Linguist-List, Thu Jan 10 2002

Review: Cook, The discourse of advertising

Reviewed by: Elisabeth Le, University of Alberta


Introduction: the genre of the advertisement (Chapter 1)

The purpose of this book is to provide a framework for the analysis of advertisements as a discursive genre. Concepts from discourse analysis, semiotics, stylistics, and linguistics are applied to examine the ads textual and contextual features in a bottom-up approach that allows to identify their interactions and combinations.

Ads as a genre are not precisely defined from the outset. They include "market ticket offering goods for sale in the most straightforward terms ('Lovely bananas, 50p a pound')", and "multi-million pound thirty-second TV mini-drama, or a pulsing 'pop-up' window on the World Wide Web" (p.9). Because of its toleration for fuzziness, prototype theory (Rosh 1977) is helpful in dealing with cases of ads that are disguised by advertisers as something else. However, this theory does not enable one to take into account a tendency to consider something as an ad because of its position (e.g. in a television schedule, in a magazine) notwithstanding its content. The question of the genre of advertisement is approached throughout the book, and a tentative conclusion is drawn at the end (Chapter 10).

The book is divided into three parts: materials ("bottom"), text, and people ("top").

Part 1: Materials

The first part deals with the materials of ads. Interactions between ads (message), their substance (material support such as wrapping paper, magazine, electronic chip, Internet etc.) and their surroundings (e.g. news item appearing just before the ad on TV, opposite page in a magazine) are discussed, and their influence on the effectiveness of the ad is shown (Chapter 2). Furthermore, concrete examples display how words (spoken or written) interact with music and pictures to deliver the message. Finally, in connection with Saussurean semiology and Piercean semiotics, the role of paralanguage (e.g. voice quality, choice of script, gesturing, facial expression) in carrying meaning is illustrated with various examples in literature and advertising (Chapter 3).

Part 2: Text

The second part examines the text of the ads. First, the meaning of words and phrases is exemplified with the analysis of connotations in several ads of perfume and cars, and with the analysis of an excerpt from "Romeo and Juliet" (Chapter 5). Second, other ads are examined for their prosody and their features of parallelism or deviation, and this is put into perspective with Roman Jakobson's poetics that is illustrated with the analysis of a stanza by Oscar Wilde (Chapter 6). And third, concepts of cohesion, pragmatic principles and coherence are explained and applied in the analysis of pronouns in a few ads (Chapter 7).

Part 3: People

The third part focuses on people, the "speakers" and the "hearers". Speakers are represented by narrative voices, whose concept is explained with different principles in discourse analysis (sentence perspectives, shared assumptions as ideology, Bakhtin's theory of voice, intertextuality). Narrative voices in literature (Fielding, Austen) and ads are compared (Chapter 8). Hearers are considered in the way ads are perceived by artists, writers, academics, and the public. It is suggested that a number of their criticisms stem from the ambiguity of ads as a genre (Chapter 9).

Conclusion: the genre of the advertisement (Chapter 10)

The conclusion reassesses the issue of the genre of advertisement by listing 14 prototypical features (pp.218-219) that the preceding chapters have underlined.

  1. ads use a variety of substances, including some which are not used in communication elsewhere (e.g. soap, vapour);
  2. ads are embedded in an accompanying discourse;
  3. ads are presented in short bursts;
  4. ads are multi-modal, ad can use pictures, music and language, either singly or in combination, as the medium permits;
  5. ads, in their use of language, are multi-submodal, and can use writing, speech and song, either singly or in combination, as the medium permits;
  6. ads contain and foreground extensive and innovative use of paralanguage;
  7. ads foreground connotational, indeterminate and metaphorical meaning, thus effecting fusion between disparate spheres;
  8. ads make dense use of parallelisms, both between modes (e.g. the pictures and music have elements in common), and within modes (e.g. the words rhyme);
  9. ads involve many voices, though they tend to be dominated by one;
  10. ads are parasitic: appropriating the voices of other genres, and having no independent existence;
  11. ads are often heard in many contradictory ways simultaneously;
  12. ads merge the features of public and private discourse, and the voices of authority and intimacy, exploiting the features which are common to these poles;
  13. ads make extensive use of intertextual allusion, both to other ads and to other genres;
  14. ads provoke social, moral and aesthetic judgements ranging from the most positive to the most negative (they are 'harmful' or 'beneficial', 'bad' or 'good', 'not artistic' or 'artistic').

As it is not always clear when these features are text dependent or receiver dependent, their presence in a specific ad might give rise to disagreements. In fact, it seems that the only characteristic that everybody would agree on is that ads provoke controversy. To complete the preceding list, the following prototypical features (p.221) are proposed in a speculative way.

  1. ads have the typical restless instability of a new genre;
  2. ads are a discourse on the periphery of attention;
  3. ads constantly change;
  4. ads follow a principle of reversal, causing them to change many features, as soon as they become established, to their opposite;
  5. ads seek to alter their addressee's behaviour but this is understood by default, and need not occupy space or time;
  6. ads are identified by their position in an accompanying discourse, and need not use space or time to establish their identity as an ad;
  7. ads use their space and time in an attempt to give pleasure;
  8. ads use code-play;
  9. ads answer a need for display and repetitive language;
  10. ads are unsolicited by their receivers;
  11. ads, as verbal art, are detrimentally constrained by the need to obey the orders of their clients.

COMMENTARY Ads are a very interesting genre, whose complexity might very well increase with the use of each new technology. Their purpose is to make an impact on people's mind, but their time and space are limited, as is human attention. Thus, "anything goes" and will be tried. They are perfect examples for the study of discourse, as their use of interactions between various textual and contextual features must be maximized. Moreover, they are short, sometimes "fun" or aesthetically pleasant, and their analysis always functions as good mind-openers for students. In our consuming society, we are surrounded by ads, and it is important to know how to "read" them, if we want to keep some of our independence. However, as argued by Guy Cook, we should not try to see more in them than what there really is.

"The Discourse of Advertising" is a very readable book that is well suited for undergraduate students whatever their academic background (literature, linguistics, cultural studies, communication studies, etc.). As stated in the first chapter, it could serve as a practical introduction to discourse analysis, semiotics, stylistics, and linguistics. Indeed, major concepts from these fields are explained in clear and simple terms, and as they are illustrated with concrete examples in order to reach a specific goal (the characterization of ads / the critical reading of ads), their usefulness is very apparent. The balance between theory and practice is excellent. Advertising examples are mostly recent, and taken from a variety of supports (e.g. billboards, Internet, TV, magazines). British ads are given a clear preference, but there is an effort to include ads from other cultures. In any case, if this book were to be used outside of the UK, local ads could be the object of analyses by students. The application of theoretical concepts to ads and literature provides a better understanding of these concepts, and especially allows for the distinction between the two genres. Chapters build on each other; as some of the ads are analyzed in different chapters, the interaction and combination of textual and contextual features are underlined. However, this also precludes the reading of one chapter independently from the others. Important technical words are in bold type. Although they are defined in the text, it would be practical for students to find them in a glossary at the end. Each chapter is followed by a set of exercises that either complete it or anticipate the next one, but their interest is variable. Further readings (with a comment on each) are also indicated.

In conclusion, this second edition of "The Discourse of Advertising" takes into account the latest developments in advertising, and as such, updates very well the first edition (1992) in a field where rapid changes are the norm. This also means that a new edition will probably be needed in a few years from now. In the meanwhile, this one is an excellent introductory tool not only to the field of advertising but also to the larger field of discursive studies in general, provided that instructors complete it with examples of ads particularly meaningful for their students.

About the reviewer:

Elisabeth Le is Assistant Professor of Applied Linguistics in the Department of Modern Languages and Cultural Studies at the University of Alberta (Canada). Her main research interests are in Discourse Analysis. Her present research project deals with the representation of intercultural relations, national identity and ideology in French, American, and Russian newspapers.