CI5472 Teaching Film, Television, and Media

 Module 6: Studying Advertising

Module 6

Critical Discourse Analysis of Ads

From the perspective of critical discourse analysis, Guy Cook (2001) argues that advertising is a discourse itself constituting the meaning of both the text (the ad itself) and the context in which people are responding to the ad. He argues that is important to examine the meanings of ads based on how audiences construct these meanings based on their semiotic knowledge of images/signs, genre knowledge, needs, desires, and discourses applied to the ad. He describes the following components of context (p. 4):

  • Substance: the physical material which carriers or relays text

  • Music and pictures: designed to entertain and capture people’s attention

  • Paralanguage: meaningful behavior accompanying language, such as voice quality, gestures, facial expressions and touch (in speech), and choice of typeface and letter sizes (in writing).

  • Situation: the properties and relations of objects and people in the vicinity of the texts, as perceived by the participants.

  • Co-text: text which precedes or follows that under analysis, and which participants judge to belong to the same discourse.

  • Intertext: texts which the participants perceive as belonging to other discourse, but which they associated with the text under construction, and which affects their interpretation.

  • Participants: their intentions and interpretations, knowledge and beliefs, attitudes, affiliations and feelings. Each participant is simultaneously a part of the context and an observer of it. Participants are usually described as senders and receivers (The sender of a message is not always the same as the addressers, however, the person who relays it. In a television ad, for example, the addresser may be an actor, though the sender is an advertising agency. Neither is the receiver always the addressee, the person for which it is intended. The addressees may be a specific target group, but the receiver is anyone who sees the ad.)

  • Function: what the text is intended to do by the senders and addressers, or perceived to do by the receivers and addresses.

Let’s apply these different components to the Sprite “Lowrider” ad:

Substance, music, pictures. . In this 30-second ad, a group of Hispanic adolescents are riding down the street on their “lowrider” bikes. Some younger kids stare at them as the words, “Some people don’t get it” are heard in the background. At the end, one of the riders is shown drinking a bottle of Sprite with the words, “Obey your thirst” in the background. The images of this ad are designed to imply hipness or coolness, an equation of the “lowrider” bike image with the product image. The music and images in this ad are geared for an adolescent audience, who are not yet driving—so they are still limited to their bikes, although the appeal may also be to the larger adolescent audience. A critical discourse analysis goes beyond simply these images to suggest that the discourses of masculinity and subcultural resistance constituting the “lowrider” biking practice are then transferred to the practice of drinking Sprite.

For a discussion of Latino students’ studying the “lowrider culture” in Mexican-American culture, see:

Cowan, P. (2004). Devils or angels: Literacy and discourse in lowerider culture. In J. Mahiri (Ed.), Literacy in the lives of urban youth(pp. 47-74). New York: Peter Lang.

An analysis of Sprite’s campaign to improve their market share in the late 1990s in the documentary, Merchants of Cool indicated that Sprite launched a major campaign using sports celebrities parodying celebrity endorsement ads in an attempt to equate being ironic, hip, or cool with the product. As a result, Sprite sales jumped among the adolescent group. Sprite also increased its advertising on MTV; the program shows a hip-hop concert event sponsored by Sprite, again, designed to link certain cultural images, in this case, hip-hop with the product.

Paralanguage. The voice, speech, and words that appear on the screen are all consistent with an appeal to a young, male, adolescent audience. The words, “some people don’t get it,” and “obey your thirst” are spoken in a defiant manner associated with the image of assertiveness.

These paralanguage uses serve as markers for certain identities associated with gender class, or race. For example, audiences bring certain assumptions about the relationships between dialects, register, pitch, topic elaboration, intonation, hedging, asides, types of speech acts performed and social class as a set of cultural, social practices. In this ad, audiences may assume that the people are more working to middle-class given their language use and social practices.

The typeface of the words that appear on the screen are large bold, comic-book-like script, also associated with “coolness.” Myers notes that ads use typeface and word graphics frequently to convey certain meanings. He cites the example of a perfume ad for Passion (p. 85):

be touched by the fragrance that touches the woman

in which the shape of the words, with the second line protruding to the left matches the shape of the perfume bottle, a link between the words themselves and the product.

Myers also notes the importance of the connotations of words in ads used as brand names, for example, Poison for a perfume, a word that connotes death or killing, words associated with femme fatale. Or, while the denotation of Opium is that of a narcotic, its connotation is that of Romantic poets, the Orient, dreams, or bohemian practices (pp. 107–108).

And, Myers argues for the need to analyze the uses of figurative language in ads. For example, similes such as “Miller: The Champagne of Bottle Beers,” or “breakfast without orange juice is like a day without sunshine.” Or, the use of metaphors such as “Sherwin-Williams covers the earth.”

Language is also employed in creating slogans, as in the use of catchy sounds in alliteration: “Before it can become a Heinz bean, every raw bean is tested by a light beam,” or intonation, as in “I exercise, AND I eat the right sort of breakfast,” and a mixture of different languages: “You can fudgi it or you can Fuji it.”

Myers also identifies how pronouns are used in ads to attempt to build personal relationships between the ad and the audience, particularly with the use of “you” that assumes a relationship with the audience, as in “Don’t let coughs keep you off duty.” Similarly, the use of “we” personalizes the impersonal, as in “At McDonald’s, we do it all for you,” or, in the Avis ad “We try harder.” (Avis). And, the use of “he”/”she” implies a certain shared knowledge between ad and audience as in the Clairol ad: “Does she or doesn’t she? Only her hairdresser knows for sure.”

Myers also examines the use of everyday conversation in ads as in the two following Nescafe coffee ads that use dialogue to create a mini drama associated with drinking coffee:

Doorbell rings
Woman: Hi
Man: Laura
Woman: You always did stay up late.
Man: How long have you been back?
Woman: About a day and a half. I was just passing by.
Man: At this time of night?
Woman: Are you alone?
Man: Yes, er, no. Look, I’m expecting someone.
Woman: It’s a neighbor.
Man: Well, do we have time for a coffee?

Doorbell rings
2nd woman: Hope I didn’t get you out of bed.
1st woman: This coffee tastes good.
Man: sighs.
2nd woman: gaze towards camera/1st woman.

Click here for more of Myers’s analysis of the uses of language in ads.

Situation/co-text. It is difficult to know how the Sprite ad is perceived or on what programs is occurs, but one could guess that it would appear on programs associated with a male adolescent audience: MTV programs, sports shows, etc.

Intertext. There is a strong intertextual link in the Sprite ad to the phenomenon of lowrider bikes, something that would appeal to a young adolescent market, particularly in parts of the country in which lowrider cars/bikes are popular. This reflects a larger association with an Easy-Rider adolescent rebellion against the usual, status-quo car/bike in the form of creating one’s own versions of bikes. This rebellion against the “some people [who] don’t get it” — the status quo, is then linked with the act of drinking Sprite.

Participants. The clothes, sun glasses, and terrain evokes an adolescent world in which adolescents dominant the neighborhood streets in which younger kids “don’t get it” because they have not yet achieved adolescence. The potential audience of participants are assumed to be attracted to this portrayal of hipness, although some my not identify with the idea of a younger adolescent group who is still riding bikes.

Function. This ad functions within the larger Sprite campaign of equating images of coolness with the product. It is also part of an even larger marketing effort to promote soft drinks given recent criticisms of the soft drink industry by health experts and educators who are alarmed with increasing obesity and lack of nutrition in adolescents’ diets.

A Broader Definition of Advertising Instruction

Advertising Drives Content

Why Study Ads?

Application of Semiotic Analysis to Ads

Rhetorical/Audience Analysis of Ads

Critical Discourse Analysis of Ads

Advertising as Propaganda: Public Relations Ads

Advertising and Idealized Gender Images

Advertising and Alcohol/Tobacco

Advertising and the Pharmaceutical Industry

Advertising on the Web

Marketing in Schools

Political Advertising

Product Placements

Creating or Parodying Ads


Teaching Activities

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