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How to Analyze an Advertisement Essay

There’s more to advertising’s message than meets the casual eye. An effective ad, like other forms of communication, works best when it strikes a chord in the needs and desires of the receiving consumer — a connection that can be both intuitive and highly calculated. The following questions can help foster your awareness of this process. You may be surprised by the messages and meanings you uncover.

1. What is the general ambience of the advertisement? What mood does it create? 2. Study the advertisement’s form. Attempt a simple description of what elements it consists of in terms of elements and formal arrangement. 3. What about technical decisions? If the advertisement is a photograph, what kind of a shot is it? What significance do you think long shots, medium shots, close-up shots have? What about the lighting, use of colour, angle of the shot? 4. What typefaces are used and what impressions do they convey?

5. What techniques are used by the copywriter: humour, alliteration, definitions” of life, comparisons, sexual innuendo, and so on? 6. What is the relationship between pictorial elements and written material and what does this tell us? 7. Does the ad essentially provide information or does it try to generate some kind of emotional response? Or both? 8. What action is taking place in the advertisement and what significance does it have? (This might be described as the ad’s “plot.”) 9. What signs and symbolic codes do we find? Symbolic codes can involve figures e.g. facial expressions, clothing codes etc.

What can be said about their facial expressions, poses, hairstyle, age, sex, hair colour, ethnicity, education, occupation, relationships (of one figure to the other)? What role do these symbolic codes play in the ad’s impact? 10. What sociological, political, economic or cultural attitudes are indirectly reflected in the advertisement i.e. does the ad work ideologically?( An advertisement may be about a pair of blue jeans but it might, indirectly, reflect such matters as sexism, alienation, stereotyped thinking, conformism, generational conflict, loneliness, elitism, and so on).

11. How important is the spectator/reader’s own context going to be on his/her understanding of the ad? Who is the presumed reader or public for this ad? Excerpted/adapted from Arthur A. Berger Signs in Contemporary Culture: An Introduction to Semiotics, Longman, White Plains, NY [online]. Available from http://www.medialit.org/reading_room/article227.html [accessed 24/04/08]


Ads/images have different levels of meaning:

Denotation: what can be seen – the literal, commonsense or ‘natural’ meaning of the ad (first order meaning). Denotation is commonly implied by the use of photography.

Connotation: the ‘hidden’ meaning (second order meaning); a range of possible meanings which may depend upon the reader’s knowledge, social background and other factors which influence personal judgement or interpretation.

Meaning in an advertising image can be seen as:

Syntagmic – the linking process between represented object (signifier) and significance (meaning) is unconscious;

Referential – it is understood in terms of structural relationships to other signs. Meaning is made up of a system of differences and oppositions;

Ideological – occurring within a wider framework of ideas or way of thinking about social relations;

Conventional – socially mediated i.e. is according to accepted ‘rules’ and ‘codes’;

Preferred (or dominant meaning) is the meaning that the advertiser (presumably) hopes the image will convey. Stuart Hall, though, notes two
other modes of reading ads: negotiated readings and oppositional readings (which subvert the presumed intentional or seeming overt meaning of the advertising image).


There are a number of issues which can be considered when analysing an specific image, factors which can help one to identify the intended connotation of the signs contained within the image, and of the advertisement as a whole.

Technical Codes (including):

Camera angle – is the implied angle of vision up/down, at an angle, straight on? Camera distance – how far is the implied camera from the subject? Focus – is the image in sharp detail or soft focus?

Lighting – what is highlighted or left in the shadows?

Information Value:
the placement of elements within the whole image is indicative of a relative symbolic meaning. horizontal reading – Left = given, familiar
right = new, not yet known
vertical reading – upper = promise, emotive
lower = Portfolio, actual, information

Salience – the elements of an image attract attention to differing degree according to their position in the whole composition (foreground, background etc.) Framing – the presence or absence of framing devices signifies the connection or separation between the different objects/figures Cropping – is the cropping from a wider image implied?

Juxtaposition – have two images been juxtaposed to create a particular effect?


Remember to consider the text in an ad. If an image has no caption it can be considered an ‘open text’ and therefore open to interpretation. Captions generally function as modifiers to ‘anchor’ the primary significance of the image, and to reduce possible ambiguities of meaning in the image.

Symbolic Codes:

A symbol is a picture/object which stands for something else, where the meaning is widely understood e.g. a dove symbolises peace or the Holy Spirit in western society. Symbols do not necessarily have only one connotation and have to be selected with care by advertisers – it is the image as a whole, the relationship between signs (symbols), which will determine which connotation is intended (a meaning which might be ‘fixed’ by modifiers such as text captions).

Body language/non-verbal codes:
what is the significance of the figures’ poses or physical posture? what facial expression do the figures have?
do the body types (well built, thin, fleshly etc.) connote wider meanings e.g. .stereotypes?

Clothing codes:
does the clothing connote specific occupations or nationalities? what connotations about class and status does the clothing have?

Colour (symbolic value):
Does the colour/colour range used suggest a mood e.g. sorrow, gaiety etc.? Does the colour use suggest an abstract meaning e.g. romance, purity etc.? The kinds of colours used – the use of bright, dissonant colours might indicate modernity for instance or a sepia range might signify tradition.

Issues which might be activated by use of symbolic code include:

Branding – the use of symbolic signs to connote a distinct brand ‘identity’ for a product which in physical composition cannot be differentiated from other examples of the same product e.g. perfume or cigarettes.

Celebrity – a meaning structure is created by selling commodities in terms of social (celebrity) identity. The product being sold is ‘given’ the character attributes more usually associated with the celebrity e.g. physical strength, elegance etc.. The consumer buys the product to ‘buy into’ the celebrity’s image (see promise of pleasure principle’).

‘Promise of pleasure’ principle – setting up links between consumption of the product and personal fulfillment or attainment of desired state of being. The consumer is not buying the product itself, but the emotional promise.

Commodification – advertising translates statements about objects into statements about human relationships or types of consumer. This implies a denial of individual identity by the translating human beings into objects;

Objectification – the use of the part (of the human body) to stand for the whole denies human agency or the wholeness of the individual. This is more often associated with the use of female models. ‘Fragmentation’ of the female body connotes the commodification of female identity;

the ‘gaze’ (scopophilia) – where the presumed spectator is gendered male, the notion of the ‘gaze’ connotes unequal power relations between the sexes (inequalities which are presumed to mirror those in wider society);

Gender stereotyping- this can relate to ideological expectations as to gender roles and the use of gender stereotypes or sexualisation as a marketing tool;

Racial or ethnic stereotyping – this can relate to the exploitation of social ‘difference’ e.g. the ‘other’ (in which one culture is seen as ‘opposed’ to mainstream western characteristics) in a way which reinforces the social stereotype or attracts by the presumption of exoticism;

Ideology – objects are used as signifiers within the context of wider signifying systems or ideological contexts e.g. ‘western democracy’/consumerism, and can only be properly understood via a knowledge of this ideological framework. The spectator constructs meaning according to the codes at his/her disposal i.e. meaning is socially mediated and not individualistic;

Social identity – the spectator constructs meaning according to the codes as his/her disposal ie the meaning constructed is socially mediated and not purely personal or individual.

Context and Audience:
Where is the image to be found? You need to consider whether it is/was intended for a magazine, a poster, a street hoarding etc.

What is/was the intended public for the image? What impact might identified issues have had upon the design of the image under analysis? When considering a news photograph a number of other questions might be asked – such as the news value of the image itself and the relationship between the image itself and the surrounding text.

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