The material here has not been updated since 2003, and no reference to the content of this site should be made without the specific prior permission of Peter Sells (firstname.lastname@example.org).
This website presents an approach to the investigation of the way that print advertisements carry their meaning to their audience. In its broadest conception, the approach that we adopt here is inspired by the linguistic theoretical approach of generative grammar, as articulated by Noam Chomsky. This new approach offers a fresh perspective on the analysis of advertisements, and opens up many ways for students to explore further.
The starting point is the simple observation that an advertisement is a collection of words and images, which we refer to as Text and Image. The Text and Image components are in some relation, which we call Organization. Each of these facets of an advertisement can be studied in its own right, but under the same analytic principles. In particular, we constantly ask the question "Why is this component the way it is?" A simple overview of these components is given in Unit 1.
The way that we answer this question is the part that is inspired by generative grammatical linguistic study; we ask another question: "What happens if we change that component?". In this way, we can find out how components of an advertisement function in the whole, without prejudging in advance what the answer will be. Unit 4 presents a practical introduction to the approach. This unit encourages you to "play with" advertisements, as a way of investigating their structure. You can observe the results of your various thought-experiments, and you can try to relate them to analytic concepts that have been developed, largely within the context of standard linguistic analysis. These concepts are presented in Units 2 and 3. These concepts are useful as you try to articulate important features of the components, and of the relations among them. Even though Image and Organization are not expressed in language, the same linguistic concepts that apply to Text can be applied to them. It is in this sense that the overall site is about the Language of Advertising.
The remainder of the website investigates various aspects of the components identified in Unit 1, without trying too hard to relate them to the analytic concepts in Units 2-3. It is probably unrealistic to think that there is a set of concepts or conceptual categories that will exhaustively apply to any advertisement; rather their value lies in alerting you to what kinds of questions you can ask, what kinds of things you can look for, and, in some cases, how you can talk meaningfully about what you have observed. The goal, though, is most definitely not to try to assign everything you find to some conceptual category. Concepts are tools, but, the best tool you have in the end is your own brain.
So, how do you use this site? Use it to get you looking, to get you thinking, to get you investigating, and use it to provide a frame of reference for your endeavors.