2.1 Analysing visual texts

2.1.2 The language of print advertising

Analysing print advertisements is an essential part of of studying language and mass communication. 'How exactly do print advertisements persuade audiences to buy products and believe in ideas?' This page explores this question by examining the structure of advertisements and a few of the persuasive techniques they often employ. 

The structure of ads

Structure matters. If you are creating a print advertisement for a billboard, tunnel or magazine, an understanding of space and format is essential. Audiences only have a few seconds to digest the message of an advertisement, so advertisers must be effective in conveying it. There are certain structural elements that audiences expect to see when reading an advertisement. These are best depicted in Figure 2.1.2 below. 

Figure 2.1.2 - The structural elements of an advertisement

The Got Milk? campaign ran between 1993-2014 quite successfully. Most of these advertisements contain conventional features of print advertising. 

  1. Visual narrative - What made Hayden Panettiere's glass of milk break? Why is she wearing a milk moustache? How did she become so skinny? The answers to these questions are not so important as the fact that the audience is asking them. Images that tell a story engage their audiences. This phenomenon is referred to as the 'visual narrative'. 'Head shots' (pictures of people's faces) are proven to be very effective in capturing the audience's attention. (Note: much of the terminology about camera angle on Page 2.1.4 is also applicable to an analysis of image)
  2. Copy - What is the message or story of the advertisement? How is the image anchored in the copy? In the case of Figure 2.1.2a, 'smash hit' refers to both the broken glass and her singing career. 'Hero' refers to her role in a TV series, called 'Heroes'. In brief, the copy of this advertisement tells audiences to drink milk in order be as successful as her.
  3. Slogan - The slogan of this advertisement is 'Got milk?' It is a short, punchy question that engages the audience and builds brand awareness.
  4. URL - Another part of the signature is the presence of a URL (uniform resource locator), which is often found together with social media icons on print advertisements these days. 
  5. Rule of thirds - If you were to cut this advertisement into 9 equal parts, then Hayden Panettiere's head and the broken glass do not fall into the centre part. This creates the kind of tension that intrigues audiences.
  6. Colour - The colour scheme of this advertisement is effective. The colour red excites audiences and attracts their attention. The pureness of the white milk and child-like innocence of the milk moustache are juxtaposed with the sensuality of the red dress and red lipstick. 

Persuasion techniques 

Every kind of argument has been made before is some shape or form. By learning more about persuasion techniques, you can begin to recognise them in a range of advertisements. Figure 2.1.2a contains a few that are common to many advertisements. 

  1. TestimonialHayden Pannettiere is famous, attractive and wealthy. If audience's think that drinking milk is part of her success, then they are more likely to drink it too. Testimonials do not always include famous people. In fact audiences identify better with 'plain folks' who promote a product. Testimonials given by a large group of people create a bandwagon effect.
  2. BenefitAdvertisers often depict a problem and offer the solution. As explained in the copy, low-fat milk can build muscle. Teenagers who drink it "tend to be lean." 
  3. Appeal to authority - The copy refers to "some studies." Although this is rather vague, it suggests that scientists claim that milk is good for your health, which persuades the audience to drink more. 
  4. Double-entendreWords in advertisements often have a double meaning. 'Smash' refers to the smashed glass and Hayden Pannettiere's smash hits. Word-play or 'pun' often force audiences think, involving them longer with the advertisement and the brand.
  5. AssociationHayden Pannettiere is associated with the TV show Heroes. She is also associated with milk in this advertisement. Therefore, if you like the TV show Heroes then you might like milk through your association with Hayden Pannettiere.
  6. SymbolWhat does the milk moustache symbolise? Perhaps it symbolises childhood innocence or a lack of inhibitions. Advertisements often rely on symbols, as they convey ideas succinctly. (See Page 2.1.1. on deconstructing image)

TOK

How logical are advertisements? In TOK you learn about inductive reasoning and deductive reasoning. In advertisements the strings of logic (syllogisms) are often missing a premise, building on audience's assumptions. Such incomplete arguments are known as enthymemes. Here is an example of one such enthymeme based on Figure 2.1.2:

  • Feeling invincible is good. (general, ASSUMED premise) 
  • Milk makes one feel invincible. (general, ASSUMED premise) 
  • Therefore I drink milk. (specific, MENTIONED conclusion)

Find an advertisement (possibly from Texts 1-9) and write out the strings of logic that they implicitly use to sell their product or idea.

Reading

  • To Sell is Human by Daniel Pink offers an interesting take on the importance of advertising and marketing techniques in our daily lives. He makes the case that 'we're all in sales' in the 21st century. 
  • The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg has a chapter on advertising. He suggests that the most successful products have instilled habits in their consumers through their advertising campaigns. Essentially it expands on the problem-benefit technique outlined on this page. 

Texts 1-9

Text 1

Key concepts

Activity

  1. Download Texts 1-9, which include nine advertisements for ‘tomato sauce’, ‘red sauce’ or ‘ketchup’ (whichever term you prefer).
  2. Each advertisement is taken from a different decade between the 1910s and the 2000s, excluding the 1980s. In small groups, place the advertisements in the sequence in which you believe they were published. 
  3. On the worksheet comment on the implicit cultural values depicted in each advertisement and which structural and stylistic features communicate these values. 
  4. On a large table present your sequence of advertisements along side the sequences of other groups. As a class discuss the Questions. 

Questions

  1. How is your group’s sequence different from other groups’ sequences? How did you know where the advertisements belonged in the history of advertising? What contextual clues helped you?
  2. How has the language of print advertising evolved through the ages? Notice the use of font, layout, copy (text), image and colour. In a small presentation to your classmates, explain how one advertisement reflects certain cultural values of its time, which may or may not be shared with your context today.
  3. Download the answers to the activity. Where was your sequence correct or incorrect? What have you learned about history of the Western world in the 20th century through these advertisements?

Learner profile

  • An IB learner is a communicator. Advertising techniques are not limited to the world of desktop publishing. You may find yourself persuading others using some of the persuasion techniques on this page.