REVIEW OF A COMMERCIAL produced for a national market within the past year. Do not analyze a PSA (Public Service Announcement) or movie trailer.


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Advertisers know very well just how powerful an ad can be. Ad agencies regularly spend millions of dollars on market research of audience preferences and responses to visual images, and companies spend more than $140 billion a year on U.S. advertising campaigns that cater to those preferences. Successful campaigns generate billions in return. Therefore, agencies design print, radio, television and Internet ads to influence their target group to buy a specific product. All effective ads must appeal in some way to a consumer’s personal desires and to his/her response to the myths, values and traditional assumptions of the culture.


Select a television commercial produced within the past year for a national market (no regional or local commercials, public service announcements or movie trailers).
Cite the URL on the top right corner of your first page.


Theme/message/mood: Commercials try to sell a product. Often the dialogue or voice-over narration communicates the message.

Example: “Come in from the cold for Cream of Wheat.” This commercial promises to change the spectator-buyer’s uncomfortable state (cold; alone; hungry) into a pleasurable one (warm; loved; nurtured and nourished).

Narrative: Describe the plot in a paragraph or discuss the mood, if no plot exists. Include running time. Does the commercial have a 3-act structure?

Form/technique/language: How does the commercial convey the content? Consider the narrative elements of character, setting, dialogue, dramatic structure, symbols and archetypes.

Consider the image, including camerawork and mise en scène: Hand-held camera to convey honesty or immediacy? Movement for excitement? Stationary camera for realism or stability? Close-up shots for intimacy? High-angle shots for vulnerability? Low-angle shots for significance or power? Slow motion to capture beauty or convey nostalgia? Telephoto lens to flatten the image or extreme wide-angle lens to distort it? Filters to eliminate facial wrinkles or heighten certain colors? Color or B/W? High or low-key lighting? Overexposed, washed-out images?

Consider the editing: Continuity editing for realism? MTV-like montage for fast pace or confusion? Slow dissolves for a more languid, lyrical mood? Important juxtapositions?

Consider the sound design: Dialogue? Music? Effects? Loud sounds to grab the spectator’s attention? Dentist drills or “painful” noises?

Example: The Cream of Wheat commercial uses invisible camerawork and editing techniques that reinforce the realism of the image. The commercial begins with an establishing long shot of a house blanketed in winter snow. The ad intercuts footage of a man walking outdoors in the cold with the cozy interior of the house (with a golden retriever framed in the window and hot cereal cooking on the stove, its steam recalling the man’s breath outdoors and the image of steam rising from a bowl on the product’s package). The music is nostalgic, and the voice-over narration coaxes the spectator to “come out of the cold,” repeating the words “cold” and “into the warmth.” The color design reinforces the packaging colors of the product: white, blue, red and yellow.

Ideology: What belief systems or values underlie the ad? Are they personal, cultural and/or political? Refer to the information below based on John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (BBC television series and Penguin Book), Barsam and Monahan’s Looking at Movies or Kasdan and Tavernetti’s The Critical Eye: An Introduction to Looking at Movies.

Example: The Cream of Wheat commercial proposes to transform the spectator-buyer from “cold” to “warm,” if s/he buys and eats the cereal. The ad promises to remove her/him from an uncomfortable, cold situation into a warm, homey one. The outdoor images are romantic and natural: the purity of the snow reinforces the “No Salt or Sugar Added” purity of the product as indicated on the package. The indoor images evoke a Norman Rockwell painting. This nostalgic and traditional underpinning recalls the sentiment on the package that boasts, “Hot Cereal since it was first introduced almost 100 years ago.” These elements address personal concerns, playing on the personal anxiety of being cold and promising a state of warmth, nice home, and beloved dog and wife awaiting one’s return. They also reinforce the product’s branding for easy identification in the marketplace.

The middle-aged Caucasian man comes home to the Caucasian wife preparing a warm meal for him in a middle-class house. These choices raise issues of gender, ethnicity, class and culture. How does the representation of a woman cooking and waiting for her spouse to return reinforce gender roles? How are cultural issues of middle class, heterosexuality and family-oriented life promoted as the American way? How do the casting and narrative choices reinforce stereotypes and reflect mainstream American values?

All commercials are political, supporting our capitalist system. As Berger states in Ways of Seeing (149-155), “Publicity adds up to a kind of philosophical system. It explains everything in its own terms. It interprets the world . . . The contrast between publicity’s interpretation of the world and the world’s actual condition is a very stark one . . . Publicity exerts an enormous influence and is a political phenomenon of great importance. But its offer is as narrow as its references are wide. It recognizes nothing except the power to acquire. All other human faculties or needs are made subsidiary to this power. All hopes are gathered together, made homogeneous, simplified, so that they become the intense yet vague, magical yet repeatable promise offered in every purchase . . .”

Berger explains that publicity “proposes to each of us that we transform ourselves, or our lives, by buying something more. This more, it proposes, will make us in some way richer—even though we will be poorer by having spent money . . . Publicity is always about the future buyer.

It offers him an image of himself made glamorous by the product or opportunity it is trying to sell

. . . Its promise is not of pleasure but of happiness: happiness as judged from the outside of others” (131-132).

Berger notes that publicity and painting frequently use the following visual Language:
Gestures of models and mythological figures

Romantic use of nature (leaves, trees, water) to create a place where innocence can be rediscovered

Exotic and nostalgic attraction of the Mediterranean

Poses denoting stereotypes in women: serene mother (Madonna), freewheeling secretary (actress, king’s mistress), perfect hostess (spectator-owner’s wife), sex object (Venus, nymph surprised), etc.

Special sexual emphasis given to women’s legs

Materials particularly used to indicate luxury: engraved metal, furs, polished leather

Gestures and embraces of lovers, arranged frontally for the benefit of the spectator

The sea, offering new life

Physical stance of men conveying wealth and virility

Equation of drinking and success

Man as knight (horseman), now depicted as a motorist

The spectator-buyer’s traditional education in history, mythology, poetry and popular culture can be used in the manufacturing of glamour. Moreover, all publicity works upon anxiety and increasingly uses sexuality to sell any product or service. “Publicity principally addressed to the working class tends to promise a personal transformation through the function of the particular product it is selling (Cinderella); middle-class publicity promises a transformation of relationships through a general atmosphere created by an ensemble of products” (Berger 145).

GRADING: 50 points

Analysis of the commercial: 25 points (Theme/message/mood: 10 points; Form/technique/language: 7.5 points; Ideology: 7.5 points)
Writing style: 25 points (thesis, spelling/grammar, sentence structure, paragraph development, supporting evidence)

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