VAL 140/ 340
Prejudice & Discrimination
Professor Kathryn Russell
Stereotypes in context
    Ads as forms of communication


Communication is an interesting process because it depends on so many different factors. Here we will look at ads from three perspectives:

1. For ads to work, they have to get their message across.

Absolute, Vogue, 6-99
Factors such as line, shape, dimension, lighting, design, spatiality, color, and perspective all can be looked at as conveying 'messages' or being kinds of sign information that have an impact on us. Sometimes, we are aware of this impact; ;but sometimes, the message goes to our unconscious where, it can be argued, the message might have profound effects on us. (69)

So says Arthur Asa Berger** in Seeing Is Believing: An Introduction to Visual Communication (1998). The Absolute ad above uses brilliant colors and lighting to convey a sense of excitement.

Assignment AFC 1:

a. Study Arthur Berger's Checklist for Analyzing Print Advertisements. Bring in to class ads you find to illustrate some of the points on his checklist.

**Note that by coincidence there are 2 men named Berger we are studying for this section, Arthur and John!

b. How do the ads below work? Click on them to see a larger image and to answer some questions about them.

Du Maurier, Rap Pages, 6-99

Chloe, Vogue, 6-99

One could put ads into many different contexts to analyze their message. We will look at two possible psychological contexts to analyze the impact of ads in the following unit sections:

  • The Fantasy Life of Ads - how ads sell products by appealing to viewers' dreams about their future
  • The Anxious Consumer - how ads push the buttons of potential buyers by subtly suggesting that buying their products will soothe their worries

The interpretation of ads on the part of the person looking at them (2) is another factor involved in advertising. When we perceive anything, our mind is actively involved in making sense out of what is before us. Philosophers have used the notion of theory ladenness to explain that observation involves interpretation.

Personal experiences, cultural perspectives, expectations, educational training, etc. can all influence what we see. Thus, seeing an object is seeing it as a certain kind of thing. How you classify and interpret it depends on the paradigm or schema you take for granted. As Berger says in Ways of Seeing, "The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe." (8)

Assignment AFC 2:

a. Write down what you see happening in the following picture. Then click on the picture to see the original ad as it appeared in England and answer some questions about the influence of people's paradigms on what they see.

Assignment AFC 3:

Bring in examples of 3 pictures, ads, songs, cartoons, or short letters to the editor, etc. that different groups of people might interpret differently. Be prepared to explain why their responses might differ.

Let's think about the sum of all the advertising in our lives as a big communicative system (3). One thing to recognize about that system is that it is part of the invisible background noise of our society. We may say we do not notice them, but we are often not aware of their influence on us.

Assignment AFC 4:

a. Study the following three quotes by John Berger from your xeroxed article from Ways of Seeing. Write a paraphrase of each to bring into class.

**Remember that the word 'publicity' refers to advertising.

"Publicity adds up to a kind of philosophical system. It explains everything in its own terms. It interprets the world". (149)


We are now so accustomed to being addressed by these images that we scarcely notice their total impact. A person may notice a particular image or piece of information because it corresponds to some particular interest he has. But we accept the total system of publicity images as we accept an element of climate. (130)


Thought exercise: Try counting the number of ads you come across each day!

But Berger also wants to argue that taken together, ads form a language of their own. Write a paraphrase of this quote:

Publicity is not merely an assembly of competing messages: it is a language in itself which is always being used to make the same general proposal. ...Choices are offered between this cream and that cream, that car and this car, but publicity as a system only makes a single proposal. It proposes to each of us that we transform ourselves, or our lives, by buying something more. This more, it proposes, will make us in some way richer even though we will be poorer by having spent our money." (131)

Assignment AFC 5:

a. Study the following ads. Click on them to see a larger image.

Kira St. John's Wort,New Woman, 6-99

Clairol, Ebony, 6-99

b. Bring into class examples of ads for products that claim to be able to "make over" or transform people. Also bring in examples of advertising slogans that imply that a product has the power to transform people. Consider whether any of these make over claims actually involve an implicit or explicit appeal to stereotypes.

Send an example to the class archive!
Created by Kathryn Russell
SUNY Cortland - Philosophy
Last modified on 1-14-00