Kathy A. Fitch
Winter Quarter, 2002
College of DuPage

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Analyzing Advertising Images 

An Advertising Literacy Quiz.

Power Point Presentation for This Unit.

No One is Immune!

"Co-Opting and Trivializing"

Writing About Advertising.

Activities for Unit Four.

Additional Resources for this Unit.

An Advertising Literacy Quiz

Quick, now--try to name as many advertising campaigns or tag lines as you can remember.  They needn't be current, or even recent.  Simply name as many as you can think of, no matter how old you were when they were popular.  Be sure to write them all down.

Next, name as many advertising "mascots" (e.g. The Energizer Bunny) as you can.  Again, these needn't be current.  Simply list as many as you can think of, and write them down.

Next, list or draw as many product logos as you can.  How many products can you recognize by their symbols alone?

You can see my answers here.

Finally, tote up how many hours per week you spend watching television, attending movies, listening to the radio, and reading magazines or newspapers.  Try to be as honest as you can.

No One is Immune

Nearly all of us like to think of ourselves as too aware, too sophisticated, and simply too smart to be vulnerable to the influences of advertising.  Nonetheless, nearly all of us have brains positively crowded with words, characters, symbols, and images that are promoted by advertising.  That shouldn't come as any surprise, our protestations to the contrary, for we are simply surrounded by these messages every single day of our lives.  It would be the rare person, indeed, who could absorb all of that information without being influenced by it in the least.   

Does advertising directly cause us to alter our beliefs and behaviors?  Usually not.  Few of us, after all, would ever see a "Got Milk?" ad and then immediately run to the store for a gallon of the stuff.  Still, it seems clear that, given  the amount of time we spend with the various media listed above--all of which depend upon advertising revenue for their very existence--advertising must inevitably influence us, albeit in subtler ways. 

Ads define the good life for us.  They tell us what it means to be popular, successful, intelligent, sexually attractive, and generally fashionable.  From ads, we absorb--often unconsciously and through sheer force of repetition--ideas about gender roles, body images, aging processes, cultural and family values, and even patriotism.   Ads simultaneously create desires in us and then offer to fulfill those desires with products, relatively few of which live up to their promise.  Any parent who has ever patiently explained to a child that the toy advertised on television really won't look or move at all like that in real life understands how powerful advertising images can be.  Similarly, anyone who has ever lusted--even briefly--after the skin, hair, body, lifestyle, or material possessions presented in ads knows how that even adults aren't immune to the lure of those intoxicating images.

Images of Women and Girls:  In "Hooked", Jean Kilbourne--producer of the highly regarded "Killing Us Softly" series of video lectures, and widely recognized expert on advertising rhetoric--examines some of the ways in which advertising's subtly but powerfully delivered messages harm women.  About-Face, a San Francisco based group, is similarly devoted to combating "negative and distorted" images of women in advertising.  Both Kilbourne and About-Face suggest that eating disorders, violence against women, and abuse of both women and girls are all at least exacerbated by advertising, even if they aren't directly caused by it.  See also Children Now: Advertising Images of Girls and Women. Do you agree that advertising contributes to such problems?  Try flipping through some popular magazines such as Seventeen, Self, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Women's Day, Redbook, Working Mother, etc.  Can you find any particularly arresting or disturbing images?  Be sure to mark them or tear them out for later study.

Images of Men and Boys:  As Kilbourne points out, advertising often presents men and boys in similarly negative ways,  essentially promoting the sort of gender stereotyping that insists that men must always be strong, assertive, powerful, and dominant, and that any male, young or old, who doesn't live up to those expectations is a failure. (See Children NowImages of Men and Boys in Advertising for a fuller discussion of the negative images of men and boys.)  Do you agree that advertising contributes to male stereotyping?  Try flipping through some popular magazines such as GQ, Esquire, Sports Illustrated, Men's Health, etc.  Can you find any particularly arresting or disturbing images?  Be sure to mark them or tear them out for later study.

Alcohol and Cigarette Advertising:  If gender stereotyping is the largest area of concern among those devoted to educating us about advertising rhetoric, alcohol and cigarette advertising run a close second.  Even though hard alcohol and cigarettes can no longer be advertised on television, most adolescents are amazingly aware of the most popular brands and slogans, and there does seem to be a correlation between exposure to such ads and actual behavior.    Indeed, MADD has even developed a code for alcohol advertising.  Try flipping back through the magazines you've collected one more time.  How many alcohol and cigarette ads can you find.  Do they seem to be aimed at youth?  What pitches do advertisers use to make these products appealing?  (For instance, cigarette ads aimed at women often emphasize slimness--as in Virginia slims--and feature very thin models.)  How many of the alcohol ads meet MADD's guidelines?

Heroin Chic:  Calvin Klein's (warning:  some of the images at this site are intended for adult viewers) series of "heroin chic" ads drew fire from various media watchdog groups, especially those devoted to protecting children and promoting the health of families.  From your perspective, can advertising images promote drug use?  Do you agree with the groups who objected to this series of ads?

Co-Opting and Trivializing

"We all admit that we are retailers, pure and simple," says Margot Franssen, president of The Body Shop Canada. "We aren't exactly out to change the world, but instead to make our communities a little bit better." 

Humans aren't entirely driven by our baser needs, of course.  We do value positive things like health, equality, political awareness, ecology, education, and so forth.  In this section, let's consider how advertisers often "co-opt and trivialize," as Kilbourne puts it, our best instincts.  In other words, how do advertisers take advantage of our best instincts, using them to persuade us to buy or at least notice their products?  Also, how do they manage to belittle, undermine, or otherwise denigrate our positive desires?

Case 1:  Review the famous (or notorious, depending upon your point of view) Benetton advertising archives. (To view the images, enter the press area, click on the "photo gallery" link at the top of the page, and then explore the links running down the left side of the page. Warning:  some of the content is adult in nature.)  Note how many of the ads focus on race, AIDs, religion, the death penalty and other political and social issues.   What does Benetton sell?  Based on the ads alone, can you tell?  Why do you suppose the company is so deliberately politically provocative in its advertising?

Case 2:  Review some of the ads in the Absolut Vodka Advertising Archive.  Notice how many of the ads depend upon knowledge of art or photography.  Where would you expect those ads, as opposed to those that simply play with the shape of the bottle, to appear?  Why might appealing to special knowledge be an effective approach?

Case 3:  "Rain Forest Chic":  Many companies, including Ben and Jerry's and The Body Shop, have attempted to build their reputations around the idea of "socially responsible business."  However, as  Jon Entine argues in "Rain Forest Chic," actually running a socially responsible business is far more challenging than simply creating an ethical aura could ever be.  Would you buy a product because you believed the company that produced it to be socially responsible (e.g. not testing products on animals, not destroying the environment, not running third-world sweatshops)?  Would you boycott a product made by a company you knew to be threatening animals, destroying the environment, or paying slave wages to those laboring in unsafe working conditions? 

Potentially Positive Human Values and Urges that Can be Co-Opted and Trivialized by Advertising

  • Preserving the environment.
  • Protecting animals.
  • Caring for children.
  • Motherhood.
  • Patriotism.
  • Faith.
  • Racial Equality.
  • Gender Equality.
  • Health.
  • Intimacy.
  • Fatherhood.
  • Family.
  • Science.
  • Curiosity.
  • Education.
  • Prosperity.
  • Inclusion.
  • Love.
  • Safety.

Approaches to Writing About Advertising

Start by selecting and collecting the ads upon which you wish to focus.  For this paper, you may wish to select from the following approaches.

  1. Examine a specific campaign:  You may wish to write about some particularly annoying, amusing, or otherwise engaging current ad campaign, such as the Budweiser ads, the Milk ads, the Virginia Slims ads,  and so forth.  What makes this campaign successful?  What appeal or pitch does it rely on?  

  2. Examine a specific magazine: Investigate one entire issue of one specific magazine.  What does the pattern of ads within the magazine reveal about how the advertisers envision the audience?  If you are a member of the intended audience, how effectively do you think the pattern of ads reflects your interests and desires?  Are there any objectionable images or messages sent by the ads?  (Be careful, here--if you investigate something like Seventeen magazine with a critical eye, you may never again allow any of your young female relatives to read it!)  Do the ads complement or contradict the messages sent by the articles in the magazine?

  3. Trace the ads for a specific brand of product (Lee Jeans, for instance, or Campbell's soup) across audiences:  How do the ads change from, say, Newsweek to Prevention?  How do they change from Glamour to Esquire?  What accounts for the changes?  Are they based on stereotypes or on real differences?

  4. Follow a specific appeal or "pitch" across as many different sorts of ads for as many different products as you can.  In how many ads, for instance, do you see appeals to motherhood, family, science, or magic?   What makes that appeal, well, so appealing?  What kinds of language, colors,  or images are employed to strengthen the appeal?  Note, for instance, that many cosmetics ads try hard to look and sound scientific, especially when they're promising to reverse aging.  Similarly, many cigarette ads rely on sexual imagery, even though few of us regard smoking as particularly attractive these days.

  5. Examine and critique a  recent advertising trend you've noticed:  For instance, I've been struck, recently, by how prescription drugs are increasingly advertised directly to consumers.  Advertisements for medications for everything from osteo-arthritis and asthma to depression and Alzheimer's routinely appear, now, both in magazines and on television.  I have very mixed feelings about this trend!  On the one hand, it's clearly in our best interest to be informed about our health, but on the other it's disturbing to think of people diagnosing themselves, then marching into their doctors to demand certain drugs.  That's an especially frightening idea considering all that we've learned about how over-prescribed many medicines are.  

  6. Focus on advertising images of gender, race, minorities, etc.:  How positive and inclusive are these images?  Do you attempts to break down stereotyping, or do ads still promote the same old images and roles?   Some brands, such as Nike and Lee, have attempted to create ads with truly progressive messages.  Similarly, companies like McDonald's and K-Mart have deliberately begun including physically handicapped actors and models in their ads.  Do you see other evidence of such progress?

As always, you may suggest your own approach.  One good way to begin developing ideas for this paper is simply to spend an hour or so flipping through magazines, or watching t.v. ads with a critical eye (instead of popping into the kitchen for a snack!).  In short, pay attention to ads for the next few days.  When you work to be consciously aware of them, what do you see?  Do you like what you see?  Why or why not?

Activities for Unit Four

  1. Study the webbed materials on advertising.

  2. Participate in the ConnectWeb discussion on advertising.

  3. Write an essay in which you examine some aspect of advertising, as suggested above.  Due date:  Sunday, March 18th, by midnight.

  4. No questions required for this final unit, but do be sure to post any outstanding assignments from previous units by Sunday, March 18th.

Resources for Analyzing Advertising Images

Kathy A. Fitch
Winter Quarter, 2002
College of DuPage

Learning Links

Teaching Portfolio

English 102

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Honors English 102

English 102 Online

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Copyright 2000-2002, Kathy A. Fitch
College of DuPage Liberal Arts Division IC 3129 B (630)942-3367
FitchK@cdnet.cod.edu Disclaimer 18 December 2001