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Medicine and Madison Avenue Research Guide

Classroom Exercises

I. Analyzing Advertisements: Basic Skills

1. Individual ad analysis exercise

Ads can be analyzed on many different levels: as works of art, as inducements to buy, as symbolic statements of basic cultural values. The different elements of the ad - the text, the images, the design - work together to convey information about the product as well as to suggest its symbolic appeal. Reading an ad closely requires learning to appreciate these different components and levels of meaning in an ad. The texts on advertising and culture listed in the bibliography provide excellent overviews of the different methodologies involved in ad analysis. Chapter 8 of Jib Fowles's Advertising and Popular Culture, presents a good short introduction to "deciphering advertisements."

This exercise is designed to introduce you to some of the basic skills of reading an ad. Pick an ad that interests you from the database and answer the following questions (loosely adapted from Jib Fowles's Advertising and Popular Culture, pp. 171-174).

Exploring the Ads Context and Appearance

1. What product category does the advertised commodity fall into?

2. Which medium - magazine, newspaper, radio - did this ad appear in? What month, day, and year did it appear?

3. Judging from where the ad appeared (the kind of magazine and newspaper), what might you infer about its intended audience? Describe this audience: who are they, what they are most likely attracted to.

4. Consider the ad in aesthetic terms. Describe the layout: what are the different design elements and how are they placed. Why do you think these particular elements were chosen? What does the image and the typeface say to you? Do they help establish an overall mood for the ad?

5. Look at the artwork in the ad. Is it a line drawing, a painting, or a photograph? What is the lighting like? What is the angle taken on the subject? Is it a close up or a long shot? Is the focus sharp or blurred? Why do you think the agency art directors chose this particular image?

6. In the imagery, what appears in the foreground versus the background? Why do you think these choices were made?

7. Precisely what is the product being offered for sale? What do you learn about its objective qualities? (Try to distinguish here between factual versus symbolic appeal.)

8. Make a list of all the various elements in the ad that suggest its symbolic appeal; that is, what positive attributes its purchase will supposedly bring the consumer? Think of the ad as a play: what are the props and characters it employs? How is that symbolic value conveyed?

9. Go over the list from question 8 and consider each item in terms of the intended audience: what signal might that item convey regarding class status, leisure time activities, gender roles, sexual attractiveness, health and vitality, family responsibilities, and the like. Ask, "What might this item, this feature, mean to the targeted consumer?" Start with the most prominently featured items first.

10.  Look at the human figures pictured in the ad.  What might you infer about their states of mind from the ways they are presented?  How might the intended audience have responded to those representations?

11. Look carefully at the locale of the scene. Where does it take place? What symbolic significance is the locale likely to have for the intended audience?

12. Locate the scene in time: is it in the past, the present, or the future? What does the temporal location suggest?

13. Consider the ad as a narrative, a story, or scene from a play. Can you supply the overall story? What has happened, is happening, or will happen soon? What is this narrative likely to mean to the intended audience?

14. Sometimes it is not what is in the ad that pulls the viewer in, but what is missing. Is there anything missing in this imagery that the intended audience might supply?

15. Is the symbolic message of this ad idealizing some aspect of life? If so, what is it and how is it presented?

16. To sum up: imagine a group of people totally engaged with this ad. What state of mind would they take away from it?

17. Are there any references to previous ads or other forms of popular culture in the ad - what scholars refer to as "intertexuality"

18. Ads succeed by framing some things in and excluding the rest. What are some associations to the product and the symbolic themes suggested for it that have to be framed out by the persons making the ad? Why?

Implications of the ad

19. What might this ad be inferring about the nature of human relationships?  What kind of nonverbal communication appears with the ad?  Which figures dominate?

20. What does this ad say about what it means to be a man or a woman?  About self-identity?  About personal happiness, sexual attractiveness, or other forms of self-fulfillment?

21. What does the ad convey about markers of social status or class?  About racial or ethnic identity?

22. What kinds of cultural beliefs are promoted in this ad?  Try to imagine yourself as an outsider to this society viewing this ad.  What seem to be the values of the ad's creators and receivers?

23.  Advertising is often linked with the process of commodification: that is, taking a human value or need and equating it with the process of buying and using a product.  From that standpoint, ask yourself: what human needs and values is this ad attempting to commodify?

2. Context/sampling exercise

The ads in this database have been selected out of millions of possible printed ads in American magazines and newspapers.  To get a better sense of how consumers actually saw them, it is useful to look at ads in magazines and newspapers.  The following sampling exercise helps students appreciate ads in context.  It also helps them see how common the health appeal was in relation to other kinds of advertising themes.

Pick a general interest magazine (the Saturday Evening Post or Collier's are good choices).  Choose a year to sample, and pick two months.  Count all the ads that appear in those two months, categorizing them by product type and dominant theme (health related or not).  Then repeat the exercise using a woman's magazine (Good Housekeeping or Ladies Home Journal are good choices).  Write a brief summary of what you found: what kinds of ads did you find?  What were the most common themes?  Did one type of magazine tend to have more health related ads?  Repeat the exercise using a daily newspaper from the same year.  Sample ads for one or two days rather then a month.  Compare the results with your magazine survey.

Finally repeat the above exercise with items from two decades later.  How do the results differ?  What themes remain constant?

II.  Using Gender, Race, and Class as Categories of Analysis

Read the article by Frances Maule on The "Woman Appeal." Find examples in the database of the selling strategies she recommends.

Many advertisements used selling appeals targeting mothers.  Choose a sample of ads from the database that picture mothers and children: one group before World War II, one group from after.  Compare the "mommy sell" over time: wheat elements remain the same, which ones change?

In an influential book published in 1979 titled Gender Advertisements, the sociologist Erving Goffman showed that advertisements usually pictured men and women in certain stereotyped positions: men's bodies were always positioned higher than women; women's bodies were often posed at angles rather than standing straight; men's hands grasped objects while women's hands only touched or grazed them. Goffman noted that women were often posed in child-like ways, snuggling against a man or pictured with a finger in their mouth. Choose a sample of ads from the MMA database and examine the relative positions and gestures of men's and women's bodies. Do Goffman's observations about the relative positioning of men and women's bodies hold true for the historic ads?

Ads from the time period covered in this database contain very few representations of African Americans. What does this absence tell you about health, race, and advertising in this time period? Look at the few ads that do feature African Americans. Compare how blacks and whites are pictured in these ads. 

Pick a sample of ads that interest you.  How are class differences represented in them?  Are there any ads that feature people from working class backgrounds? What markers of class and racial identity do you see in the ads? How representative of Americans as a whole do you think people featured in ads were during this time?

III. Analyzing Health Themes in Advertisements: Views of Science and Medicine

1. Testimonials from celebrities, medical experts, and ordinary consumers were often used in health related advertisements.  Read Stanley Resor, "Personalities and the Public."  Why does Resor argue that testimonials are effective?  Look at a sample of ads the use testimonials.  How do testimonials from experts differ from those of celebrities and ordinary citizens? Take each kind of testimonial and imagine how the intended audience might respond. Which style do you find most convincing?

2. Make a survey of how doctors are represented in drawings and photographs. What do they look like? How are they dressed? How are they posed in relation to patients? What symbols of science and scientific medicine appear with them?

3. Do the same with nurses and compare the results. How do commercial representations of the nurse differ from the doctor's?

4. Make a list of the images used to suggest the power of modern science. What symbols do the ads use to represent medical authority and scientific truth?

5. Make a list of the scientific facts and truths invoked in advertisements. What scientific discoveries and theories do they refer to?

6. Read the sample radio commercial and transcript of Dr. Haggard's talk.  How do the messages of the advertisement for the product S.T. 37 mesh with those of Dr. Haggard's talk on the history of medicine? Why do you think the JWT agency paired this ad with this health education broadcast?

7. Read the radio script for the Sunbrite junior nurses' commercial, which appeared before a radio drama about Clara Barton.  How did this commercial reflect contemporary views of nurses?  Of health and hygiene?  Why do you imagine young girls might have joined the group?

IV. Analyzing views of the body and disease

1. Concerns about health and romance are often intertwined in many advertisements.  Choose a sample of ads for toothpaste, mouthwash and tonics.  How are concerns about health and romance intertwined?  Compare appeals to men and women.  How are they similar, how are they different?

2. How are health risks at different stages of life (infancy, childhood, adolescence, middle and old age) presented?

3. How are sick people pictured in ads?  Do they seem noticeably different in appearance from the well people?  How does the viewr know they are sick?

4.  Look at references to current events in the ads.  How do health related ads reflect the political and cultural currents of the era?

5.  Look at examples of "good will" advertising by pharmaceutical companies.  How do these ads represent the American medical profession and/or the pharmaceutical industry?  What do you think these companies are trying to accomplish we these campaigns? You may use this list of suggested ads:

6.  Have students take a time period and/or product type and make a list of the information ads convey about the origins of disease and the ways to stay healthy.  What basic attitudes toward health promotion to ads convey?

V. Understanding concerns about deceptive health advertisement

1. Read the article, AMA Bureau of Investigation, "Scot Tissue," and the J. Walter Thompson Creative staff meeting minutes for September 28, 1932 discussing that article.  What did the AMA officials object to about the Scott Tissue campaign?  How did JWT officials defend themselves against those charges?  Whose argument do you find most convincing?  Look at the samples of Scottissue ads from the database, which date from after the controversy.  Do you think the controversy had any impact on the style of these later advertisements?

2. Read the report from the JWT consumer panel on Scott tissue.  What problems did they have getting ideas across?  What kinds of resistance did consumers have to the advertising message?

3. Look at the Fleischman's yeast advertisement featuring the testimonial by Mabel Kinneer.  Then read Kinneer's deposition in the Federal Trade Commission's complaint against the parent company, Standard Brands.  How was Kinneer's testimonial and photograph obtained?  Do you think her attitudes toward the product were fairly stated by the ad?  Now read the FTC's complaint about the ad.  What did the FTC officials object to in the portrayal of Mabel Kinneer?  Finally read Standard Brand's response to the FTC.  How did they defend their portrayal of Kinneer?  Whose arguments do you find most convincing?   

4. Using the FTC documents as a model, have the students pick an ad they consider questionable in its claims and stage a mock hearing.  Have different students play the roles of the parent company, the ad agency executives, the complainant, and the FTC lawyers.  Have the complaint and the FTC lawyers draft a complaint; let the ad agency and manufacturers draft a response.  Appoint another group of students to review the two documents and issue a ruling as to whether the manufacturer can continue to use this kind of advertisement.

5.  Both medical experts and consumer activists often criticized advertisements for their overstatement of disease risk.  Yet popular health literature often represented common symptoms as signs of potentially serious disease.  Read Brotman's article on "Halitosis" and then look at the mouthwash and toothpaste ads from the same time period.  Where do their messages overlap?  Where do they differ?

VI. Developing awareness of advertising and its influence on ourselves

1.  Ask students to write a description of an advertisement on TV, radio, the web, or print, that they have noticed in the last two days.  Have them list everything about the ad that they remember.  Use these recollections as the basis for a general discussion about what people tend to take away from ads.  Ask them to be particularly aware of forms of resistance to the ads message they experience.  Follow up by asking them to see if their awareness of ads changes after doing this exercise.

2.  Ask students to write a paragraph identifying the last ad they can remember that convinced them to buy a certain product.  Use these recollections as the basis for a general discussion of how ads influence behavior.  Ask students to identify areas of daily experience where they believe people are most likely to be open to advertising's influence.  Then have them read Chase and Schlink's article "Consumers in Wonderland."  How much has changed from the 1920s and how much has stayed the same?  


Apple, Rima. 1996 Vitamania: Vitamins in American Culture.

Craver, Kathleen W. 1999 Using Internet Primary Sources to Teach Critical Thinking Skills in History.

Jacobson, Michael F. and Masur, Laurie Ann. 1995 Marketing Madness: A Survival Guide for a Consumer Society.

Linett, Richard. 2001 "The Numbers Game," Ad Age 30 July 2001.

Marchand, Roland. 1985 Advertising the American Dream.

Pierce, Russell. 1991 Gringo Graucho: An Advertising Odyssey.

Schudson, Michael. 1984 Advertising, the Uneasy Persuasion.

Whorton, James C. 2000.  Inner Hygiene: Constipation and the Pursuit of Health in Modern Society.