Analyzing a Visual Argument
Today the average person in the United States is saturated with advertisements–on television, on billboards, buses, and buildings, in magazines and newspapers. Advertisements are used to sell a point of view, promote a charity, or support political leaders. And, of course, they are used to sell commercial products. Think of all the products you use in a day: toothpaste, cereals, tissue paper, shampoo, blow dryers, jeans, t-shirts, soft drinks, bottled water, radios, computers. The list goes on and on. How many of these products do you absolutely need? And how many of those products that you use are brand names? Why do people want Calvin Klein's name on their underwear, "Levi's" on their back pocket, or a favorite team logo on their caps?
Because the purpose of advertisement is to persuade viewers to buy or support something, it is crucial that today's informed citizen learn to analyze carefully the strategies used in advertisements. Through the critical analysis of all kinds of commercial communication, the informed citizen can address fundamental questions like these:
- What is the ad really trying to sell?
- What visual and verbal strategies is the ad using to convey its message?
- Is the ad ultimately persuasive?
- Are the message and its rhetorical means both honest and ethical?
The audience for this paper will be your teacher and the purpose will be to explain how the ad helps to sell the product.
Locate a magazine ad that you would like to analyze. Colorful, full-page ads will be easier to describe. You might consider ads for vehicles, cosmetics, food, clothes, alcohol, or charities. First, jot down notes that describe the ad. Second, since the customer's eye goes immediately to the visuals, think about how the advertiser has used visuals: people or places in the ad, uses of color, choice of font, movement of customer's eyes, etc. Third, examine the brand name (and its display), the product's slogan, and other print information and analyze why this slogan was chosen. Fourth, consider the types of emotional appeals that are meant to entice the customer. Finally, consider the overall impact of the ad and decide upon a thesis sentence for your upcoming paper. Use the questions on the Visual Analysis handout to help you focus on these areas.
After these prewriting activities, you can judiciously decide which types of information you will use to support the claim within your 2-3 page paper. Be sure to orient your reader by identifying the name and date of the magazine, describing the ad itself, and providing a thesis sentence about the claim you are making about the ad. If you write, "The Mustang ad in Time sells freedom," your reader won't know what you mean unless you describe the man standing alone by his car with a brown desert in the background. And then you'll have to explain how that image represents freedom in U.S. society. Remember to back up comments with specific details. If you say the ads depict beautiful people, describe the characteristics of these beautiful people.
Your instructor may direct you to specific articles which analyze ads. If so, you may be asked to include quotes from the articles to support your points.
Visual Design of Your Paper
- Within your paper, you could use headings or choose appropriate font sizes/styles to fit this type of ad.
- You could scan the ad into the paper and have your text flow around the ad. Scanners are available in the computer labs–just ask a lab monitor for assistance.
- You could take a digital photo of the ad and insert the photo in the paper.
Note: Placing the ad within the paper is more effective than placing it at the end. Including the ad does not mean than you can be less thorough in your commentary because showing the ad itself does not make your argument. You will still need to describe the ad and explain which parts of the ad are significant and why.
Evaluation Criteria for the Essay
The analysis should
- orient the reader by identifying the magazine, its date, the target audience, and purpose
- contain a clear and interesting thesis supported by specific, concrete details
- address the ethical dimensions of the ad
- provide sufficient description of and insightful comments about the ad being analyzed
- use secondary sources appropriately and cites these sources appropriately
- integrate text and visuals effectively
- avoid errors that distract reader's attention