Ad Analysis

Analyzing an ad or a song is a popular assignment in rhetoric classes. But students sometimes tend towards a very literal reading, often simply summarizing the message. Here is an example of how one instructor went about about preparing students for an assignment which asked them to analyze an ad.

The goal in this unit was to give the students a couple of ways to think about how they might go beyond summarizing the message of an ad to analyzing how that message is being conveyed.

We began by watching the first 45 minutes of The Persuaders, a PBS documentary about the advertising industry. Prior to watching it the students were asked to watch carefully for the moment when the narrator presents his argument about why he thinks branding is so successful - "People develop a loyalty to brands for exactly the same reasons as they join cults: they want community, the company of others, and they want to make meaning." Then they were asked to pay attention to the evidence he presents, examples of how ads for various products - Song, Saturn, the iPod, and Nike - try to communicate that cult-like sense of belonging. (In other words, they got a pre-viewing summary that oriented them to the main points)

Then we talked about gender stereotypes and watched previews of Spin the Bottle, Tough Guise and Killing Us Softly. We identified and discussed the (very similar) argument being made in each - that media representations reinforce stereotypes of big, tough men and thin, sexy (white) women - and then watched the last 30 minutes of Dreamworlds 3, which argues that music videos create a male fantasy world in which women are interchangeable and sex is about male desire.
By now students had three simple ways to think about an ad. They could ask themselves
(i) if the ad challenges or reinforces gender stereotypes
(ii) if it creates a male sexual fantasy world or challenges it (by giving women some sort of sexual agency)
(iii) if it promotes a cult-like sense of belonging or its opposite, rugged individualism.

Students get very good at this very fast. For the next couple weeks we spent the first 10 minutes of class watching an ad (or a music video) and answering one or two of the three questions. Students had to make a claim about what they'd watched ("yes, it reinforces gender stereotypes!") and then provide evidence to support that position ("the woman in the ad is in the kitchen and the man's in the yard"). Within a couple of days they were able to refine or elaborate on their claims ("It reinforces gender stereotypes by portraying men as active, rugged outdoor types and women as domestic creatures primarily concerned with childcare)" and by the end of the two weeks - after being encouraged to consider that an ad might challenge and reinforce gender stereotypes at the same time or include appeals to ideas about gender and about community - they were producing much more sophisticated and interesting claims ("The Rihanna/Eminem video seems to be challenging the stereotypical notion that women are always defenseless pathetic victims in abusive relationships, but it glamorizes domestic violence by making it look sexy and all about passion"). They were also mobilizing evidence in support of their positions against the claims of other students. As I wrote their arguments on the board and helped them refine them, they were learning how to write a good thesis. 

Here are a couple of other kinds of models to use with students:
Students could read this interview with Naomi Klein - her main argument: that branding is often about selling a kind of "pseudospirituality."
There's this short video on Slate magazine describing Thomas Gunn's twelve master ad formats

Center for Media Literacy
Adbusters spoof ads
Slate Magazine's Ad Report