English 11, Unit 1:  Popular Culture

Visual Literacy Handout

Hey, everyone!  This page will go over what we discussed in class on August 26 and provide some examples and links to web sites you may find helpful.  This may seem like a lot of information but relax!  You aren't expected to incorporate every one of these elements into your discussion.  Pick the elements that seem to play the most important roles in your ad and those that do the best job of supporting your analysis.  Good luck!

Visual Literacy

When we think of "literacy," we think of the ability to read and write.  Although we associate the term with the written word, we also read images and pictures all the time.  When you see this image, , your brain tells you "apple."  When you see this one, , you don't need the words to know that it means "stop."  That's the basis of visual literacy--the ability to construct meaning from images and analyze them.  The first example is a representative image of an object--in other words, you think apple because it looks like an apple.  The second example is a sign--an image that signifies an idea even though it may not represent that idea physically.  So we really do read pictures and images on very complex levels every day.    The problem with visual literacy is that we do it so unconsciously that we stop thinking about the images we're reading.  This assignment will help you think more consciously about some images commonly encountered in advertising and use them to support your analysis of a magazine advertisement.  (If you need a reminder about the details of the assignment, click here.)
Images:  Elements and Issues
The areas covered below certainly do not represent a complete list of all the aspects of images we could examine.  However, they are areas you will probably find most helpful in writing your analysis.  If you want more information about one of the items or want to find more information on reading signs and pictures, follow some of the links I have included.  For convenience, I have grouped the areas into structural elements, content, and issues.  This is a rather arbitrary way of categorizing them; some areas may seem to overlap but I hope you will find the information useful for your analysis.  Most of the links will take you to basically the same information already laid out on the handout but will have pictures and images as examples.  So don't get sidetracked following links and reading extraneous information; use the links to help yourself get a handle on concepts you  find confusing or to see an example that might help you understand your ad.  If you have any questions or problems, email me at lajoie@email.unc.edu.

Good luck with your papers!
  Structural Elements

Lines can direct the reader's eye around a picture or stop the eye by breaking up the picture.  In general, vertical lines seem powerful, strong and stable and horizontal lines seem restful, relaxed, and passive.  Diagonal and curved lines seem dynamic and action-oriented.  Thicker lines tend to be more powerful than thin ones.  In class we looked at the Samsara perfume ad where the long horizontal lines continued across three different images in the advertisement.  Based on the guidelines above, we can say that the lines added to the restful reclining feeling of the ad and also helped to unify the different images into one long presentation.  For very basic examples of the concepts above, look at this Kent State web page.

Lots of different words are used for aspects of color:  value, hue, saturation, etc.  We will just use color as a general term for all these aspects.  Dark colors can indicate mystery, drama, or danger and can also seem gloomy.  Light colors make us think of happiness, fun, warmth, and closeness.  (basic examples)  Red, orange, and yellow are considered warm colors.  Blue, green, and purple are considered cool colors.  People use warm and cool colors to indicate various moods, but red often represents stronger levels of an emotion while blue is more passive.  For some great examples, look at Pomona College's page.

Also follow the link to information on saturation, which basically means the relative brightness and intensity of a color.  This web page discusses the differences between black and white and color images, the effect of intense colors on emotions, and shows examples from the mass media (TV, ads, movies).

Remember that the colors in your ad have meaning in relation to each other.  In other words, if everything is black and white except one object, you should discuss not only what black and white images represent in the ad but what that choice to have a contrast might mean.  A bright red object on an all-blue page would be another example of color contrast.  Look in all of these areas for places where something stands out and ask why?

The basic shapes are rectangles, circular forms, and triangles.  Rectangles are made of straight predominantly vertical lines, so they also seem powerful, strong, and stable.  Curvy shapes can seem calm and sensuous.  Triangles, made up of diagonal lines, represent movement and action.  Here are some great examples of shapes and a short analysis of perfume bottles in ads based on shapes.  Also consider whether any of the shapes in your ad remind you of anything and try to deduce why.  Do any of the shapes seem like symbols (like the stop sign) and if so, what do they represent?

Layout and Positioning
As we discussed in class, there are a few different things to look at here.  First, what is the size and position of the product in the ad?  For example, what do you think it means when the product doesn't appear in the ad at all?  Second, what are the positions of the objects, people, and text in the ad?  This may help you decide at whom the advertisers are aiming their message, may help you find a subtext, and may also raise some issues.  Finally, what is the size and position of the ad itself in the magazine?  We decided that ads at the very front, by the table of contents, and on the back cover are usually more expensive.  They are also the most likely to be seen by people who don't take time to read the magazine cover to cover.

We know that diagonal lines are one way of indicating motion.  In class, you also pointed out that blurring the edges of objects makes them look like they are moving.  If your ad seems to try to indicate motion, look here for some more information on the subject.


Although some ads seem to be all images and no words, text does often play an integral part in the presentation of a magazine ad.  Look at the following areas:

What is the style, size, color of the font?
Salon Selectives hair products uses an ad that states "If you know you have beautiful hair, you have the power to do anything."  The word "Power" is very large and written in hot pink cursive.  At the store last night, I realized that it bore a strong resemblance to the style of the "Barbie" logo.  What is Salon Selectives saying by making the word "power" large and important yet soft and feminine?

What do the words say?
What kind of language are the advertisers using?  What kinds of reasons do they give for using their product (statistics, you'll look great, everybody's doing it, etc.)  Who would respond to that type of argument?

Is there a subtext?
If you tried to paraphrase the words of the ad (or the overall message of all the ad's components), what would you say?  What helps make the underlying statement in your ad?  Do the words and pictures work together or do the words say one thing while the picture seems to show or make you feel something else?  How do the words affect the rest of the ad to make the overall statement?

Look at the people in the ad.  Who is being portrayed?  How are they dressed?  What are they doing?  What's your impression of these people?  Do they represent the kind of people who would buy the product?  If they are famous people, for what qualities or actions are these people known?  How are they being related to the product?  Do you see any stereotypical representations?  Are the people represented as individuals, objects, types?

Think a little about the product itself while attempting to determine audience.  What purposes do the product serve?  Would you categorize it as a necessity or a luxury?  What's the price range of the product?  Who would "typically" buy this merchandise?
Style is a fairly vague term but for the purposes of this assignment, focus on the style of the ad's format.  In class we saw the "Cover Girl" cosmetic ad that followed the style of a magazine cover.  We have also talked about your first handout as an example of the newsletter style.  Do you see your ad trying to imitate a particular style?  You may have other impressions of the ad's style.  Feel free to discuss them in your paper; just make sure you are backing up your conclusions with concrete evidence from the ad.  Other ideas include considering the style of the images or graphics.  For example, why might the advertiser have chosen to use a cartoon drawing instead of a photo (or vice versa)?

A related aspect of style to consider is the stylistic strategy the ad uses to persuade readers to buy the product.  If the ad takes the format of a business presentation, does it attempt to sell the reader in the same way, perhaps with graphs or statistics?  Or is the ad humorous?  In what ways?  Did you find it funny?  What type of reader would find the ad amusing?  Does the ad seem to use impressions of sexuality or sensuality?  In what way?
You may come across elements of your ad that raise issues of race, age, gender, or perhaps make you think of other issues.  These are excellent concerns to discuss in your paper.  Think about the following questions:  If you have decided that your ad targets a particular group (women, men, whites, blacks, young people, the elderly, etc.) what does the ad seem to say about that group?  What do you think about the statement the ad makes?  Also if you feel the people appearing in the ad are stereotypical representations of a group, ask yourself the same questions?  Is the ad being humorous or serious in its depictions or statements?  What effect does that have?

Finally, here are a few further tips for your assignment.  First, you may find these guidelines helpful when trying to write papers in general.  Asking yourself the questions on the web page may help to focus your writing and make sure you have completed the assignment.  Also, you may find these analyses of magazine perfume ads helpful. HOWEVER, keep in mind that this analysis is highly theoretical (and unnecessarily wordy!)  Don't get bogged down in all the theory and don't copy his writing style; skip to the photos of the ads and read the text immediately next to the photos.  This may prove especially helpful if  you are having trouble writing a short but meaningful description of your ad.  Here is an example drawn from the first ad the web page analyzes (for "Dune Pour Homme" cologne).

"The advert predominately features a male model in his early to mid twenties, and he is kneeling on a sand dune. Adjacent to him is an iconic image of the product itself, which is projected as being disproportionately large. Underneath this image of the product are the words: 'Essence Of Freedom,' and together these separate components form an effective and unified message. On a simple level it is easy to deduce two obvious things. Firstly, that the subject, (the image of the man) provides a youthful element of glamour, which serves both the product and the text in which it is being advertised, and secondly, that the image of the sand dune is a physical reiteration of the product name."
              --Alexander Clare: A Semiotic Analysis of Magazine Ads for Men's Fragrances

The writer goes on to relate the idea of freedom to the image of the man all alone, with comfortable clothing, seemingly with no responsibilities.  He also discusses the colors of the ad and the style of photography to back up his conclusion.  You see how he gave a brief summary of the ad to begin, focusing on the aspects he felt most key to understanding the ad's strategy--the appearance of the man, the sand dune, the image of the product, and the words "essence of freedom."  Try to capture the essence of your ad in the same way at the beginning of your papers.