The Art of Persuasion
Guidelines for Advertising Analysis
in the Exemplary Middle School Curriculum
by Richard Binkney, Ph. D.
Guidelines for Ad Analysis
in the Exemplary Middle School Curriculum
"Whatever the object for sale is, the copywriter, like the poet, must invest it with
significance so that it becomes symbolic of something beyond itself" (Hayakawa, p.
You may choose to write a critical essay that "deconstructs" an advertisement of your
choice, using the gender lens we've been discussing in class. If you choose a print ad,
attach a copy of it to your final paper. You can choose a commercial instead; if you do,
please attach a thorough description of the commercial, in case your reader has not seen it
(you do not have to include the full description in your formal paper if it does not fit
Drawing on the key points made in the language of advertising, analyze the messages
your ad is sending. What story is it telling? What symbolic product is it selling? The
following are some questions to ask yourself/steps to go through. These are to guide you
in thinking critically about the ad - you do NOT have to answer ALL of these questions
in your paper. I do expect you to address the ones that are most relevant to a critical
analysis of your chosen ad.
Step 1: Make Observations
Think of five adjectives that describe the ad.
Look at the ad and evaluate its aesthetics:
o Are there people depicted in the ad? What gender is represented? What
race? What do the people look like (young, old, stylish, etc.)? What are
their facial expressions? What might you infer about their states of mind
from the ways they are presented? How might the intended audience have
responded to those representations?
o Look carefully at the locale of the scene. Where does it take place? What
symbolic significance is the locale likely to have for the intended
audience? Locate the scene in time: is it in the past, the present, or the
future? What does the temporal location suggest?
o Consider the ad as a narrative, a story, or a scene from a play. Can you
supply the overall story? What has happened, is happening, or will happen
soon? What is this narrative likely to mean to the intended audience?
o In the imagery, what appears in the foreground versus the background?
Why do you think these choices were made?
o Estimate what the camera angle was. Was it far from the subject or close
to it? Was it above, eye-level, or below the subject?
o Take note of the lighting used in the ad. Does it appear to be natural or
artificial? Why or why not? Are certain parts of the ad highlighted while
others are not? If so, why do you think this is? Are there shadows? If so,
how big are they?
o Sometimes it is not what is in the ad that pulls the viewer in, but what is
missing. Is there anything missing in this imagery that the intended
audience might supply?
o What colors are used? Are they bright? Black and white? In sharp contrast
to each other?
o If the ad has text or copy, how does it look? What kind of font is used? Is
more than one type of font used? How big is the text? What color is the
text ? Is there more than one color used? What does the text actually say?
What does the large text say? The small text?
Step 2: Determine the purpose of the ad
Remember the purpose of an ad is always to sell a product!
What product is being sold? What do you learn about its objective qualities? (Try
to distinguish here between factual versus symbolic appeal.)
Do you find the product appealing? Why or why not?
Who is the target audience for this product? Children? Teens? Adults? The
elderly? Men? Women?
Judging from where the ad appeared (the kind of magazine or newspaper), what
might you infer about its intended audience? Describe this audience: who they
are, what they are likely to be attracted by.
What feelings or emotions is the ad trying to associate with the product? Did it
work? Why or why not?
Make a list of all the various elements in the ad that suggest its symbolic appeal;
that is, what positive attributes its purchase will supposedly bring the consumer?
Think of the ad as a play: what are the props and characters it employs? How is
that symbolic value conveyed?
Consider each item you just listed in terms of the intended audience: what signal
might that item convey regarding class status, leisure time activities, gender roles,
sexual attractiveness, health and vitality, family responsibilities, and the like. Ask
"What might this item, this feature, mean to the targeted consumer?"
Is the symbolic message of this ad idealizing some aspect of life? If so, what is it
and how is it presented?
Are there any references to previous ads or other forms of popular culture in the
ad - what scholars refer to as "intertextuality"?
Ads succeed by framing some things in and excluding the rest. What are some
associations to the product and the symbolic themes suggested for it that have to
be framed out by the persons making the ad? Why?
Step 3: Determine the assumptions the ad makes and the messages it sends
Assumptions may not be contained directly in the ads themselves, but in the
messages that are produced from them.
What assumptions and/or bias does the ad make about gender? (i.e. Women are
powerful when they hold a hair dryer in their hands. Men like to drink beer.
Women are primary caregivers, etc..) Are these assumptions realistic? Why or
why not? Do these assumptions reinforce or challenge stereotypes about gender
identity? What messages does this ad say about what it means to be a man or a
woman? About self-identity? About personal happiness, sexual attractiveness, or
other forms of self-fulfillment?
What assumptions and/or bias does the ad make about race (i.e. African
Americans are excellent athletes. Latinos are sensual and passionate. Etc.)? Are
these assumptions realistic? Why or why not? Do these assumptions reinforce or
challenge stereotypes about racial identity?
What assumptions and/or bias does the ad make about class (i.e. Wealthy people
are happy and trouble-free. Poor people are always looking for a handout, etc..)?
Are these assumptions realistic? Why or why not? Do these assumptions reinforce
or challenge stereotypes about class?
What might this ad be implying about the nature of human relationships? What
kind of nonverbal communication appears with the ad? Which figures dominate?
What kinds of cultural beliefs are promoted in this ad? Try to imagine yourself as
an outsider to this society, viewing this ad. What seem to be the values of the ad's
creators and its receivers?
Step 4: Consider the possible consequences of these messages.
What are some possible consequences? (long-term and short-term)
Do the messages create unrealistic expectations for people? Why or why not?
How do the messages in this ad counter or undermine social change?
Is this ad socially responsible? How or how not? What does it mean for an ad or a
company to be socially responsible?
For example, in the closing comments of the video Killing Us Softly 3, Jean
Kilbourne states that change will depend upon "an aware, active, educated public
that thinks of itself primarily as citizens rather than primarily as consumers."
What does it mean to think of oneself primarily as a citizen rather than primarily
as consumer? Can one be both a citizen and a consumer? How? Reflect on this ad
with the above statement in mind.
Advertising is often linked with the process of commodification: that is, taking a
human value or need and equating it with the process of buying and using a
product. From that standpoint, ask yourself: what human needs and values is this
ad attempting to commodify?
Issues to be sensitive to include, but are not limited to:
impossible, ideal image of female and/or male beauty
obsession with thinness
obsession with youth (ageism)
women of color disproportionately shown as animalistic and exotic
images of women as passive and vulnerable
objectification of women (and men)
dismemberment (particularly of women, sometimes with men)
women competing with other women for men
images that focus on silencing women's voices
the trivialization of women's power
infantilization of women
sexualization of teenagers
sexualization of children
bias and/or prejudice in any form or manner
violence against women - the "bruised" look; bondage; normalizing rough
treatment; sexualization of violence against women
images of the "real men" - how masculinity is presented in advertising
the ideal masculine body - focus on size, strength, muscularity
glamorization of masculine violence (whether directed at females or not) - sports,
guns, video games
masculinity as synonymous with invulnerability and indifference to others (the
Marlboro Man) - real man as quiet, stoic, rugged individual who doesn't do much
talking or relating to other people
ads, photos, words, issues and/or inferences which may be offensive to others
Ad Analysis Supplement – http://www.humboldt.edu/~adanalysis.htm
For a classroom exercise, please select a full-page advertisement from a magazine of
your choice; evaluate audience, purpose, and strategy; and present your conclusions
logically and persuasively. The thesis statement for this paper will ultimately address
either what the advertisement reveals about us as human beings or some hidden
method of persuasion or commentary.
The following prompts should assist in your analysis.
How does your ad appeal to the reader?
What assumptions does your ad make about women and men; children, teenagers,
and adults; blue-collar vs. white-collar careers; and the like?
What trends does your ad capitalize on? Identify if there are issues of bias and/or
prejudice that are obvious and/or inferred?
How does your ad manipulate and exploit human needs and desires?
Which audience does your ad target (consider the magazine in which it appears)?
How does it reflect that audience's interests, concerns, socio-economic standing,
career choice, lifestyle, and the like?
How does your ad employ visual detail? How do these elements represent the
product and/or its image and how do they reveal attitude towards the audience
and those values that audience holds?
How does the ad's text contribute to the appeal? How do the diction and key terms
reveal attitude towards the audience and those values that audience holds?
What is the general ambience of the advertisement? What mood does it create?
How does it do this?
What is the design of the advertisement? Does it use axial balance or some other
form? How are the basic components or elements of the advertisement arranged?
What is the relationship that exists between pictorial elements and written
material, and what does this tell us?
What is the spatiality in the advertisement? Is there a lot of white space or is the
advertisement full of graphic and written elements (that is, busy)?
What signs and symbols do we find? What role do the various signs and symbols
play in the advertisement?
If there are figures (men, women, children, animals) in the advertisement, what
are they like? What can be said about their facial expressions, poses, hairstyle,
age, sex, hair color, ethnicity, education, occupation, relationships (of one to the
other), and so on?
What does the background tell us? Where is the action in the advertisement taking
place and what significance does this background have?
What action is taking place in the advertisement, and what significance does this
action have? (This might be described as the plot of the advertisement.)
What theme or themes do we find in the advertisement? What is the advertisement
about? (The plot of an advertisement may involve a man and a woman drinking
but the theme might be jealousy, faithlessness, ambition, passion, etc.)
What about the language used in the advertisement? Does it essentially provide
information or generate some kind of an emotional response? Or both? What
techniques are used by the copywriter: humor, alliteration, "definitions" of life,
comparisons, sexual innuendo, and so on?
What typefaces are used and what impressions do these typefaces convey?
What is the item being advertised and what role does it play in American culture
What about aesthetic decisions? If the advertisement is a photograph, what kind of
a shot is it? What significance do long shots, medium shots, close-ups have? What
about the lighting, use of color, angle of the shot?
What sociological, political, economic or cultural attitudes are indirectly reflected in
the advertisement? 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.