Bret Lefler: Visual Culture and Advertising

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Bret Lefler attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago receiving his BFA with a focus in painting and drawing in 1994, and received his MFA in 1996 from Texas Christian University. In 2006 he received his Doctorate in Art Education from Florida State University. Bret currently serves as the Art Education Program Coordinator for the Department of Art at Columbus State University, in Columbus Georgia.

 Visual Culture: Its Processes and Problems

Visual culture. It’s a term that has been around for some time, long enough for art educators to take notice. Articles on visual culture have been in nearly every major art education publication, and the topic is a consistent theme at art education conferences. Visual culture has proven to be fertile ground for both new ideas and new problems in art education.

So what is “visual culture”? Visual culture can be defined as the visual aspect of a culture — a “looking glass” on the way we view our world. Visual culture consists of the beliefs, values, and attitudes imbued in those artifacts and performances by the people that make, present, and use them 1.  Furthermore, visual culture includes the ideas, beliefs, and conceptual realms that function in and around visual objects (Freedman, 2000). Whether we are aware of it or not, visual culture is found in every arena of public and private life — It is in our neighborhoods, our places of work, our forms of entertainment, and our schools. It is reflected in artifacts and performances of all kinds, as well as emerging technologies. Visual culture encompasses all of the visual arts, as well as aspects of the performing arts, videos, television, computer graphics, toys, billboards, comics, fashion, landscape design, packaging, malls, automobiles, and any other man-made visual influences on our lives.

Given the ubiquitous nature of visual culture, the question is raised as to why visual culture is not a component of most art curricula.  If the messages carried by visual culture are not understood, we will unwittingly buy, wear, and promote products and opinions with which we may not actually agree. The ability to read visual culture critically involves learning the skills of deconstruction to more clearly understand how cultural texts actually operate, how they signify and produce meaning, and, finally, how they influence and shape their readers. 2 Students construct their own knowledge based on a variety of sources, including the visual arts they experience inside and outside of school. Unfortunately the images that students are exposed to outside of the classroom, those that do not fall under the umbrella of the fine arts, are often left at the classroom door.  It is immensely important that we correctly interpret the images and designed objects with which we live. 3 While fine art is encompassed as part of visual culture, the relationship is not symbiotic in that fine art doesn’t always include visual culture. So the challenge for any educator is to bring visual culture into the classroom and accept it as a relevant and powerful cultural force. It is also important to realize that subject matter evolves and that, rather than viewing visual culture as a separate entity outside of the classroom, it is time that visual culture was integrated into the art curriculum.

The integration of visual culture into art curricula is a difficult problem for any art educator. Art educators believe in educating through the fine arts while their students live throughout the mass media and visual culture. 4  Students negotiate with this media in a variety ways and art educators should address these new developments and this new breed of student similarly. Teachers should view visual culture in three ways: first, as an ordinary material commodity; second, as the proliferation of visual and electronic images; and third, as the multifaceted construction of individual identity. Each of these issues interpenetrates art education, to regard culture as it relates to the subject matter of art education, electronic imagery relates to modes of learning and multifaceted individual identity relates to the students we teach as well as ourselves as educators.

Thus, an art curriculum that addresses these new areas of art, and includes all forms of media and visual culture, allowing them to have as much prominence as the more accepted fine arts in the classroom. It is vital for students to be given the tools and the sensibility needed to make informed choices in life and society. [1 Anderson Tom, M., Melody K. (2005). Art for Life Authentic Instruction in Art. New York, New York: McGraw – Hill Companies Inc.] If the role of art education is to help students develop critical thinking strategies, and go beyond accepting prescribed meanings of established institutional powers, then an understanding of visual culture is crucial.  A curriculum focused on visual culture art education is capable of addressing major contemporary themes through its strategy of critique and so may be crucial not only for students, but for society as a whole.

During the four years I taught middle school, I noticed that, more often than not, my students were more interested in, and influenced by, the art work they saw on television, in cartoons, in the graffiti they saw in the neighborhood, or the clothing they wore . For example, it seemed that every year I taught, I had several students, usually those interested in art, who were interested in Dragonball Z, Pokemon, the Looney Tunes characters, or graffiti. Whenever they had free time, whether it was in my class or someone else’s, these students would repetitively draw imagery based on things they had experienced through various forms of media outside the classroom. It is important to realize that this is how these students defined art, because this was the art they saw every day. It shaped their sensibilities and how they approached making art, as well as who they were. This is what Duncum 5 means when he says “the multifaceted construction of individual identity.” We don’t become who we are just in the classroom setting or at home with the family. With the emergence of new technologies and a broader visual world, we are influenced and shaped by everything visual culture has to offer as well.

 The problem I faced as an educator teaching middle school was that I had to introduce my students to a different interpretation of “art” and “artist” that didn’t carry the same weight as the imagery and influences that they experienced outside of the classroom. In my experience, the perpetual problem was building the bridge between the art my students experienced every day and the art that was part of the prescribed school curriculum.

An effective method by which art educators can incorporate visual culture into their curriculum is to expand the use of art criticism to imagery rooted in the students’ surroundings. Many types of critique exist, including classroom critique in which teachers try to elicit responses from their students that reflect the objectives of the lesson (Freedman, 2000). In a broader sense, the process of critiquing helps participants make judgments and reflect on their own positions regarding the critique, the curriculum, the field, and so on, thereby creating a wider range of possibilities and outcomes. The basic goal of educational art criticism is to help students understand and evaluate individual works of art and visual culture, and their own response to these works. [1 Anderson Tom, M., Melody K. (2005). Art for Life Authentic Instruction in Art. New
York, New York: McGraw – Hill Companies Inc.] The goal for students is to apply in art criticism as a method enabling to find meanings for their own lives and to understand the authentic meanings of others. Through the method of critique, visual culture becomes open to us. It allows the teacher and the student to engage in a dialogue that is both relevant to visual culture and the realm of fine arts. Critique is just one method where these two worlds share common ground.

According to Anderson 6, art criticism consists of three simple questions: What is it? What does it mean?  What is it worth? When one answers these questions, it results in the basic critical process of description, interpretation, and evaluation. Interpretation is the most important and the most difficult of these processes to apply and as a result many critics try to answer the first question-what is it? – in-depth. The first question guides the direction of the following questions and evaluation becomes clear through how one answers the first two questions. Anderson lays out a basic structure by which we can critique visual culture and fine art. The advantage of this method is that it can be modified to teach any grade level. In addition, by using this method of critique the significance of the object falls on the second question. This is important because it allows us to look at an object in terms of what it means to the viewers, providing the viewers with insight as to who they are, what they feel, and what they believe. It also involves the viewers in a Higher Order Thinking Skill (Critical Analysis), which is a vital part of any lesson plan.

 Advertising as Part of Visual Culture

According to orthodox economic theory, the purpose of advertising is to provide us with information about the goods and services offered in the marketplace. 7 Advertising tries to attract the attention, create the desire for, and stimulate the action that leads to the purchase of the products and services advertised. Advertisers hope to convince, to persuade, to motivate, and, most importantly, to get people to act by moving from the desire for products and services to the actual purchase of products or services. 8 Advertising is based on sound, text, and imagery that have replaced many of our old forms of communication. 9 Central to the significance of these images is their ability to convey meaning. Images often surpass words in communicating ideas (Anderson & Milbrandt, 2005).  As Tavin 10, Anderson and Milbrandt 11 and Freedman 12 point out, advertising is one component of visual culture.Advertising constitutes one of the most advanced spheres of image production, with more money, talent, and energy invested in this form of culture than practically any other in a capitalist society. 13 Advertising is a pedagogy that teaches individuals what they need, what they should desire, and what they should think and do to be happy, successful, and patriotic. Advertising also teaches a worldview, values, and socially acceptable and unacceptable behavior. 13  As Twitchell (1997) would say it is the “educational program of capitalism.”

Advertising has interested scholars in many disciplines because the advertising industry is one of the central institutions in modern society. 15 The people of the United States are exposed to more advertising than people in any other culture. This is due to the amount of time each day the American public is exposed to media and because American media tends to be privately owned and largely financed by advertising. The majority of educators, savvy to the inability of students to interpret the advertisements that they encounter in society and our schools, call for strategies or specific curricula to address advertising’s relentless presence in everyday lives. 16

Advertising works on the viewer by making the viewer identify with particular products, thereby integrating those products’ qualities into our psyches. What differentiates the artist from the advertiser is the advertiser holds a bias towards the product or service and has the viewer’s persuasion as the goal.

Advertisers are often trained in a way similar to artists. They employ the similar techniques, appeal to our emotions, establish a style and consistency to distinguish their products from one another, and they show their work through an ever growing array of venues and media. A major difference in this case is that artists usually make art to achieve an aesthetic end and to evoke some form of higher thought. The advertiser uses  art to achieve a different goal, which is to convince the viewer  of the superiority of his product or cause over comparable commodities or issues.

In the eyes of the advertiser, students represent an enormous market capable of spending billions of dollars and influencing the purchasing habits of their peers and families. Child-related consumption shows no sign of diminishing and the average teen spends about three hundred dollars a month of his or her own money. 17  According to a 1998 survey of consumer spending by the polling firm Teenage Research Unlimited, some of the teens earn money with part-time jobs, while others are given money by their parents. The polling group estimates that teens’ influence on family purchasing decisions contributed forty-seven billion dollars to the economy last year.

 As Twitchell notes 18:

  The classroom is the Valhalla of place-based media. Better than the doctor’s office, the shopping mall, the health club, the hospital and the airport, here you have the ideal – a captive audience with more disposable income than discretion. Advertising material is all over the place. For pasta; Prego counters with the Prego Science Challenge complete with an “instructional kit” to test the thickness of various spaghetti sauces. General Mills sends out samples of its candy along with a pamphlet “Gushers Wonders of the Earth,” which encourages the kids to learn about geysers by biting the “fruit snack.” Monsanto donates a video suggesting the world cannot be fed without using pesticides; Union Carbide does the same saying chemicals “add comfort to your lives.” Exxon has an energy awareness game in which nonrenewable natural resources are not losers. A K-Swiss sneaker provides shoes for participants in a video creation of an ad for… you guessed it. And Kodak, McDonalds, and Coca Cola plaster a national essay contest about why kids should stay in school with corporate logos and concern. Clearly one reason to stay in school is to consume more advertising. (pp.56-57)

Children are the segment of the population least likely to understand advertising, and the most likely to be influenced by advertising [1 Cohn, E. (2000, Jan. 31). Market Watch: Consuming Kids. The American Prospect, 11, 13.]. Due to the fact that students are more impressionable than adults are, less sure of themselves, and less capable of discerning fact from fiction, advertising can affect their thinking and behavior more profoundly than it can affect the thinking and behavior of adults. 19 Young children, in particular, have difficulty distinguishing between advertising and reality in ads, which can distort their view of the world. Older children have some ability to see past the hype and manipulation, although most have not fully developed these skills, even the most media savvy child can fall prey to ads that play on their insecurities.

 In the face of this media onslaught, adolescents will be better able to resist the pressures of advertising if they have access to consumer education and media literacy programs that demystify the overt and covert techniques used by advertisers to send messages to consumers. Educators should raise critical questions about advertising and should also consider addressing the long-standing tension between corporate culture and non-commercial values in order to combat the growing tendency to subordinate democratic values to market values. 20 Democratic values can be defined as values that are constructed and used for the common social good. By contrast, market values are comprised of the concerns of corporations and other business interests. Advertising and media can be a positive force but the American public, including school children, must be educated to differentiate between the counter-productive and the socially constructive messages of our times. 21

 As stated before, advertising is art with an agenda. The problem is that often the agenda may not agree with what is best for our students, our classrooms, or the school as whole. Reflecting on Dewey’s 22 concepts and the aims of education, Dewey asks, is it not in the interest of the school and society to develop a critical thinker—one that is able to read, analyze, and interpret what advertising presents to him or her? Or has society begun to shift to a corporate model of citizenship where an individual reads information on the surface and accepts it at face value effectively becoming a passive consumer?  With the influx of advertising becoming commonplace in our schools, is it now incumbent upon educators to address this new influential element by addressing the power of advertising head on in the classroom?

Students are taught how to read and analyze poetry by examining its verse and meter and to break down equations and reduce them to their common denominators.  The same methodology can be applied to advertising by looking at it as both a visual art form and one that has our persuasion as the major goal.

Roland Barthes Method of Critique


Roland Barthes 23 developed a method of interpreting an ad by breaking it down into three distinct parts: 1) the linguistic message, what the ad actually states, carries both denoted and connoted messages; 2) The connoted image, what the image shows and how it shows it, is what is implied or suggested in the image; and 3) the denoted image, which is literally what you see in the advertisement itself. The critiquing methods presented by Barthes are similar Anderson’s method of critiquing visual culture. The questions are relatively simple, easy to understand, and can be modified for any grade level. All of which ask the participant to dig a little deeper and read, interpret, and analyze an ad. This will ultimately contribute to their knowledge and understanding of how advertising affects and shapes their view of themselves and the world in which they live.

An Example, a Demonstration, and Suggestions for Teaching and Learning

Living in a market-driven economy, advertising constantly surrounds the public — from television to billboards, print ads to blinking Internet messages, and even on elevator rides. In the 1970’s, columnist George Will lamented that grocery stores stocked about nine thousand items, but by the late 1990’s, the figure was up to 30,000 items 24. More items demand more ads, and more aggressive ones. In the early 1970’s, the daily number of ads targeted at the average American was 560. By 1999, this number jumped to 3,000 ads a day. Advertising is not just part of the dominant culture; it is the dominant culture. 25


Kellogg’s. (2013, Oct. 28) Nutrition Has Never Had a Tastier Disguise
[Advertisement]. People, Vol.80 No. 18

The  example to the left was taken from a popular magazine, with parents as the target demographic. Magazines and other print media are one of the many types of media in which advertising is viewed.

Before employing Barthes’s method of critique, it is best for the viewer to take the advertisement for what it is and study it impartially. The advertisement should function like any other visual artifact where the viewer employs a method of critique to further their understanding.  For classroom purposes, a worksheet can be developed using the following format where students can record their responses:


The Linguistic Message:
What does the ad actually state?

“Nutrition has never had a tastier disguise. Moms know they’re made with 8 grams of whole grain and are a good source of fiber. All kids know is they taste great. L’eggo my Eggo. Contains 6 g total fat per serving.“

 The Denoted Image:
Describe what you see in the ad?
A young boy and girl are watching waffles come out of a toaster. The boy is wearing a green striped shirt and the girl, dressed in purple, is standing behind him with her hand on his shoulder. In the background their mother is placing a plate with strawberries on a table. All of the people in the advertisement seem excited and are smiling. In the lower right hand corner of the advertisement is a picture of a box of Eggo Nutri-grain Waffles.

The Connoted Image:
What is implied or suggested by the ad?

When this visual information is combined with what is stated in the advertisement, the implication of the ad is that Eggo Nutri-Grain Waffles are loaded with nutrients and they are good for children. Serving Eggo Nutri-Grain Waffles will make for happy and healthy children.

After taking the time to look at this advertisement more closely, the intended message of the advertisement is evident. However it does raise some more questions, such as:

  • What voice is speaking in the ad, and is it authentic and credible?
  • To whom is the advertisement directed?
  • What is the purpose of the ad?

It could also be beneficial to provide a means for closer inspection of the actual product in comparison to what the ad actually implies.

These questions provide greater avenues for discussion about how advertising functions within our culture, what it says about who we are, and what we value.


In contemporary society, visual culture is everywhere, the most common form being advertisements. As educators, it is incumbent upon us to teach our students how to interpret theses visual images. Using Barthes’s method, we can break down this interpretive process into three easily understood components: the linguistic message, the denoted image, and the connoted image. By teaching our students to think critically about the visual culture around them, we contribute to creating a generation of educated consumers.

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  1. Anderson & Milbrandt 2005
  2. Kellner, D. (1988 Reading Images Critically: Toward a Postmodern Pedagogy. Journal of Education, 170(31 – 52)
  3. Barret, T. (2003). Interpreting Visual Culture. Art Education, 6 – 12
  4. Duncum, P. (1997). Art Education for New Times. Studies in Art Education, 38(2), 69-79
  5. Duncum, P. (1997). Art Education for New Times. Studies in Art Education, 38(2), 69-79.
  6. Anderson, T. (1997). Talking with Kids About Art A Model for Art Criticism. School Arts, 21 – 24.
  7. Durning, A. T. (1993, May – June). Can’t Live Without It. World Watch, 6, 10.
  8. Berger, A. A. (2000). Ads, Fads, and  Consumer Culture Advertisings Impact on American Character and Society. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & littlefield Publishers Inc.
  9. Green, G. L. (2000). Imagery as Ethical Inquiry. Art Education, 19 – 24
  10. Tavin, K. (2000). Teaching in and Through Visual Culture. Journal of Multicultural and Cross-cultural Research in Art Education, 18, 37 – 40.
  11. Anderson Tom, M., Melody K. (2005). Art for Life Authentic Instruction in Art. New
    York, New York: McGraw – Hill Companies Inc.
  12. Freedman, K. (2000 b.). Social Perspectives in Art Education in the U.S.: Teaching Visual Culture in a Democracy. Studies in Art Education, 41(4), 314 – 329.
  13. Kellner, D. (1988). Reading Images Critically: Toward a Postmodern Pedagogy. Journal of Education, 170(31 – 52).
  14. Kellner, D. (1988). Reading Images Critically: Toward a Postmodern Pedagogy. Journal of Education, 170(31 – 52).
  15. Berger, A. A. (2000). Ads, Fads, and  Consumer Culture Advertisings Impact on American Character and Society. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & littlefield Publishers Inc
  16.  Edens, K. McCormick, M., Christine B. (2000). How do Adolescents Process Advertisements? TheInfluence of Ad Characteristics, Processing Objective and Gender. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 450 – 463.
  17. Veigle, A. (1999, May 11). Creating Generation $$$: Products Pitched to Youngsters with Money to Burn. The Washington Times, p. 1
  18. Twitchell, J. B. (1996). Adcult USA The triumph of American Advertising in American Culture. New York, NewYork: Columbia University Press.
  19. Holmes, Anita.&. Karpatkin, Rhoda H. (1995). Making Schools Ad-Free Zones. Educational Leadership, 72 – 76.
  20. Giroux, H. A. (1998). Education Incorporated ? Educational Leadership, 12 – 17.
  21. Stokrocki, M. (1988). Understanding Popular Culture: The Uses and Abuses of Fashion Advertising. journal of Caucus of Social Theory and Art Education, 8, 69 – 77.
  22. Dewey, J. (1934). Art as Experience. New York, New York: The Berkely Publishing; Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and Education. New York, New York: Touchstone.
  23. Barthes, R. (1977). Image Music Text. New York, New York: Hill and Wang.
  24. Fox, R. F. (2001, November). Warning Advertising May Be Hazardous to Your Health
  25. Twitchell, J. B. (1996). Adcult USA The triumph of American Advertising in American Culture. New York, NewYork: Columbia University Press

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