Visual Rhetoric

Rhetoric doesn't just happen with words. Images and pictures have meanings to us, too, and people can use them to influence and affect us in many different ways. Just as rhetoric in general has to do with how you choose to express yourself,
visual rhetoric involves how you choose to present information or an argument through images. In other words,

Visual rhetoric = How you tell a message or "argue" with images or pictures.

Images are a powerful way of communicating ideas and persuading us, including in ways that we don't always notice. Remember: In a magazine advertisement or TV ad, advertisers arrange (almost) everything on purpose. Assume that nothing is left to chance. Advertisers are very careful about what images they show in an ad, especially nowadays when they can use Photoshop to edit images after a photo is taken. If the ad shows certain colors or objects or has objects arranged in a certain way, it is probably to achieve a certain affect.

For an example of analyzing visual rhetoric, look at this ad. Ask yourself: what is this ad for? How do you know the ad's purpose? (In other words, what details give you this information?) Here are some examples of my analysis of the ad:
  • This picture is scary—bullet holes in a person! It’s playing off of pathos; I feel sorry for real people in this same situation. I feel more sorry for a woman and baby than I would for a man, so I think that's why the advertisers chose a woman for the ad. 
  • The colors of the picture seem calm, like a nursery (pastels). The image (mother and baby) is also peaceful. I think the advertisers chose those people and colors because they make a BIG contrast to the bullet holes.
  • The words in the corner of the ad add to the message, but they are smaller so they don’t distract from the main part, the image. (If the words were bigger, I think the image wouldn’t be as powerful.)

How to Analyze Visual Rhetoric
When you are analyzing the visual rhetoric of an image or advertisement, just use the following steps:
  1. Detail dump. Write down everything you notice in the ad. Take note of every color, every object, and every detail. Don't worry about what things mean yet; just notice what's there. Remember—advertisers put all of these things in on purpose.
  2. Figure out the importance. Now ask yourself, "Why did the advertisers choose to include these things in the ad?" Write down what you think, and go with your gut instincts.
  3. Consider the motive or message. Why did the advertiser make this ad? (Is it to sell something? To inspire people to action? To stop people from doing something? etc.) Just like every good essay has a central message or argument, every good ad also has a central message. Think about this message, and consider how all of the details in the ad help to support and reinforce that central message or idea.
  4. Consider the audience. Think about the advertisers' intentions. What kind of people did they make this ad for? (Men, women, kids, dog-owners, etc.—look at the section of this website on audience for more details.) The "rules" of visual rhetoric change a bit depending on who the audience is. Does this audience respond the same way as you to the details in the ad, or would it be different? How does knowing the audience affect what the advertiser puts in the ad?
That's about it! If you follow these steps, then you will have a good idea of how the visual rhetoric of an ad is working.

Practice and Review Time!
Here's an example movie that shows how to analyze an ad's visual rhetoric. In this example, the analyzer follows basically the same steps as the four mentioned above (though they could have taken more time to consider the ad's audience). The analyzer came up with a main argument/message ("the need to escape through Coca Cola"), and they noticed the meaning of colors and objects in the ad. They looked at what the images meant or suggested to the ad's audience.

Several eighth-grade English classes worked together in analyzing ads to come up with some basic rules for visual rhetoric. This is the document we made. It isn't a complete list of all of the different techniques of visual rhetoric, but it is a good introduction: Visual Rhetoric Reference.pdf

Based on what you now know about rhetoric, try looking at the following print ads and practice analyzing their visual rhetoric. Ask yourself these and other questions: What do the colors mean? Why are certain objects included or not included in the ad? How would the effect change if certain parts of the ad were changed?
More Materials on Visual Rhetoric
If you are interested in learning more about visual rhetoric, good for you! This webpage barely scratches the surface of how powerful images can be. Check out the following resources I've picked that teach more about visual rhetoric and design:
  • CRAP: The Four Basic Principles of Design - No, this video isn't about bad language. "CRAP" is an acronym that stands for the four most basic principles of design: Contrast, Repetition, Alignment, and Proximity. If you are interested in art or design, then you definitely need to understand these principles.
  • The Science of Colors - Different colors have different effects upon viewers, and advertisers know this. Check out this article to learn more about how colors affect us when we see them. Be aware that like all design elements, the effect of colors depends upon the audience. (Other countries may not interpret colors to symbolize the same things that we think they do!)
  • Color Psychology - This video produced by explains the hypothesized effects of different colors on the human mind.
Ryne S.,
Jan 26, 2013, 12:55 PM