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Visual Argument

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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.

It's post-AP® week. Still breathing? Still got time left in your school year and looking for a way to fill it? Post-exam time is a great opportunity to examine a lighter side of argument: visuals.


The addition of the synthesis question to the exam a few years ago forced AP® Language teachers to incorporate the instruction of visual-as-argument into their courses. Of course, this isn't a bad thing, since our students, more than any other generation before them, are surrounded by visual stimuli that aim to persuade them and shape their attitudes. Visuals, as ubiquitous as they are, are always in danger of being taken at face value. We may emphasize to our students that the written word is not always reliable, but we should also be teaching them that they cannot always trust their eyes.

AP® Language teacher Lesha Meyers, of San Leandro, California, put together this PowerPoint presentation that collects some fifty years' worth of cigarette advertisements and provides some commentary on the evolution of the perception of cigarettes and their marketing over the last half-century.

When I showed my students these images in our classroom, their astonishment at the early portrayal of cigarettes as part of an outdoorsy, healthy lifestyle was highly entertaining. But they quickly progressed to analyzing the images themselves, talking about the models (particularly the sex appeal and objectification), the appeals to authority represented by the doctors and the celebrities, and finally the contrast between the ways in which purposes were first used to attract smokers and then, later, to repel them.

Those are the easy observations. I encouraged them to think a bit more critically about some of the rhetoric used in the ads. For example, if doctors polled are smoking Camels more often than other cigarettes, does that mean most doctors are smoking? What impact does the appearance of warning labels have on the language used to account for health risks, but still sell the product? Is the man in the orange vest a construction worker, or does the instrument next to him imply something about his job and status, and why would that make a difference? Why would Australia require the graphic warning labels on the packages to change every year? Which is more powerful, an image of a gangrenous foot, or an image of an underweight preemie, and who is the target audience for each?

The continuum of ads also offers an opportunity to examine how changing times require different appeals, to take into account the audience and its expectations, desires, interests, and preconceptions. Ask the students which ads are more persuasive, and they are likely to answer the later ones. Ask them why, and they're quick to cite (smugly) their knowledge of the effects of smoking. Probe more deeply, and they may also come to realize that the creators of the ads are very much in tune with the fashions and social expectations of their times. It could be an interesting exercise to ask students to imagine what, in the newer ads, might not convince their grandparents to stop smoking, and why.

(Lesha's presentation is posted on my Google site with her permission.)

®AP is a trademark registered and/or owned by the College Board, which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse, this product.