Constructing meaning with persuasive online advertisements

Jennifer Asha, literacy educator, follows up on an earlier article by presenting some more complex texts that teachers can use to investigate persuasive techniques.

In Examining persuasive techniques using visual and digital texts I described four high quality persuasive texts that can be worthwhile resources for lessons designed to explore the structures, features, purpose and audience of texts created for persuasive purposes. In this article I will examine some richer texts that can help teachers to demonstrate critical literacy practices and guide their students towards being critically literate consumers of multimodal persuasive texts.

The need for critical comprehension

The use of multiple sign systems to make meaning within multimodal texts (Seigel, 2006) requires the reader-viewer to enact sophisticated skills to access the layers of meaning (Albers, 2008) and comprehend the text. It is important for teachers to encourage students to bring together the resources for decoding the multiple sign systems of a text; for comprehending the meanings intended by a text's creators; and for critically considering the context of the text and their own interpretation of these meanings as suggested by the Four Resources Model (Luke and Freebody, 1999). By examining texts and considering the reading practices required by persuasive multimodal texts, teachers can assist students to better comprehend them. In turn, the reader-viewer can better understand the demands of a text and be more able to engage in self-regulated learning (Zimmerman, 1990) as well as becoming 'strategic, motivated and independent learners' (Paris and Paris, 2001, p 89). In addition, teachers can select specific English textual concepts as a means of focusing learning and teaching practices to meet the English K-10 Syllabus outcomes.

Using multimodal texts to meet outcomes within different key learning areas

Primary school teachers have become experts at meeting outcomes from multiple key learning areas within a single lesson or unit of work. High quality texts are often pivotal in these lessons, combining a variety of types of text, styles and modes that complement each other and allow teachers to highlight learning intentions and teach content knowledge of different Key Learning Areas. In the following paragraphs I will describe several online advertisements and the visual and verbal techniques employed by their creators to meet their purpose for the intended audience. I have included cross curriculum links and made suggestions of print-based literature that could be used to further support learning in the Geography K-10 Syllabus and History K-10 Syllabus across the primary school. Each of the texts mentioned here could be discussed with students in ways that encourage critical literacy. Discussion starters such as those following can be adjusted to suit the text being studied, students' age and literacy development stage.

  • Who is the intended audience of this text?
  • What is the creator's ideology? How is the reader-viewer being encouraged to think about a particular topic or issue?
  • What is the ideology that I bring to this text? How can I make personal connections to the text? Does the text resonate with me or challenge my thinking?

'Mog's Christmas Calamity' by Sainsbury's

YouTube video: ‘Mog’s Christmas Calamity’ by Sainsbury’s

Audience and purpose

Created for a Sainsbury's supermarket campaign in the United Kingdom to support the Save the Children Fund and improve child literacy, 'Mog's Christmas Calamity' (3.21) is pitched at an older group of viewers familiar with Judith Kerr's picture book 'Mog's Christmas', originally published in 1976, as well as to a new audience of young children. The advertisement aims to connect the Sainsbury brand to positive memories of much-loved characters, childhood reading and family celebrations.

Multimodal persuasive techniques

With the familiar voice of Emma Thompson providing the narration, a cameo appearance by Judith Kerr, the written message 'Christmas is for sharing', and the supermarket's logo shown only in the closing frames, the multimodal text comes across as a heart rending mini feature film rather than an advertisement.

The viewer is introduced to each member of the Thomas family through close up shots (Kress and Van Leeuwen, 1996) of them asleep in their beds, peacefully dreaming. This is reminiscent of the classic Christmas poem 'Twas the night before Christmas' by Clement Clarke Moore. In a similar close up shot the viewer is shown Mog, not dreaming pleasantly but having a nightmare. Her reaction to the bad dream sets off a chain of disastrous events that culminate in burning a large portion of the Thomas' house and destroying the family's Christmas. The action, whether it be clumsily running along the kitchen bench, hanging on for dear life to the ceiling fan, knocking the phone off the hook and accidently dialling the emergency number, or scampering through the cat flap entangled in Christmas lights, is shown from Mog's eye level. The angle and distance (Kress and Van Leeuwen, 1996) of these shots assist the creators in characterising Mog by allowing the viewer to see the cat's facial expressions and thereby enabling a connection with the character's emotions. To a lesser extent but with similar effect, Mr and Mrs Thomas are also shown through close up, eye level shots as they react to the events going on around them. Initially their response is sorrow at the state of their house and their Christmas preparations. However, by the resolution of the narrative, when the neighbouring community gathers to save and share Christmas, Mr Thomas is shown beaming with joy and relief. While the narrator tells a version of the story that has Mog as the hero, the viewer has the 'inside scoop' that Mog is in fact the cause of the disaster. This insider knowledge assists in connecting the viewer to the storyline. It is the viewers' connection to the ideas, to the advertised brand and to supporting Save the Children Fund through the purchase of the picture book 'Mog's Christmas Calamity' that Sainsbury's is aiming for

Supporting Literature suggestions

Characterisation can be explored through each of the texts by examining how visual and verbal elements are used by the creators. Comprehension can be encouraged by helping students to recognise the similar and different themes, text structures, purposes and audiences of each text. History outcomes for Early Stage 1 and Stage 1 students can be met by comparing the ways Christmas is celebrated in the different texts and in students' own families, and with changes that have occurred to Christmas celebrations over time being highlighted for students (HTe-1, HTe-2 ,HT1-1, HT1-4).

'LIFE-Landcare is for Everyone' by Landcare Australia

YouTube video: LIFE - Landcare is for Everyone by Landcare Australia

Audience and purpose

Initially a television advertisement, now available only online, this advertisement was created with the purpose of raising awareness of the Landcare Australia organisation and encouraging Australians to actively care for land and water in their everyday lives.

Multimodal persuasive techniques

The animation (2.01) shows stylised people enjoying the natural environment and engaging in a variety of sustainable practices. The illustrative style gives the animated characters and setting the look of being made of wood. This link to the environmental theme of the text also has the effect of lowering the modality (Kress and Van Leeuwen, 1996) of the images and allowing the viewer to put themselves 'in the picture' and encouraging the viewer, in the words of the upbeat sound track, to 'step on up' and play their part.

The advertisement employs the visual element of alternating distances through a series of intimate close up shots, to show detailed facial expressions and actions or tiny aspects of the environment, being juxtaposed with rapid zooming out shots that show wider scenic views and the results of the sustainable actions of the characters. This pairing of shot distances echoes the sustainability mantra 'think globally, act locally'. Extreme long shots are used to visually suggest that sustainable practices in Australia can have a positive effect around the world. The final frames of the advertisement pause on a map of the country while encouraging every Australian to lead the way in best practice through a banner stating 'Landcare is for Everyone'. By merging the animated map of Australia with the Landcare logo, the final frame reminds the viewers of the brand and directs them to the organisation's website. This confirms the creator of the film text and its purpose of raising the profile and interests of Landcare Australia.

Supporting Literature suggestions

  • 'The Windy Farm' by Doug MacLeod and Craig Smith
  • 'Cry Me a River' by Rodney McRae
  • 'Uno's Garden' by Graham Base
  • 'The Lorax' by Dr Seuss
  • 'The Curious Garden' by Peter Brown

The Landcare advertisement could be used to introduce an integrated English/Geography unit of work designed to examine sustainable practices that protect environments. The use of literary texts to teach critical comprehension practices and elicit further discussion about environmental themes and sustainable practices would complement the use of informative texts to research the topic and further meet Geography outcomes (GE2-1, GE2-2, GE2-3, GE2-4).

'Japan - Where Tradition Meets the Future' by JNTO

YouTube video: ‘Japan - Where Tradition Meets the Future’ by JNTO

Audience and purpose

This advertisement (3.02) forms part of a tourism campaign designed to entice a range of visitors to Japan by showing aspects of the country's rich and unique history alongside its ability to innovate and inspire.

Multimodal persuasive techniques

The dual nature of Japan as steeped in tradition while reaching towards the future is exhibited through the multimodal motif of contrast. The advertisement employs contrast in terms of the settings or scenes shown (technological versus natural, night versus day, busy city versus quiet rural scenery, indoors versus outdoors) and the people depicted (both female and male faces, religious monks versus everyday people, older people versus younger, traditionally dressed versus the contemporary). The contrast motif is a strong feature of the cinematic choices. Close ups that show details and longer distance shots to allow the viewer to take in whole scenes of both natural and built environments. The instrumental sound track starts with a slow beat that builds to a faster one before slowing down again at the end of the advertisement.

Other visual choices have been made to engage the intended audience. Numerous close up shots of faces make the advertisement more personally engaging as the depicted participants meet the eye of the viewer through visual demands (Kress and Van Leeuwen, 1996). The angles (Kress and Van Leeuwen, 1996) scenes are shown from and the speed through which different scenes are presented position the viewer in particular ways. The opening frame, shot from below (Kress and Van Leeuwen, 1996), positions the viewer looking up and thus emulating a sense of wonder. The rapid fire of scenes is reminiscent of an awed visitor who is trying to take everything in. In contrast, the lingering scenes help to create balance and not overwhelm the viewer. The resulting effect of such persuasive devices is a text that encourages the viewer to discover aspects of a culture that is ancient as well as one in continual change.

'Japan Disaster - One Year On' by WorldVision Australia

YouTube video: ‘Japan Disaster – One Year On’ by WorldVision Australia

Audience and purpose

Created in 2012 this advertisement (3.26) was made to thank WorldVision supporters and show the results of their donations in assisting the 2011 Japanese tsunami survivors to rebuild their communities.

Multimodal persuasive techniques

The advertisement begins with still images, taken at the time of disaster, to show the effects of the tsunami. It then transitions into moving images to show footage of the action being undertaken to help re-establish community and industry. The dynamic nature of these images can be seen as being symbolic of the communities being assisted to move on from the disaster. The accompanying voice over and music is slow, poignant and emotive, setting an appropriately respectful mood. Less personal mid distance shots of children and adults at school, play or working are interspersed with close up shots of interviewees reporting on progress and the positive effects of WorldVision support. These 'pieces to camera' show the participant 'face on' to the camera though gazing 'off camera' presumably to the interviewer, in a visual offer (Kress and Van Leeuwen, 1996). These interviews add a personal touch to the narrated impersonal statistics and facts.

The verbal text has tightly packed 'noun groups' that make use of technical and factually descriptive adjectives, for example; 'disaster risk reduction program', 'solar panels', 'emergency supplies', 'storage units', 'evacuation centres'. The advertisement is particularly personalised at the end of the sequence when an interviewee speaks to the audience via a visual demand (Kress and Van Leeuwen, 1996) directly saying, 'Thank you' to the intended audience.

This pair of digital advertisements focusing on Japan could form the basis of lessons designed to learn more about one of Australia's neighbours. Though they have very different purposes and audiences they each employ persuasive techniques to meet their specific objectives. They offer teachers and students the opportunity to practise their critical literacy while learning more about the focus country (GE3-1, GE3-2, GE3-4).

Critical literacy is an important part of English literacy across the learning stages (Zammit and Downes, 2002; Freebody, 2007). Exemplary texts such as those described here can provide teachers and students with resources to practise their code-breaking, text participant, text user and critical literacy practices (Luke and Freebody, 1999) as they construct meaning with multimodal texts that also allow for learning in other Key Learning Areas.

References and further reading

Albers, P. (2008). Theorizing visual representation in children's literature. Journal of Literacy Research, 40, 163-200.

Freebody, P. (2007). Literacy education in school: Research perspectives from the past, for the future. Camberwell, Victoria: ACER.

Kress, G. & van Leeuwen, T. (1996). Reading images: The grammar of visual design. London, England: Routledge.

Luke, A. & Freebody, P. (1999). A map of possible practices: further notes on the four resources model [online]. Practically Primary, 4(2), 5-8.

NSW Department of Education. (2016). English textual concepts.

NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) for and on behalf of the Crown in right of the State of New South Wales. (2012). English K-10 syllabus.

NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) for and on behalf of the Crown in right of the State of New South Wales. (2012). Geography K-10 syllabus.

NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) for and on behalf of the Crown in right of the State of New South Wales. (2012). History K-10 syllabus.

Paris, S.G. & Paris, A. H. (2001) Classroom Applications of Research on Self-Regulated Learning, Educational Psychologist, (36)2, 89-101.

Siegel, M. (2006). Rereading the signs: Multimodal transformations in the field of literacy education. Language Arts, 84(1), 65-77.

Zammit, K. & Downes, T. (2002). New learning environments and the multiliterate individual: A framework for educators. Australian journal of language and literacy, 25(2), 24-36.

Zimmerman, B. J. (1990). Self-regulated learning and academic achievement: An overview. Educational psychologist, 25(1), 3-17.

How to cite this article - Asha, J. (2020). Constructing meaning with persuasive online advertisements. Scan, 39(2).

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