Mathematical images in advertising: constructing difference and shaping identity, in global consumer culture

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Mathematics educators have long emphasised the importance of attitudes, beliefs, and feelings towards mathematics, as crucial in motivating (or not) its learning and use, and as influenced in turn by its social images. This paper is about images of mathematics. Our search for advertisements containing such images in UK daily newspapers, during 2006–2008, found that 4.7 % of editions included a “mathematical” advert, compared with 1.7 % in pilot work for 1994–2003. The incidence varied across type of newspaper, being correlated with class and gender profiles of the readership. Three quarters of advertisements were classified as containing only very simple mathematics. ‘Semiotic discursive’ analysis of selected advertisements suggests that they draw on mathematics not to inform, but to connote qualities like precision, certainty, and authority. We discuss the discourse on mathematics in advertising as ‘quasi-pedagogic’ discourse, and argue that its oversimplified forms, being empty of mathematical content, become powerful means for regulating and ‘pedagogising’ today's global consumers.

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  1. 1.

    Further, social difference is important, since “students' relationships with maths are gendered, ‘classed’ and ‘raced’”. This is supported, for example, by more positive responses from males to the question about being “good at” (or “very good at”) mathematics (Mendick, 2007, pp. 21–22).

  2. 2.

    Only one advertisement was mentioned, by one student: “Get Rid of your Maths Gremlins and Get On”, part of a campaign from around 2003, sponsored by the UK Office of Information to support the Skills for Life programme, aiming to encourage adults with literacy and mathematics difficulties to enrol on courses; see

  3. 3.

    Advertising is an activity that throws up such questions especially clearly.

  4. 4.

    Chouliaraki and Fairclough (1999) propose that this conception of discourse can be extended to the discourse of television news or the discourse of advertising.

  5. 5.

    This terminology receives support from Leiss et al. (1990) who suggest the possibility of consumers being “educated” over time in how to read adverts, through changing forms and strategies of advertising.

  6. 6.

    The social grades (A, B, C1, C2, D, and E) are based on the occupation of the main earner of the family. For example, social grade A includes higher managerial, administrative, and professional roles; social grade E includes casual and lowest grade workers, and state benefit claimants/pensioners only. We follow standard practice of using two main categories: ABC1 and C2DE (Newspaper Marketing Agency, 2012). The ABC1 category includes higher roles (as for grade A above), intermediate roles, and junior roles (e.g. administrators). The C2DE category includes skilled working class, semi-skilled and unskilled manual workers, and others (as in category E above).

  7. 7.

    These editions were readily available, so we used them to enhance our dataset. Before integrating them into the rest of the sample, we checked that their inclusion did not appreciably change the overall incidence of mathematical adverts observed, either for quality papers, or for The Guardian itself.

  8. 8.

    We took special care to use this scheme consistently, since we were mindful that reading something as ‘mathematical’ or not is negotiable and context-sensitive (see Section 2 above).

  9. 9.

    As illustration, two adverts initially considered “borderline”, but ultimately excluded, were: “You're our Number One” (strapline), plus a numeral “1” (graphic) (RX1, Daily Mail, 25 Nov 2006); and “We donated 5 % of the purchase price of school uniforms you bought […], adding up to a massive £645,000” (copy) (RX8, Guardian, 9 Oct 2007).

  10. 10.

    Terms like ‘correlation’ and ‘statistical explanation’ do not of course indicate causation, i.e. that the differing aggregate social class (and gender) positions of the newspaper readerships determine the level of ‘mathematical’ adverts published. Asserting the latter would require additional information, for example about the perceptions and motivations of advertising agencies.

  11. 11.

    When an advert appears in two ‘types’ of newspaper, we apportion its frequency 0.5 to each type in Table 5; see for example the analysis of advert RB2 (Fig. 3) in the next section.

  12. 12.

    The Financial Times is a specialist daily newspaper, focussing on economic and financial matters.

  13. 13.

    Unlike several adverts found in the pilot study; see Evans et al. (2007).


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This project has been supported by funding from the British Academy (SG-46943) and Middlesex University Business School. We thank colleagues, particularly Heather Mendick and Ken Menzies, for comments on earlier versions of this paper, and the journal's reviewers for useful suggestions. We also acknowledge the work of those in advertising and other agencies, who produced the advertisements discussed in the paper, and helpful staff at the British Library, Newspapers Division, London and at HATADS, Norwich, UK. We acknowledge permission to reproduce Fig. 2 from Towergate Financial Group, Fig. 3 from Early Learning Centre and Kevin Summers (Photographer), and Fig. 4 from Northern Trust, Chicago.

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Correspondence to Jeff Evans.

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Evans, J., Tsatsaroni, A. & Czarnecka, B. Mathematical images in advertising: constructing difference and shaping identity, in global consumer culture. Educ Stud Math 85, 3–27 (2014).

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  • Images of mathematics
  • Affect
  • Press advertisements
  • Discourse analysis
  • Quasi-pedagogic discourse
  • Popular culture
  • Social class