Persuasive Advertising: Connotations & Associations

“Turn the mind toward,” or ad vertere, is the ideological cornerstone of advertising. Determining what visual communication will turn the target audience’s mind to believe in a brand or product requires specialized research into the consumer’s motivations and values.

Specialized training in visual communication combined with the ability to execute a compelling visual is not a common skillset, hence why designers are gainfully employed and the why the overall design industry has secured a foothold in the business sector. While most of our sharp PRINT audience is dexterous in identifying a resonating message and is knowledgeable on how to apply that message into an attention-grabbing design, we realize that it’s always constructive for both experienced and novice designers alike to review the connotations behind design.

We’ve excerpted a lesson from the Principles of Advertising Design course offered by HOW Design University and Sessions College with the intention of offering a refresher on associations in advertising design. Discover or rediscover the messages behind visual communication in this excerpt.

Connotations, Associations, and Context in Advertising Design

by Principle of Advertising Design instructor Bruce Bicknell

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Connotations are the mental connections between abstract and tangible. Every message can have two meanings—a literal one and a suggestive one. The ability to make associations on both a conscious and unconscious level is a remarkable phenomenon that works with the human imagination. We have emotional and environmental thoughts about what we see. We don’t just “think” about things, but we also feel and remember them as well.

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“Cool down quickly.” This air conditioner ad is both suggestive and imaginative. The cool blue of the family and the red of the embarrassed teenagers contribute to the impact of the ad.

Words and images with approximately the same denotation can evoke responses which are quite different. For example, consider these words: fat, overweight, plump, stout. Words like “plump” feel jolly when applied to people, or juicy and ripe when applied to food. “Fat” on the other hand can feel much more negative, even though its definition is quite similar to that of “plump.”

Just like words, visual images also have different connotations. Generally speaking, when something is left to the imagination it has more impact than when all the details are made evident. This also makes your audience feel more intelligent and flattered. So rather than spell things out entirely, we rely on connotation. Things seems more “fun,” “healthy,” “masculine,” “feminine,” “young,” or “old,” not because of what they intrinsically are, but because of how they are presented.

Grapefruit juice is not specifically for the young or old, the active or the inactive. But the use of imagery here portrays the juice as highly active and youthful. The words “Taste the kick” are active as well, a much stronger alternative to a simple description of the juice’s flavor. Imagery and text (a guessing game of popular TV shows containing violence) helps present a particularly masculine view of the Fox network’s hockey coverage. It also leaves a little to the imagination, instead of simply stating “Watch NHL coverage on Fox.”

Because the human mind is an association machine—that is, we link new information with familiar knowledge—certain things can be represented or suggested by others. This is often a more subconscious than a conscious effect—it’s known as “associative recall,” which is closely tied into the working of memory. Thinking one thing gets a person thinking related thoughts. If those related thoughts are positive, that’s good news for your product.

A simple smile, even for a product that isn't typically seen as fun, can tie a very positive emotion to your product. Seeing the emotions of a baby positively transformed is a great association to make with your product.

A simple smile, even for a product that isn’t typically seen as fun, can tie a very positive emotion to your product. Seeing the emotions of a baby positively transformed is a great association to make with your product.

Among the first forays into artificial intelligence in the 1960s was a computer called the Perceptron. In this computer, a response in one cell triggered another, which triggered still more until the program “recognized” the stimuli. Human psychology works in a similar manner as people associate ideas, emotions, and objects with the things they see and read.

Neosporin helps wounds heal faster, and in this ad, the viewer closes the connection between the separation in the baseball's stitching and a person's injury.

Neosporin helps wounds heal faster, and in this ad, the viewer closes the connection between the separation in the baseball’s stitching and a person’s injury.

Association is one reason that endorsements are often used in advertising. People “know” celebrities and associate them with various attributes and qualities. Also, people are more likely to do what’s requested when they like the person making the request, just as they’re more likely to listen when they feel they are hearing the voice of authority.

This ad for Nike, a billboard appearing in Europe, was an endorsement by the professional basketball player Steve Nash. This ad works on many levels, creating more associations for those who know about Nash: In addition to being a basketball player, he also plays soccer, which many Europeans would know. Plus he's Canadian, adding another international layer.

This ad for Nike, a billboard appearing in Europe, was an endorsement by the professional basketball player Steve Nash. This ad works on many levels, creating more associations for those who know about Nash: In addition to being a basketball player, he also plays soccer, which many Europeans would know. Plus he’s Canadian, adding another international layer.

The context in which we see things also shapes our overall impression. An ad can reflect certain specific objects or events—historical, sociological, cultural, political, seasonal, and so on—that color our perceptions.

Context can be expressed by a very subtle image. For example have you ever noticed that on a sapling, the leaves are really about the same size as those on a full grown tree? It’s the relative size to the branch and trunk that lets us know whether we are seeing part of a young tree or an old tree. Be aware of context as you design, and remember that your audience will only see what you show them—not the “big picture” in your head.

In the images above the red circles in the centers are the same size. The context makes one appear larger than the other.

In the images above the red circles in the centers are the same size. The context makes one appear larger than the other.

Making use of context can be a wonderful exercise in subtlety or a bold and daring statement. Sometimes throwing something unexpected into a layout will attract attention. However, if you want to employ this technique, you should fully understand what you are doing and what you wish to achieve. Unless it is to make a particular point, don’t treat something in an “artistic” manner that deprives it of its true character. The viewer will not really understand how to regard it and it will merely serve to distract and confuse. As Thomas Jefferson once stated, “If there is not a good reason for doing something, you have one good reason not to do it.”

This ad for a French cupcake boutique reads, "Small cakes. Big occasions." The juxtaposition of the miniature cupcake and the wedding ring communicates that these desserts are delicious, decadent, and appropriate for special events.

This ad for a French cupcake boutique reads, “Small cakes. Big occasions.” The juxtaposition of the miniature cupcake and the wedding ring communicates that these desserts are delicious, decadent, and appropriate for special events.


Develop your visual communication skills further in the course, Principles of Advertising Design. Explore through case studies and projects on how to develop ads for newspapers, magazines, and transit/outdoor applications. In this course, you’ll learn how to strategically design a campaign that best fits your client’s needs.

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