Understanding Advertising

Michael O'Malley, Associate Professor of History and Art History, George Mason University



In this assignment you will make a web page, part of your web journal, on advertising and its history. Your web page must include the images you discuss. Pick two ads from no later than the mid 1920s. Choose advertisements from one or more of these four digital collections at Duke University:

To help you understand how to critique an advertisement, use the following examples:


On your web page, identify how the ads make their appeal, and how that appeal relates to issues and themes that were prominent at the time. Make sure to do a close analysis of the ads you have chosen, and give specific examples. How does the ad reflect issues and concerns of people at the time?

Then find two modern ads which use the same sorts of appeals. The ads can be found online, or you can take them from magazines and scan them. You can use TV or film ads, but they must be presented on your web page, as either stills or as movies. Subject the modern ads to the same kind of analysis that you apply to the historical ads.

The modern ads do not have to be for the same things, but they do have to use similar appeals.

Your website should include a detailed analysis of each ad--how it works, what kinds of strategies or appeals it uses, and its relation to the period it came from. You need to make an argument: it is not enough to simply describe what is in the ad. You also need to do more than simply state the obvious. For example, saying "this ad's appeal to people's desire to look good" is very weak—when have people ever wanted products that would make them look bad? Similarly, it is not enough to say something like "these ads reflect people's desire for a good product at a good price." When have people ever wanted a bad product at a high price? You need to set the ads in their context, and relate them to the history they come from.

Updated | April 2004