When teaching composition, one of my favorite assignments has always been the visual analysis essay. This semester, students must choose one or two advertisements and analyze them, looking at audience, context, message, format, and other items. As usual, reality outside of the classroom always has a way of seeping in to the discussions, even in a composition course.

Bloomingdale’s Holiday Catalog Page

Last week, Bloomingdale’s came under fire for a page in their holiday catalog. The picture, which appears innocuous enough, shows a woman on the left hand side of the page. Tilting her head to the side, her face contains a smile as she laughs, presumably at a party. On the right hand side of the image, a man stands, semi-profile, and glances at the woman. Alone, these two individuals would not look like anything more than two people possibly enjoying a gathering; however, the text that alights itself between the two people causes the image to take on a whole other meaning. The text reads, “Spike your BEST FRIEND’S eggnog when they’re not looking.” (The bold is in the catalog.) These words make the man on the right look like a villainous seducer who will do whatever it takes to get the woman on the left into bed. Obviously, the image, and mainly the text, perpetuates an image of women as objects for nothing more than the gratification of men, all the while promoting a rape culture. Other sites have posted extended discussions of this topic: The Washington Post, Fortune, Tech Insider, and other outlets.

Discussing this image in class, I asked students to describe the individuals in the picture and the setting. Most agreed that the people appear to be at a holiday party, a wedding, or some other social gathering. They described the woman as boisterous and having a good time. When it came to the man, however, they said he looks “creepy.” I tried to get them to think about the image without the words in between the man and woman; however, that proved to be difficult. If the words were not there, would the man look “creepy”? I argue that he wouldn’t because the ad would then just be another page in a catalog, no other context. except for his positioning in relation to the woman, would lead to that assumption. Students had a hard time seeing this, and this only helps to reinforce to them that words, even in an seemingly innocent advertisement, mean a lot.

Along with this introductory discussion, I found it fruitful to walk students through Danielle Paquette’s Washington Post article. The article begins with a discussion of the image, describing the people then the text. Paquette then relays the outrage over the ad. After this, she maneuvers into a broader discussion of what the ad says on a cultural level. To do this, she interviews Sarah Murnen, a psychology professor at Kenyon University. Murnen speaks about using the ad in her gender studies class and Paquette expands what Murnen says to show how the ad relates to the broader topic of date rape on college campuses. Paquette then proceeds to Jean Kilbourne and the topic of women in corporate America. Walking students through this structure shows them that all of these topics arose out of an idea that initially seems innocuous until the words pop out of the page.    

Relating to the Bloomingdale’s ad, I want to take a second to look back at an advertisement that has always stuck with me when I assign the visual analysis essay. The Candie’s advertisement (which is actually two) from 2000 highlights perfectly the idea of audience for students. Both ads show a man and woman embracing on a bathroom sink. Obviously, it appears that the two will engage in sex. Unlike the Bloomingdale’s ad, this one appears consensual. The consensual nature of the ad is not the topic that I discuss with students though. Instead, I point out that the image on the left appeared in magazines like Seventeen, and the one on the right appeared in Cosmopolitan.

There are, essentially, only two differences between these images. The one on the right has condoms on the counter and the woman’s leg pulls the man’s towel down, exposing his butt crack. These two changes make the image on the right more risque, and one can easily understand why it appeared in a magazine like Cosmopolitan rather than Seventeen. Students pick up on the differences in audiences pretty quickly, so showing them these two images provides a great opportunity to highlight how audience plays a role in reception.

While there are apparent aspects of the images and audience that students pick up on, I noticed that they do not pick up on another aspect that warrants some discussion. As I state earlier, both images show a couple that, it could be assumed, will engage in sexual activity soon. If the ad on the left appears in Seventeen, would it be appropriate to show the condoms on the counter? I ask this because the question of will they or won’t they does not seem relevant here. What does seem relevant is what message the ad conveys in regards to sex. With the image on the left, practicing safe sex does not appear. No protection appears. One could also argue the same thing with the image on the right because the condoms do not look used. No package is opened. However, we could assume they will use the condom once the act commences. For me, the question of why the condoms do not show up in the Seventeen ad proved fruitful. It made students think about the message that the ad would or would not convey with the condoms present or absent. It also made them think about the reception of the ad to that specific audience and parents.

What are some memorable advertisements you have come across? Let me know in the comments below.


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