13 Analyzing Visual Elements in Advertising

Whether you are reading a magazine, watching a television show, or even sitting in a movie theater, you are likely to be bombarded by advertising. The ability to dissect an advertisement to discover any hidden agendas is an important one. Carefully looking at an advertisement’s audience and strategies often reveals hidden messages about what the advertiser thinks about that audience. Not only is this interesting, but it also helps you to find the same elements in written arguments.

Visual Arguments

Visual arguments provide a wonderful foundation for discovering the elements of rhetoric, as we are often more familiar with images than with texts. Our world is filled with visual arguments—from advertisements on TV and on billboards alongside the highway to T-shirts & ball caps.

Whatever form they take, images are used to communicate with an audience. Whether a human aid organization displays pictures of starving orphans to communicate the dire need for funds or a real estate agent snaps a photo of a home to capture potential buyers’ attention or you choose which photo to put on your Instagram profile, images are used to make a variety of points.

Two girls taking a selfie
Taking a Selfie: Royalty Free Image
What photo would you use to identify yourself? Would you choose a photo of yourself with your family? A glamour shot? Perhaps an older photo when you were 10 pounds thinner. The photo is still you, but a version of you that you think will best represent how you want others to see you.

 

Image of a man holding a tiny house
Real Estate Agent: Royalty Free Image
Another example of this is a real estate agent. He might snap a photo of a beautiful house, showing the white picket fence and the stunning kitchen, but neglect to turn around and take a picture of the busy gas station right next door.

In many ways, images shape our behavior and can even change our lives. You might purchase a product based on an advertisement—or you might enlist in the army based on an advertisement. The images used in political campaigns can literally change the way a country functions by influencing how people vote in an election.

Analyzing Visual Elements

The presentation of visual elements is extremely important, affecting how the argument is perceived. Just as how you choose to dress for a job interview might impact whether or not you get the job, so choosing how ideas are represented visually will impact how well the audience receives the argument.

When analyzing visual arguments, such as advertisements, keep the rhetorical situation in mind. The following are important elements to focus on:

Type your key takeaways here.

  • Author: Who created the text?
  • Audience: Who is the intended audience?
  • Purpose: What is the purpose of this image? What does the author want the audience to do?
  • Design: How are elements place on the page? Is anything repeated? Is any information highlighted? How are light and color used?
  • Strategies: Does the image use humor, guilt, youth, celebrities, etc, to make a point? Are there any cultural references?
  • Medium: Does the image also contain text? How does text work together with the image to create meaning?
  • Text/Subtext: What do the words say? What are the implications of the words?
  • Context: How does the image relate to its larger location? ie If an image is in a magazine, how does it relate to the other content in the magazine?

 

Remember, in advertising, every detail is chosen very carefully. Advertisers typically sell products by way of ideas. In other words, an ad for Coca Cola sells fun, not a sugar-laden beverage. Looking for the idea that the advertiser is connecting to the product can be a very effective and interesting way to frame an ad analysis paper.

Assignment: Choosing a Topic and Guided Brainstorming

Find an advertisement in a print magazine that catches your attention. If you don’t subscribe to any magazines, you can find a nice selection in your local library or at the grocery store. Moving forward, you will need to have the magazine name and publication date and a copy of the ad on hand, so, if you don’t own the magazine, make sure to take a photo of the cover of the magazine and the ad itself. It’s not a bad idea to take a picture of the table of contents, as well.

If you can’t get to a store or a library in person, you can also locate an advertisement through your local library. It’s important to use the library (not just a google search) because you need to know where the ad was originally located in order to complete an accurate analysis of the ad. Here is a video showing you how to access the YC Library’s digital magazine collection:

 

Exercise

Thoroughly discuss the following points for your advertisement. Be specific and give reasons for your answers. The goal is to discover the main strategies the advertiser is using to target the specific audience for the ad. What is the advertiser trying to convince the consumer can be accomplished by purchasing the product advertised? Remember, your end goal is to write an essay that shows readers how an advertiser markets a product to a specific target audience.

  1. What product or service is being advertised?
  2. What are the most important elements that you see in this advertisement?
  3. Who is the audience (think about who reads the magazine!)?
  4. What is the advertiser using to appeal to the consumer? (humor, guilt, emotion, sex, youth, expertise, celebrities, etc.)
  5. Critique this ad as visual artwork. Consider the color, lines, composition, media, contrast, mood, and style.
  6. How does the visual artwork assist the words or language to promote the product?
  7. Does the advertiser use any double meanings or cultural references?
  8. What idea is being used to sell the product? (i.e. Coke ads sell fun)

You may fill in the following form and download your answers:

Here’s an example of what your answers might look like:

This is an image of an advertisement for milk showing the mothers from The Partridge Family, Happy Days, and the Brady Bunch sitting in a vintage salon.
Advertisement used for educational purposes for analysis complies with Fair Use laws.
Brainstorming Questions
1. Milk
2. The three characters from iconic TV shows–Mrs. Partridge from the Partridge Family, Mrs. Cunningham from Happy Days, and Mrs. Brady from The Brady Bunch.
3. This ad was located in a 1999 edition of Good Housekeeping magazine. Readers are likely middle-aged women with children. Middle income, interested in the topics in this magazine–recipes, housekeeping tips, etc.
4. Nostalgia, celebrities, vintage look, iconic TV moms, text, milk slogan
5. Visual artwork…retro patterns and colors. Bright colors.
6. The image in the ad goes hand in hand with the text, which has quotes from the shows.
7. Double meanings–“all-time great mom lines”–referring to the characters in the show, not the actresses themselves. 8. Selling the idea of the perfect mom.

For a more extended discussion of advertising, please watch this documentary from PBS:

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The Worry Free Writer Copyright © 2020 by Dr. Karen Palmer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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