Visual Persuasion: The Role of Images in Advertising


Paul Messaris

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    To my mother and the memory of my father


    The research that led to this book was supported extensively by the resources of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. I am deeply grateful to the school's Dean, Kathleen Hall Jamieson; to my research assistants, Alison Andrews and Jennifer Khoury; to Kimberly Maxwell, Ellen Reynolds, and Deb Porter for their help with the book's illustrations; and to my colleague Larry Gross for his role in ensuring the continuing vitality of visual scholarship at Annenberg.

    My wife, Carla Sarett, gave me valuable advice on much of what I have written in these pages. I have also profited from the comments, assistance, and support of many colleagues and friends, including: Derek Bouse, Henrik Dahl, Kirsten Drotner, Geri Gay, Klaus Jensen, Yolanda Lazo, Louise Mares, Kim Schroeder, Sari Thomas, Joe Turow, as well as three anonymous reviewers provided by Sage Publications. To all of these, my heartfelt thanks.

    This book was originally commissioned for Sage Publications by Sophy Craze, and it was completed under her successor, Margaret Seawell. Many thanks to both of them for their encouragement and advice. It is also a pleasure to express my gratitude to Editorial Assistant Renée Piernot and the other people I worked with at Sage Publications—Production Editor Michèle Lingre and Production Assistant Sherrise Perdum, Copy Editor Liann Lech, and Design Director Ravi Balasuriya—for their courtesy and efficiency. Finally, special thanks to Permissions Editor Jennifer Morgan for her help on matters of copyright.

    Introduction: A Theory of Images in Advertising

    I was leafing through the pages of a newspaper while my 11-year-old niece and her girlfriend watched television. A change in noise level signaled the onset of a commercial. Suddenly, both girls began to make loud, theatrically exaggerated swooning sounds. I looked up. On the screen was the face of TV star Luke Perry, appearing in an ad for Mars Bars®. The girls’ display of melodramatic emotion continued, until finally my niece went up to the TV set and pretended to kiss Luke Perry's image. Later that afternoon, we drove into town to do some shopping. As soon as we entered the supermarket, first one girl and then the other went running off to buy Mars Bars®.

    This little incident, which happened several years ago, has stayed in my mind as an emblematic illustration of the way in which successful visual advertising is supposed to affect its viewers. Despite their theatricality, the girls’ responses should not be dismissed as simply childish behavior. I do not know how common it is for viewers of whatever age to pretend to kiss a screen image. I suspect it is exceedingly rare, although I would not be surprised to be told that I am ignorant of a widespread phenomenon in the world of preadolescents. However, not only among preadolescents but also among fully mature adults, the underlying reaction that motivated the kiss—seeing an image as an embodiment of the physical attractions of the real world—is certainly no rarity. On the contrary, it is a central ingredient of the response that visual ads typically aim for in all of us, old and young alike. A major reason for using images in ads is to elicit this response.

    But the image in this particular ad was produced by a camera, and that fact adds a further dimension to its appeal. Unlike handmade images, such as drawings or paintings (which are uncommon in TV commercials but do appear occasionally in print ads), photographs and images on video are typically seen as direct copies of reality. This quality strengthens the viewer's illusion of interacting with real-world people and places, and it also does something else. In many ads, the use of photographs or video serves as evidence that what is being shown in the ad really did happen—for example, that Luke Perry really did pose with a Mars Bar. Of course, that kind of evidence itself may be quite illusory, especially in an age in which photographs can be manipulated so easily by computer. But here I am getting ahead of my story, because my aim at this point is only to outline the intended functions of advertising images, not to question the basis of those functions.

    I suppose that, if I were an advertiser, I would probably be happy to hear about my niece and her friend's strong reactions to Luke Perry's screen image. But I am sure that I would be absolutely delighted by their subsequent behavior in the supermarket. Their behavior encapsulates, in a nutshell, a process that many scholars see as the basic selling mechanism of commercial advertising, and an important component of other types of visual persuasion as well (e.g., political propaganda). On the TV screen, the girls saw a juxtaposition of two images: on one hand, an attractive TV star; on the other, a product. In their everyday lives, the enthusiasm that they originally had expressed for the TV star was directed later toward the product.

    Clearly, the visual connection established on the screen elicited some form of mental connection in the girls’ minds (because I do not, for a moment, believe that their purchase of the Mars Bars was a coincidence). But I think we need to be very cautious about interpreting the nature of that mental connection. Although the girls’ behavior may seem, at first blush, to be a straightforward example of an artificially induced, displaced desire—something for which advertising is often blamed, especially when it involves sex, and even more so when it involves young people—I think that what actually happened here was more complicated. For one thing, as I have tried to suggest, the girls’ reactions to the TV image of Luke Perry appeared to contain a considerable amount of self-conscious parody. Moreover, each girl's response to the commercial clearly was due in part to the presence of her friend; consequently, the commercial's role in bringing about those responses cannot be accounted for by any simple model of direct causality. However, once again, my goal at the moment is not to address this issue in detail but just to raise it.

    I have outlined three major roles that visual images can play in an ad. They can elicit emotions by simulating the appearance of a real person or object; they can serve as photographic proof that something really did happen; and they can establish an implicit link between the thing that is being sold and some other image(s). I will argue below that these three functions of advertising images stem from underlying, fundamental characteristics of visual communication—characteristics that define the essential nature of images and distinguish them from language and from the other modes of human communication. In turn, these three functions of advertising images give rise to a wide variety of specific advertising practices, ranging from celebrity endorsements to hidden-camera interviews to shots of politicians standing in front of flags.

    To gain a systematic understanding of the connections between the basic properties of images, on one hand, and the multiplicity of visual advertising techniques, on the other, we need a comprehensive theory of the persuasive uses of visual images. Although the study of persuasive communication has a history of more than two millennia, the focus of this scholarly tradition has tended overwhelmingly to be on verbal strategies. With a few notable exceptions (for example, Lester, 1995; Moriarty, 1987; see also Jowett & O'Donnell, 1992, passim), the systematic investigation of visual persuasion is still in its infancy. The aim of this book is to encourage the further growth of this field of scholarship.

    Theoretical Framework

    This book seeks to answer the following question: What is the distinctive contribution that visual images make to persuasive communication, whether in commercial advertising, in political messages, or in social issue campaigns? An appropriate starting point for addressing this question is to ask a broader one: What are the fundamental characteristics that distinguish visual images from other modes of communication? If we can specify in what essential ways images differ from words or music or other vehicles of meaning, we can then go on to examine the implications of those differences for the persuasive uses of visual media.

    Any mode of communication can be described in terms of either semantic or syntactic properties. A semantically oriented description focuses on how the elements of a particular mode (images, words, musical tones, or whatever) are related to their meanings. A syntactically oriented description is concerned with the interrelationships among the elements themselves as they combine to form larger meaningful units. Each mode of communication has its own characteristic combination of semantic and syntactic features.

    The semantic properties of the various modes are a central concern of semiotics, the field of scholarship devoted to the study of “signs,” defined by Danesi (1994) as “any mark, bodily movement, symbol, token, etc., used to indicate and to convey thoughts, information, commands, etc.” (p. xi). Semioticians have developed a variety of schemes for classifying the relationships between signs and their meanings (or, more precisely, between “signifiers” and “signifieds”). By far the most widely used of these schemes is a triadic classification proposed by the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914), whose writings have been receiving renewed attention by communication scholars in recent years (Dahl & Buhl, 1993; Jensen, 1995; Moriarty, 1994). Peirce's system, one of many he created during his lifetime, entails three categories: the icon, the index, and the symbol. Iconic signs are characterized by some form of similarity or analogy between the sign and its object. For instance, a scale model of a building is an iconic representation of certain features of the real building: its shape, perhaps its color, but not its size. Indexical signs are a complex category, but for present purposes, a partial definition is sufficient. According to this definition, a sign is indexical if it is actually caused by its object and serves as a physical trace pointing to the object's existence. Peirce (1991) illustrates this type of sign with the example of a bullet hole, which signifies that a shot was fired (pp. 239–240). Finally, Peirce's third type of sign, the symbol, involves neither similarity nor physical causation but, instead, an arbitrary convention on the part of the symbol's users. Words are the typical example here. With the rare exception of onomatopoeia, they are connected to the things they refer to only by virtue of a social convention.

    Semantic Properties of Images

    How do visual images fit into this system of classification? Representational pictures that resemble some aspect of reality are particularly clear examples of iconic signs. Indeed, the term icon is derived from a Greek word for picture, and Peirce (1991) originally had referred to iconic signs as “likenesses” (p. 30), a word that also suggested pictures in 19th-century English. It must be emphasized, though, that in Peirce's scheme of things, an iconic sign need not provide a particularly close replica of its object's overall appearance. For instance, the line depicting a river on a map is an iconic representation of the course of the real river, although the line may not look very much like the river (e.g., in terms of color) even when the latter is viewed from an airplane. Likewise, a child's stick figure drawing of a person could qualify as an iconic sign by virtue of matching the basic structure of the person's body, despite the absence of realistic details.

    Actually, even full-color photographs cannot duplicate certain features of the appearance of reality, such as the sense of three-dimensional space that we get when we look at the real world with both eyes. Although 3-D movies, holograms, and virtual reality are moving us ever closer to the totally lifelike experience that has traditionally been considered the ultimate goal of visual imaging technologies (Bazin, 1967), the inevitable discrepancies between ordinary pictures and reality have led many writers to emphasize the artificial aspect of pictorial representation and, occasionally, to reject the notion of iconicity altogether (see Eco, 1975; Goodman, 1976; Krieger, 1984). However, as I have argued in detail elsewhere (Messaris, 1994), the available evidence does not support such an extreme view. In fact, recent research on cognition and perception suggests that even a very rudimentary match between image and reality (e.g., a simple sketch or stick figure) is enough for the brain to be able to employ its real-world processes of visual interpretation.

    In addition to iconicity, there is another semantic characteristic that has distinctive implications for the way in which we react to certain images. Any picture made by photographic means, whether on film or video, fits Peirce's notion of a sign produced as a physical trace of its object. Therefore, aside from being iconic, such pictures are also indexical signs. The indexicality of photographic images (i.e., the fact that they are, in certain respects, direct physical imprints of the reality recorded in them) plays an important role in some forms of visual persuasion, which will be outlined presently. For the moment, it should be noted that, as far as semantic features are concerned, it is the indexical and iconic properties of visual images that most clearly set them apart from language and other modes of communication. It is true that some kinds of visual representations (e.g., technical diagrams or maps) are arguably based at least in part on arbitrary conventions, and in that sense, they can be said to entail the type of semantic relationship that Peirce labeled symbolic. However, symbolic signs are, if anything, even more characteristic of language and the other major modes. Conversely, iconicity is only a minor feature of verbal communication, and the type of indexicality exemplified by photographic images is entirely absent from most of the primary means of human communication, although it is certainly a defining feature of such secondary forms as fingerprints or plaster casts.

    Syntactic Properties of Images

    When it comes to the syntactic aspects of images, the theoretical literature is less systematic and less developed than it is in the case of visual semantics. However, several writers have touched in a variety of ways on a conceptual distinction that is particularly pertinent to the topic of visual persuasion (Arnheim, 1969; Gombrich, 1972; Jamieson, 1984, 1992; Worth, 1982). Whereas movie directors and other people who work in visual communication have developed relatively precise conventions for indicating spatial or temporal relationships among two or more images (more accurately: among the objects or events portrayed in those images), visual communication is characterized by a lack of explicit means for identifying other ways in which images might be related to each other. In particular, what visual communication lacks most crucially is a so-called propositional syntax. What do we mean by this term? Consider some of the kinds of verbal statements that might be made in an advertisement. The product being sold might be compared with another product and proclaimed the better of the two. A politician might claim that her presence in Congress had led to the lowering of taxes. An antiabortion leaflet might argue that abortion is equivalent to murder. These are all propositions about types of connections between two entities—Product A is better than Product B; the politician caused lower taxes; abortion equals murder—and a distinctive characteristic of verbal language is the fact that it contains words and sentence structures (a propositional syntax) that allow the user to be explicit about what kind of connection is being proposed in such statements. An equally distinctive characteristic of visual images is the fact that they do not have an equivalent of this type of syntax. Whereas spatial or temporal connections can be presented quite explicitly through images, visual communication does not have an explicit syntax for expressing analogies, contrasts, causal claims, and other kinds of propositions.

    This is a complicated point that is best appreciated through a concrete example. We will examine a short scene from A New Beginning, a much-analyzed political video used in the 1984 Reagan reelection campaign. In this video's opening sequence, a shot of Ronald Reagan's first-term inauguration is intercut with early-morning images of people around the country going to work (see Figures I.1I.6). We see a tractor entering a field, a truck driving off from a farmhouse, and then the Reagan inauguration; a cowboy moving horses out of a corral, a man in a hard hat directing a crane, and the inauguration once again; a commuter getting into a car, workers at the gates of a factory, the inauguration; and so on. This kind of cross-cutting between two parallel streams of images is an established convention of narrative cinema. If this had been a fictional film or TV program, the parallel editing most likely would have been employed to signify a fairly straightforward spatiotemporal connection between the two sets of events: at the same time that Ronald Reagan was being inaugurated, people elsewhere were setting out to work. In other words, as an indicator of narrative space and time, parallel editing has a relatively fixed meaning: “same time, different place.”

    In the context of a political campaign video, however, the juxtaposition between Ronald Reagan and the scenes of workers was surely intended mainly, or even entirely, as a means of suggesting other kinds of connections between the two. For instance, this juxtaposition could be seen as implying analogy or similarity: the president is a man of the people, and he is ready to work hard just as they are. The juxtaposition also could be taken as a sign of causality: Ronald Reagan's presidency has revived the economy and put people back to work. These interpretations

    Figure I.1, Figure I.2, Figure I.3, Figure I.4, Figure I.5, and Figure I.6

    are not mutually exclusive, nor do they exhaust the possibilities. In fact, that is precisely the important point about this example for our purposes. There is nothing in the editing itself that would allow us to say that one of these interpretations is more correct than the other. The very same syntactic device, parallel editing, is compatible with a variety of different meanings: analogy, causality, or whatever else an inventive viewer might imagine.

    So, as soon as we go beyond spatiotemporal interpretations, the meaning of visual syntax becomes fluid, indeterminate, and more subject to the viewer's interpretational predispositions than is the case with a communicational mode such as verbal language, which possesses an elaborate set of explicit indicators of analogy, causality, and other kinds of connections between two or more concepts. It will be argued below that this relative indeterminacy of visual syntax plays a central part in processes of visual persuasion. In fact, in the context of advertising, this seeming “deficiency” of visual syntax is arguably one of its principal strengths. Accordingly, for our purposes, it will be appropriate to say that the characteristic syntactic property of visual syntax is precisely this indeterminacy.

    Implications of Iconicity

    Iconicity, indexicality, and syntactic indeterminacy: These three properties of images will be the starting points for our examination of the distinctive attributes of visual persuasion. Each of these properties has a particular set of consequences for the persuasive uses of images. In examining the implications of iconicity, we can begin with the following simple observation. When we look at the real world that surrounds us, the sights we see do not register in our brains as neutral, value-free data. Rather, each visual feature, from the smallest nuances of people's facial expressions to the overall physical appearance of people and places, can come with a wealth of emotional associations. These associations stem from the unique experiences of each individual in addition to the common, shared influence of culture and, to some extent, biology. So, the fact that images can reproduce the appearance of reality (or selected aspects of that appearance) also means that they can call forth a variety of “preprogrammed” emotional responses. By drawing on their intuitive understanding as well as a growing body of research concerning the relationship between vision and emotion, advertisers are able to elicit strong, sometimes primal reactions—desire for a particular type of sexy model; respect for a certain look that makes a politician appear dignified; pity for the pathetic appearance of a famine victim—that might not be as easily accessible through other, nonpictorial means. In short, iconicity gives advertisers access to a broad spectrum of emotional responses that can be enlisted in the service of an ad's cause.

    An example from the world of fashion advertising illustrates just how subtle some of the applications of iconicity can be. In a TV program dealing with the computer manipulation of images of female fashion models (part of the TV series “The Human Animal”), Desmond Morris points out that one of the targets of computerized alteration is the size of the pupils of the women's eyes. Because an increase in pupil size can be a real-world sign of sexual excitation (Landau, 1989, p. 156), the pupils in fashion images are sometimes artificially enlarged to enhance the allure of the women in the images. In this context, therefore, pupil size is a good example of a pictorial element that derives both its cognitive meaning and its emotional resonance from an equivalence to a real-world perceptual stimulus.

    Morris describes a number of other computer-manipulated features of fashion imagery, including such things as skin tone or the length of models’ thighs, that appear to function in the same way. More generally, it could be argued that any advertising image that makes use of an attractive model or spokesperson derives at least part of its appeal from the capacity of pictures to act as surrogates for real-life visual encounters. This aspect of the appeal of persuasive imagery was exemplified all too vividly in the response of my niece and her friend to the image of Luke Perry in the Mars Bar ad. In fact, the crowning act of that response—pretending to kiss Luke Perry's face on the screen—may be seen as an implicit acknowledgment of the TV image's efficacy as a surrogate.

    This ability of pictures to conjure up real-world optical experience is the central driving force of a cluster of visual devices having to do with the placement of the viewer vis-à-vis the people or other objects in an image. These devices include the implied distance at which the viewer is positioned (close-up, long shot, etc.), the image's orientation (head-on, three-quarter view, etc.), the angle of view, and the use of subjective point of view, among others. As Meyrowitz (1986) has argued, the effectiveness of these devices appears to stem from the fact that their conventional uses are typically modeled on people's real-world experiences of interpersonal space, orientation, angle, and point of view. For instance, politicians being interviewed on television will often make a deliberate effort to orient themselves toward the camera, and therefore toward the viewer, in order to mimic the real-world appearance of a direct, nothing-to-hide approach and, conversely, to avoid the negative implications of not looking someone straight in the eyes. Similarly, when they engage in televised debates, politicians typically insist on an equal number of close-ups for all participants. This practice is presumably motivated by the conventional use of close-ups as a means of increasing attention and eliciting stronger engagement on the part of the viewer, and this convention in turn is presumably based at least in part on the real-world association between interpersonal closeness and involvement.

    As these examples may suggest, the iconicity of visual images is not just a matter of content. Whereas the appearance of the people or places in a picture may be its most obvious iconic element, the picture's formal or stylistic features (e.g., whether it is a close-up or a long shot) also may bear an iconic relationship to our real-world visual experiences. The iconicity of visual form is of special interest for persuasive communication because many viewers tend to be less aware of form or style than of the content of images (Kraft, 1987; Messaris, 1981). Thus, form can be used as a relatively more subtle or indirect way of suggesting certain meanings and evoking viewers’ reactions to them.

    This aspect of iconicity has played a substantial role in ads dealing with sexual or gender imagery. Especially in the area of print advertising, whose single images are often designed much more meticulously than the multiple shots of TV commercials, the creators of ads have traditionally attempted to build gender or sexual connotations into the formal or stylistic features of images, rather than just the manifest content. So, for example, ads for certain feminine products might be displayed against backgrounds containing soft contours and flowing curves, whereas ads aimed at men might feature more angular or hard-edged shapes in the background (Baker, 1961). These conventions are based to some extent on the idea of a loose visual analogy between the shapes in the ads and the physical characteristic's of men's and women's bodies. At the same time, though, the conventions also reflect a more abstract analogical link between these shapes and traditional views of masculinity and femininity. As we will see when we discuss this topic in detail, there is evidence that even very young viewers are responsive to the messages contained in such stylistic conventions and, furthermore, that these stylistic elements are capable of conveying meaning over and above the more overt content or message of an ad.

    The iconicity of visual images is a topic with special relevance for contemporary developments in the world of commercial and social issue advertising. With increasing frequency, commercial advertising is being designed to cross national and cultural boundaries. This trend is receiving added impetus from the growing inclusiveness of the reach of satellite services, a development made possible to a large extent by the promise of advertising revenues. The globalizing aims of advertisers have led to a special emphasis on advertising's visual aspects, which, precisely because of their iconicity, may be assumed to travel across cultures more easily than words do. A similar assumption also motivates much of the work of people and organizations interested in using visual images to promote greater understanding between members of different cultures or subcultural groups. Such efforts are often premised on the belief that images can replicate some of the positive consequences, such as increased tolerance or even empathy, that may result from direct encounters between people of different backgrounds. However, the notion that iconicity necessarily leads to cross-cultural transparency of meaning has come into question not only by scholars and critics but also by the creators of ads. Indeed, in recent years, the latter have become keenly sensitive to the possibility that cultural differences in the nuances of an image's meaning may undermine an ad's effectiveness. A full examination of these issues must therefore lead us beyond the advantages conferred on images by iconicity to an appraisal of its limits.

    Implications of Indexicality

    In addition to being iconic signs, all images produced by photographic means are also indexical, in Peirce's sense of the term. Indexicality is a critical ingredient in the process of visual persuasion whenever a photographic image can serve as documentary evidence or proof of an advertisement's point. The case of celebrity endorsements is a simple illustration of this situation. The verbal statement, “Luke Perry likes Mars Bars,” or a drawing of the actor holding the candy may in themselves be effective ways of appealing to the tastes of his fans. However, a video clip of Luke Perry with a Mars Bar does something that neither the words nor the handmade picture can do. By providing a photographic record, it actually documents the actor's endorsement of the product.

    The documentary aspect of photographic images is an implicit or explicit component of a wide variety of persuasive formats, ranging from “man-or-woman-in-the-street” interviews with consumers or voters to visual campaigns for such social causes as famine relief or rainforest preservation. In all these situations and in many others, at least part of the persuasive power of the images in question stems from their indexicality. Yet photographs can, of course, lie. The picture of a model in a fashion ad can be made more attractive through airbrushing, and voter interviews or product demonstrations can be staged. In principle, therefore, it could be argued that a viewer's faith in the documentary properties of any image ought to depend not on the medium itself but on the trustworthiness of the person using that medium. Some media critics are predicting that society as a whole is, in fact, moving in the direction of such an attitude toward photography as a result of growing public awareness of two relatively recent developments: the use of computers to manipulate images and the proliferation of TV programs that blend staged and “authentic” video footage. It may well be that this predicted shift in public attitudes is beginning to take place. Nevertheless, the logical culmination of such a trend—the point at which the documentary value of photographs is seen by the broad public as no higher than that of paintings or drawings—seems a long way off. For the moment, then, it is surely safe to say that indexicality should still be counted as a distinctive feature of visual persuasion, even if the precise status of this feature is becoming increasingly problematic.

    Implications of Syntactic Indeterminacy

    Both indexicality and iconicity may be thought of as “positive” characteristics of visual communication: These two semantic properties are qualities that images possess and that other modes of communication do not. As far as syntax is concerned, however, it was argued earlier that the most pertinent characteristic of visual communication for present purposes may actually be its lack of a certain property, rather than its possession of others. As we have seen, what visual syntax lacks, especially in comparison to verbal language, is a set of explicit devices for indicating causality, analogy, or any relationships other than those of space or time. This lack of a propositional syntax has an important implication for the persuasive uses of images. Making a causal claim, drawing an analogy, or expressing other kinds of logical connections between ideas are all integral aspects of the process of argumentation. The fact that visual syntax cannot be explicit about such connections means that the process of visual persuasion cannot include explicit arguments. Any argument can, of course, be spelled out in words on the soundtrack of a TV commercial or in the text of a magazine ad, but attempts to express arguments through the images themselves in either TV or print ads must necessarily fall short of complete explicitness.

    On the face of it, this characteristic of visual communication may appear to be a deficiency. In fact, however, it can be argued that in certain respects, it is actually a strength. There are at least two reasons why this might be so. First of all, because a visual argument cannot be entirely explicit, making sense of it may require of the viewer a greater degree of mental participation than would otherwise be the case. In a way, therefore, the viewer's interpretation of a visual argument is more of a product of her or his own mind than it would be if the argument were completely explicit to begin with. Indeed, each viewer's interpretation is likely to contain nuances of meaning that literally will make it her or his own creation. If there is any truth to the traditional assumption that, other things being equal, people are more likely to adopt a proposition that they themselves have been induced to construct, then the implicitness of visual syntax and argumentation can be seen as a potential strong point of the process of visual persuasion.

    A concrete demonstration of this possibility is provided by the 1984 Reagan campaign video described earlier. It was suggested that the editing in this video's opening sequence could be interpreted either as a causal claim (“Ronald Reagan's handling of the economy put people back to work”) or as an analogy (“The president is ready to do the job, just as any other citizen is”). The former interpretation places greater emphasis on Reagan's qualities as a strong and effective leader, whereas the latter is more focused on a view of Reagan as a man of the people. Both interpretations have some relationship to facets of the broader persona cultivated by Ronald Reagan during his time in office: on one hand, the powerful ruler who revived earlier traditions of pomp and display; on the other hand, the folksy middle-American. This blend of images may have contributed to Reagan's exceptional popularity with the electorate by appealing simultaneously to somewhat contradictory feelings about the appropriate degree of separation between the people and the president. Similarly, the open-endedness of the editing in the campaign video may have been a factor in its success by allowing each individual viewer to tailor the message to his or her own predispositions about these matters. People inclined to look up to political power may have seen in the editing a somewhat different meaning from that derived by viewers with more egalitarian tendencies. One way or the other, though, a viewer's interpretation of this kind of editing seems more likely to be a personal construction than would be the case with a totally explicit argument.

    The implicitness of visual syntax has a second major consequence for the persuasive uses of visual images. Because of the notion that images alone cannot express an explicit argument, the verbal claims made in advertisements tend to be held to much stricter standards of accountability than whatever claims are implicit in the ads’ pictures. This ability to imply something in pictures while avoiding the consequences of saying it in words has been considered an advantage of visual advertising since the earliest days of its development as a mass medium. A case in point is the advertising of cigarettes. It would be unthinkable nowadays for the text of a cigarette ad to resurrect the kinds of preposterous claims of health benefits that were made in the early days, before the medical consequences of smoking were fully understood; but—for the moment, at least—it is still common practice for cigarette manufacturers to advertise their products by juxtaposing them with images of vigorous outdoor activity.

    As the example of cigarette advertising may suggest, the implicitness of visual syntax is arguably a potential mechanism for avoiding the legal implications of certain kinds of advertising claims. For the most part, however, the purposes served by using visual arguments are unrelated to legal concerns. Rather, what is left unspoken by resorting to images is often some assumption or expectation that the ad's audience itself may not want to confront directly. This aspect of visual argumentation is especially likely to be found in connection with two of the major themes of commercial advertising: sex and social status.

    For a convenient illustration of this point, let us return once more to the example of Luke Perry's Mars Bar commercial. The juxtaposition of the actor's image with the picture of the product conforms to a standard syntactic convention in celebrity endorsement ads. However, the meaning of such a juxtaposition can vary widely from one ad to another. For instance, if the Mars Bar had been juxtaposed with the image of a famous athlete, this combination could have been interpreted as implying that Mars Bars provide an energy boost. If, less plausibly, the person in the ad had been a famous chef, the combination of images could have been taken as a suggestion that Mars Bars are equal in quality to the chef's own creations. But what are we to make of the ad as it actually was, with Luke Perry's image next to the Mars Bar?

    Judging from the reactions of my niece and her friend, one might be tempted to conclude that this juxtaposition was just one more instance of an advertising practice that critics often complain about—namely, using sex as a lure to create an artificial desire for some product that may be totally unrelated to sex. Along the same lines, a knowledgeable media critic might also point out that the specific combination of sex and food is encountered quite frequently in commercial advertising (a point to which we will return later). However, in this particular case at least, these standard criticisms of advertising seem to be somewhat off-target. The idea that visual syntax creates unconscious sexual associations and turns products into implicit sex substitutes maybe a valid description of some forms of advertising, but in this instance, it is probably too simple-minded. Instead, the following alternative interpretation may be closer to the mark.

    As is true of much of advertising (whether commercial, political, or social issue-oriented), this ad appears to be concerned with social identity. By publicly linking a product with a certain image, the ad makes it possible for users of the product to draw on that link as a means of making a public statement about how they themselves wish to be viewed. In the specific case of preadolescent girls responding in each other's company to an ad featuring an attractive male actor, the connections established through the ad's visual syntax can evidently provide the opportunity for implied comments about their own evolving gender identities. Because this is a sensitive topic and, indeed, a topic for which they might not even have an explicit verbal vocabulary, the visual connection supplied by the ad—Mars Bars as an indicator of a burgeoning sexual interest in men—allows them to express an idea that they might not wish (or be able) to deal with if they had to do so through the analytical medium of language.

    So, in the kind of response exhibited by my niece and her friend, a Mars Bar—or whatever the product might be—is not an imaginary substitute for an illusory goal; rather, by virtue of the advertising, it becomes a shared vehicle for the all-too-real process of social identity display. Furthermore, if this account is correct, what was true of this specific incident may also be true more generally of a wide range of situations in which advertising serves as the basis of social display. For example, for a person aspiring to upward mobility, ordering a brand of vodka whose advertising includes original works of art may be a way of signaling good taste and refinement; for a married, middle-aged man, smoking a brand of cigarettes advertised by cowboys may be an attempt to proclaim that he is still one of the boys himself; and, for a girl about to enter adolescence, buying any product endorsed by a handsome man may serve as a signal that she no longer wants to be considered a child. In all of these cases, and others like them, the visual syntax of specific advertisements may endow products with certain tacit associations that are broadly recognized in the social circles in which the products are used. At the same time, however, the kinds of associations involved in such instances are things that many people might not want to spell out explicitly. Upward mobility may be a common personal goal, but open efforts to display it are often considered gauche. Likewise, explicit attempts to put on an appearance of virility or to act in age-inappropriate ways are likely to meet with contempt or disapproval. In situations of this sort, then, the tacitness of the associations created by advertising may allow the users of the products to benefit from these associations while avoiding the consequences of making them explicit. In short, the implicitness of visual syntax may make it possible for people to have their cake and eat it too.

    We have taken an introductory look at three characteristic properties of persuasive images: iconicity, indexicality, and lack of an explicit pro-positional syntax. These three topics will serve as organizing principles for the discussion that follows. By virtue of their iconicity, the images in ads can simulate the visual appearance of reality, and they can be used to elicit attitudes and emotions associated with real-world people, objects, and places. These aspects of visual persuasion will be examined in the first section of this book. In the first chapter of this section, we will analyze some of the basic pictorial devices (such as camera angles or image size, as well as the physical characteristics or facial expressions of people in images) through which iconicity does its work. Chapter 2 will extend the concept of iconicity to the formal and stylistic aspects of images (e.g., their abstract shapes, colors, or overall design). This chapter will include a review of disguised, so-called “subliminal” imagery in advertising images. In Chapter 3, our discussion of iconicity will conclude by examining its implications in the increasingly important area of cross-cultural advertising. In addition to looking at advertising that crosses national boundaries, we will also review efforts to use images as bridges between people of different ethnic or racial backgrounds in a single nation.

    Part 2 is devoted to indexicality and contains a single chapter on visual truth and falsehood. The indexicality of photography (including film and video) makes it possible for photographic images to serve as evidence in support of the claims of commercial or political advertisers, as well as organizations using images for social advocacy. Because of the automatic nature of the photographic process, its results appear more trustworthy than words or handmade images. And yet there are numerous ways, including powerful new computer techniques, through which the apparent documentary quality of photographic images can be subverted. These issues will be our concern in Chapter 4.

    The book's final section, comprising two chapters, is devoted to the complex topic of visual syntax and its lack of explicit means for making causal claims or expressing other types of propositions. Because of this lack, there is an open-ended quality to visual arguments, and a corresponding fluidity and adaptability to the meaning of persuasive images. Chapter 5 will examine these matters in detail and will include a review of research on viewers’ responses to visual syntax in ads. Finally, in Chapter 6, we will analyze the ways in which the implicit quality of visual propositions can make it possible for images to convey messages that advertisers are reluctant to put into words. The book will conclude with a brief epilogue on certain ethical ramifications of the uses of images in advertising.

  • Epilogue: Ethics of Visual Persuasion

    Outside of business schools and advertising departments, academic authors who write about advertising often take a dim view of their subject. Commercial advertising, in particular, is often seen as a malignant cultural force, a creator and perpetuator of values and lifestyles that many critics deplore. It should be evident from what I have written up to this point that I do not share such extreme views about advertising as a social institution. Individual ads can be reprehensible, of course, when they make false claims (e.g., fraudulent weight-loss pills), sell harmful products (e.g., tobacco), promote immoral causes (e.g., a gay-baiting politician), or employ unfair persuasive techniques (e.g., subliminal advertising). But all of these potential problems have to do with specific ads, products, and methods. It is one thing to criticize ads on such grounds and quite another to condemn advertising as a whole.

    Critics who take the latter approach are usually voicing a more fundamental dissatisfaction with consumer culture and the market economy, and although some of this dissatisfaction may be understandable, it seems to me that it is often motivated by an unrealistic view of the alternatives. However, this is not the place for a debate about political philosophy, nor do I intend to present here a general discussion of visual ethics, a topic that I have analyzed in some detail elsewhere (Messaris, 1990). Rather, it seems appropriate to conclude with a brief comment about the ethical ramifications of the specific visual devices discussed in this book. I have dealt with three broad characteristics of visual images that I consider crucial ingredients of the process of visual persuasion: iconicity, indexicality, and the absence of an explicit propositional syntax. In the context of an ad, each of these characteristics can be used either ethically or unethically.


    As we have seen, the iconicity of images makes it possible for ads to elicit our attention and emotions by simulating various significant features of our real-world visual experiences. By virtue of their iconicity, visual ads are able to erect before our eyes a mirror world, with whose inhabitants we are invited to identify or to imagine that we are interacting. These acts of identification and imaginary interaction have real-world consequences. Some of the most revealing analyses of advertising have described the ways in which viewers use the characters they see in ads as reference points for their own evolving identities (Barthel, 1988; Ewen, 1988; Ewen & Ewen, 1982). For example, Carol Moog (1990) recalls how, as a young girl, she studied the posture of a woman in a refrigerator commercial to learn how to carry herself as an adult (p. 13). Together with fictional movies and TV programs, ads are a major source of images that young people can use to previsualize their places in the world of sexual and status relationships. It can be argued that advertisers have an ethical responsibility to take these circumstances into account in fashioning the images that they place before the public.

    What might constitute a violation of this ethical responsibility? Critics of advertising images often focus on the discrepancy between the vision of life offered in ads and the needs or abilities of real people. Drawing on her practice as a psychotherapist, Moog (1990) cites the story of a young lawyer who expressed dissatisfaction with her life because she had not lived up to her potential as a member of “the Pepsi generation”—that is, “beautiful, sexy, happy young people… a generation that didn't slog through law school, work twelve-hour days, or break up with fiancès” (p. 15). Moog presents this vignette as a reminder of the fact that “advertisers are not in the business of making people feel better about themselves, they're in the selling business” (p. 16). As this statement implies, commercial advertising often does create a vision of a fantasy world that may become a source of dissatisfaction in people's real lives, and this is especially true of ads that use sex or status as part of their appeal. Some people may find this practice objectionable in and of itself, although in my view it would be rather fatuous, as well as somewhat puritanical, to suggest that advertisers should stop purveying the images of “beautiful, sexy, happy young people” that led to Moog's client's distress. However, there is a related trend in advertising that does seem to me to raise especially troublesome ethical issues.

    In recent years, ads aimed at young people have increasingly sought to appeal to an adolescent sense of frustration and resentment at the constricting demands of adult society. There may be a lingering element of this type of sentiment in the dissatisfaction expressed by Moog's client, but the kind of advertising to which I am referring is quite different from the old, Pepsi-generation style of happy, carefree images. Instead, these more recent ads, for products such as athletic shoes, off-road vehicles, or video games, often make a point of displaying abrasive, belligerent behavior and physical recklessness (cf. Lull, 1995, pp. 73–81). A defender of such ads might argue that they are simply being honest. Adolescents often have good reason to chafe at the standards imposed on them by older people and to recoil from the vision of the future that many of them face. The aggression and recklessness depicted in some of these ads are no doubt authentic expressions of how many young people feel. To put a happy face on those feelings could be considered hypocritical. Nevertheless, with due respect for such views, I would argue that the type of resentment exploited in these ads is unproductive at best, counterproductive at worst. Dissatisfaction that leads to impulsiveness and disregard for other people gains nothing from being expressed openly. In that sense, I would say that the ethics of this genre of advertising are certainly questionable.

    This is not to say, however, that advertising aimed at young people should necessarily revert to the untroubled imagery of earlier times. It should be possible to portray and address youth honestly without pandering to the irresponsible tendencies that are sometimes associated with adolescence. For instance, despite the criticism that has recently been directed at the advertising of Calvin Klein, it seems to me that there are many Calvin Klein ads that manage to strike this balance quite effectively. In particular, the print ads for cK one fragrance have generated record-breaking sales while presenting a view of youthful sexuality that is remarkably unglamorized (compared to most other ads) and, furthermore, notably inclusive both racially and in terms of sexual orientation (see Figure C.1). This inclusiveness deserves special mention. The cK one ads are among the few examples of mass-produced imagery in which the mingling of people from different backgrounds appears relatively natural, rather than an artificial (albeit well-meaning) concoction of the media.

    But, again, this comment should not be interpreted as a blanket endorsement of unvarnished naturalism in all of advertising. In a recent discussion of the portrayal of blacks and whites in the mass media, DeMott (1995) has argued that movies and ads present a phony picture of harmony between the races that serves to obscure the unpleasant truth about race relations in the United States. I do not find this argument persuasive. For one thing, information about racial friction is abundantly available elsewhere in the media. More importantly, though, I think it is a mistake to assume that people always look at advertising images expecting to see the way things really are in society. Almost by definition, the portrayals of the good life presented in ads carry with them the implicit understanding that they are idealizations, not documentary reports (cf. Schudson, 1984). What people look for in such ads is a vision of the way things ought to be. Furthermore, when an ad is produced by a large corporation, people are likely to see this vision as an indicator of socially approved values—even though it also may be understood tacitly that those values do not correspond very closely to current social reality. From this perspective, the kinds of advertisements that DeMott criticizes—depictions of people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds living together in harmony and prosperity—are actually highly desirable. For example, an American Express Gold Card ad (attacked by DeMott) shows elegantly dressed blacks and whites occupying adjacent box seats in an opulent-looking theater or concert hall, while an ad for Chubb Insurance portrays two suburban families, one black, one white, posing together in a setting of obvious wealth (see Figures C.2 and C.3). Such ads should be praised, not subjected to carping objections. In my view, they are models of the responsible use of advertising's iconic powers.

    Figure C.1.


    We have already discussed the misuses of indexicality at some length in Chapter 4, which also contained an overview of uses of photographic

    Figure C.2 and Figure C.3.

    evidence in support of major social causes. There is no need to recapitulate either of these accounts here. However, I do want to emphasize a point that was implicit in much of what I had to say in that chapter. Although I think it is important to try, as I did, to spell out the formal characteristics of misleading or fraudulent images, I would insist that the ethicality of photographic evidence can never be determined solely on formal grounds. Let me give two examples to illustrate this contention.

    The first example has to do with staging and concerns an ad that we have already discussed in Chapter 4: the 1990 Volvo TV commercial in which a monster truck flattens other cars but fails to squash a Volvo 240. Although the scene shown in that commercial turned out to have been staged, it appears that there was a factual basis for the staging. According to a Volvo spokesperson, the idea for the commercial had come from a 1988 incident at a Vermont monster truck rally in which a Volvo actually had withstood a monster truck's weight. The spokesperson also noted that Volvos had proven their resilience in tests conducted after the commercial was aired. Why then was it necessary to reinforce the car with I-beams for the commercial itself? The explanation suggested by this spokesperson was that the commercial's repeated takes might have subjected the car to more stress than it would have experienced in a single monster-truck encounter (see Savan, 1994, p. 100).

    These facts and arguments provide a reasonable explanation of the thinking that may have gone into the creation of the commercial. Do they also justify the staging? Critics of this episode have typically considered the staging unacceptable, regardless of the circumstances. Leslie Savan (1994), who provided the details that I have just cited concerning the Volvo spokesperson's explanation, argues that even adding a “dramatization” tag to the commercial would not have been sufficient to exculpate its creators (p. 100). I suspect that most people would agree with this assessment, and, although I feel that the spokesperson's argument does go a long way toward providing an acceptable justification, if I had to make a yes-no choice, I too would say that the staging was inappropriate.

    But now consider a second incident that raises similar questions. In describing this incident, I feel compelled, for ethical reasons of my own, to alter the particulars so as not to reveal the identity of the organization and the specific individuals involved in it. However, the basic situation that I am going to describe is modeled on an actual event that happened some years ago. Let's say an antiracist organization has proof that a certain politician has met with, and embraced, a well-known racist. The embrace has been filmed, but the organization is not able to gain access to the film. So instead, it creates a composite photograph of the two men embracing, and it uses this photograph in an ad designed to warn voters about the politician's racist sympathies. The photograph is not labeled a composite, nor does the text of the ad, in which the politician's embrace of the racist is described, refer explicitly to the photograph in any other way. What are we to make of this situation?

    For purists, the judgment is undoubtedly easy. Because the ad's context can reasonably be seen as implying that the photograph is an undoctored document of the embrace referred to in the ad's verbal text, by strictly formal standards the use of this photograph can be considered a straightforward case of misleading alteration. Nevertheless, my own view of the ad is much more ambivalent. As in the case of the Volvo commercial, it seems to me that our judgment of this ad needs to take into account what difference the visual manipulation makes to the viewer's understanding of the ad's factual content. In the Volvo case, as we have seen, it could be argued that the basic facts about the Volvo 240's structural strength were conveyed accurately in the commercial, even though the incident used to demonstrate those facts was staged. In the case of the antiracist ad, this kind of argument can be made with much greater force. There is no question that the embrace between the politician and the racist did occur, and that it was recorded on film. So what the viewer is being misled about in the ad is not the ad's fundamental contention, but rather the evidentiary value of the photograph used to prove (implicitly) that contention. Should this count as deception?

    If pressed, I would have to say yes, but I would add that this particular kind of deception—or perhaps just this one incident—seems to me to be relatively benign. My own personal experience with this ad may be relevant here. When I first encountered the ad, I already knew about the politician's embrace of the racist, and I had seen the film on which the composite photograph was based. So, when I realized—after repeated scrutiny—that the photograph was, in fact, a composite, I experienced no feelings of having been deceived in any important way. Admittedly, my lack of moral outrage was also due to my underlying faith in the organization that produced the ad, as well as my support for its cause, and perhaps these factors have clouded my overall judgment of this particular case. But my more general point here is that such factors inevitably play some role in our assessments of the ethical implications of visual practices. Perhaps the two examples I have given here do not warrant making that role more than a bit part. Perhaps there is no situation in which that role should be a principal one. Nevertheless, I suspect that there is also no situation in which that role is entirely absent.

    Lack of Propositional Syntax

    Because picture-based communication does not have an explicit syntax for expressing causal claims, analogies, and other kinds of propositions, arguments made through sequences of images can be said, in principle, to be more open to the perceiver's own interpretation than are verbal arguments. In practice, of course, experienced creators of ads and other forms of visual persuasion are able to employ the tacit conventions of the medium in such a way as to elicit relatively uniform and consistent responses from their viewers. Nevertheless, the implicit quality of pictorial syntax and argumentation endows visual persuasion with a type of deniability that verbal persuasion cannot claim. In Chapter 6, we discussed various ways in which this deniability can make it possible for advertisers to express ideas that they might be less willing to put into words. In some cases, reluctance to spell things out verbally is a response to societal inhibitions. In other cases, however, this reluctance arguably stems from the fact that the advertiser's claims are fraudulent and might be more vulnerable to counterargument or even legal action if they were made in the more explicit syntax of words. Rather than repeating the examples discussed in Chapter 6, let me give one more, concluding illustration of this possibility.

    Some time ago, one of the tabloid TV news programs did an expose on the topic of nutritional supplements for body builders. According to the program, these substances are no better at inducing muscle growth than an ordinary balanced diet would be. And yet people who are seriously involved in body-building apparently spend large amounts of money on regular purchases of these products. As part of this expose, a reporter visited one of the companies that produces the supplements and confronted a company spokesperson with the charges against the product, as well as with one of the company's ads. The ad was a typical example of a cause-effect juxtaposition: on one hand, an image of the product; on the other, an image of a champion body-builder. Didn't the spokesperson think this ad was fraudulent? the reporter asked. Not at all, replied the spokesperson. Nowhere in the ad, he pointed out, was there any verbal claim that the product could bring about extraordinary muscle growth. As for the meaning of the pictures—that, he argued, was a completely subjective matter. The company could not be held responsible for what individual viewers saw in those images.

    The spokesperson's response expresses in a nutshell what the value of images can be in such a situation. Because there was, indeed, no verbal claim of superior effects in the ad's body copy, the spokesperson was able to avoid being held accountable for customers’ assumptions about what the product could do. And yet the images encouraged those assumptions even more vividly, if less explicitly. Unethical? In my view, yes, because of the underlying fraudulence of the product. But, having said that, let me add a final word about a question that may have occurred to some readers at this point, if not earlier. What should be the legal consequences for the various types of visual deception that we have examined in this book? Because I am neither a lawyer nor a first-amendment scholar, I cannot comment on technical matters. However, I would like to make a broader point about the desirability of government regulation of advertising images. In my view, official intervention in this area runs the risk of weakening the public's own sense of responsibility for critical viewing. If people think that a government watchdog—or should one say Big Brother?—is there to shield them from visual deception, they may be less inclined to invest their own energies in becoming “visually literate.” For those of us who believe in the value of a self-reliant, self-educating citizenry, this side effect of government intervention would be unfortunate indeed. So I am skeptical about the ramifications of investing government authorities with the responsibility to protect people from pictures, and I think it would be regrettable if anything I have said in this book were to be seen as supporting such an intervention.


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    About the Author

    Paul Messaris is an associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania. His area of scholarship is visual communication, and his previous research has dealt with how people make sense of visual media. He is the author of Visual “Literacy”: Image, Mind, and Reality, published in 1994 by Westview Press.

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