Combining rhetoric and advertising

Looks like Aristotle is still relevant after more than two thousand years

Aristotle once said the rhetoric was «the ability to theorise what is suitable in each situation in order to convince». This definition talks about how to use a series of mechanisms that allow the speaker to convince whoever receives the message. In other words, rhetoric is the art of knowing how to speak or, as Quintilian said: «Rhetorice ars est bene dicendi».

Similar enough, advertising is also about convincing the receiver to do or buy something. So, it is sensible to establish a connection between both disciplines and it is interesting to see how everything Aristotle said is still being used in today’s advertising industry. So, without further ado, let me take you through all the steps of the classical discourse and see how they compare to today’s modern ads.

The first step when elaborating a discourse is the inventio, defined basically as the finding of truthful stuff that makes the cause possible. Here we can establish similarity with the marketing research previous to every advertising campaign. That is getting to know your public, the topic (or product) you are going to talk about, and the existing relationship between both of them. The inventio consists of gathering data that serves as the foundation for the later work to be done.

Once the invention phase is done, you should pass to the dispositio, which is defined as the useful arrangement of the things and the parts of the discourse. That is organising all the information, the ideas, and the arguments gathered in the inventio in a coherent and efficient way. It would be the analog of what in the advertising industry is known as the briefing, where the basic aspects of the campaign are designed (the objectives, the target, the stimuli to be used, the style of the ad, etc.).

The introduction

The discourse can be organised in several ways, although the most common is the tripartite structure, with an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. The introduction has as its main objective grasping the public’s attention, generating a positive attitude towards the reception of the discourse. Although here is where the topic (or brand) is introduced, although there are plenty of ads that hide it in order to maintain the uncertainty.

The body

After the introduction comes to the body, where the topic is developed. Generally, you want to use arguments in favour of the speaker’s posture, and also refute arguments against it. In advertising, we can find several structures, like problem-solution, own product vs competitor’s product, new version vs old… When it comes to arranging the arguments, classical rhetoric distinguishes three ways of doing it.

The first way is the order of increasing force, where the weaker arguments are at the beginning of the discourse, leaving the stronger ones for the end. This structure generates a greater impact on the receiver. However, this way is rarely used in advertising due to the risk of the receiver losing interest in the first stages of the ad.

The second way of structuring is the order of decreasing force, where the stronger arguments are put at the beginning, leaving the weaker arguments at the end. This structure is very used in news (Header, subheader, body), however, this style is also hardly used in advertising, as the last stimulus the receiver gets is very weak, and that is the image that the potential client is left with.

The third and last way is known as Nestorian. It carries the name of king Nestor who, as Homer writes in the Illiad, arranged his troops the following way: at the front, the chariots, and horses, to guarantee a swift attack; at the back, the bravest men, that formed an unbreakable wall; and, in the middle, the cowards, so they had no other choice but to fight. This structure consists on putting, just as Nestor did, the stronger arguments first and last, leaving the weakest ones in the middle. This way, the receiver is attracted at first and left with a strong message. This is why the Nestorian order is the most used in advertising, as well as in films and books. It is simply the best way to tell a story.

When it comes to elaborating arguments, the Latin tradition sets the three main objectives the speaker must have present at all times: docere, delectare et movere; that is, to teach, to delight, and to move. According to Cicero, the discourse should be able to instruct the public in the topic (or giving a new approach to it); it should have a delight element to it, as to keep the interest of the audience; and lastly, it should be able to generate the desired emotions in the receiver, given that emotional arguments are far more powerful than logic ones. On the other hand, Aristotle classifies the arguments in three categories: those related to the ethos, that is, ethics, sensibility, and trust; those related to pathos, that is, the emotion (fear, compassion, power, tenderness…); and, lastly, those related to logos, or logic (philosophic logic), as the deductive or analogical ones, very used in the film industry: «From the creators of A and B, comes C» (A, B, and C are from the same creators; if A and B are good, C also must be).

The conclusion

After the body comes the conclusion or peroratio, the last part of the discourse. Here the speaker sums up everything that’s being said, appeals to the receiver (“are you going to miss it?”), and, generally, one last punch is saved for this moment, to finally convince the public. It’s not unusual, when a TV ad ends, that a “post-ad” scene comes up with some additional info like “now, with a 30% off”.

Once the dispositio is made, we have to think about the elocutio: composing the discourse in an eloquent way. This includes rhetorical figures and good copywriting. In advertising, it would also mean the design, art, and direction of the ad. Of all the rhetoric figures, pleonasm and ellipse are key to advertising, as, paradoxically, advertising tends to be redundant and concise at the same time. It is also very used, given the fact that it combines both of these concepts, the tautology («I went to see him personally»), as it repeats the same message in a concise and often catchy way. In that same line, advertising focuses on adding figures (repetition, rhyme, comparison, paradox…) that reinforce memorising the message, and subtracting figures (elipse, circumlocution, reticence…) that make it easier for the ad to be read. Finally, complementary to the above mentioned, we can also find other kinds of figures, like substitution (metaphor, euphemism…) or change (inversion, chiasm…) figures.

This use of figures is part of what classical rhetoric calls ornatus, which is one of the three elocutive qualities along with the puritas, which is the composition of an adequate discourse, without barbarisms or solecisms; and the perspicuitas, which could be defined as the degree of accessibility of the discourse, that is, how many people can understand it. These three qualities would be combined in different ways to form the three elocution registers: the genus humile, which focuses on teaching; the genus medium, which focuses on entertainment; and, lastly the genus sublime, which focuses on moving the receiver. Summing up, in the elocutio, the speaker has to elaborate the discourse in a way that persuades the public.

Between yellow and magenta. Pop stuff and everything else. He/him.

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