Tackling the Visual Text Test

THERE’S this relatively benign-looking section in the ‘O’ Levels English Language comprehension paper, innocuously named Text 1. Its weightage: 10 percent of the entire paper, or a mere five marks, dribbled out across four questions, of which one carries two marks. It’s where the exam starts and the sowing ground for the heebie-jeebies.

Since its debut appearance in 2013, it has had a way of delivering knockouts, inspiring wrong answers or no answers. For all its meanness, this is a great section, not just because it expands the paper’s testing rubric in a crafty, clever way, it also does a great job in nudging students to get to the heart of language—to grasp its persuasive force and its power to connect people with ideas, and people with people. After all, that’s what advertising essentially is, whatever its medium—Web, print, or poster, the three genres that have made appearances in this lean yet lethal section.

In four questions, however, the test can’t possibly make marketers of students, but it can hopefully help them see the value of their effort: how analyzing the nature and effect of language can open their eyes to the art of influencing, persuading, and making the cash registers go ka-ching.

Effectively, the exercise takes you to the realm of advertising speak. Imagine stepping into the shoes of an advertising man: what kind of language is he drawn to? How does the language he’s chosen serve his purpose, whether it’s to sell a product, a service, or a cause? Watch his diction—his verbs, his adjectives, how about adverbial phrases? Consider his imagery—not just the ones he renders in words, but his chosen visuals as well. Do you see captions or taglines? What can you make of them? Assess the headline as well, why it’s fashioned the way it is, and what’s its effect.

Now, I may not have helped you much by merely echoing the flavor of these Section A questions, but what I’ve done is to crystallize its general goals. It wants you to geek out a little, if you will, figure out the mechanics and rationale of the chosen linguistic devices. To do this, it’d help if your mind can whirr loosely, generally like so:

Language = imagery, parts of speech, diction, voice, sensory details

Imagery = personification, metaphor, simile

Parts of Speech = nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs

Diction = choice of words

Voice = first-person, second-person, third-person

Sensory Details = touch, taste, feel, sight, smell

As you can see, it helps if you’re a literature student, and a fine one doesn’t stop short at identifying literary techniques, he goes on to articulate the effects they deliver. Rather than prattle on hypothetically, why not dive into a specific ad? Let’s go with Rolex—a double-page spread from the inside front cover of the April 6, Lee Kuan Yew issue of TIME, timed to coincide with The Masters Golf Major at Augusta, April 9th to 12th, 2015:

THIS WATCH HAS SEEN GOLF’S MOST HALLOWED FAIRWAYS. MIRACULOUS SHOTS AND GRACE UNDER PRESSURE. IT’S SEEN SPORTSMANSHIP AT ITS FINEST. AND PLAYERS BECOME LEGENDS. AT GOLF’S FIRST MAJOR OF THE YEAR.

Let’s say you’re asked, What is the main purpose of this advertisement?

It shows the special place Rolex shares with golfing legends and legendary fairways, playing up on the watch’s appeal to an audience who values sportsmanship at the highest level. 

Here’s another possible question: Identify two phrases that convey a sense of superlative? 

  1. “golf’s most hallowed fairways” 
  2. “sportsmanship at its finest” 

What is the effect of the verb “seen”?  

The verb “seen” personifies the watch, giving us the sense that the watch is not merely strapped snugly around the wrist of a golfer, it’s sharing part of the action and drama at The Masters, especially the “miraculous shots and grace under pressure.”

Hopefully, you get a rough idea what it takes to bag those few but precious five marks. If you’re not a literature student, you might walk away discouraged, thinking, Happy are those who study literature, but take heart! The literary techniques I’ve shared here are relatively basic stuff, what you once studied at lower secondary level, not high-powered literature. If you can gain at least some mastery over them, you’d be surprised how handy they can come in elsewhere: your comprehension (not counting the visual text, you’ve got two passages) and your composition (two questions). And that’s practically the whole English exam!

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We invite you to our monthly class,“How to Talk About the Language of Advertising,” every 3rd Thursday of the month, beginning in May. Click here for more details.

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