How to Read Ads

Area I: Basic Analysis of the Layers of Meaning in Ads
Katherine Frith (1998) discusses a tripartite approach to reading advertising.

Frith’s Level of Analysis

  • The Surface Meaning    “consists of the overall impression that a reader might get from quickly studying the advertisement…you can describe this surface level of meaning by simply listing all the objects and people in the ad” (1998:5).
  • The Advertiser’s Intended Meaning    “is the sales message that the advertiser is trying to get across. Some marketers refer to this as the strategy behind the ad. It is the ‘preferred’ or expected meaning that a reader might get from the ad; the meaning that the advertiser intends for the reader to take with them” (ibid.).
  • The Cultural or Ideological Meaning    “…relies on the cultural knowledge and background of the reader. We all ‘make sense’ of ads by relating them to our culture and to the shared belief systems held in common by most people” (ibid.).

Area II: Semiotic Analysis of Ads
Erving Goffman’s classic Gender Advertisements (1979) offers a semiotic analysis of advertising. Goffman’s analysis looks at the specific codes present in ads and considers what they say about society and social relationships. His study includes a focus on minute details of ads, visual composition of ads, as well as the presence of specific social themes in ads.

Area III: Thematic Analysis of Ads
In Advertising and the End of the World director Sut Jhally focuses on the negative impacts of advertising on our social relations and the environment. He develops a specific analysis of ads that draws the viewer to make holistic conclusions about the totality of the advertising industry. This holistic approach includes considerations of how a majority of ads stress specific visions of society, focus on how products produce happiness in consumers and project a vision of the future. Thus, another way to read ads is to consider the themes that develop in a specific medium, such as a Vogue magazine, or across a number of issues of that magazine or even across a broad spectrum of multiple magazines. This web page is focused on this holistic analysis of the themes that appear in popular advertisements. Jhally’s other significant work, Dreamworlds II, also influenced a number of the themes that can be found in both music videos and popular magazine ads.

The theme of normalization is present in ads throughout the historical spectrum of magazine advertising. In practically every contemporary magazine, women, as well as men, are powerful messages about how their bodies should be.

Area IV: Quantitative Analysis of Ads
Quantitative analyses of ads focus on the number of ads that represent a particular theme in the study. For example, one might conduct an analysis of the various forms of representation, techniques of presentation and thematic issues present in male and female sports magazines. A quantitative assessment of the numbers of any of these items would give a relative indication of the social constructions present in the advertising.

Area V: Side-By-Side Comparisons of Ads
This approach to ads would use two or more ads in a comparative sense to understanding differences in the constructions of gender and sexuality in ads. A goal of this form of analysis is to understand content and thematic differences in visual representations.

Area VI: Ethnographic Analysis of Ads
An ethnographic analysis of ads would include:
1.  Interviews with ad or media agency representatives as to the goals of their advertising campaigns
2.  Interviews with everyday individuals to assess their understandings of the meanings of ads.

* Originally presented by Scott A. Lukas, Ph.D.