Visual Rhetoric in Advertising

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Visual elements are an important component of many
advertisements. Although the role of imagery in shaping
consumer response has long been recognized (Greenberg
and Garfinkle 1963), only recently have visual elements
begun to receive the same degree and sophistication
of research attention as the linguistic element in advertising (Childers and Houston 1984; Edell and Staelin 1983; Meyers-
Levy and Peracchio 1992; Miniard et al. 1991; Scott
1994a). The area is now characterized by conceptual and
methodological diversity, with a variety of new propositions and findings emerging.
Historically four approaches can be distinguished, each
with its own strengths and weaknesses. The archival tradition is perhaps the oldest (e.g., Assael, Kofron, and Burgi
1967). Studies in this vein gather large samples of advertisements and conduct content analyses to describe the
frequency with which various types of visual elements
appear. Archival studies may also report correlations between the presence of certain elements and specific audience
responses (e.g., Finn 1988; Holbrook and Lehman
1980; Rossiter 1981). The weakness of this approach is that
it is primarily descriptive and provides only weak evidence
for causality. Also, the specific visual elements investigated tend to cover a wide range and are not generated by any
theoretical specification.
The experimental tradition systematically varies either
the presence or absence of pictures per se (e.g., Edell and
Staelin 1983) or the nature of some particular visual element (e.g., Meyers-Levy and Peracchio 1995) or the processing
conditions under which subjects encounter particular visual
elements (e.g., Miniard et al. 1991). The strength of this
tradition is rigorous causal analysis combined with theoretical specification. However, the consumer responses elicited
tend to be abbreviated or impoverished, and theoretical
specification is mostly applied to consumer processing
rather than to the visual element per se.
The reader-response approach emphasizes the meanings
that consumers draw from ads (e.g., Mick and Buhl 1992;
Mick and Politi 1989; Scott 1994b). Extended depth interviews are sometimes used to show the rich and complex
interplay between elements of the ad and consumer responses. Weaknesses include a limited ability to conduct
causal analysis and a relatively vague specification of how
specific types of ad elements can be linked to particular
kinds of consumer meanings.
*Edward F. McQuarrie is associate professor of marketing and associate dean of graduate studies at the Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, CA 95053. David Glen Mick is associate professor of marketing at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI 53706. The authors, both of whom contributed substantially to the research, would like to thank the marketing groups at the University of Arizona, the University of Michigan, and the University of Wisconsin, the Faculty Colloquium at the Leavey School, and Barbara Phillips for their insightful comments, and Hakshin Chan and Raena Shioshita for assistance with data collection. Mick would also like to thank the Dublin City University Business School for its support during completion of this project when he served as the Endowed Chair of Marketing (1997–98).

© 1999 by JOURNAL OF CONSUMER RESEARCH, Inc. c Vol. 26 c June 1999 All rights reserved. 0093-5301/00/2601-0003$03.00
The text-interpretive perspective draws on semiotic, rhetorical, and literary theories to provide a systematic and
nuanced analysis of the individual elements that make up
the ad (e.g., Durand 1987; McQuarrie 1989; Scott 1994a;
Sonesson 1996; Stern 1989). It treats visual and verbal
elements as equally capable of conveying crucial meanings
and as equally worthy of differentiation and analysis. However, this tradition rarely collects or analyzes advertising
responses from consumers. This raises the issue of whether
the elaborate...
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