modes of presentation. By "critique," I mean "a critical judgment or assessment." Therefore, in your "cultural critique" essay, you will demonstrate your abilities to thoughtfully analyze and critically comment upon one specific aspect of the marketing of youth culture.

It is important here to understand that when you undertake a "cultural critique," you are not commenting upon something only to determine whether or not you "like" or "dislike" it--that is critical writing at its most simplistic, and is similar to what a movie or music reviewer does. However, even a "reviewer" has to make some kind of value judgment based upon certain criteria--in other words, the writer has to make an evaluation ("good" vs. "bad" or "entertaining" vs. "boring") and also provide the reasoning behind that evaluation, and the same thing has to happen in your cultural critique. So, yes, a "cultural critique" involves evaluation and judgment, but it is first and foremost an "analysis": a "taking apart" and "explaining" how, for example, the Abercrombie & Fitch website actually "works"--how is it presented to us (image-wise, text-wise, audio- and video-wise, the arrangement of all the elements, etc.), what signals and messages does it convey, what kind of "brand essence" does it present, what "world" or group does it invoke, what kind of response is it trying to trigger, how is it trying to "connect" with your needs and desires on a psychological or social level? Further, what does the website look like on the surface, and what lurks underneath--what messages are overt (obvious), and what messages are implied (hidden)? And so on and so forth. And after commenting on how the website actually "works" to display/convey itself to its niche market--high school and college students--you could evaluate and judge it on any number of levels. For example, is the advertising racist? Is it sexist? Is it successful? Is it truthful (and on what level or levels)? Is it socially harmful in any way? Is it immoral? Does it matter if it's immoral or socially harmful? Does it, as O'Neill might argue, "reflect the values and motivations of the real world?" And for the purposes of THIS assignment, the question is: does the website reflect the values and motivations of your generation?

But here's what you really want to know about how to get started:

  1. First, you begin with a debatable question: does the website of [fill in company's name here] reflect the values and motivations of my generation?
  2. Second, analyze the website itself (how, exactly, does the advertising actually "work," in the ways I have outlined above, in order to connect with your age group?).
  3. Third, articulate, with a full and detailed explanation of your reasoning, how you ultimately answer the question.

And here is how an outline of the essay might look:

  1. An introduction providing some basic information about the company and website you will be analyzing and what the debatable question is--this is what we call the THESIS QUESTION approach, because you are going to withhold your answer to the question until the conclusion; also, I want you to spend some time in your introduction (which can be more than one paragraph) describing what you think your generation's core values, motivations, and ambitions are (granted, this is mainly your opinion related to your own beliefs and what you see around you every day, and I know you are not a social scientist with all sorts of statistics to draw upon, but I still expect to see you take a thoughtful stab at this, and you might want to even interview your friends and fellow students, who you can then quote in your paper). You might also address the issue of what you and your friends consider to be the essential "cool" products to have.
  2. Some background information (we call this CONTEXT) about how companies go about targeting and attempting to connect with "youth culture" (this is where the Frontline documentary, "The Merchants of Cool," plus the interviews on the website syllabus and the links under "Resources for Students" will be most useful to you)
  3. The analysis of the website itself, with paragraphs built around specific points you want to make about what different aspects of the website are actually saying/doing; keep in mind that even though your analysis needs to be objective (on one level, you're simply reporting what you see), it is also ARGUMENTATIVE, because you ultimately want to make a value judgment (which you will get to in conclusion) about what the advertising is doing on a deeper level, and therefore, your analysis should focus upon those aspects of the advertising most relevant to your main issue--please refer to Chapter 10, "Analyzing Images," in your Allyn & Bacon Guide to Writing (pp. 218-34), for assistance with this part of the essay
  4. A conclusion that indicates to your reader how you ultimately answer the question you first posed in your introduction--please refer to pages 541-543 in your Allyn & Bacon Guide to Writing for some assistance with crafting your conclusion

NOTE: I obviously expect to see you utilize the information you learn about how different companies market and advertise to young adults to aid you with your thinking and the writing of the essay itself, and you will want to quote directly from the website links provided on the syllabus as well as under the "Resources for Students" webpage. Because this is not a fully-fledged research paper, I will not be asking you to formally cite your research resources (that will happen in Essay #3), but I do expect to see you use quotation and paraphrase of sources, and I do want you to introduce, in the body of your paper, where your quotations are coming from, and to enclose them with quotation marks. For example: According to Sharon Lee of Look-Look Company, in an interview on PBS's Frontline show, "We live in an adult-centered view of the world." And if you paraphrase information from one or more of the website links (in other words, you get information from a website and put it in your own words), please indicate where you got your information from in the body of your paper. For example: According to the About Face website, which is dedicated to combating negative images of women in advertising, about one out of every eleven advertisements has some kind of message about beauty.

For assistance with how to integrate quotations from outside sources into your writing, please refer to the following link: The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing: Effective Quoting.

Website Options (if there is a company you are more interested in, that you also think has an interesting and multi-faceted website, let me know in advance and I'll review and approve it)

Abercrombie & Fitch


Apple Computer







Sean John


SKYY Vodka