Analyzing Purpose in Media Messages

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

In this lesson, we will examine advertisements to understand how they construct and convey messages. We will learn how to identify authorship, content, and audiences. We will also look at some strategies to analyze media messages.

What Is a Media Message?

Take a moment to consider the advertisement pictured below. How do you feel about it? What does it mean to you?

Advertisement for Lournay lipstick from the 1950s
lipstick ad

In this lesson we will look at a few examples of magazine advertisements that construct media messages, and how to decode their meaning. Media are forms of communication. Books, newspapers, photographs, songs, and movies are all types of media. Because they contain stories of one kind or another, whether fiction or nonfiction, these media also contain messages. Think of the media message as the moral to the story.

Advertisements such as billboards and TV commercials typically present easily recognizable media messages. Ad designers have a clear picture in their mind of what they want the consumer to do - to buy a product. Ads attract your interest by showing you something you want, even if you didn't think you wanted it before you saw the ad.

For example, the bright-colored lipstick ad suggests lipstick will make a woman more confident. Of course the lipstick can't do this all by itself, but the media message implies that the product can affect the consumer's attitude and social reality. Media messages are effective when they build on assumptions viewers hold about the about the world and people around them.

Authorship

Audiences need to realize that media are representations of social reality. They are not windows on the world, but images that are created by authors. While a casual iPhone snapshot might present the world the way you saw it, a designed portrait in a fashion magazine was constructed by a professional photographer to tell a story about the model and the clothing she wears. To better understand how this process of media representation works, we need to identify the source of information. All media messages are composed for a particular purpose.

7-Up ad, Half the fun of a football game is having something to eat!
7-up

Let's consider this ad's message by asking a few questions:

  • Who is the author of this message?
  • For what purpose was it made?

We can presume that the author of this message wants to sell their soda product.

Content

Once the author and purpose have been identified, we can continue to analyze the content of the message.

  • How does the message attract your attention?
  • Does the message ask you to do something?

In the 7-Up ad, the author appeals to the consumer's enjoyment of a sports event to associate an enjoyable experience with the product. The implicit call to action is to buy the product. As with many media messages, the ad appeals to underlying feelings that consumers then attach to the product. These complex messages tell a story by drawing on the audience's expectations and assumptions, attaching the quality of the product to another aspect of social reality: economic, political, historical, cultural, or aesthetic.

Audience

While an author hopes to convey a particular message, it's up to the reader to decide what it means. The reader interprets the media content, making sense of it. Since authors can never be certain about how readers will interpret their messages, they try to target audiences in particular ways.

A reader's interpretation of media messages is highly subjective, based on expectations and previous experiences. We can identify the content in an ad objectively and speculate on possible responses, but we cannot account for all possible interpretations of it. More specifically, the 7-Up ad shows two sports fans sharing a moment over a cold beverage. But we can't be certain how a thirsty spectator might react to the image.

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