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Essay on Visual Arguments

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Visual images are incredibly powerful as tools of advertising, propaganda, and art. The "visual argument" is a sort of argument that utilizes an image, enhanced with some few words, in order to present a particular viewpoint or point of persuasion. That's why companies regularly brand themselves with new logos and images. The following sample marketing essay analyzes the images shown above and the ways in which it presents an argument to the individual consumer.

Power of visual arguments

It is amazing how much power a simple image can have over the mindset of many. Whole nations have been changed, just through the use of images, and it is this type of image that is known as a Visual Argument. Some of the more famous images have been used to create massive social change are: the Viet Nam-era rifle or tank with a flower in its muzzle, signifying obsolescence of weaponry; the gay pride rainbow, signifying unity from difference; or even the common use of the image of an octopus in political and social commentary cartoons to signify the evil and long-range reach and influence of various groups and to inspire anger and hatred toward them (from the anti-Jewish propaganda in WWII Nazi Germany to the greed of today’s global monopolistic corporatocracies).

These images may seem simple at first, but there are details that go into their creation that give them the power that they hold (almost like marketing propaganda). In fact, scholars have suggested that arguments within images tap into a pattern of thinking that can only be expressed visually, and this form includes its own vocabulary and syntax (Usher 117). From type to layout to color to image—these things seem like irrelevant details, but they make all the world of difference in Visual Arguments. This paper discusses a particular example of Visual Argument in depth in order to prove that this level of detail is necessary in creating Visual Arguments, and in order to show that through including such details the power and effect of the work is greatly increased.

Specific analysis of visuals

75% of the visual argument displayed is displayed in images, the remaining 25% of the visual argument is displayed in words. Two types of Serif font are used. The Serif font of the familiar Cheerios brand is displayed below a spoonful of pills to associate that brand to the visual message. Then below that, a different Serif font, commonly recognized the world over as the Mars, Inc. M&M’s logo font, is used to display the name of the ad campaign, and this brings with it a whole other series of associations. Technically, since both Serif fonts used are globally recognized and associated with those two specific brands, these fonts could also be considered to be within the category of Specialty fonts. The type is functional and appealing (with only two font styles used), and none of it has been altered with any bolding, italics, or underlining. The strong brand associations of the chosen fonts create a relationship between the image and the text. In fact, it might even be appropriate to consider the chosen fonts as images themselves since their use automatically brings to mind so many associated images.

The layout of this piece is very efficient in limiting text and images to avoid clutter and confusion. It focuses on creating coherence and meaning and it is structured in such a way as to indicate the importance of relationships between its component parts—they seem to go hand in hand. The use of layout is extremely important in emphasizing the key ideas of visual arguments (Ramage 169). The choice to put the Cheerios logo above the image of a spoonful of pills is a conscious layout choice. Based on this placement I can only assume that the creator of this piece wanted warm associations that tend to come with the Cheerios brand to hit the viewer first, and only then, once these associations were in place, did he want the viewer to consider the spoonful of pills. This sequence of thought creates a souring of a positive emotion that results in a nervous or unsafe feeling that makes the viewer question any assumptions they may have about health and medications. 

Role of colors

In his paper “The Possibility and Actuality of Visual Arguments,” J. Anthony Blair points out that:

“colors invoke feelings of warmth (reds, oranges) or coolness (blues, greens); photographs of young animals (puppies, kittens, children) evoke tender-heartedness (23).”

The color chosen for the piece under discussion is a stark white-on-white. It is difficult to think of stark white as a functional color, but it does actually create a relationship as opposed to being merely decorative. Whiteness can indicate an emptiness, a nothingness, a numbness, a cleanness, a freshness, and a blankness. When the Cheerios logo is added, associates of children and family enter into it. The whiteness of the background, juxtaposed against the whiteness of the medication creates an implied relationship—the background being the nothingness or numbness of everything that comes from being involved in the sterile medication in the forefront of the image. The colors used are realistic, but because the Cheerios brand is used—and the colors of that brand are very well known—a definitive lack of color is very strongly felt and this creates an interesting effect which can be viewed as surreal or cartoonish because of the hyperbole that comes with this stark lack of color.

Additional readingClick here to read about advertising and gender stereotypes.

In their paper “Toward a Theory of Visual Argument,” David S. Birdsell and Leo Groarke explain that just as the written argument has a context in which it is presented, so does the visual argument (5). In fact, visual arguments may tend to have stronger contexts than their written-word counterparts due to the associations that can be set up instantly and nearly subconsciously, just through use of well-known imagery or symbolism. In the piece under discussion (Cheerios), a strong visual aesthetic is definitely present. The stark white is soothing and disturbing at the same time, which adds a third layer of aesthetics that comes of as being quite sinister.

Logo under examination

The camera is definitely inside the scene of this close-up image of a spoonful of meds under the Cheerios logo—and this works very well in this argument. It illustrates a strong point: society is way too medicated. This is conveyed very effectively through the idea that we eat medication as if it were a bowl of breakfast cereal. This idea is underscored by adding the M&Ms logo since “eating it like candy” is a phrase that has long been associated with taking too many drugs. Cheerios is associated with children, family, and health; and M&Ms are associated with children and fun. The clear juxtaposition between these images against the text highlights the problem of over-medicating and creates a strong emotional response. While the images are clear and not cartoonish, the concept is not very realistic—it’s actually hyperbolic or “surrealistic.” It takes the setting of a run-of-the-mill advertisement and alters it slightly to create a very strong point. What it lacks in story, it makes up for in message. 

Final thoughts on visual arguments

As can be seen from the close reading done on the example image for this analysis, there is no question regarding the effectiveness of this Visual Argument as a form of media based marketing. And it can be extrapolated that when any visual argument is created correctly, with thoughtful inclusion of the preceding design aspects, the created argument will be just as effective as this one is.  That’s not to say that there won’t be visual arguments that fail, for there will be. But whether or not a visual argument succeeds or fails has a lot to do with the same reason why a verbal or written argument may succeed or fail. The audience, time-period, and environment of the argument creates an intellectual context from which to work. It is within this context that the creator of the argument must craft a new context that juxtaposes against the norms he is arguing with. The creator will use his varied tools to achieve this. For the orator and essay-writer, it is rhetoric; for the visual argumentalist, many very effective tools are available—including color, type, image, and layout.

Works Cited

Birdsell, David. S., and Leo Groarke. “Toward a Theory of Visual Argument.” 

Argumentation and Advocacy: The Journal of the American Forensic Association. Summer 1996: 1-10. Washington State University. Web. 2 Dec. 2012.

Blair, J. Anthony. “The Possibility and Actuality of Visual Arguments.” Argumentation and Advocacy: The Journal of the American Forensic Association. Summer 1996: 23-39. UCSB Writing Program. Web. 2 Dec. 2012.

Franklin, Josh. Cheerios. 10 Feb. 2010. Franklin Design + Photography, Vermont.

Ramage, John D., John C. Bean, and June Johnson. Writing Arguments: A Rhetoric with Readings. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2001. Web.

Usher, Nikki. “Interactive Visual Argument: Online News Graphics and the Iraq War.” Journal of Visual Literacy. 2009: 116-126. Ohio University. Web. 2 Dec. 2012.

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