Santa Clara University

Getting the Picture

A New Vocabulary for Print Advertising Visuals

Would you want a team of French poodles pulling your dogsled across the Arctic wilderness? Of course not, and that’s why the Canadian magazine industry used that exact image in an ad: to make the point that for Canadian businesses, advertising in non-Canadian magazines would be just as silly.

The picture of the poodles with the dogsled is an example of visual rhetoric — playing with an image to make a point. In the past decade and a half use of this technique has grown rapidly, but research on its nature and effectiveness has lagged behind.

“For many years attempts to categorize advertising images were very primitive,” said Edward F. McQuarrie, Professor of Marketing at SCU’s Leavey School of Business. “Part of our argument is that pictures have been turned into visual figures of speech in an attempt to engage the reader’s eye in a cluttered, crowded, fast-paced media environment.”

McQuarrie and Barbara J. Phillips of the University of Saskatchewan have attempted to categorize these new visual “figures of speech” so their use and effectiveness can better be studied in future research. Their paper, “Beyond Visual Metaphor: A New Typology of Visual Rhetoric in Advertising,” appeared in the journal Marketing Theory in late 2004. For most of its history, print advertising has been word-oriented, the idea being that a rational argument had to be made to influence a thoughtful consumer making a deliberate choice.

But in recent years, word counts in print advertising have plummeted and images have become more prominent and evocative. Advertisers in effect have been testing a new visual rhetoric without having much in the way of information about what worked and why.

“We’re drowining in ads and brands now,” McQuarrie said. “A print ad needs salience, because the important thing is to catch the reader’s attention for that one extra second.”

McQuarrie and Phillips looked at hundreds of full-page magazine ads, and broke their visual structure of the more rhetorical ads into three categories, each of which was in turn broken down into three sub-categories. The three categories are Juxtaposition (two side-by-side images); Fusion (two combined images); and Replacement (the image shown in the ad is intended to suggest a different, absent image to the viewer).

The French poodles pulling the dogsled were an example of a Replacement-Opposition ad, which is at the top of the scale in terms of richness and complexity. In order to make sense of it, the viewer must know what a dogsled is, that it usually is pulled by huskies, and that poodles are the exact opposite of the sort of working dog that would be good for that particular job.

By creating a vocabulary and structure to describe the kinds of visual rhetoric used in advertising, McQuarrie and Phillips hope to give other researchers a framework for determining which types of visual play work and why. Experiments along those lines might take the form of substituting other visual elements for the ones in the ads to see how consumers respond to ads with and without visual alteration.

“There’s been a sea change in the ecology linking advertisers to consumers,” McQuarrie said. “The picture has become the crucial element, making clever manipulations of it more important. We hope to have enabled researchers to determine what works in pictures and what can work better than what was done before.”

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