Describing an Advertisement and Analyzing its Argument

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Describing an Advertisement and Analyzing its Argument

The Assignment: Describe an advertisement and write a semiotic analysis of the advertisement that reveals either the identity of the consumer it is constructing or the argument that it is making.

Length: 4 to 5 pages (roughly 250 words per page)


Each draft should be typed. Please double space and use standard margins with a 12-point font. Do not add additional space between paragraphs.


An evaluation “involves making and justifying judgments.” In this case, you must first make a judgment on what argument the advertisement is conveying. Then you must describe and analyze the visual and textual components of the advertisement in order to justify your judgment. Look carefully at the semiotic analysis of the ad campaign for an ad of your choice. Additionally, consider the attached suggestions for conducting a semiotic analysis. You might also think through the following questions about “visual” arguments:

  • Where does the picture first draw your eye?
  • How does the lighting emphasize or de-emphasize elements of the image?
  • What is in the foreground?
  • What is in the background?
  • Does the image “tell a story”? If so, what is it? How is it conveyed?
  • What dominant impression or feeling does the image give? How?
  • What does the composition of the photograph tell you about its “meaning”?
  • How does the setting influence your reading of the photograph?
  • If there is color, how does the color function to draw you in or repel you?
  • How else does color (or light and dark) work to influence your “reading”?
  • If there is written text included in the image, what are the relationships between words and images?
  • How do all of these components (and more) work to convey an argument?

Some step-by-step suggestions for writing an effective ad analysis

To Begin…

Spend some time looking at your ad very closely. Notice all the details — colors, arrangement of objects within the frame of the ad, text, etc. Notice if the product is being advertised on the other side of the page or on other pages. If ANOTHER product is being advertised on the back, notice what that product is and how it is being promoted.


When you feel pretty familiar with the ad, describe the ad in detail. Try to notice any small details which you might miss at a glance. Are there any “trick” images hidden within the ad?

And then…

When you have finished describing the ad, answer these questions:

1) What is the ad selling?

2) List all the ways it is being sold or promoted (color, sex appeal).

3) Is there anything else the ad is selling, anything subtle (desire?)?

4) Who do you think the audience is?

5) What evidence is there to prove that this is the audience?

Consider other questions, like:

**Why did the advertisers use the colors they did?

**Why are the objects in the ad arranged the way they are in relations to each other?

**Why did the advertisers use written text where they did (if there is text in the ad)?

**Analyze the connotation of the words the advertisers include and relate those to the overall implication of the ad.

Getting Started on your draft….

1. The Working Thesis

You want to begin to construct a WORKING THESIS. By that I mean to encourage you to remember that a thesis is always plastic; it will change as your argument/analysis develops.

So, what is an analytic thesis? Think of it as a road map — a road map put out by a tourist board that wants to convince you to take this road. So, for example, it wouldn’t be very convincing to say that “this ad is selling perfume.” The road you are promising to take me down in that case is perfectly obvious. So what? So you need to make your road appealing: “This ad left me feeling strangely sad and lonely.” Or, “This ad is designed to trick the viewer.” Now these claims are not obvious. They are intriguing.

But they are also incomplete. An analytic thesis also has to give some indication of where you will go to support your claims. So, for example, “The way this ad uses lighting and text to provoke a sense of nostalgia left me feeling strangely sad and lonely.” Or, “It becomes obvious upon close examination of the images and relationship of objects in this ad that it is designed to trick the viewers.

So, here are the questions you need to satisfy in an interesting, working thesis:

°°Where are we going? (What is the argument/analysis?)

°°How are we going to get there? (What evidence do you have to support your claims?)

°°Why are we going there? (Why is it important enough to write about? Will it inform us? Teach us? Thrill us? Appall us?)

Next (after a break) revisit your working thesis:

Try to review your thesis. Is it precise? Does it indicate what you will examine as evidence for your claims? Be sure that it does.

To begin, I would like you to review your thesis: does it do all the things we agreed an analytic thesis should do??

Does it: Indicate what the advertisers are trying to sell? Does it indicate what they assume their audience wants or needs? And how does it appeal to what they assume the audience wants or needs? So, for example, given an ad for Hofstra University, I might have a thesis like this:

“Assuming that their students come from middle-class families that promote hard work and success through education, the advertisers from Hofstra are appealing to just these values. They appeal to a desire for success and rigorous education through the text they construct, the lighting of the ad, and, most importantly, the composition of the image.”

Once you have your thesis adequately developed, please begin to develop support for that thesis by analyzing the ad.

2. The introductory paragraph

What does an introductory paragraph need to do?

*It needs to INVITE your reader to be inspired to read your paper.

*It needs to give an APPROPRIATE CONTEXT for your argument.

*And it needs to INCLUDE YOUR specific, clear, and focused THESIS statement of, roughly, one or two sentences.

So, to begin, I want you to make a list of interesting, shocking, and otherwise motivating stories or events which are related to the topic of your analysis. What? Oh, I don’t know: A rise in the obsession with shopping? A rise in the amount of ads for alcohol which are geared at youngsters? An intriguing story about sexual exploits? A hot current news item which can be related to your topic. ****Make a list of at least ten (yes, 10!) such items****

Now, choose one of these and open your essay with it. Tell the item or event in an eye capturing way and make sure to relate it to your topic — how do you do this? You make a transition from the item to the topic of your analysis in a way that clearly shows the connection between them. Then you follow with your thesis.

3. Working on the body paragraphs

Select one of the elements from the ad, which you claim as support for your thesis. Then, I would like you to construct a paragraph with a clear topic sentence

indicating how this element serves to support your thesis. This is where your descriptive and analytic skills come together. Do you stop there? NO.

This paragraph should analyze the element you have chosen. Remember our discussion of connotation, denotation, cultural connotation, implication, inference, etc? Good. Use those terms to help you probe the meaning of the element which you have selected, always remembering to consider and make clear how it relates to your thesis.

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