Advertising and Representation

The Language of Advertising

“Students, and many teachers, are notorious believers in their immunity to advertising. These naive inhabitants of consumerland believe that advertising is childish, dumb, a bunch of lies, and influences only the vast hordes of the less sophisticated. Their own purchases are made purely on the basis of value and desire, with advertising playing only a minor supporting role. They know about Vance Packard and his “hidden persuaders” and the adwriter’s psychosell and bag of persuasive magic. They are not impressed.

Jeffrey Shrank, The Language of Advertising Claims
If you’ve ever wondered why some ads stand out more than others, this explainer will help you figure out why.

Despite what people say, advertisers know that language (and images) work at both the conscious and the unconscious level, and a person unaware of advertising’s claim on him or her is the person least well equipped to resist its insidious attack, no matter how forthright they may sound. An essential underpinning to the language and literature course is the aim for you to become media-literate. The purpose of a classroom study of advertising is to raise the level of awareness about the persuasive techniques used in ads. Ads can be studied to detect ‘hooks,’ they can be used to gauge values of consumers, and they can be analysed for symbols, colour, and imagery. But perhaps the simplest and most direct way to study ads is through learning the language of advertising. Begin your study by reading the following articles: 

Class Activity

Peruse these adverts containing different advertising claims and / or this selection of adverts connecting to the 15 basic appeals. Discuss and explain how the various adverts exploit particular language ‘claims’ or rely on certain ‘appeals’.

Area of Exploration Conceptual Guiding Question

No text is read or written in a vacuum and that is as true for advertisements as it is for major literary works. Both the historical time and the geographical or cultural space a text is written in has an enormous influence on its content and delivery. Similarly, no text is interpreted outside of these factors either. In this section, you will learn about the contexts of production and reception. This resource begins and ends with a consideration of advertising texts, how advertising conventions have changed over time, and how the same text might be read and interpreted differently by different readers.

Learner Portfolio

Write a full page-spread for a magazine advertising a new product of your choice. You can include an image but, as this is an exercise, the most important element should be a body of text. Employ a judicious selection of the basic appeals and language devices you have read about here; ask a classmate or teacher to identify the appeals you’ve used before adding this text to your Learner Portfolio.

Paper 1 Text Type Focus: print advertising

Advertising is a wide and varied genre, ranging from print ads that you might find in a magazine to huge billboards overlooking a busy road, to posters on the sides of buildings, to webpages… and more. Some adverts rely more strongly on visuals for their appeal – they have to quickly hook a reader’s attention if they are on the move or flicking idly through a magazine. However, other adverts contain extensive copy that tries to manipulate the reader in more subtle ways. The adverts in this section have been deliberately chosen because they contain more copy. Use these practice texts to familiarise yourself with the different features of Advertisements 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:


Body of Work: Lucky Strike Cigarette ad campaigns

An excerpt from Alan Curtis’ Century of the Self, a documentary about the growth of advertising throughout the 20th century. This part introduces the impact of Edward Bernays on the culture of American advertising.

Up until 1929, it had been illegal for women to smoke in public. One man changed that: Edward Bernays, the ‘father of public relations.’ He organised a ‘Torches of Freedom’ march on Easter Day in New York. On cue , his secretary and all her friends lit cigarettes and smoked them – right in front of gathered photographers and reporters positioned in advance by Bernays to catch the moment. Lucky Strike – the tobacco company that had hired Bernays as public relations consultant – saw their potential market double overnight! From this moment, Bernays ran adverts with pictures of women holding cigarettes and women began to feel confident about smoking in public. A legendary ad campaign was born.

This collection of adverts includes examples of all Lucky Strike’s major campaigns from the 1910s through to the 1950s. Through studying these texts you will see how an advertising campaign changes and evolves through time, both in terms of how the adverts appealed to readers and in the sophistication of the advertising techniques used to sell what is, essentially, a harmful product that has limited benefits for the consumer.

There are plenty of resources that you can turn to for wider reading and context about this topic. Several documentaries have been made charting the rise and fall of cigarette advertising and Edward Bernays’ impact on the history of advertising, as well as the key role he played in the Lucky Strike campaigns of the 1920s and 1930s. You can find some of these supporting materials here:

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)

Please find suggestions here; but always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own programme of study when devising your assessment tasks.

An advert from this collection would be a good choice to bring into your Individual Oral. The named author would be the ‘British American Tobacco Group’ or ‘Lucky Strike.’ You could explore the Field of Inquiry of Art, Creativity and Imagination and the Global Issue of ‘the need for escapism.’ Whether a student grinding away through mountains of homework, someone working 9-to-5 just to pay the bills, or a person who gives up everything for their career, the need to step outside our own lives, retreat into our imaginations and dream dreams is a universal part of living and working in the world. Yet, in terms of this Body of Work, you might like to consider how canny advertisers such as Lucky Strike exploit the boundaries between healthy escapism and a complete distortion of reality. Speak to your teacher about ways to pair these advertisements with a literary text, or use the following suggestions as a starting point: 

  • Ismail Kadare’s Broken April – when Gjorg asks his father permission to just wander the High Plateau, is he coming to terms with the tenets of the Kanun, or simply avoiding dealing with his fate?
  • John Keats’ Selected Poetry – Keats’ odes and his longer poem La Belle Dame sans Merci are poems with something to say about the ways in which we try avoid the unpleasant sides of life by escaping into fantasy worlds – with unpleasant consequences.
  • Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber – if you’re interested in the alluring power of celebrity, you can compare the effects and techniques in the Cream of the Crop campaign with the effect of the Marquis’ dazzling seduction of the narrator in Carter’s title story in this collection.
  • J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun – you can make interesting links between the glitz and glamour of life in these adverts and the city of Shanghai, a setting richly evoked at the start of the novel.
  • George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion – the archetypal ‘Cinderella story’ is an example of the way audiences like to escape from mundane reality; the fantasy of becoming a princess, marrying a Prince Charming and living happily-ever-after is a powerful one. But Shaw doesn’t like the way people expect literature to provide happy resolutions so, in an extended epilogue, lectures them as to why his Liza doesn’t get the perfect ‘happy-ever-after’ after all.

Towards Assessment: HL Essay

The Lucky Strike adverts in this collection would make a perfect case study for an extended written task. Beginning in the 1910s and continuing through to the 1960s, these campaigns demonstrate how a text changes in response to social and historical developments. For example, early adverts focused on the health benefits of smoking; this strategy was abandoned later in the century in favour of aligning Lucky Strike cigarettes with celebrities and even with the war effort.

You might therefore like to investigate how the campaigns develop and change over time. Your essay would include a range of campaigns, with a focus on exemplar adverts. You should make sure to include analysis of both visual and written elements in your work, as well as researching Edward Bernays in more detail. You could consider one or two of the following angles of approach to help you focus your work:

  • Explore the use of symbolism in adverts for Lucky Strike.
  • How did Lucky Strike use colour in increasingly sophisticated ways in their print adverts?
  • How were men and women depicted in adverts by Lucky Strike?
  • To what extent did Lucky Strike rely upon certain advertising claims in their advertising throughout the first half of the twentieth century?
  • How do the changes in Lucky Strike adverts between 1910 and 1950 reflect wider social changes?
  • Investigate examples of ‘sloganism’ in Lucky Strike adverts? How important were slogans to the success of these advertising campaigns?

Wider Reading and Research

  • The Century of the Self – a BBC documentary about the rise of advertising and public relations. The first episode is called The Happiness Machine, and focuses on the story of Edward Bernays.

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