Posted by: ath1 | October 3, 2007

Advertising Logic – Visual Rhetoric

“Wherever there is persuasion, there is rhetoric. And wherever there is ‘meaning’, there is persuasion”. Kenneth Burke

While spoken and writing expressions remain deeply relevant to culture, advertising themes and techniques are no longer bounded within those domains but popularize themselves in more compelling ways, in which one of them is visual persuasion. In his book, Charles A. Hill refers this form of advertising as “visual rhetoric”.

Today, we recognize the advertising industry manifesting itself primarily in form of visual representation: posters, logos, televisions, internet, etc, and it is nearly ubiquitous when we see posters in front of retail storefronts, or product placement in movies, TV shows, and games. Advertising is everywhere, and most of them are presented in form of visual expression.

In his discussion of visual rhetoric, Hill explains: “through analysis of photographs and drawings, graphs and tables, and motion pictures, scholars are exploring many ways in which visual elements are used to influence people’s attitudes, opinions, and beliefs”. Hill argues that images are comprehended “wholistically and instantaneously”, whereas verbal texts are apprehended “relatively slowly over time” as a result of their “analytic nature”. Consequently, Hill proposes that as advertising in visual representation is capable of causing viewers to take certain actions, it also holds the ability to create arguments.

Nonetheless, J. Anthony Blair counters Hill’s argument and declares that visual arguments can not be presented due to images’ reduced ability to advance propositions, which is a requirement of rhetorical argument. Advertisers, noted Blair, “don’t want to persuade people to buy their products, because persuasion implies that the audience has given the issue some thought and come to a conscious decision. Instead, advertisers want to compel people to buy product without even knowing why they’re buying it—as a visceral response to a stimulus, not as a conscious decision”.

Well… I agree with both Hill’s and Blair’s assertions. In fact, I am quite confused about where the nature of advertising actually lies if the analysis purely comes from these two perspectives.

On one hand, I agree with Blair that viewers are more likely manipulated through visual rhetoric than they are persuaded. While images may lack the kind of deep analysis afforded by textual interpretation, it offers viewers an immediate recognition in understanding the message, because images are more “vivid” than text or speech, and therefore they are more easily manipulated toward instinctive reaction.

On the other hand, I would say success in advertising means effective expression, not necessarily effective influence. Here is an excellent example I found that brilliantly demonstrates the persuasive power of visual rhetoric in Hill’s discussion:

Lyndon B. Johnson, the 36th President of the United States uses visual rhetoric to convince the public to vote for his election. In 1964, in the race against Barry Goldwater for the presidency, Johnson’s campaign team broadcasted the infamous Daisy Ad:

Except from Wikipedia:

“The advertisement begins with a little girl standing in a meadow with chirping birds, picking the petals of a daisy while counting each petal slowly. (Because she does not know her numbers perfectly, she repeats some and says others in the wrong order, all of which adds to her childish appeal.) When she reaches “9”, an ominous-sounding male voice is then heard counting down a missile launch, and as the girl’s eyes turn toward something she sees in the sky, the camera zooms in until her pupil fills the screen, blacking it out. When the countdown reaches zero, the blackness is replaced by the flash and mushroom cloud from a nuclear explosion”.

This visual representation, in Blair’s perspective, generates argument “in the sense of adducing a few reasons in a forceful way”. Even so, despite Blair’s possible objection, I believe argument in this sense is still an argument—as the act of purposely forcing viewers to comprehend the information in a limited context is simply a technique of persuasion. Consequently, I find the ad contains 3 major arguments that together create a powerful reasoning chain:

-Nuclear is the cause of humanity annihilation.

-Goldwater supports nuclear proliferation.

-Therefore, voting for Goldwater would mean humanity destruction.

Consequently, the message which the ad translates to viewers is voting for Johnson is the right choice. Here, the persuasive nature of visual rhetoric is at its manifestation. The ad causes viewers to doubt Goldwater’s ability of leadership and persuades them to think about their voting choice for the presidency.

In my perspective, the line that separates these two concepts of advertising is blurred in the practice. Although I would say advertising tends to fall toward the manipulation category, I can not dismiss the influence and the presence of persuasive elements. It would be fair if we say advertising can be both persuasion and manipulation, and depends on particular circumstances that advertising would use different strategy to attract more consumers.

Here is an appropriate closure for this discussion:


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