The Power of Commercial Messages
The vast majority of rhetorical appeals that most of us encounter on a daily basis don’t take the form of a written argument. Each of us is inundated on a daily basis with advertisements in the form of billboards, bumper stickers, vehicle wraps, marketing jingles, corporate logos, digital pop-ups, and print brochures. Multimodal arguments, or those messages that are conveyed through pictures, audio, video, digital, and other forms of media, comprise the bulk of persuasive appeals that we engage with, and many of these messages must also undergo a rigorous process of critical scrutiny as we work to understand their various meanings.
In his influential text Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business , media theorist Neil Postman argues that American culture underwent a passive phase shift in our relationship with critical information in the middle of the last century. He contends that television—a medium predicated on audio and visual presentations—became the dominant conduit for transmitting information in our culture, marginalizing what he views as the more sophisticated traditions of reading and writing. Two important components of Postman’s argument are the notions that commercial sponsorship undermines informational credibility and that the brief, sensationalized nature of television programming leads to shallow, context-free reporting. He makes a compelling case for paying careful attention to the messages and media that surround us; developing a clearer framework for understanding these arguments is the overarching objective of this learning module.
Because of their immediacy and their diffusion throughout culture, it can be easy to dismiss many of these appeals as inconsequential. But advertising, from overt political attack ads to subtle product placement in films and television shows, surrounds us at all times, profoundly shaping our approaches to life and our participation in culture. In his essay “Advertising at the Edge of the Apocalypse,” media theorist Dr. Sut Jhally assesses the powerful nature of advertising’s influence:
To reject advertising as false or manipulative misses the point. Ad executive Jerry Goodis puts it this way: “Advertising doesn’t mirror how people are acting but how they are dreaming” (Nelson). It taps into our real emotions and repackages them back to us, connected to the world of things. What advertising really reflects in that sense is the dreamlife of the culture. Even saying this, however, simplifies a deeper process because advertisers do more than mirror our dreamlife—they help to create it. They translate our desires (for love, for family, for friendship, for sex) into our dreams. Advertising is like a fantasy factory, taking our desire for human social contact and reconceiving it, reconceptualizing it, [and] connecting it with the world of commodities and then translating it into a form that can be communicated. (1)
Analyzing Visual Arguments
In that sense, advertising, marketing, and propaganda are communication domains that are deeply ingrained into almost all aspects of human social culture. Because these arguments are plentiful, repetitious, and seemingly everywhere, we rarely pause to consider how they are shaping our relationships to the natural world and each other, what they say about important cultural ideals like love and family, or even why we can’t stop humming those inane jingles when we are driving with the radio on. (1)
Consider this advertisement, first published in 1948 in the Ladies’ Home Journal :
The original text that accompanies this advertisement states:
DO THINGS TOGETHER! BE A FRESH UP FAMILY! With Dad as switchman, Sonny at the controls, Mom as gatesman, and Sis a make-believe passenger, there’s bounds to be loads of fun aboard the All-Family Express! And with crystal-clear 7-Up at hand for everyone, the picture is complete. For wholesome 7-Up adds enjoyment to every family activity—whether it’s work or play. See for yourself how lively 7-Up dances and sparkles on your tongueâ€¦how it really quenches indoor thirst. Order today where you see those eye-catching 7-Up signs. (9)
The advertisement positions 7-Up not as the fairly generic soft drink that it actually is, but instead as a “wholesome” beverage that draws people together and enhances familial quality time. In that sense, this general commodity acts almost like a magical elixir, and its very presence at the table both unites the family and validates their shared experience. These are powerful ideologies, of course, and 7-Up is attempting to cast itself in a very specific light with the hopes that consumers will equate the product with the qualities and characteristics of “family.” (1)
Types of Visual Arguments
If we reflect on the lessons of the first learning module, we can see that the various rhetorical appeals to logic (logos), pathos (emotion), and ethos (credibility) that Aristotle identified also figure prominently in multimodal arguments. While some messages do encapsulate all three components of Aristotle’s model, the vast majority of advertisements attempt to provoke an emotional response. When assessing visual rhetoric, one should consider a couple of important questions:
- What is this piece trying to accomplish? What, ultimately, is it trying to get me to do?
- Is this piece appealing to my heart, or to my head?
The answer to the first question is usually fairly simple—most ads are, of course, attempting to convince you to hand over your cash or your credit card. Some messages, however, have altruistic motives and are attempting to raise awareness or create positive change. Consider this well-known piece, which is part of what is considered one of the most successful and longest running public service campaigns in American history. (1)
The United States Forest Service has operated a public-awareness campaign featuring Smokey Bear since 1944. According to the Forest Service’s Web site, “the Smokey Bear Wildfire Prevention campaign is the longest-running public service advertising campaign in U.S. history” (“About the Campaign”). The advertisements have featured prominently on radio, television, and in print, with a run of popular television spots airing as recently as 2014 (you can view these on YouTube). The campaign has provided generations of Americans with important lessons on preventing wildfires—a critically important responsibility in protecting public lands.
These messages seem to resonate for a variety of reasons. The United States Forest Service observed that Disney’s 1942 film Bambi proved popular with audiences, and the film’s harrowing forest fire seemed particularly prevalent in the public consciousness. Seeking to capitalize on the film’s success, the Forest Service created the origin story for a bear cub named Smokey. They were looking for a symbol that was “majestic, powerful (but also cute)” (“About the Campaign”). By settling on a symbol that was easily relatable to children, the Forest Service understood they could establish their messages of conservation, care, and prevention with children at an early age. In the decades since the start of the campaign, the Smokey Bear mascot has made hundreds of visits to American schools to reinforce these messages. The campaign’s current slogan, which reads “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires,” also operates rhetorically to place the onus for conservation and preservation squarely on the audience—instilling a healthy measure of responsible participation on the audience. (1)
Advertisements as Cultural Touchstones
Many print advertisements advance multiple appeals. If we apply the Toulmin schema to these messages, we invariably find claims of fact, claims of value, and claims of policy in their messages. While some visual appeals rely primarily on statistics and figures (claims of fact) and others rely on comparisons (claims of value), all advertisements function as claims of policy. In other words, they are attempting to get you to do something—to act on a rhetorical message. These appeals ask us to purchase items, to change our behaviors, to become aware of important social issues, and to choose certain products over their competitors.
Because they are reactive to market conditions, advertisements typically reflect short-term concerns. Because they rarely consider what life may resemble many years in the future, they can also operate as important historical indicators of culture and society. Here is an example of an advertisement that reflects some of the overtly misogynistic views that were more prevalent in the middle of the last century. (1)