woman in a spacesuit with a planet behind her

The Classification of Advertisements


Advertisers were able to create more visually appealing commercials in the 1950s because there was an improvement in the quality of print production and increased access to television. Stuart Hall and Paddy Whannel (1967) argued advertisers “moved away from information towards persuasion” because they could provoke a “quick response” from consumers by using pictures to promote their goods and services. There is no doubt an effective image can have a more direct and immediate impact on the viewer compared to the time it takes to read information in a paragraph.

Instead of emphasising the actual qualities of the product, the advertising messages were “idealised” representations of “some desirable social situation, some pleasurable feeling or emotion, or some socially approved attitude” because the advertisers wanted the audience to “transfer the feelings from context to product”. If we associate a particular washing machine, for example, with a modern and stylish kitchen, we are more likely to buy the product to achieve that sense of luxury.

Hall and Whannel believed advertisers were “exploiting social attitudes” to encourage consumers to spend their money. They divided advertisements into four grades to illustrate the different levels of persuasion: simple, compound, complex, and sophisticated.

Advertisers are still engaged in this “process of manipulation”, so it is important we critically assess their appeals to the audience. We are going to analyse advertisements for a fictional laptop manufacturer to explore the different classifications and develop our understanding of how advertisers turn “reluctant consumers” into buyers.

Simple Ads

Hall and Whannel suggested simple advertisements placed the product in “an attractive setting” that was “easily recognisable” but “better planned than the setting in real life”. It is an “idealised” version of reality. Take a look at our first example for Mo laptops:

a laptop on a dark glass desk
A Simple Advertisement

Our laptop is located where the audience would expect – on a desk. However, the glass surface is spotless to convey a sense of professionalism and luxury. This is not the workspace of someone who is struggling to meet deadlines. The coffee mug and headphones reinforce the connotation of success and determination.

We often use plants to create a calm and soothing environment. The plant also reassures the consumer will not lose their connection to the natural world when they are busy in their digital space. The Eiffel Tower memento is an obvious signifier of travel and even love. Buy this laptop and secure your own adventure.

Simple advertisements will draw attention to the “usefulness” and “efficiency” of the product. You can see that appeal in our strapline at the top: “powerful reliable performance”.

Although there is some “hard information” about the laptop’s technical specifications, the advertisement “concentrates on selling the product” by appealing to our values and desires. If you want to be productive and successful, you need to get this laptop.

Compound Ads

In compound advertisements, “the product is firmly placed in an attractive and desirable social setting” so there is a “fairly simple transfer of feelings from one to the other”. For example, a feature for a car might include a rugged landscape to position the audience to associate the product with a sense of freedom and adventure. Or the car might be parked outside an elegant house to become an expression of wealth and status rather than a mode of transport.

Hopefully, “the transfer of feelings is relatively obvious” in the following advertisement for our laptop:

a laptop in a luxurious setting
A Compound Advertisement

The product is in the foreground, but the main selling point is the representation of the lifestyle. Most people cannot afford a room this spacious and airy. The window draws in a lot of light, the walls are clean and white, and the shelves are purpose built. Books are a traditional signifier of knowledge and the painting on the wall encodes an appreciation of art. The juxtaposition of the laptop and the affluent setting is a deliberate attempt to get the viewer to “transfer the feelings” of wealth and prestige to the product.

Complex Ads

In complex advertisements, the product is “an insignificant detail” and “the background begins to take over”. Hall and Whannel said this grade of advertising “makes a straight bid for social attitudes”.

Perhaps the best examples of complex appeals are those advertisements for companies trying to promote their brand identity, such as a commercial for a financial institution which focuses on values instead of their actual services. You may not even know what is on offer.

The following advertisement for our laptop concentrates on the “representation of luxury and prestige”:

a businessman uses the laptop in an airport
A Complex Advertisement

The business trip narrative is encoded in the signifiers of the suitcase and the sharp suit. The long, cushioned seats suggest the scene takes place in an airport lounge and not the main hub. There is a strong sense of confidence and satisfaction in the man’s body language. If you want to be successful like our entrepreneur, you need to buy the laptop.

The story is more important than the product.

Sophisticated Ads

Sophisticated advertisements exploit “psychological areas of experience” by appealing to “feelings which are deeply subconscious” or enacting “strange, dream-like transformations”. Perfume advertisements epitomise this appeal to our “most intimate and private feelings” with their use of glamorous celebrities in fantastical and voyeuristic settings.

You might already be familiar with the advertisement for Score hair cream which promises men they can “get what you always wanted” with the product’s “masculine scent” and “greaseless look”. Hall and Whannel argued sophisticated advertisements are useful when “sales-resistance may be greater” because the messages play on our deepest fears and desires.

Our next advertisement makes a ridiculous connection between the laptop and space travel to suggest your experience will be out of this world:

a woman in a spacesuit looking confident
A Sophisticated Advertisement

Informational Ads

Gillian Dyer (1982) added a fifth classification to the advertising functions – the informational ad. Appealing to consumers who are already interested in making a purchase, these advertisements are “usually brief and small”. Here is an example of an informational ad for our fictional laptop:

laptop and information
An Informational Advertisement

This version contains a combination of “facts and patter” to persuade the consumer, but there is no attempt to represent an idealised lifestyle, reinforce an ideology, or associate the product with some sort of social status.

Lines of Argument

Hall and Whannel also argued advertisers provoked “clusters of feelings” and identified three main groups:

  • Status and social thriving to outdo your neighbour or peer – these advertisements flatter our self-image and appeal to our aspirations.
  • Glamour and luxury – there will be a “conspicuous use of money” in the narrative and a sense of self-indulgence.
  • Dreaming and fantasy – “rational judgement is suspended”.

They suggested it was worth looking out for further “clusters of attitudes and feelings”:

  • Desire for social security – play on our “fear of being socially ostracised” and “fear of old age”.
  • National prestige.
  • Middle income brackets.
  • Social occasions familiar to teenagers, including “parties”.
  • Numinous objects – “objects, persons or situations that are deeply respected or valued, and about which mystical or near-religious feelings of awe are engendered”.

You should compare these clusters of feelings and Gillian Dyer’s lines of appeal in advertising.

Economic and Cultural Functions

Advertising has an economic function that supports our consumer society. Hall and Whannel called it a “natural extension of the system of mass production and mass consumption”. If advertisers want to introduce a wide range of choices to the consumer, then the content of those messages should be useful information that will help us make sense of the product.

However, advertising has become a socialising agent teaching consumers personal values and dominant ideologies. These complex and sophisticated ads are now helping us to make sense of the world.

Advertisers know we are “reluctant consumers”, so they need to get us to “see our priorities in a different light” and “strengthen our propensity to consume”. That’s why they exploit more “vulnerable” areas and “establish a link between the consumption of goods and the satisfaction of these needs”.

Buy the laptop and you will become a better person.

Hall and Whannel believed our values were beginning to “lose their shape and meaning” because they have been “overworked and corrupted by false associations”. They were criticising this “unhealthy and dangerous trend” in the 1960s. The next time you watching television, browsing online, or scrolling through social media, take a look at how advertisers continue to play on our fears and desires.

Dyer, Gillian (1982) “Advertising as Communication”.
Hall, Stuart and Whannel, Paddy (1967) “The Popular Arts”.

Further Reading

Thanks for reading!