Advertising and Representation

‘Water is Wet’ and the Language of Advertising

“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.”

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: 

Reading Challenge

This is a longer and more challenging text, but spending time on this piece, and discussing it with your teacher, will help you master this topic:

Class Activity: water is wet and weasels are vague

Peruse these adverts containing different advertising claims. Discuss and explain how the various adverts exploit particular language ‘claims’ or rely on certain ‘appeals’.

Area of Exploration Conceptual Guiding Question

Just as language use varies between text types and literary works, so does the structure and style of a a text. These non-lexical features can sometimes be as important to the meaning of a text as a writer’s choice of words when they impact on a reader’s interpretation. This resource will help you discover how typographical features, such as choice of font and colour imagery, can affect your interpretation of a given advert, and help you answer the conceptual question:

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. If advertising works in the psychological or subconscious arenas, is it possible for anybody to resist advertising?
  2. Do you admire any adverts for their creativity, originality and innovation? Can you think of examples of particularly creative adverts? Are advertisements only supposed to persuade or can they be appreciated as creative or aesthetic acts?
  3. Is it necessary to be cynical about all advertising? When you boil it down, is advertising always about money? Have you had any positive experiences with advertising?

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. You might also like to think about typographical features such as choice of font and layout of image and copy. Employ a judicious selection of the basic appeals and language devices you have learned about in this section of the course; ask a classmate or teacher to identify the appeals you’ve used before adding this text to your Learner Portfolio. Include typographical features.

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. 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:

Key features of print advertisements
  • Problem and benefit: also called ‘benefit and need’, the success of any advert depends upon appealing to the desires of its readers.
  • Slogan and copy: as the image is so important in ads, text is kept to a minimum. Slogans should be short, catchy, memorable and should have a relationship with the image; this is called anchoring. Look for typographical features such as bold fonts, underlined words and the like.
  • Association: ads sell products… but also sell values. You should be alert to the abstract concepts that the advert is associating with its product and brand. Understand that objects, settings, people and so on are symbolic.
  • Testimonial: adverts often include the satisfied quotations of customers who already used the product and are delighted with their purchase. Some ads feature celebrity testimonials.
  • Advertising claims: favourites include the use of weasel words, scientific claims, vague language, or bandwagon claims. Keep an eye out for jargon which sounds impressive, but doesn’t communicate meaning.
  • Persuasion: adverts are always persuasive. Even ads that are not trying to sell you a product or service might be asking you to think something, change your behaviour or help someone. Look out for any and all kinds of persuasive devices in advertising.

Body of Work: Patagonia Worn Wear Stories

While it might seem counter-intuitive, this advert by Patagonia is part of their Worn Wear internet and video campaign that you can study as a Body of Work.

From its inception in 1973 with the entrepreneurial spirit of expert climber Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia has long been associated with sustainability. However, in 2017, this large outdoor clothing manufacturer launched an advertising campaign that seems quite bizarre; Patagonia seem to be encouraging their followers NOT to purchase their new products!

The campaign is largely hosted online and extends into short films, articles, photographs and a dedicated website pulled together under the evocative tagline: ‘The Stories We Wear’. Patagonia collect profiles of professional athletes, amateur sportsmen and women and real people who equate wear and tear (holes, burns, sewed-up patches and so on) with the actual scars they gather on their adventures and wear as symbols of their accomplishments. By presenting the people who cherish these memories – of course, they created all these memories wearing Patagonia products – the campaign tells a larger story of things worth preserving and argues for greater sustainability in the clothing and textiles industries.

Of course, there are two sides to every story and it is an unavoidable truth that Patagonia’s stock rises and the company grows as it amplifies its social mission. Find out about the Worn Wear campaign, visit Patagonia’s collection of stories, watch the films and videos, conduct some wider research and draw your own conclusions about this Body of Work.

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)

If you are interested in this Body of Work, you could talk about the Worn Wear campaign in the Individual Oral. The named author would be ‘Patagonia’. As a mixed media campaign, you should decide whether to focus on one of the stories from the website, the still images from the campaign, or an extract from one of the short films. If you choose a film extract you should provide screenshots and a transcript of the relevant section you have isolated. Speak to your teacher about ways to pair these advertisements with a literary text, or use the following suggestions as a starting point: 

  • Field of Inquiry: Science, Technology and the Environment
  • Global Issue: Sustainability
  • Rationale:

These are quite unusual adverts as they seem to argue that you should not buy new products; instead they make a case for less consumption and more sustainability in the clothing and textiles industries. The stories follow a theme of respecting and interacting with nature, which is a source of invigorating experiences rather than a commodity to be consumed and used up.

Possible Literary pairings
  • Ismail Kadare’s Broken April – when Mark Ukacciera looks at the desolate landscape of Northern Albania, what does he see? You could talk profitably about how, for Mark, the landscape represents the tenets of the Kanun and, importantly, how those living on the land are merely a revenue stream for those who rule.
  • John Keats’ Selected Poetry – Keats’ poetry is replete with rich and vivid descriptions of the natural world – and the different ways in which people interact with nature. You could look at images of nature in his odes to the nightingale and melancholy, for example.
  • Haruki Murakami’s The Elephant Vanishes – in these short stories, the narrators have all lost touch with the natural world and seem to live in a ‘dead’ corporate world, surrounded by brands and material goods, but lacking something vital they need to live full lives. Emissaries from the natural world are either misunderstood or ignored.
  • Shen Congwen’s Border Town – people in Chadong live harmoniously with nature, which challenges, nourishes and rewards those hardy enough to live there. Nevertheless, while Congwen depicts a rural paradise, readers get the impression that modernism is creeping closer and this idyllic lifestyle might not last forever.
  • William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice – how do the characters in this play speak about the ocean? Rather than marvel at its wonders, the ocean is more like a highway for ferrying goods and commodities to faraway destinations.
  • David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross – if you want to speak about the commodification of nature, look no further than this play in which land is literally parcelled and packaged for sale to unsuspecting buyers.
  • Han Kang’s The Vegetarian – Yeong-hye tries live a less harmful life by giving up meat and eating only vegetables. But even this is not enough for her, and she slowly begins to transform herself into a plant. You could investigate images of trees, plants and flowers in this novel.
  • J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians – when Colonel Joll visits the small frontier town at the edge of the empire, it soon becomes clear he has no respect for people or nature. He doesn’t understand the rhythms of life in the desert and a shocking scene in which he recklessly hunts animals, leaving their corpses to pile rotting in the desert demonstrates his contempt for life.
  • Charlotte Mew’s Selected Poetry – poems such as The Trees are Down and The Farmer’s Bride reveal how some people find nourishment and companionship in nature – and how others like to control the natural world, and even destroy it should it suit their needs.
  • Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home – in chapter 5 of her graphic memoir, Alison recalls exploring the Allegheny Plateau around her home town of Beech Creek. This section of the novel also features many maps charting the development of the area – and she explicitly asks whether the way her father’s story turned out had anything to do with the geography of the area.
  • Life of Pi by Yann Martel – for a literary work in which people commune with nature, look no further than this brilliant survival story. The environment is both hostile to Pi and the source of his survival and much can be made of the role and importance of the natural world in both these texts.

Towards Assessment: HL Essay

Students submit an essay on one non-literary text or a collection of non-literary texts by one same author, or a literary text or work studied during the course. The essay must be 1,200-1,500 words in length. (20 marks).††

The Worn Wear Stories in this collection would make a perfect case study for an extended written task. Founded in 1973, Patagonia has always had a reputation for being an ethical company, and their campaigns have become more sophisticated in recent years. In 2017, the website for Worn Wear Stories was launched, taking advantage of the internet’s wide reach and the increasingly blurred lines between the producer and receiver of a text: in fact, some of the stories in this campaign were created by Patagonia’s followers, not the company itself.

Writing about a multimedia campaign has its challenges and you should consider your angle of approach carefully. As a general rule of thumb, the more focused your writing is, the better your essay is likely to be. Here are some ideas of elements you might like to investigate, although you should always take in to account your own discussions and programme of study before you make your choice:

  • To what purposes does Patagonia put images of nature in the Worn Wear Stories advertising campaign?
  • What is effective about the use of anecdote and storytelling in Patagonia’s Worn Wear campaign?
  • How are men and / or women depicted in particular ways in Patagonia’s Worn Wear adverts?
  • To what extent does Patagonia’s Worn Wear advertising campaign rely on certain advertising claims to appeal to its audience?
  • To what extent does Patagonia’s Worn Wear campaign deviate from the conventions normally associated with advertising?
  • How are specific objects and items of clothing treated symbolically in the Worn Wear advertising campaign by Patagonia?
  • How does Patagonia exploit the idea of nostalgia throughout the Worn Wear Stories advertising campaign?

Wider Reading and Research

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