Visual Text Analysis
Contributor: Hugh Patterson
This assignment asks you to analyze the persuasive power of images. We are surrounded by images that have designs on us, that urge us to buy things, go places, believe ideas, and so forth. Often the messages of these images are fairly subtle. Information brochures rely on carefully shot photographs of people and places to enhance a subject's image (consider the photographs of the campus included in your college catalog); news photographs editorialize their content (during the Vietnam War a newspaper photograph of a naked Vietnamese child running and screaming toward the photographer turned many Americans against the war); and paintings and visual arts cause us literally to see new things ("There was no yellow fog in London until Turner painted it," according to Oscar Wilde). But the most powerful and pervasive images in our culture come to us through the medium of magazine and television advertisements. This essay focuses on helping you learn to analyze the persuasive nature of these images.
By images we mean both the advertisements' pictures themselves and also the images of self and society that they project. When we discuss the persuasive nature of the ads, we can ask both: “How does this ad persuade me to buy this product?” and “How does this ad persuade me to be a certain kind of person, to adopt a certain self-image, or to strive for certain values?”
What you will develop through this assignment is the ability to understand and explain the persuasive power of advertisements. We will look at the constituent parts of these advertisements-setting, furnishings, and props; characteristics of the models, including their clothes, gestures, hair, facial expressions, and poses; camera angle and lighting; the interplay between the visual images and the verbal copy, and ask how all these parts working together contribute to the rhetorical effect of the advertisement. Along the way, we will raise questions about how advertisements shape our sense of who we are and what we value.
Choose two magazine advertisements that sell the same kind of product but appeal to different audiences (for example, a car advertisement aimed at men and one aimed at women; a cigarette ad aimed at upper-middle-class consumers and one aimed at working-class consumers; a clothing ad from The New Yorker and one from Rolling Stone). Describe the ads in detail so that an audience can easily visualize them without actually seeing them. Analyze the advertisements and explain how each appeals to its target audience. To what values does each ad appeal? How is each ad constructed to appeal to those values? In addition to analyzing the rhetorical appeals made by each ad, you are to evaluate or criticize the ads, commenting on the images they convey of our culture.
Working on your own, free-write your responses to (or simply think about) the following questions:
1. Can you recall a time when a magazine or TV advertisement directly influenced you to buy a product? Describe the occasion and try to recall the specifics of how the ad influenced you.
2. According to a communications professor, Sut Jhally, many critics of advertising claim that "it is a tool whereby consumers are controlled and manipulated by the producers of goods (on whose behalf advertising is waged) to desire things for which they have no real need." To what extent has advertising made you desire things that you don't need? Give some examples. How did the advertisements work on you? What techniques did they use?
3. Has advertising ever influenced your values or your image of what you want to be? For example, an ad may not have caused you to buy a product (a particular perfume or brand of coffee), but has an ad made you long for certain values or experiences (to ride a horse through the pounding surf, to have a romantic encounter in a European café)? Explain.
Your first task is to find two ads that sell the same general product to different target audiences or that make appeals to noticeably different value systems. Look for ads that are complex enough to invite detailed analysis. Then, analyze the ads carefully.
If you get stuck, freewrite on (or think about) the following questions: (a) What attracted your attention to this ad? (b) Whom do you think this ad targets? Why? (c) What props and furnishings are in this ad, and what values or meanings are attached to them? (d) What are the characters like, what are they doing, and why are they wearing what they are wearing and posed the way they are posed? (e) Is there anything worth noting about camera angles or photographic effects? (f) How do the words of the ad interplay with the picture? (g) How would the ad be less effective if its key features were changed in some way? (h) Overall, to what fears, values, hopes, or dreams is this ad appealing?
The essay should be fairly easy to organize at the big-picture level, but each part will require its own organic organization, depending on the main points of the analysis. We will be discussing several structural options in class, but, as an example, here is just one (of many) possible structure:
I. Introduction (. . .hooks readers' interest, gives background on how ads vary their appeals, asks the question your paper will address, and ends with initial mapping in the form of a purpose or thesis statement; the thesis will probably be the place where you indicate the products, your main point and the magazine titles)
II. General description of the two ads
A. Description of ad 1
B. Description of ad 2
III. Analysis of the two ads
A. Analysis of ad 1
1. e.g., Color
2. e.g., Props
3. e.g., Setting
B. Analysis of ad 2
1. e.g., Color
2. e.g., Props
3. e.g., Setting (etc.)
IV. Conclusion: returns to the big picture for a sense of closure; makes final comments about the significance of your analysis or touches in some way on larger issues raised by the analysis.
I have found that rhetorical analysis of visual texts is useful, effective, and generally appealing to students. While allowing students to focus on “texts” in their comfort zone (these texts are accessible and students are clearly engaged with them on a regular basis), the assignment also serves as an introduction to essay structure, rhetorical devices/strategies and the process of analysis.
As you might guess, student products tend to be somewhat superficial, if students are permitted to float on vague impressions and emotional responses, so it is important to emphasize critical thinking and evaluation of concrete evidence. Toward those ends and to prepare students for the composing process, I engage the class in discussions/evaluations of print advertisements that I provide, then students present brief oral analyses of ads they have chosen during the following class period.
This assignment has been adopted/adapted from a lesson introduced to me by Richard McNabb of L.I.U. I hope you find it interesting and/or useful.
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