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The Rhetoric of Advertising

by Renee Shea
Bowie State University
Bowie, Maryland

Advertisements bombard us in magazines and newspapers, on television, and just about everywhere on the Web. Although these are sometimes annoying, they are also an opportunity for that "teachable moment" to introduce students to elements of rhetoric. Ads are, after all, arguments. As such, they engage students in critical thinking about claims, assumptions, counterargument, types of appeals, logical fallacies, and audience -- basic elements of rhetoric. Whether we use this approach in a ninth- or tenth-grade class, or as a launch into an AP course in English Language and Composition, analyzing advertisements allows students to work with easily accessible materials and topics that interest them.

The Rhetorical Situation
Students begin by examining the rhetorical situation of the ad: the written text, visual images, overall organization, and, for television and the Web, elements of sound and movement. Regardless of what is being advertised -- a product, service, organization, or individual -- the first step is to identify context. Is the ad seasonal -- perhaps from Tiffany's or Target -- encouraging gift-buying around a holiday? Is it one of the new Camel cigarette ads that came out after Joe Camel was banned? Another element of context is where the ad appears: for example, in Vibe magazine or on TV during the Super Bowl. An interesting approach is to compare and contrast the way one product is pitched in different magazines. How is the "Got Milk?" campaign, for instance, presented in Glamour versus Essence? How is the same product advertised in the English and Spanish versions of People? Questions such as these lead students to a sharpened awareness of audience.

From these considerations, students can begin to restate the claim an advertiser makes and identify the underlying assumptions. Generally unstated, an assumption is an implied shared belief. For instance, ads for Botox treatments assume that the target audience believes wrinkles are undesirable, perhaps even that any signs of aging are negative. Those points are not stated explicitly, but if they were not true, why would anyone want to use Botox?

Appeals to Pathos, Logos, and Ethos
Appeals to pathos, logos, and ethos work together synergistically in advertising, though the appeal to our emotions (pathos) is generally the strongest. The visual elements in print ads include pictures, color, typefaces, and their arrangement or design. The group of smiling, well-dressed, seemingly carefree individuals in beer ads tugs at the viewer's desire for a similar good time, just as the image of the adorable puppy in the Humane Society ads tries to link our feelings to our pocketbooks. The wording of ads may also appeal to pathos, whether it's the name of the product ("Stetson Untamed" cologne), connotation (a car called "Explorer"), or a metaphor ("email is a bridge").

Logos, the appeal to reason, usually doesn't predominate, because a clear head could bring the kind of scrutiny that argues against handing over our cash or credit card. At the same time, however, advertisers are exceedingly clever at presenting pseudoscientific "evidence," such as the explanation of why a particular shampoo will improve the shine or health of our hair. Car ads, too, are prime examples of appeals to the reason of the would-be buyer: safety features, environmental concerns, price itself. Very often celebrities -- presumed authorities -- offer testimony, an appeal to reason if the person is actually an authority (such as a sports star advertising Nike shoes), but also often an appeal to pathos (such as the well-known personalities featured in Verizon or T-Mobile ads).

Ads may make a rather subtle, even flattering appeal to logos when they present the counterargument. In some instances this boils down to choosing Product X over its competitor; at other times the approach is more elaborate. The initial iMac ads, for example, included a series of "myths" stated with responses. For example, Myth 2, "Macs don't work with PCs," is one point sometimes raised against the Mac; the response acknowledges, then refutes it.

Ethos, the appeal to character and shared values, might be linked to logos when, for instance, a drug manufacturer makes safety claims or a public service organization describes its mission. In fact, the inclusion of a toll-free number or a Web site inviting consumers to gain more information has elements of both logos (implying the consumer is smart enough to want to know more) and ethos (suggesting the company is open and honest, offering a kind of partnership with the consumer). But ethos these days is often the corporate equivalent of reassurance and apology. Criticized for putting corporate interests ahead of environmental concerns, Shell Oil Company responds with a print ad asking, "Cloud the Issue ... or Clear the Air?" This play on words introduces deftly written text attesting to Shell's "commitment to contribute to sustainable development" -- and thus to its good corporate character.

Logical Fallacies
Having students debate the effectiveness of an ad can increase their awareness of logical fallacies. For instance, an ad claiming that "more people buy X than any other" relies on a bandwagon appeal, our desire to be part of a group. An ad could be guilty of creating an either/or fallacy if it suggests that not doing or buying something will automatically have certain consequences. The ad that boasts of a painkiller's effectiveness might, if examined more closely, be seen to rely on a hasty generalization.

Web Sites as Advertisements
Students can put all of these analytical tools to work by studying Web sites, particularly those for political candidates and corporate entities. During an election year, every candidate (e.g., John Kerry) has a Web site just waiting to be analyzed in terms of the claim, "Vote for me!" Logos, pathos, and ethos exist in visual elements as well as written text. Ways to present counterarguments abound ("Don't vote for the other guy!"). The fancy corporate Web sites of such megacompanies as Coca-Cola and Benetton contain color, visual images, many different texts available at the click of a mouse, and testimonies galore to their good works and good products. All are rich possibilities to get students thinking rhetorically, a crucial step toward analyzing the complex texts that appear on the AP English Language and Composition Exam. For examples, try the following Web sites:
  John Kerry

Renee H. Shea is Director of Freshman Composition at Bowie State University, Maryland, where she teaches graduate courses in rhetoric and is a member of the Honors Faculty. She has worked with the AP English Program for over 25 years as a Reader and question leader, and frequently conducts workshops for teachers.

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