Images in Advertising: Theory

April 12, 2010

Advertising is a form of visual communication where companies work with persuasion – the power to influence consumers to associate or establish connections with a certain image and their product or service. The use of images and videos in advertisements is evidence that what is being shown has really happened and allows the images to be seen as direct copies of reality. The visual connections established is to elicit some form on mental connection and ultimately to pursue a certain type of behavior.

There are three major roles that images play in an ad:

  • Elicit emotion by simulating appearance of a real person or object
  • Serve as photographic proof that something did really happen
  • Establish implicit link between thing being sold and some other image(s

Using both pathos (emotion) and logos (logic), advertisers hope to ultimately persuade a person to purchase their product.

The different modes of communication have different implications and uses on how people interact. It can be described as having either semantic or syntactic properties. Semantic focuses on how the elements of a particular mode (words, images, musical tones, whatever) are related to their meanings. Syntactic deals with the interrelationships among the elements themselves as they combine to form a larger meaning. Each mode of communication has a combination of these two features.

Semantic properties are a central concern for semiotics, the study of signs. Scholars have identifited many ways to classify the relationships between “signifiers” and “signifieds”, but the most common scheme is used is the one identified by Charles Sanders pierce.

His triadic classifications entails three categories:

  • Icon. Iconic signs are characterized by some form of similarity or analogy between the sign and its object.
  • Index. Indexical signs are are those that serve as a physical trace pointing to the object’s existence.
  • Symbol. A symbol is an arbitrary convention – things that referred by virtue of social convention.

Why do we react the way we do to certain images? Several reasons ..


Pictures that resemble some aspect of reality are clear examples of iconic signs. According to Pierce, iconic signs need not provide a particularly close replica of its’ objects overall appearance. Example would be a river on a map – an iconic presentation of the course of the real river or a child’s stick figure drawing of person. Researsh has shown that cognition and perception that even a rudimentary match between image and reality is enough for the brain to employ real world processes of visual interpretation.

Visual representations made from photographs or videos also qualify under Pierce’s notion of a sign produced by a physical trace of its object. Meaning that not only are they iconic, but indexical signs as well. The fact that the photographs are direct physical imprints of reality it plays an important role in persuasion.


Syntactic aspects of images, the theoretical literature is less systematic and less developed than it is for visual semantics. Visual communication is characterized by a lack of explicit means for identifying ways in which images may be relayed to each other. What visual communications lacks is called propositional syntax. People who work in visual communications develop precise conventions for indicating spatial or temporal relationships among two or more objects, but visual communications does not have explicit syntax for expressing analogies, contrasts, causal claims, and other kinds of propositions. In the context of advertising, the “deficiency” of visual syntax makes it a principal strngth – it allows people to make their own connections and interpretations of the images.

Iconicicty, indexicality and syntantic indeterminacy are the three properties used in the attributes of visual persuasion. The real world around us surrounds us with social, cultural, and personal norms that we associate with each day. The associations come from unique experiences of each individual combined with common, shared influences of culture and biology. Certain images can reproduce the appearance of reality (icon) and can evoke a variety of “preprogrammed” emotional responses.


One comment

  1. Color theory, the fun way: http://www.mariaclaudiacortes.com/

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