Textual Analysis – How to Analyze Ads

Advertising executives and marketing experts more than likely hope that we remain oblivious to the underlying messages that ads contain and that we perceive their work purely from entertainment and consumerist perspectives rather than for the purpose of critical assessment.

But to critically examine the techniques and appeals advertisers use to lure us into supporting certain products, services, claims, or even individuals is an opportunity to hone our analytical skills—skills that enable us to be informed readers of texts and knowledgeable consumers of persuasion. To begin, let’s consider specific words and phrases that can be used in ad analysis:

  • Nostalgia: Advertisements for Coca-Cola, summer vacation destinations, or even political candidates can stir up sentiments or memories of “the good old days.” In a commercial, for example, the use of black and white film and/or flashbacks—illustrated by clothes, music, and/or historical events—can invite a specific audience to reflect on the past and evoke a sense of nostalgia.
  • Merchants of “cool”: According to PBS, merchants of “cool” are “creators and sellers of popular culture who have made teenagers the hottest consumer demographic in America.”[1]  Such merchants may include Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister, Hot Topic, and Aéropostale. Each relies on the tween and teen markets to keep its empire in business and markets its definition of “cool” as the coolest when it comes to youth culture.
  • The myth of the “ideal you”: Today, in many cases, advertisers still sell their products in a way that invites us to be the “best” versions of ourselves. Cultural stereotypes substantiate this idea of the “best” self, which exists only in the shared imagination of the advertiser and audience.

Analyzing Ads: Socioeconomic Status

To what social class do you belong? How do you know? Can others tell by how you talk, dress, and act? By how much money you have? By your level of education? By your occupation? Despite the presumed cultural ideal of social equality in America, key markers such as income and education are often used for social classification.

Advertisers for many goods and services often frame their rhetorical appeals—their strategies of persuasion—in terms of audiences who are presumed to belong to a particular, often loosely defined, social class. Frequently, these appeals rely on stereotypical qualities associated with various socioeconomic classes. For example, an advertisement for an expensive women’s pant suit may appear in a magazine like Vogue (generally regarded as appealing to an upper-middle-class or upper-class audience) and may feature a svelte, glamorous model unlikely to grace the pages of a flyer for Walmart (generally regarded as appealing to a lower-middle-class or working-class audience). Rhetorical appeals can work on many socioeconomic levels. A relatively expensive perfume like Chanel N° 5 may appeal to members of the lower-middle or working class as a symbol of upward mobility. When analyzing an ad, you might pay close attention to how the ad appeals to you based upon assumptions regarding your socioeconomic status: What rhetorical moves (e.g., tone, composition, dialogue) enact those appeals?

Take, for example, Honda’s “Impossible Dream” commercial:

What might you say about the movement in this commercial? The music? The changes in the model? How does these factors reflect certain assumptions about socioeconomic status, and what do they make you think buying a Honda-brand vehicle will do for a consumer?

Blue Collar versus White Collar

If we are analyzing an advertisement in which a model is working in a construction area digging a ditch, we might discuss the concept of blue-collar work.

Take, for example, this Cheetos ad:


Who is the audience of this commercial? What is the advertiser trying to say about Cheetos: i.e., what will the consumer get from eating Cheetos? What might you say about the ad’s incorporation of construction workers—their movement, their attitudes, etc.? How does the voice of the Cheetos tiger affect the commercial’s message?

On the other hand, if we are analyzing an advertisement in which a professional is depicted in what looks to be a high-powered office, we might discuss the concept of white-collar work. Advertising executives may have chosen those models and work settings in order to speak to a specific audience. That is, issues of socioeconomic status—including income, education, technical skill, dress, race, and gender—may be at play in creating images and scenarios that specific audiences will believe to be realistic in representing a version of reality. Keep in mind that socioeconomic status is a somewhat complex and controversial issue in American society today, particularly with regard to definitions of class levels. If you feel that an advertisement is capitalizing upon socioeconomic stereotypes, why do you think the advertiser has done this? Contrariwise, if an advertisement is resisting stereotypes, what do you think the advertiser is trying to accomplish?

A Checklist for Analyzing Socioeconomic Status in Print Advertisements

  • Who appears to be the target audience for the advertisement?
  • What seems to be the general tone of the advertisement? Serious? Playful? Satiric?
  • Do you notice any other appeals to stereotypes regarding education or income levels (e.g., the “corporate elite,” the “nouveau riche,” or the “literary elite,” who may or may not earn high incomes but wield “power” by virtue of educational or literary achievements)?
  • How would you characterize the overall appearance of the models in the ad? If applicable, how would you characterize their clothing? To what social class would you connect each model’s attire? Are brand names evident (e.g., Ralph Lauren, Ecco)? Are the models well-groomed or scruffy? Healthy or unhealthy? Thin and fit or heavy and out of shape? Do the models’ qualities suggest they are from a particular social class? If so, how? Is the advertiser relying on stereotypical characterizations, then? Why do you think the advertiser chose to portray them in these ways?
  • What would you guess the average income is of the individuals featured in the ad and/or of the audience to which the ad appeals?
  • Do you notice any particular political appeals that may be related to class? With what social class would you associate these appeals and why?
  • Does the ad appeal to any stereotypes based on gender or race?  On what evidence do you ground your assumption?  (Refer to the checklists in “Analyzing Ads: Gender” and “Analyzing Ads: Race” for more specific questions on analyzing gender and race in advertisements.)
  • If possible, what do you infer to be the highest degree of education that the individuals featured in the ad hold? Also in terms of level of education, who do you believe is the intended audience?
  • What is the setting for the advertisement? An elegant spa? A pizza parlor?
  • If text appears in the ad, what level of language is used, and for what purpose? Slang? Other informal language? Technical jargon? Standard American English? Dialect? With what class do you associate the use of this level of language? What is the effect of language use in this advertisement?
  • Are symbols, metaphors, hyperbole, allusions, and/or other forms of figurative language used? If so, what is the effect? Does the use of figurative language evoke appeals to class in any way?
  • What appeals to ethos, pathos, and logos do you find? Are these appeals related to class issues? Do you notice the use of any logical fallacies related to class issues (e.g., ad hominem, the slippery slope)? How effective are they?
  • In what ways does the advertisement appeal to class? Is the goal of the ad to encourage consumers to spend for the purpose of obtaining, or acquiring the appearance of, a higher socioeconomic status? (Examples of such strategy might be ads for a BMW or a Porsche that suggest the consumer would be more likely to attract members of the opposite sex if he or she were to purchase the advertised car.) Or, does the ad urge individuals to pursue an elite status (e.g., an American Express credit card) that will provide the illusion of upward class mobility.

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