In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Roundtable on Approaches to the Analysis of Advertisements
  • Robin M. Akert (bio), Andy Berndt (bio), Paul Kurnit (bio), Robert Goldman (bio), Doug Holt (bio), Craig Markus (bio), William O’Barr (bio), Lisa Peñaloza (bio), Tom Reichert (bio), and Faith Davis Ruffins (bio)

This roundtable will be conducted in two parts. During the first part, the scholars will meet to discuss interpretive strategies in teaching and research. During the second part, we will be joined by three people from the advertising industry—two of whom are creatives, and another of whom has a lot of experience working with creatives who write advertisements directed at children. The participants are diverse, providing a good academic mix and a variety of perspectives. I hope that we can not only have a significant dialogue among ourselves on the ways we interpret and use advertising in our research and teaching, but also share some of those perspectives with people in the industry and listen to their critiques of our ideas. But it is not simply a matter of listening to what they have to say by way of critiques, but also educating them and the industry to other ways through which they might look at things. The goal of this roundtable is a dialogue that goes both ways by opening up a dialogue that really hasn’t existed much in the past.

The agenda for today is to focus on how we approach the analysis, decoding, and interpretation of advertisements. Judith Williamson started doing this in the late 1970s in her book, Decoding Advertisements. How she analyzed and interpreted advertisements gained a lot of currency among other scholars. People have taken notice of how she wrote about the meaning of advertisements. Some have followed her rather directly, some adopted her perspective, and others criticized it and went on to do other kinds of things with it.

If you look at other analysts, they have done both similar and quite different things over the years with what they’ve pulled out of advertisements, what they see in them, what they think is worthy of commentary. I’d like us to focus on that issue: what each of us does with regard to looking into advertising and drawing out the things and issues and perspectives. I’d like us to focus our discussion not just on what we do substantively and theoretically, but on how we do it as well.

I’d like to begin by asking each of the participants to take a minute to say exactly how advertising enters into your teaching and research and how you go about analyzing and interpreting ads.


I’m Tom Reichert from the Department of Advertising and Public Relations at the University of Alabama. One of things we teach students is how to do advertising with good ethical considerations in mind, to make sure that they do responsible advertising. Also, we focus on developing strategies and various advertising skills. I approach advertising from a traditional social science perspective. I’m interested in the content and effects of advertising. That’s what I’ll be talking about today.


Doug Holt. I used to be in an advertising department. When I was, I taught advertising management, but I tried to teach it as a culturalist course. In fact, I used Bob’s book, Sign Wars,1 as one of the assigned readings. I had a fun time trying to teach the students what hypersignification meant, even though I definitely thought it was one of the more accessible terms. Since moving to Harvard Business School, I’ve found that Harvard Business is very advertising-illiterate, and I’ve tried to push the students to be more culturally literate. I’m teaching a course called “Branding, Advertising, and Culture,” from a culturalist perspective, but behind it is a critical, socio-cultural view that is presented as a management perspective. So it’s kind of an odd synthesis, but I do teach in a business school.


I’m Robin Akert. I’m in the Department of Psychology at Wellesley College, which is, of course, a liberal arts college. There are no business, marketing, or advertising majors. I’m a social...