HOW TO READ AN ADVERTISEMENT
Reading advertisements is a complex skill, but some ads are easier to read than others, and it sometimes helps to ask a series of questions about an ad in order to make sense of its meaning and to understand exactly how it works.
These questions are a framework which you could use with any print or TV advertisement. You will not always want to ask all of them; you will not always need to read every ad this closely. However, they are here for you to use whenever you need to, as a checklist of the different techniques by which ads construct meaning.
a) Reading the image; what’s in the picture?
What can you tell about the age, sex, class, race of the different people shown in the ad from:
What other objects are featured prominently in the ad, and what do they suggest?
Where is the ad set?
What is the product?
b) Technical codes – how was it constructed?
What visual techniques does it involve?
Use of the camera in print ads
Use of the camera in TV commercials
Composition and framing
c) The text of the advertisement
Brand name of the product
Copy in print ads
Soundtrack in TV or radio commercials
Typography and graphics
d) The genre of the advertisement
Who is the ad aimed at?
How can you tell:
Where might the ad be seen?
If TV and radio:
Who was it made for?
Why was it made?
Is it part of a larger campaign?
How does it relate to:
What overall message does the ad give?
What roles, models or stereotypes are represented in the ad?
What ideas, lifestyles or desires does the ad seem to suggest?
What values are associated with the product?
Semiotics - Roland Barthes
What does narrative mean?
Lev Kuleshov in the 1920’s advised that when we watch a film or programme we try to create meaning and connect events to see a line of cause and effect. Even if there is no connection between people or events we try to make one to make sense of what we are watching. If films are not shown chronologically we try to order the events in our minds and quickly link flashbacks to the present.
Todorov proposed a basic structure for all narratives. He stated that films and programmes begin with an equilibrium, a calm period. Then agents of disruption cause disequilibrium, a period of unsettlement and disquiet. This is then followed by a renewed state of peace and harmony for the protagonists and a new equilibrium brings the chaos to an end.
The theory is simply this:
Here narrative is not seen as a linear structure but a circular one.
The narrative is driven by attempts to restore the equilibrium.
However, the equilibrium attained at the end of the story is not identical to the initial equilibrium.
Todorov argues that narrative involves a transformation. The characters or the situations are transformed through the progress of the disruption.
The disruption itself usually takes place outside the normal social framework, outside the ‘normal’ social events.
E.g. a murder happens and people are terrified
Someone vanishes and the characters have to solve the mystery
Vladimir Propp’s theory was formed in the early twentieth Century. He studies Russian fairytales and discovered that in stories there were always 8 types of characters evident. These are: the hero, the villain, the donor, the dispatcher, the false hero, the helper, the princess and her father. He did not state these characters were all separate people e.g. the provider could also be the helper. However, this is easily relatable to films and programmes today.
Film as Fairy Tale
Vladimir Propp, a Russian critic, active in the 1920’s, published his Morphology of the Folk Tale in 1928. While the Soviet cinema was producing excellent films, Propp was essentially interested in the narrative of folk tales. He noticed
Folk tales were similar in many areas. They were about the same basic struggles and they appeared to have stock characters. He identified a theory about characters and actions as narrative functions.
Characters, according to Propp, have a narrative function; they provide a structure for the text.
Characters that perform a function
Propp’s theory of narrative seems to be based in a male orientated environment (due to his theory actually reflecting early folk tales) and as such critics often dismiss the theory with regard to film. However, it may still be applied because the function (rather than the gender) of characters is the basis of the theory. E.g. the hero could be a woman; the reward could be a man.
Critics argue that Propp’s strict order of characters and events is restrictive. We should rather apply the functions and events randomly as we meet new narratives. E.g. the hero may kill the villain earlier than Propp expects. Changing the traditional format will change the whole way the text is received.
Some critics claim there are many more character types than Propp suggests and we should feel free to identify them. E.g. the stooge in a sci-fi film, who is usually nameless and usually killed early on to suggest the power of the alien force, is a typical modern character type.
It applies to Fairy Stories and to other similar narratives based around 'quests' IT DOES NOTAPPLY TO ALL NARRATIVES.
WHY THE THEORY IS USEFUL
It avoids treating characters as if they are individuals and reminds us they are merely constructs. Some characters are indeed there just to progress the narrative.
He stated that there need to be a binary opposition within a film or programme. This is usually presented through good vs. evil. Other binary oppositions include:
Binary oppositions in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ (Dir. Peter Jackson)
In this book, Campbell studies many hundreds of fairy tales, folk tales and legends in order to unearth a common “pattern” in the structure of stories. Campbell defines this as the “monomyth” – the typical trajectory of a story, across all cultures and religions. This monomyth is known as the “hero’s journey”.
Comprising three stages – separation, initiation and return – the hero’s journey offers a narrative framework for understanding the progression of a character, namely the protagonist. The journey, Campbell argues, usually includes a symbolic death and re-birth of the character. The religious idea of “cleansing” is also important, giving a sense of the character transforming from old to new – the character arc.
“The auteur theory is a way of reading and appraising films through the imprint of an auteur (author), usually meant to be the director.”
Andre Bazin was the founder, in 1951, of Cahiers du cinema and is often seen as the father of auteurism because of his appreciation of the world-view and style of such artists as Charlie Chaplin and Jean Renoir. It was younger critics at the magazine who developed the idea further, drawing attention to significant directors from the Hollywood studio era as well as European directors.
The idea of the auteur gained currency in America in the 1960s through Andrew Sarris. He devised the notion of auteur theory (the French critics had never claimed the concept to be a ‘theory’). He used it to tell the history of American filmmaking through the careers and work of individuals, classifying them according to their respective talents.
“Over a group of films a director must exhibit certain recurrent characteristics of style, which serve as his signature.” (Andrew Sarris)
Today, the notion of the individual as auteur is less theoretically constrained, so that we might consider actors as auteurs as well as directors and producers. The key thing is that a recognisable imprint is left on a body of films, and this may involve varying levels of creative input. For example, in the Laurel and Hardy partnership, Stan Laurel made the significant decisions about their act whilst Oliver Hardy did little more than turn up and get on with his job. But on screen we are only aware of the combined and instantly recognisable effect of the two performing together. When considering an actor, the important question to address is the kind of identity he/she projects and how this identity is created through their performances. Is their persona stable, or does it vary? Sometimes, actors are cast against type or give a markedly different performance to that with which they are associated – what is the effect of this?
The following filmmakers/actors are considered auteurs:
Storyboards help filmmaking teams visualise a film and how to tell the film’s story through images. In a film, the audience follows a story not just through character's dialogue, but also through their actions. Even objects and settings help tell a story.
You can make decisions about how things will look by creating a storyboard. Each panel in a storyboard represents a camera shot and therefore what the camera will see and show. You do not have to recreate every frame of a film in a storyboard; that would take forever!
Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez is known for making video storyboards, especially when planning his action sequences. You can see the director at work below.
Genre is a French word for 'type' or category. Genres have certain distinctive main features. These features have come to be well understood and recognized through being repeated over a period of time.
Genres have a certain amount of predictability and repeated elements, which make them distinctive and which help to define them. All genres have a portfolio of key elements from which they are composed. Not all examples of a genre will have all the elements all the time. It is these elements which make up the formula or a repetition of elements of a given genre.
Repetition of elements include:
All genres have recognisable protagonists or lead characters. These may be heroes and/or villains. Sometimes these lead males and females are so predictable that they have the same qualities across a number of genres.
Another part of the formula of genre, includes recognisable though minor characters. These are called stock characters. In science fiction texts the stock characters are the scientist, aliens, robots. In news programmes the on the spot reporter, academics who are specialists in their field, eye witnesses, weather man/woman would be considered stock characters.
Plots and stock situations
The storylines or parts of them are also predictable and recognisable. However complicated the stories are in soaps, there is bound to be a scene in which someone turns up from the past and has some form of confrontation. In horror films there is the presence of the stock situation of the monster killing someone or a shootout in a western.
This element is crucial to genre because, it is the aspect of genre we immediately recognise and lock into.
The main types of icon are:
Props such as guns can instantly tell us about the genre of the film. A Colt 45 will inform the audience it is a western, a laser or ray gun that it is a science fiction film. Props also stand for the main ideas and themes of the genre.
Specific costumes can be associated with specific genres. For example: astronaut suits – Science Fiction, sombrero – westerns, expensive suits – gangster, bright colourful colours on TV – children’s programmes, suits – News programmes.
These elements are typical, distinctive and recognisable for a given genre. Their importance varies from text to text. The settings of quiz shows such as Millionaire Hot Seat and The Chase are very distinctive.
The themes or ideas which run through and come out of the stories are very much part of genres. Themes also tie in with the value messages that the genre is projecting. For example, all genre narratives say something about conflict between good and evil. But the theme of the fear of technology is central to Science Fiction films, not other genres. Fear of the unknown is central to horror.
Some stars or celebrities become associated with specific genres. Arnold Schwarzenegger is associated with action films, John Wayne with westerns, Bruce Lee/ Jackie Chan martial arts, Hugh Grant with romantic comedies.
Some sounds are instantly associated with specific genres. A creaking door with horror, a sound of a space ship with science fiction.
Genres in film include:
Archetype – A universal type or model of character that is found in many different texts, e.g. ingenue, anti-hero, wise old woman, hero-as-lover, hero-as-warrior, shadow trickster, mentor, loyal friend, temptress.
Audience – viewers, listeners and readers of a media text. A lot of media studies is concerned with how audience use texts and the effects a text may have on them. Also identified in demographic socioeconomic categories.
Binary Opposites – the way opposites are used to create interest in media texts, such as good/bad, coward/hero, youth/age, black/white. By Barthes and Levi-Strauss who also noticed another important feature of these ‘binary opposites’: that one side of the binary pair is always seen by a particular society or culture as more valued over the other.
Censorship – Control over the content of a media text – sometimes by the government, but usually by a regulatory body like Australian Classification.
CGI – Computer Generated Imagery, Refers to the (usually) 3-D effects that enhance all kinds of still and moving images, from text effects, to digital snow or fire, to the generation of entire landscapes.
Code – a sign or convention through which the media communicates meaning to us because we have learned to read it.
Connotation – the secondary meaning that a sign carries in addition to it’s everyday meaning.
Consumer – purchaser, listener, viewer or reader of media products.
Context – time, place or mindset in which we consume media products.
Conventions – the widely recognised way of doing things in particular genre.
Convergence – The way in which technologies and institutions come together in order to create something new. Cinema is the result of the convergence of photography, moving pictures (the kinetoscope, zoetrope etc), and sound. The iPad represents the convergence of books, TV, maps, the internet and the mobile phone.
Demographics – Factual characteristics of a population sample, e.g. age, gender, race, nationality, income, disability, education.
Denotation – the everyday or common sense meaning of a sign.
Diegetic Sound – Sound whose source is visible on the screen.
Feminism – the struggle by women to obtain equal rights in society.
Gaze – the idea that the way we look at something, and the way somebody looks at you, is structured by the way we view the world. Feminist Laura Mulvey suggests that looking involves power, specifically the look of men at women, implying that men have power over women.
Genre – the type or category of a media text, according to its form, style and content.
Hegemony – Traditionally this describes the predominance of one social class over another, in media terms this is how the controllers of the media may on the one hand use the media to pursue their own political interest, but on the other hand the media is a place where people who are critical of the establishment can air their views.
Hypodermic Needle Theory – the idea that the media can ‘inject’ ideas and messages straight into the passive audience. This passive audience is immediately affected by these messages. Used in advertising and propaganda, led to moral panics about effect of violent video and computer games.
Iconography – which is concerned with the use of visual images and how they trigger the audiences expectations of a particular genre, such as a knife in slasher horror films.
Ideology – A set of ideas or beliefs which are held to be acceptable by the creators of the media text, maybe in line with those of the dominant ruling social groups in society, or alternative ideologies such as feminist ideology.
Indexical sign – a sign which has a direct relationship with something it signifies, such as smoke signifies fire.
Image – a visual representation of something.
Institutions – The organisations which produce and control media texts such as the ABC, Disney, Seven Network.
Intertextuality – the idea that within popular culture producers borrow other texts to create interest to the audience who like to share the ‘in’ joke. Used a lot in The Simpsons.
Media language – the means by which the media communicates to us and the forms and conventions by which it does so.
Media Platform – this refers to the different ways that media content is delivered, mainly via TV, laptop, tablet, smartphone, cinema, video/computer game, printed page etc. for instance the ABC delivers content via TV, laptop and mobile device, and also through printed publications. Most media organisations deliver their content via a multitude of platforms.
Media product – a text that has been designed to be consumed by an audience. e.g. a film, radio show, newspaper etc.
Media text – see above. N.B Text usually means a piece of writing
Mise en Scene – literally ‘what’s in the shot’ everything that appears on the screen in a single frame and how this helps the audience to decode what’s going on.
Mode of Address – The way a media product ‘speaks’ to it’s audience. In order to communicate, a producer of any text must make some assumptions about an intended audience; reflections of such assumptions may be discerned in the text (advertisements offer particularly clear examples of this).
Montage – putting together of visual images to form a sequence. Made famous by Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein in his famous film Battleship Potemkin.
Moral Panic – is the intensity of feeling stirred up by the media about an issue that appears to threaten the social order, such as against Muslims after 9/11, or against immigrants.
Multimedia – computer technology that allows text, sound, graphic and video images to be combined into one.
Myth – a complex idea by Roland Barthes that myth is a second order signifying system i.e. when a sign becomes the signifier of a new sign.
Narrative code – The way a story is put together within a text, traditionally equilibrium- disequilibrium, new equilibrium, but some text are fractured or non linear.
Negotiated Reading – the ‘compromise’ that is reached between the preferred reading offered by a text and the reader’s own assumptions and interpretations.
News values – factors that influence whether a story will be picked for coverage.
Non-diegetic sound – Sound effects, music or narration which is added afterwards.
Non-verbal communication – communication between people other than by speech.
Oppositional Reading – an interpretation of a text by a reader whose social position puts them into direct conflict with its preferred reading.
Ownership – who produces and distributes the media texts – and whose interest it is.
Patriarchy – The structural, systematic and historical domination and exploitation of women.
Popular Culture – the study of cultural artifacts of the mass media such as cinema, TV, advertising.
Postmodernism – Anything that challenges the traditional way of doing things, rejecting boundaries between high and low forms of art, rejecting rigid genre distinctions, emphasizing pastiche, parody, intertextuality, irony, and playfulness. Postmodernism favours reflexivity and self-consciousness, fragmentation and discontinuity (especially in narrative structures), ambiguity, simultaneity, and an emphasis on the destructured, decentered, dehumanized subjects!
Preferred Reading – the interpretation of a media product that was intended by the maker or which is dictated by the ideology of the society in which it is viewed.
Propaganda – the way ruling classes use the mass media to control or alter the attitudes of others.
Reader – a member of the audience, someone who is actively responding to the text.
Regulation – bodies whose job it is to see that media texts are not seen by the wrong audience (e.g. Australian Classification) or are fair and honest (e.g. Ad Standards).
Representation – The way in which the media ‘re-presents’ the world around us in the form of signs and codes for audiences to read.
SFX – special effects or devices to create visual illusions.
Shot – single image taken by a camera.
Sign – a word or image that is used to represent an object or idea.
Signifier/Signified – the ‘thing’ that conveys the meaning, and the meaning conveyed. e,g a red rose is a signifier, the signified is love.
Sound Effects – additional sounds other than dialogue or music, designed to add realism or atmosphere.
Stereotype – representation of people or groups of people by a few characteristics e.g. hoodies, Crocs, dreadlocks.
Still – static image.
Sub-genre – a genre within a genre.
Technical codes – all to do with the way a text is technically constructed – camera angles, framing, typography, lighting etc.
Two Step Flow theory – the idea that ideas flow from mass media to opinion leaders, and from them to a wider population.
Uses and Gratifications – ideas about how people use the media and what gratification they get from it. It assumes that members of the audience are not passive but take an active role in interpreting and integrating media into their own lives.
Visual codes – codes that are decoded on a mainly connotation level – things that draw on our experience and understanding of other media texts, this includes iconography.