Readers, Writers, Texts

Can A Picture Tell A Thousand Words?

“The drawing shows me at one glance what might be spread over ten pages in a book.”

Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons, 1862
What is visual rhetoric? How does it work and how can it be analysed? Watch this video explainer subtitled How Images Persuade to find out.

It may be an old Chinese Proverb, but this phrase is as recognisable in English as it is in any other language. First printed by Frederick Barnard in American Magazine Printer’s Ink, 1921, ‘a picture is better than a thousand words’ has become synonymous with commending the effectiveness of graphics in advertising.

Images are part of the way we communicate and, through the Language and Literature course, it would be impossible to talk about how language operates in the world without considering the operations and impact of images. Many of the texts we encounter include images and some texts, such as road signs or paintings in an art gallery, might be made of images alone. Images are an integral part of most advertisement texts. This section will give you the opportunity to understand images better by learning how to analyze various components of visual images such as layout, use of lines, shapes and forms, light and colour and so on:


Class activity 1: is a picture ‘better than a thousand words’?

As the saying goes, a picture tells a story better than a thousand words. Many advertisements create what is called a visual narrative, almost like a tiny story expressed through one or more images. Examine this small collection of adverts. What is the ‘visual narrative’, or story being told in each one?

Class Activity 2: pick up the pieces

Read this analysis of a PSA from Australia. PSAs are a special kind of advertisement text that inform people about an issue of public concern. The aim of a PSA is to persuade people to change their behaviour rather than buy a product or service.

Find a visual text such as an advert, film poster, magazine cover or even painting. Present the text in the middle of a document and annotate this text using some of the techniques from the Visual Techniques Toolkit (above). Try to comment on the effect of these techniques as well. Present your findings to your classmates.

Discussion Points

After you’ve got your head around the material in this section, pair up, pick a question, spend five minutes thinking and noting down your thoughts – then discuss your ideas with a friend and report back to the class:

  1. How and why might individuals be susceptible to the influence of the media and advertising?
  2. What makes an advert linger in your memory? Is it the images? Slogans? Music? What else?

Learner Portfolio

Create a visual narrative in a single image. You could sketch, draw or use photography. Share your narrative with your classmates. Can they tell you the story of your image, and identify the important visual signifiers? Add your image to your Learner Portfolio.


Paper 1 Text Type Focus: infographics

At the end of your course you will be asked to analyze unseen texts (1 at Standard Level and 2 at Higher Level) in an examination. You will be given a guiding question that will focus your attention on formal or stylistic elements of the text(s), and help you decode the text(s)’ purpose(s). Below are a selection of infographics – short for ‘information graphics’ – that use visual techniques to both present information and create little narratives in the minds of the reader. Use these practice texts to familiarise yourself with the different features of infographics and add them to your Learner Portfolio; you will want to revise text types thoroughly before your Paper 1 exam. You can find more information – including text type features and sample Paper 1 analysis – by visiting 20/20. Read through one or two of the exemplars, then choose a new paper and have a go at writing your own Paper 1 analysis response:

key features of infographics
  • Audience: normally infographics are designed to reach as wide an audience as possible. As always look out for technical language that might indicate a niche audience.
  • Simplification: the main purpose of infographics is to simplify complex knowledge or data. Look out for all kinds of simplification techniques including summary, bullet points, images with captions and more.
  • Illustrations: they say a picture is worth a thousand words and nowhere is this more true than in infographics. Icons are simplified mages that symbolise certain ideas from the text.
  • Copy: infographics are multimodal, meaning there will be some brief text included. Look out for headlines, labels and snippets (brief chunks of text).
  • Structure: good infographics are little visual narratives that tell a simple story, so look out for structural elements that help you decode the sequence of events.
  • Design: infographics are supposed to be eye-catching. Colour, typography, font and other design features should combine to help you get information and also engage your interest.

Body of Work: Plan International Video Campaigns

In 2013, Plan International won a Golden Radiator Award (yes, seriously, this is what they are called) for this advert which avoids stereotyping African girls while still telling a compelling story and eliciting help and support for a worthy cause.

Charity appeals are an important subcategory of advertising. Charity advertising campaigns raise awareness of important social issues, such as homelessness, poverty, addiction and more. Campaigns are aimed at finding new supporters, who are vital in spreading information, and, of course, seeking donations of money or time – or both.

Television advertising is a preferred method of many charity campaigns as it can be a relatively cost-effective way of reaching potential supporters. Daytime television slots are comparatively cheap for advertisers, and still reach a wide demographic. A favoured strategy of television charity appeals is to be hard-hitting – shock tactics can be effective in eliciting a reaction from viewers. Arguably, one of the roles of charity adverts is to show people how things really are and to shed a light on some of the world’s difficult problems. But charities have to walk a delicate line and think carefully about what they air. If people feel too uncomfortable, they may be put off.

Another difficulty charity adverts have to consider is viewer apathy. All too frequently, it’s easy to fall into the trap of stereotyping certain people. For example, frequent images of hopeless people in poverty all too easily lead to a ‘them-and-us’ mindset, and actually does more harm than good by worsening viewer apathy. The best charity adverts balance their appeals with positive images of the people they want to help and show the difference donors are making.

Therefore, charities should always be conscious of the viewer and think carefully about the images they show. Plan International has an excellent reputation in this regard. Focusing on the rights of children, and in particular the rights of girls, Plan International has a long track record of hard-hitting but empowering video adverts, such as the award winning short film I’ll Take It From Here (embedded above). Watch this film, visit the Plan International website and investigate more of their work. Other films you might like to watch include 2021’s The Heavy Gown and Mass Construction from way back in 2012.

Towards Assessment: Individual Oral

Supported by an extract from one non-literary text and one from a literary work, students will offer a prepared response of 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions by the teacher, to the following prompt: Examine the ways in which the global issue of your choice is presented through the content and form of two of the texts that you have studied. (40 marks)

A sample from this ad campaign would be an ideal text to bring into this assessed activity. Here are suggestions as to how you might use this Body of Work to create a Global Issue. You can use one of these ideas, or develop your own. You should always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own thoughts, discussions and programme of study when devising your assessment tasks.

  • Field of Inquiry: Beliefs, Values and Education
  • Global Issue: The Importance of Girl’s Education
  • Rationale:

Statistically, around the world, girls are disempowered and excluded from education more than boys, an issue tackled by Plan International’s campaign.

  • Field of Inquiry: Culture, Community and Identity
  • Global Issue: Diverse Representation
  • Rationale:

An issue faced by charity campaigners is the danger of ‘poverty fatigue’. Audiences are so used to seeing images of poor and hungry people, they begin to be desensitised and respond with apathy. Research has shown the power of positive representation. Therefore, the Plan International campaign takes great care to balance their appeals with positive images of the people they want to help. The texts go a long way to countering oft-seen stereotypes of girls, poverty, and lesser-seen places in the world, such as Malawi.

possible literary pairings
  • Broken April by Ismail Kadare – Diana is despised by Mark Ukacierra because she is a woman, and condescended to by her husband because she’s not as educated as he. Nevertheless, she makes one of the strongest impressions of any character in this novel.
  • Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw – this play was first performed in 1912 and the audience would have been upper class wealthy theatre patrons of the time. Imagine their surprise when a common flower girl turns out to be the hero of the piece – and smarter and more more competent than many of the upper class characters around her.
  • The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy – a perfect pairing. There are so many aspects of positive representation that you could choose from this text. Look at Queen Herod and Queen Kong for amazing examples of strong female voices representation. And Thetis has something to say about the way women are forced to conform rather than express themselves freely in society.
  • The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare – although it has a reputation as a ‘problem play’, supporters of Shakespeare’s drama contest that the writer was simply holding up a mirror to society at the time. The Merchant of Venice does contain a remarkably diverse cast of characters, from Shylock the Jew to the arrogant and vain Dukes of Morocco and Arragon – and of course Portia. Whether the representation of these characters is progressive or not is something for you to decide.
  • Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie – the importance of education is a major theme of this work, and what the Little Seamstress does with her newfound knowledge surprises even her teacher at the end of the novel.
  • Border Town by Shen Congwen- for a more traditional representation of girls you might like to use this novel. Although Cuicui yearns to escape into the wider world, she seems bound by convention and duty.
  • Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee – focusing on the magistrate’s interactions with the nomad girl he ‘rescues’ might provide a very interesting compliment to the images and messages in Plan International’s video campaign.

Wider Reading and Research

  • The Death of Socrates – watch and listen to an expert put visual rhetoric principles into practice in this amazing analysis subtitled ‘How to Read a Painting.’
  • Behind the Scenes of Great Ads – browse this video collection to discover how filmmakers use all kinds of visual techniques to make some creative and powerful adverts, including how Ridley Scott made the famous Apple advert, ‘1984’
  • Print Ads that Tell a Visual Story – an article from Bhatnaturally containing some striking visuals.
  • 23 Advertising Techniques – watch this Visme lecture to discover more visual and persuasive devices used in adverts.
  • 60 Powerful Social Issue ads – PSAs are a form of advertising that try to deliver a positive message or communicate information people should know. All the PSAs in this Digital Synopsis article rely on impressive use of visual images to convey a powerful message in an effective way.
  • Picturing Texts by Anna Palchik and Lester Faigley – featuring dozens of images and commentary, this primer will help you think rhetorically about images.

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