New Internationalist

How to read an ad

September 2006

We asked the CEO of a major London ad agency to give us pointers on how to decode ads. What he said is in pink below. We’ve added some tips of our own.

This ad jumps on to the bandwagon of MTV style R&B and hiphop glamour. It lays claim to ‘black culture’ but in quite an exotic way.

The setting is entirely designed to project the message: the circular set diminishes the importance of all the other people, apart from the phone user. She is further highlighted by her clothing, endless legs, confident appearance and manicured perfection.

The set could be a trendy bar, but has every appearance of a private jet. A ‘dream lifestyle’ is being evoked.

The ‘where you from/where you at’ message (pitched in colloquial language) is all about aspiration and snobbery.

The waitress is attempting to exert power over the phone user by looking down on her. The user is not even looking at her – ‘I’m in the know here.’ The message that’s meant to be transferred to the consumer is: ‘If you’ve got one of these, you’re not going to be waiting tables – you’re going to be in control.’

This ad relies on disruption. It borrows equity – the idea being for a brand to break through by going into another category and applying the logic of that category to its world. This is cosmetics advertising applied to chocolate ice creams.

It’s a power play. It’s about ‘When I consume this, I feel great and I am sexy. Hey, Mr man, you’re gonna want me.’ This is something sexual and sensual, which makes me feel indulgent and attractive to the opposite sex. Hence, ‘I’m serious.’ As in, I mean business.

The model makes direct eye contact, has flowing hair, her pupils are dilated, her lips full and glossy – all sexual signifiers. Oh, and she’s not wearing any clothes.

The brand is part of the model’s sense of self. The implication is you should identify with it too.

This is as much targeted at men as women – it’s making a statement about women who eat Magnum.

This is the brand as label. (The playful ice cream stick also has a labelling function.)

The entire ad is severely colour controlled – predominantly chocolate tones, with a bit of white which mimics the vanilla ice cream inside the product.

To enhance the feeling of a contained ‘Magnum’ world, there are six repetitions of the name or logo in an ad with barely any copy.

The stick perched above the model’s lip means the product has already been consumed by her. Ahhh, that’s why she’s so alluring.

Simple, classic, conceptual idea which allows you not to work too hard. The appeal is to standard things that you know. This gets the message across quickly.

There are status cues – Ocean Spray, cranberries. What kind of consumer drinks this? Slightly well off, in the know. What are they into? Detox, purification.

The minimal presentation, subdued background colour and designer glasses add further accents of status and sophistication.

The dew on the bottle is a classic visual ploy to suggest freshness and coolness.

They’re running the emotional bank account of debits (gin) and credits (detox via cranberry drink). All of us are faced with choices that are both positive and negative – we may buy fair-trade coffee and then use sugar about whose origins we know nothing.

The ad uses a simple double meaning (the gin and cranberry combination drink and the cranberry as hangover cure after the gin) to make us feel clever because we ‘get it’. But it also successfully conveys a ‘have your cake and eat it’ message.

Metaphorical upgrade message with some status and power cues in it. It’s deliberately designed to draw you in – ‘I get the gag’. Effective advertising has a mixture of both rational and emotional.

The two images mimic the child’s puzzle of ‘Spot the 10 differences’. The ‘upgrades’ range from flipflops and cocktail, to a tan and a cleavage.

The musclebound fanning hunk is curiously asexual – more like the eunuch in a harem. This is an archetype. If I have status then I get one of those and they look after me – it’s like the butler or the porter.

There is a diffuse, lightly sexual atmosphere, nothing too naughty, because this is aimed at a teen audience (and appeared in a teen magazine). The models don’t wear much clothing, but the young woman’s eye is caught by someone outside of the picture, not muscle man who is politely looking away.

The image is deliberately cheesy, having a laugh at itself, which is a large part of its appeal. After all, flogging a tampon which is more or less like all the other brands in the market is hard work.

This feature was published in the September 2006 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

Comments on How to read an ad

Leave your comment