Common Goals of Advertisers
In The Structure of Argument , rhetoricians Annette T. Rottenberg and Donna Haisty Winchell list the five common goals of the advertiser. According to one industry analyst, a successful ad should do the following:
- attract attention
- arouse interest
- stimulate desire
- create conviction
- get action (70)
Commercial rhetoric attempts to compel audiences through these five activities in a variety of ways, with the celebrity appeal being one of the most common visual genres.
As an example, consider a popular recent advertisement for the Lincoln MKC sports utility vehicle. In this much-discussed commercial, acclaimed actor Matthew McConaughey tools down the road in a stylish vehicle, discussing his appreciation for the product:
I’ve been driving a Lincoln since long before anybody paid me to drive one.
I didn’t do it to be cool.
I didn’t do it to make a statement.
I just liked it.
It was the first piece of visual rhetoric in what has been a critically successful series of appeals by Lincoln. As Barbara Herman notes in her article “Why Matthew McConaughey’s Lincoln Car Ad Is A Big Deal, Signals a Cultural Shift In Ideas About Celebrity, TV’s Status, And Commercialism,” the ad is significant:
For years, A-list Hollywood treated TV commercials with extreme caution. While many felt free to shill products abroad—a phenomenon illustrated by Bill Murray’s character in the 2003 [film] “Lost In Translation”—TV ads were thought to be beneath serious movie stars. But McConaughey’s presence is the most brazen indication that there’s not much of a taboo left, signaling a change in the notion of celebrity and the growing cachet of TV. What’s more, “selling out” means little to many young people who’ve grown up with the idea of the celebrity endorsement and the understanding of celebrities as brands.
There just isn’t a stigma to doing TV, or commercials on TV, anymore. Today the public understands celebrities as brands, and an appearance in a commercial is just another way of extending it.
As Herman notes, the piece aims to capitalize on a contextual shift in how contemporary audiences view celebrity, television as a credible medium, and commercialism. The advertisement attempts to humanize a Hollywood actor; in its attempt to accomplish this, the appeal assumes that we, too, would appreciate the “no-nonsense” approach to driving a Lincoln that McConaughey has adopted—never mind the associated price tag of purchasing such a vehicle. (1)
Analyzing the Speech Act
Verbal appeals are also common throughout our daily lives. Classroom lectures, workplace addresses, religious sermons, and commercial dialogues are just a few of the common speech acts that attempt to influence human behavior.
I have a vivid recollection of listening to a Presidential debate between Governor Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama on the radio while driving from Orlando to Jacksonville back in the fall of 2012. It was a memorable experience because I could rely only on my auditory senses to judge the candidates’ responses to the questions. Without the ability to see hand gestures, facial expressions, and other forms of body language, I had to focus on the tone and tenor of the responses. The organization of the sentences, the vocabulary choices, and the rhetorical styles of the speech acts themselves moved to the forefront of the communication act, and listening to the candidates speak provided me with a really unique experience in what has become a largely visual culture.
Of course, we encounter the speech act in a variety of contexts, and the most frequent modality is the audiovisual appeal. As Rottenberg and Winchell note, audiovisual “rhetoric includes all that the human voice adds, from a regional dialect to a tine of nervousness; television includes all that the visual dimension adds, from body language to hair style. And, of course, in television commercials we see most of the features of print ads with the addition of sound and motion” (79).
When preparing to critique a verbal appeal, consider the following practices:
- Prereading —where possible, make an effort to research the affiliation of the speaker(s) and attempt to get a feel for any potential biases that may surface in the course of the appeal. Sponsorship is also important. Which company or organization is supporting the speech act? Is the message tied to commerce? Politics? Is the communication act unrehearsed or spontaneous, or is it highly moderated? What are the goals of the speaker (to educate, persuade, sell, inform, or connect)?
- Critiquing for Content —which messages stand at the core of the speaker’s message? If at all possible, take notes and record the major subdivisions discussed in the verbal appeal. Is the speaker using emotional appeals or facts, figures, and statistics to advance his or her view? Is the support sufficient to establish a successful argument?
- Critiquing Rhetorical Content —how does the speaker establish a rapport with the audience? Are there any “starring sentences” or speech hallmarks that the speaker refers to throughout the verbal appeal? How does the speaker move from the opening of the appeal through the conclusion?
- Conclusion —the most important evaluation here is whether the speech act was successful. Did it accomplish its goals? Is the audience sufficiently moved to act on the appeals being advanced, whether they be commercial, social, cultural, or political?
Many prominent public figures have speech signatures that help distinguish them as speakers. Consider some of the speeches given by American Presidents over the last half-century and you can locate many starring sentences and historically relevant catchphrases. An important goal in the process of becoming a monitoring citizen is developing the critical skill of being able to differentiate between style and substance. Rhetoric informs both style and substance, of course, and one must be careful to be able to appreciate the elegance of an argument while also critiquing its substantive, actionable qualities. Conversely, some rhetorically simplistic speeches communicate significant messages, and shouldn’t be dismissed for their minimalism. (1)