Examining persuasive techniques using visual and digital texts

Jennifer Asha, literacy educator, demonstrates how teachers can use questioning to explore the persuasive techniques used in 4 exemplary digital texts.

In a previous Scan article, I wrote about using imaginative digital texts as resources for teaching visual metalanguage to facilitate deep understanding of digital narratives. That article made suggestions for classroom talk, particularly teacher questioning to support student literacy learning. In this article, I will explore a different type of text - those created for persuasive purposes. This piece will also examine the ways that teachers can use questioning to support learning about persuasive techniques used in visual and digital texts.

The Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians states the need for schools to prepare students to be 'active and informed citizens' (MCEETYA, 2008, pp 6-7). Research similarly demonstrates the necessity of preparing students to think in critical ways (Zammit and Downes, 2002; Freebody, 2007) to help them become 'informed sceptics' (Durrant and Green, 2000, pp 97-98), rather than 'passive recipients' (Kervin and Mantei, 2009, p 3). The Australian Curriculum and NSW English syllabuses also mandate critical literacy practices.

The Australian Curriculum: English and NSW English K-10 Syllabus show a progression of literacy practices that students should be taught from Stage 1 through to Stage 3 in relation to persuasive texts. The outcomes across the stages show an increasing sophistication of comprehension and interpretation of texts - from describing 'differences between imaginative, informative and persuasive texts' (ACELY1658) to identifying 'the audience' (ACELY1668) 'and purpose of imaginative, informative and persuasive texts' (ACELY1678). Students are expected to 'identify' (ACELY1690), 'explain' (ACELY1701) and then 'analyse' (ACELY1711) characteristic features used in persuasive texts to meet the text purpose as they progress through the stages. The texts teachers use to instil these literacy practices need to be rich enough to allow for the application of these sophisticated critical literacy skills. The internet gives teachers access to high quality texts that can be worthwhile resources for lessons designed to explore the structures, features, purpose and audience of texts created for persuasive purposes. In the following paragraphs I will share some exemplary digital texts that employ a range of techniques to meet their purpose and persuade their audience.

'All I need' by MTV and Radiohead

YouTube video: 'All I need’ by MTV and Radiohead

The purpose of this short video by MTV and Radiohead (3 mins 47 secs) is to raise awareness of child labour in the footwear industry. The clip design employs an unusual layout with a split screen running two different clips side-by-side simultaneously. The intended audience can see elements of their own daily life represented on the left or 'given' (Kress and van Leeuwen, 1996) as it shows a day in the life of a child in a developed country. Through a variety of close-ups and mid-shots, we see the familiar elements of a school day: eating cereal at the kitchen table while mum packs a lunchbox, walking to school along a safe and clean suburban street, participating enthusiastically in a classroom discussion with a positive and supportive teacher, and playing games in the playground with school friends. In stark contrast, the clip on the right shows a day in the life of a child working in a developing country's shoe factory. This child lacks a loving home, care from adults, sufficient food, access to education, and the childhood freedoms that are the rights of every child. This 'new' (Kress and Van Leeuwen, 1996) information tells the tragic story behind the school shoes we rarely give much thought to. The contrast in the children's lives reaches its most impactful conclusion when the child on the left is shown taking off his school shoes at the end of the day, while the clip on the right shows the child in the factory continuing to work and produce the very shoes shown on the left. The dual clips are accompanied by a melancholic soundtrack ('All I need' by Radiohead), with its themes of loneliness and unnoticed admiration. The lack of spoken text allows for different levels of interpretation and could elicit rich discussion in the classroom.

Teachers can support students to interpret the choices of the text creators through carefully worded questions which incorporate visual metalanguage. For example:

  • how has the creator used layout to help meet the persuasive purpose of this text?
  • how does the clip creator use different distances or shots to show the details of the children's lives?
  • how does the mournful tone of the sound track contribute to meeting the persuasive purpose of the text?
  • how has the text creator attempted to make the audience connect emotionally or personally with the text?

'First 1000 days' by World Vision Australia

YouTube video: ‘First 1000 days’ by World Vision Australia

This video advertisement (2 mins 23 secs) aims to highlight the importance of nutrition in the first one thousand days of a child's life. It also encourages viewers to partner with World Vision Australia to urge world leaders to address poor maternal and childhood nutrition. The clip begins like a fairytale, with the written text and voice over narrating: 'Once upon a time...'. It continues by introducing the caricatured image of Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up. However, this perpetually young boy is used to symbolise the child who doesn't grow properly due to poor nutrition. The magical Tinkerbell symbolises the transformative power of appropriate nourishment. The written and spoken text also draw on the Peter Pan story through the appropriation of Never Never Land. The repetition of 'never never' in the verb groups describes the prospects of the child character and explains the vicious cycle of poverty. This use of intertextuality would resonate with an audience who possesses childhood memories of the fairytale, conjuring up remembered feelings of wonder, while putting a poignant spin on the realities of never growing up and the subsequent consequences. The clip uses a simple colour palette and seemingly 'cut out' images of the featured characters and setting. These design features lower the modality (Kress and Van Leeuwen, 1996) of the clip in contrast to other videos by World Vision Australia that often feature footage of real children and families via high modality images. By choosing these stylised characters and setting, World Vision Australia is highlighting the plight shared by different communities in various countries across the world, focussing the audience on the enormity of the intergenerational issue. This issue is reiterated through the call to action at the conclusion of the clip: 'Join World Vision's Child Health Now campaign today and call on world leaders to urgently address poor maternal and child nutrition'.

Teachers will probably need to fill gaps in student background knowledge regarding the original Peter Pan story by J. M. Barrie, briefing students on the characters, plot and themes prior to viewing 'First 1000 days'.

Subsequent discussion prompts that could help students to analyse and interpret the text in a critical way could include the following:

  • what is World Vision Australia saying about the idea of never growing up?
  • how is the Peter Pan fairytale used to connect to the audience's emotions?
  • how does the lowered modality of the images help to focus the audience on the issue of poor maternal and child nutrition?

'Mr. W' by Epuron

YouTube video: ‘Mr. W’ by Epuron

A German commercial for wind energy, this quirky digital clip (2 mins 3 secs) uses humour and novelty to engage the viewer and keep them guessing about the main character (played by actor Guillaume Raffi) right up until the very end. The advertisement begins and ends with interview style 'pieces to camera', showing close-ups of a figure clad all in black with ill-fitting clothes and hat, foreshadowing the concept that this is a person who doesn't 'fit in' to society. This disruptive character is then shown moving through various common settings, interacting with people in a most uncommon way. He throws sand in the face of a child in a playground; tussles the hair of a well-dressed woman; pulls another woman's skirt up, exposing her knickers; knocks pot plants off window sills; turns umbrellas inside out; bangs window shutters; bats the hat off a man's head; and pushes a load of plastic bottles from a homeless man's trolley. One socially inappropriate action after the other leaves the viewer wondering: 'who does this person think he is?' and 'why isn't anyone telling him to stop?'. The main character delivers a voice over throughout the advertisement. In language reminiscent of a job interview, he shares his sadness at not belonging and being misunderstood, until his potential is finally noticed and harnessed. It isn't until the closing screens, however, that a written text emerges, revealing the character to be a personification of the wind: 'The Wind. His potential is ours'. As the meaning of this visual metaphor slowly dawns on the viewer, and they begin to make sense of all the strange scenes they have witnessed, Mr. W turns and gently spins the wind turbine replica that has sat, unnoticed, on a table behind him throughout the entire advertisement.

Teachers can draw student attention to the clever persuasive and audience engagement techniques in 'Mr. W' through questions such as:

  • why did the text creator use the contrasting close-up eye level shots of the main character and longer shots from a distance to help characterise Mr. W?
  • how did the text creator use the element of surprise and viewer concern for other people to keep the audience watching and thinking throughout this advertisement?
  • people don't normally feel strong emotions for the wind. What techniques do the text creators use to generate feelings in the viewer?

'Lasting energy' by Australian Bananas

YouTube video: ‘Lasting energy’ by Australian Bananas

This television advertisement (30 secs) for the popular Australian fruit contrasts the 'no nos' of sugary junk food with the long-lasting energy of bananas, affectionately referred to as 'na nas'. The ad employs a number of sophisticated visual techniques. Beginning with a scene showing a woman holding a sugary snack in one hand and a banana in the other, the 'given' and 'new' (Kress and Van Leeuwen, 1996) layout is evident. The no no is positioned on the left, in the 'given', and the na na on the right, in the 'new'. Subsequent scenes then follow a repeating pattern of showing no nos and their negative effect on the consumer, followed by a corresponding na na scene with their positive effects. The no no eaters are shown as unhappy, unhealthy and sedentary people. While na na eaters appear happy, healthy and active. The visual modality of these scenes also follows this pattern with no nos depicted using unnatural colour saturation and grey, unhealthy, 'peaky' colours. These scenes have 'animated' qualities that include an oversized boxing glove punching a no no eater, a chair rocketing a no no eater through the roof of a building, and the background whizzing around behind an overweight participant to show the unnatural and unpleasant experiences of the no no eater. In contrast, the na na eaters are shown in pleasant outdoor environments via a more realistic colour saturation, with brighter yellow-tinged lighting, symbolic of bananas.

The angles used throughout the ad further contribute to the intended message. A scene toward the beginning of the commercial positions the viewer above, as a no no eater is rocketed through the sky, creating a sense that we all know the feeling of a 'sugar high'. Toward the end of the advertisement, a scene shot from below features a boy kicking a football high into the sky, towards the sun, symbolic of the natural 'high' created by bananas. The viewer is positioned to believe bananas have given the eater the ability to soar naturally. Placement of a shot from above at the beginning of the ad and a shot from below at the end of the ad provides a type of balance and cohesion that is echoed in the verbal text of the voice over. The voice over also makes use of alliteration, juxtaposition of competing elements, and evaluative language. A transcript and verbal analysis can be accessed on Gumleaf Games and Resources.

Students can be supported to critically consider the elements employed by the 'Lasting Energy' advertisement through questions such as:

  • how is what we know about healthy and unhealthy food choices echoed in the left-to-right layout in the opening scene of the ad?
  • how do the ad creators position the viewer to think about sugary snacks versus bananas through angles at the beginning and end of the ad?
  • how is the symbolic use of colour employed in each of the scenes? How does this build up a pattern that is intended to persuade the viewer to choose bananas over junk food?

These persuasive texts are rich examples of the genre, and make use of many more techniques than there is room to explore here. It is hoped that these brief explanations will provide a starting point for classroom discussion and discovery. If teachers analyse the structure and features of a persuasive multimodal text, considering the techniques used to meet the purpose of the text, for the audience, they are well placed to lead classroom discussions that support student description, interpretation and analysis of the texts. Teacher modelling of visual metalanguage during discussions and the contextualised use of metalanguage in teacher questions encourage meaningful use of shared metalanguage and deep understanding of persuasive texts to help students to become 'active and informed citizens' (MCEETYA, 2008, pp 6-7).

References and further reading

Asha, J. (2013, May 1). Australian Bananas advertisement campaign: How the visual and verbal features work together to create a successful ad [Gumleaf Games and Resources web blog post].

Asha, J. (2018). Teaching visual grammar in the context of digital texts. Scan, 37(7).

Australian Bananas [AustralianBananans]. (2012, August 15). Australian Bananas 'Lasting energy' 30 sec TV commercial [Video file].

Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority. (2012). English.

Durrant, C. & Green, B. (2000). Literacy and new technologies in school education: Meeting the l(IT)eracy challenge? Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 23(2), 89-105.

Epuron [Guillaume Raffi]. (2000, January 1). Mr. W [Video file].

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

Kervin, L. & Mantei, J. (2009). Using computers to support children as authors: An examination of three cases. Technology, Pedagogy and Education, 18(1), 19-32.

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

Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs. (2008). Melbourne declaration on educational goals for young Australians.

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.

Radiohead & MTV. (2008, May 2). Radiohead 'All I need' video for MTV's EXIT campaign [Video file].

World Vision Australia [WorldVision Aus]. (2011, September 18). First 1000 days | World Vision Australia [Video file].

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.

How to cite this article - Asha, J. (2020). Examining persuasive techniques using visual and digital texts. Scan, 39(1).

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