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More complicated messages

Sophisticated advertisements often convey more complex messages through a combination of elements in the advertisement, or through references in the advertisement to other things. For instance, some advertisements parody scenes from history, a movie, a TV show, or even a book. However, if people don’t ‘get’ the reference, then the ad is not going to make too much sense. For example, an insurance company might set an advertisement in ancient Pompeii, with two citizens discussing how safe their city is and how nothing major could ever go wrong. You would only understand the advertisement if you know your history - Pompeii was a Roman city that was famously destroyed by a volcano.

Pictures and captions are often dependent on each other for meaning - seeing either one by itself won’t make much sense. A stricter gun-control advertisement might include a collage of pictures of happy people in various activities - playing with their kids, having a drink, etc. Just a nice advertisement showing happy people? The caption might read something like, "James, Sally, Deborah, Malcolm, Stuart, and Benita were shot dead last year by criminals with unlicensed firearms". The caption and picture work together to achieve the desired effect. Just as the picture can’t go by itself, the caption by itself doesn’t have much meaning. When you see the pictures of the real people however, it is much more poignant (powerful).

Here are some other things to consider as you analyse your advertisement:

  • For the advertisement to work, what general knowledge or awareness does the audience need to have?

  • Is the product or service linked to anything, such as a brand name, place, person, etc.?

  • What stereotypes are used or perpetuated in the advertisement? Are any stereotypes challenged? (Challenging a stereotype is achieved by introducing a stereotypical character and having them do something out of character.) What type of stereotypes are used - gender, racial, class? Are they likely to be offensive and do they add to or distract from the advertisement’s message? Are they necessary?

  • Is humour used? What type - light, black comedy, etc.? What effect does the humour achieve?

  • Are there multiple ways you can interpret the advertisement? Is this deliberate, or are some interpretations unintended? What section of the audience is likely to misinterpret the advertisement and does this matter?

Handy Hint - The difference between ‘denotation’ and ‘connotation’

I spent quite a bit of high school with a hazy and incorrect idea of what these two words mean. This wasn’t a good thing, because teachers use them often when they’re discussing what you need to do with your latest English assignment!

Denotation refers to the literal or actual meaning of a word. Connotation refers to any emotional associations or ‘baggage’ that a word has. For instance, compare these words:

dude, guy, man

All three words literally mean a male person. However, they have different connotations. ‘Dude’ usually has a somewhat positive connotation - "he’s a cool dude!" ‘Guy’ is relatively neutral, although it can have a somewhat negative or anonymous connotation - "some guy just stole my beer!" ‘Guy’ is often used when the person being referred to isn’t known to the person speaking. ‘Man’ is a more formal and neutral term and, unlike the other words, doesn’t really have any strong connotations. People who have a good mastery of the English language pick words that have both the denotation and connotation that they intend. Think about this when you’re writing.

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