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Advertising Awareness: Thinking Critically about Advertisements

Everywhere that I go I see signs and billboards advertising the next great American fad or some great new technology that we must have. It is a fact the we live in world subsidized by advertisements, commercials, and marketing campaigns. We all love Google don't we? The fact that this internet giant's main source of revenue is advertising illustrates this point precisely. In the past ten years, I have learned a great deal about advertising and how it affects our world. One of the more important things that I have learned, is how to think critically about the advertisements that we see everyday. Why is this important you ask? Well, thinking critically about the ads that we see can help us discern many things about it. With a careful analysis we can determine things such as: who is sponsoring the ad, what the motivation and target audience of the ad is, and if the sponsoring company is employing advertising gimmicks.

Quality of Advertisements

When our eyes first come across an advertisement, we begin to immediately process the trustworthiness of what we are seeing. Advertisements that are professionally printed or drawn up will automatically have a higher trust factor than an ad that is drawn with crayons or a sharpie. Ad placement is also very important in determining trustworthiness. If an ad is located on a billboard it will likely be more trustworthy than a similar ad stapled to a telephone pole.

All advertising campaigns also need to have a few key elements for them to be deemed trustworthy. In general, a good ad needs to have a message, a target audience, something to sell, and sponsorship information. If one if these elements is missing, the quality of the advertisement is diminished and it loses some of its trustworthiness. As an example, would you trust your kids to a babysitter who scribbled "Baby Sitting 555-555-5555" on a poster board and taped it to a traffic signal? What if that same babysitter had professionally drawn up and installed signs? Would they be more trustworthy? Now I hope you can see what I am getting at here.

Who Sponsored this Ad?

One of the first questions we should ask ourselves when viewing an advertisement is: Who sponsored this ad? We may have to carefully analyze the imagery and text of the ad to determine who is funding it. Once we have insight into the company or organization that is behind the marketing campaign, we can start to think about their reputation. We can then ask ourselves a series of questions about that company such as: Is this a company that I have heard of before? Do I trust this company? Have I bought their products before? Did I like their products? All of these questions can help you determine if the ad is utilizing an advertising gimmick and/or if they are being deceptive or not. Learn to ask these questions so that you do not get 'tricked' into buying something that you don't actually want or worse: becoming a victim of a scam.

Motivation/Target Audience

After we have determined who funded the advertisement, it is important to figure out who the target audience is and what the motivation of the ad is. The motivation behind an ad is almost always to sell something. More specifically, motivation is the actual item that they are trying to sell (note that this is not always a tangible good, it can be an idea, or even an announcement). Sometimes figuring out what is actually being sold can be difficult. These kinds of difficult ads are missing a key element and sometimes fail to bring people in. This is not always the case though, sometimes clever plays on words or imagery can instigate enough curiosity to bring people to a website or a retail store location.

After we know what the company is trying to sell, we can determine who the target audience is. This can be accomplished by comparing the wording, imagery, coloring, and other context clues with that of the known characteristics of different demographics. Figuring out who the audience is shouldn't be too difficult. Just like we know that exaggerated images are usually targeted toward teenagers, we know that a cute bunny with colorful marshmallows is trying to target children. At this point in your analysis of the ad, the target audience should be self evident.


Remember, advertising can be both our friend and our enemy. Thinking critically about advertisements will equip all of us with the knowledge necessary to protect ourselves from scams and deceptive advertising gimmicks. This is a skill that everyone should learn. Even children and teenagers should be taught how to analyze an ad because they are the most susceptible to them.

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