<The Gender ADs Project>


How to Read Ads




<Background: Let us consider some of the ways that we can go about reading gender advertisements.




Area I: Basic Analysis of the Layers of Meaning in Ads
Katherine Frith (1998) discusses a tripartite approach to reading advertising. The examples below follow her understandings of ads in "Undressing the Ad: Reading Culture in Advertising.

Frith's Level of Analysis

Description of the Ad Level

The Surface Meaning

"consists of the overall impression that a reader might get from quickly studying the advertisement...you can describe this surface level of meaning by simply listing all the objects and people in the ad" (1998:5).

The Advertiser's Intended Meaning

"is the sales message that the advertiser is trying to get across. Some marketers refer to this as the strategy behind the ad. It is the 'preferred' or expected meaning that a reader might get from the ad; the meaning that the advertiser intends for the reader to take with them" (ibid.).

The Cultural or Ideological Meaning

"...relies on the cultural knowledge and background of the reader. We all 'make sense' of ads by relating them to our culture and to the shared belief systems held in common by most people" (ibid.).

A Sample Reading of an Ad


Frith's Level of Analysis

Analyses of the Specific Ad

The Surface Meaning

The advertisement consists of a muscular male standing in his underwear with a nude female positioned on a bed wearing no clothes.

The Advertiser's Intended Meaning

The advertiser is trying to point out the comfort of the particular underwear and that the brand can be worn in different settings, they are lightweight, and unlike any other underwear on the market. As a product, the underwear will "benefit" men.

The Cultural or Ideological Meaning

The specific use of the phrase "for the benefit of mankind" connotes a number of ideological meanings. At one level, the phrase (as well as the composition) speaks to the constructions of patriarchy in U.S. culture. Men are typically the ones who "benefit" from popular. As well, the use of "mankind" suggests the superiority of males in society. The visual composition and poses of the two figures also speaks to the dominance of males over females. Another meaning is that of male sexuality and the notion that women are presented to serve men, sexually and in other respects. The advertiser will also benefit from the association of male virility and the specific product being sold in the ad.



Area II: Semiotic Analysis of Ads

Erving Goffman's classic Gender Advertisements (1979) offers a semiotic analysis of advertising. Goffman's analysis looks at the specific codes present in ads and considers what they say about society and social relationships. His study includes a focus on minute details of ads, visual composition of ads, as well as the presence of specific social themes in ads.

A Sample Reading of an Ad Using Goffman's Approach


This blurry ad appeared in Goffman's text. At a semiotic level, we may read much about the ad regardless of the context of the product being sold or even the specific written text in the ad. The differences in the positioning of the male and the female indicate clear power dimensions relevant to our society. The male figure, by virtue of his standing above, has more power than the female who is on the ground. Additionally, the positions and angles of the two bodies also offer indications of power differences. The male's body is relaxed and confident, the female's is subservient and open. Her gesture at the male and the composition of her legs may also suggest sexual submission.


Area III: Thematic Analysis of Ads

In Advertising and the End of the World director Sut Jhally focuses on the negative impacts of advertising on our social relations and the environment. He develops a specific analysis of ads that draws the viewer to make holistic conclusions about the totality of the advertising industry. This holistic approach includes considerations of how a majority of ads stress specific visions of society, focus on how products produce happiness in consumers and project a vision of the future. Thus, another way to read ads is to consider the themes that develop in a specific medium, such as a Vogue magazine, or across a number of issues of that magazine or even across a broad spectrum of multiple magazines. This web page is focused on this holistic analysis of the themes that appear in popular advertisements. Jhally's other significant work, Dreamworlds II, also influenced a number of the themes that can be found in both music videos and popular magazine ads.



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The theme of normalization is present in ads throughout the historical spectrum of magazine advertising. In practically every contemporary magazine, women, as well as men, are powerful messages about how their bodies should be.


Area IV: Quantitative Analysis of Ads

Quantitative analyses of ads focus on the number of ads that represent a particular theme in the study. For example, one might conduct an analysis of the various forms of representation, techniques of presentation and thematic issues present in male and female sports magazines. A quantitative assessment of the numbers of any of these items would give a relative indication of the social constructions present in the advertising.


Area V: Side-By-Side Comparisons of Ads

This approach to ads would use two or more ads in a comparative sense to understanding differences in the constructions of gender and sexuality in ads. A goal of this form of analysis is to understand content and thematic differences in visual representations.

A Sample Reading Using Side-By-Side Comparison

In this case, we can compare the visual and ideological construction of the woman's image on the left with the same areas relative to the men on the right. You can also view the page related to this technique at the following link.


Area VI: Ethnographic Analysis of Ads

An ethnographic analysis of ads would include (1) interviews with ad or media agency representatives as to the goals of their advertising campaigns, (2) interviews with everyday individuals to assess their understandings of the meanings of ads.





<presented by Scott A. Lukas, Ph.D.>