Modern Modes of Persuasion
Footnotes to Aristotle
It was Aristotle that first codified the rules of rhetoric and his treatise, the ars rhetorica, is still considered the most important work on persuasion ever written.
Rhetoric, the art of persuasive speech, was a crucial skill for leaders in ancient Greece and still is for presidents and purveyors alike. It establishes rules that are descriptive rather than prescriptive, which is to say it is an analysis of what works rather than an insistence on particular airs and graces. It’s a wide-ranging work but the area of most interest to those tasked with creating effective brand communication is called deliberative rhetoric. This is persuasion designed to change behavior by focusing on the future. It is the rhetoric of politicians, activists and advertising.
According to Aristotle, there are three modes of persuasion. Ethos is an appeal to authority, relying on the credibility of the speaker. This can be the brand itself, establishing the bona fides and credibility of the company through claims of provenance, craft or heritage.
Jack Daniel’s long running campaign uses all three, highlighting that the distillers in the ironically dry town of Lynchburg have been crafting the “taste of Tennessee” longer than any other whiskey in America since it was the first registered distillery in the country.
Ethos is also often leveraged through the credibility of well known proxies. Nike’s award winning Dream Crazy and Dream Crazier campaigns featuring Colin Kapernick and Serena Williams are simply the latest in a long line of ethos advertising for the brand, derived from the credibility of athletes it sponsors or employees as spokespeople. It’s why ads used to claim that more doctors smoked Camel cigarettes, why nine of out ten dentists seemed willing to recommend a variety of different toothpastes, and why eight out of ten cats apparently preferred Whiskas.
The second mode is logos or rational persuasion. Using new information to appeal to the audience’s logic, a word derived from logos [as, indeed, is the word logo]. This is the realm of advertising featuring features and facts, especially new products. The specifications in an ad for a car or smart phone are using logos in the service of their logos, as it were.
One of the most famous Ogilvy ads is for Rolls Royce and claimed that “At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in the new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock”. [Considering the combustion engines in the 1950s this seems somewhat unlikely. Contrarily, many manufacturers digitally add fake engine noises to their cars today to give them a more powerful roar.]
The long copy continues with 18 more bullet-pointed ‘facts’ about the car, including the charming assurance that since it is so easy to drive, “no chauffeur [is] required”.
David Abbot, legendary copywriter and founding partner of AMV, the biggest advertising agency in the UK, was a big believer in logos and lists. As he once wrote: “If you believe that facts persuade (I do), you’d better learn how to write a list so it doesn’t read like a list.”
The third mode is pathos or emotional persuasion. This is the perhaps the greatest strength of television advertising, plucking at heartstrings to open purses. Here we find the sweet stories of the John Lewis Christmas crackers and the dramatic spot for ITV dramas. It’s why soundtracks can be so impactful, creating mood without messaging. One of Binet and Fields’ earliest reports, Empirical Generalizations about Advertising Campaign Success, went so far as to claim that the most effective advertisements of all are those with “little or no rational content”.
If one were to make addenda to Aristotle, one could look to George Lakoff, a neurolinguist who has outlined some additional modes. Repetition is a powerful persuader because words are linked to the neuronal circuits that determine their meaning. The more you hear a word, the more the circuit is activated and the stronger it gets. This makes it easier for stimulus to activate that idea again. This is what creates the illusory truth effect, our tendency to believe information to be correct after repeated exposure.
Old Spice’s Endless Ad provides a recent example. The spot, which nests one ad inside another, played for 14 continuous hours on the Woohoo network in Brazil and will run ‘forever’ online, repeating the proposition that it will make you “Smell Amazing Forever” every three to six seconds whilst keeping it entertaining.
Framing consists of reducing complex reality to simplifications or connecting ideas to existing cultural concepts. Another campaign from Old Spice anchored their product to well known reality TV shows in a content series called, “Pimp the Extreme Ninja Master Runway Chef Ink Tank Factor Has Talent”.
Plato wrote that rhetoric was the art of “ruling the minds of men”, which is a good reminder that it doesn’t matter what mode you use if it doesn’t impact the minds and then behavior of consumers.
I may have mentioned this in a column before, but it bears repeating because it is a crucial framing. The anchoring of advertising to commercial impact helps marketers maintain focus. Logically we all understand that but emotionally there is a tendency to get over invested in executions themselves. Hopefully though, I’ve established enough credibility to persuade you not to do that.
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Adapted from a piece originally published on WARC