What Is the Role of Rhetoric in Advertising?

Emily Daw

In a world inundated with advertising everywhere from the Internet to the dentist's office, it is important for both advertisers and consumers to be educated about the role of rhetoric in advertising. A smart consumer can avoid being duped into unwise purchases, and advertisers can come up with ethical ways to sell their products or services, by understanding various rhetorical strategies. One good way of examining rhetoric in advertising is in terms of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle's three categories of persuasive techniques: logos, or logic; ethos, or ethics; and pathos, or emotion.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle defined three forms of persuasive techniques.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle defined three forms of persuasive techniques.

Aristotle's own favorite form of rhetoric was logos, or logical appeal. In his terms, that means presenting a clear, straightforward argument that is free from contradictions or logical fallacies. In modern advertising, however, logos more commonly refers to facts or statistics that try to convince the consumer that this particular product is objectively the best choice — that it the most powerful lawnmower, most fuel-efficient small truck, lowest-fat salad dressing, etc., of its type. When presented with this type of advertising, the customer should examine the product to make sure that the claims do not ignore other relevant information, such as the sugar or sodium content of a salad dressing claiming to be low-fat.

A logos approach may be used to sell a product based on its performance and abilities.
A logos approach may be used to sell a product based on its performance and abilities.

Another type of rhetoric in advertising is ethos, or appeal to the ethical standing or technical expertise of the person speaking. This style of rhetoric is often seen in political ads, where the politician might be presented as being consistent in his or her statements and actions — often in contrast to the opposition, who might be presented as wishy-washy or a liar. A consumer presented with this type of advertising should consider how relevant the moral standing of the candidate is to the position as well as the fairness of the attack on opponents. Ethos may also refer to an appeal to expert testimony, for instance by having a professional runner endorse a particular brand of running shoes. The consumer should bear in mind, in the face of this type of rhetoric, that the person testifying is probably being paid, and therefore might not have a completely unbiased opinion of the product.

The most common type of rhetoric in advertising is pathos, or appeal to emotion. This can take many different forms, from humorous to tear-jerking. Any advertisement that claims a product is "the best for your family" or contains photography that has been softened around the edges is almost guaranteed to be an appeal to emotion. A commercial that features a wide-eyed puppy to sell a product that does not have anything to do with dogs likewise draws on pathos. An emotional appeal tends to create stronger, longer-lasting memories than other types of rhetoric in advertising, making it a highly effective marketing strategy. Customers should be careful, however, that they do not become swept away by emotion and led to make purchasing decisions that are not objectively good for them.

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