Advertisements organize typography and art (photographs, illustrations, and graphics) into designed layouts. Advertising’s visual characteristics can be described historically by analyzing their style, or functionally by analyzing their role in advertising rhetoric.
Modern advertising appeared during the Industrial Revolution. In the early nineteenth century, most ads, like the goods they promoted, were locally produced. Written in a news style and set in type like today’s want ads, they verbally described the attributes, availability, and price of a product or service. They were seldom illustrated. Occasionally small, crude linecuts that showed the product and complemented the copy were employed.
As the Industrial Revolution progressed and markets expanded, businesses began to compete visually to distinguish their products. Some tried typographic strategies such as bigger, decorative type, printing ads larger, and reiterating the product’s name in text type. Others employed multiple type styles, ornaments, rules, and illustrations in a single ad, creating the cluttered, eclectic look called Victorianism. Textual hyperbole exaggerated brand claims to be the “best,” “first,” “most perfect,” etc. Sophisticated illustration first came into advertising in full-color lithographic posters and advertising trade cards featuring romanticized country scenes, mythology, fairy tales, foreign exoticism, and dramatic literary scenes. The sentimental pictures were enjoyable to look at but often communicated little about the product. William Morris initiated the English Arts and Crafts movement (1860 –1890), which criticized Victorian excesses and revived a simpler, more harmonious aesthetic. Late in the century, Morris’s Kelmscott Press set professional standards for the allied arts of typography, illustration, printing, and design.
Fine artists improved advertising imagery. In 1891, French artist Henri de ToulouseLautrec designed a lithographic poster, Moulin Rouge, La Goulue, whose bold, simple lines and colors anticipated modernism and launched Art Nouveau design style. It featured minimalist, naturalistic illustrations with soft, sensuously curved, vertically flowing lines, eschewing large amounts of text for small amounts of hand lettering. Imagery began dominating advertising design.
In the twentieth century, businesses recognized that advertising was no longer news about products but persuasion. Advertising agencies and researchers began testing persuasive strategies. Psychologists argued that suggestive appeals made through imagery worked better than written hyperbole exaggerating products’ benefits (Craig 1992). Research showed that simple, artistic, large-space, illustrated advertising helped people notice and remember products (Craig 1992). Images depicting the product in idealized settings are highly effective. Psychologists argued that the key to stimulating consumers was to show products fulfilling human needs and desires through suggestive illustration.
This fundamental shift toward visual rhetoric was accompanied by technical advances in photoengraving that allowed artists to completely retouch photographs, idealizing them as artists had previously done with illustrations. In image advertising, the product, candidate, or political policy is visually associated with positive cultural symbols. Because the images do not verbalize claims, their meaning must be inferred by the reader, leaving the process open to manipulation and disinformation. For example, in an automobile advertisement when a handsome, well-dressed man is pictured addressing the doorman as he enters a smart mansion, the reader is meant to infer that his character, taste, and social class are an index of the car’s qualities. Likewise, today’s conservative lobby groups adopt fake, democratic-sounding pseudonyms, and use common looking models to disguise their corporate interests.
Twentieth-century art movements like Futurism, Dadaism, and Constructivism revolutionized advertising design by combining dynamic photography, photomontage, and sans serif types in explosive, asymmetrical designs. A visually shocking break with the past, they were often difficult to read. But German Bauhaus School designers László Moholy-Nagy and Herbert Bayer and German typographer-designer Jan Tschichold countered with a cleaner, functional style that aimed to communicate rather than shock. Art Deco artists created an elegant, streamlined style that also communicated quickly. After World War II, the movement to simplicity was completed with International Style design, which stripped away everything inessential and arranged image and type in austere, asymmetrical, grid layouts with lots of white space. This widely adopted style helped advertising messages cut through the clutter and fast pace of modern life.
Today’s advertisers combine strong imagery and typography with clever copy to create a synergistic whole in standard layout patterns: image ads, copy-heavy ads, grid ads, fine art ads, or postmodern ads. Image ads rely on photos, photomontages, illustrations, or graphics to carry the message through a number of approaches: direct representation of the product, visual narrative, visual analogy or metaphor, visual humor, exaggeration, understatement, or irony. Copy-heavy ads rely on copy to describe a product in detail and to tell consumers why they should buy technical products like automobiles, electronics, and medicines. A variation is the circus ad, which borrows the busy format of old circus posters. It connotes bargain pricing, and is often employed by grocery and book stores. Grid ads may be symmetrical or asymmetrical. The former are called “panel ads.” They divide space equally, filling the panels with pictures. Copy appears at the top or bottom of the page or in one of the panels. Asymmetrical grids are called “Mondrian ads” after De Stijl artist Piet Mondrian’s practice of breaking space into unequal rectangles. Fine art ad styles rely on artistic media such as sketches, watercolors, oil paintings, abstract formalism, or art photography to carry connotations of creativity. Fine art ads may also visually “quote” the masterworks of art, sculpture, and architecture to contextualize the product. For example, one firm created authenticity by placing its olive oil in front of a da Vinci painting.
Postmodern ads derive from art and design based in electronic, digital communication. Photoshop and Illustrator created unprecedented ease of type and art manipulation, skills, which were once highly technical and expensive, and thus limited to professionals. Designers combined hand-drawn, graffiti-like letterforms, conflicting period art and ornament, distorted photographs, surrealist-like photomontages, and functionless lines and shapes running in all directions. Early adopters, like Nike, employed postmodern style to attract hip, young audiences. But more recently, businesses have simplified, tamed, or discarded its most radical forms to ensure that the ads can be read quickly.
- Barthes, R. (1977). Rhetoric of the image. In S. Heath (ed., trans.), Image, music, text. New York: Hill and Wang, pp. 32 –51.
- Craig, R. (1992). Advertising as visual communication. Communication, 13(3), 165 –180.
- Williams, R. (1980). Advertising: The magic system. In R. Williams, Problems in materialism and culture. London: Verso, pp. 170 –195. (Original work published 1960).
- Williamson, J. (1978). Decoding advertisements: Ideology and meaning in advertising. London: Marion Boyars.