Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Rhetorical Appeals in Commercials

We have all seen so many commercials that they seem as countless as the stars. But why do some stand out while others are lost in the oblivion of time and memory? This is the question that I posed to my students in Speech class yesterday as we embark upon our new syllabus covering the business applications of rhetoric.

I was amazed at the collection of commercials going back several decades that are available on YouTube. It is a gold mine for anyone looking to pursue a career in advertising or marketing. The class identified several key themes with successful commercials. First, good commercials understand the mindset of their target audience and try to appeal to it through a whole host of logical, emotional, and, yes, even ethical appeals. Second, these commercials are simple and easy to understand. Third, they demonstrate creativity and a propensity to think outside the box to create a lasting impression in the consumer’s mind. Fourth, winning commercials demonstrate a keen understanding of human psychology and culture.

You don’t have to like a product for a commercial to be effective. For example, the annoying Head-On commercial simply repeats “Head-On, apply directly to the forehead. Head-On, apply directly to the forehead. Head-On apply directly to the forehead.” One of my students pointed out that this commercial actually produces a headache, so that you will want to buy the product to alleviate it. Seriously, though, it is a classic logos argument. It shows you the product, how to use it, and what it is for, headaches, and through repetition the commercial drills its message into your head whether you like it or not.

Sex appeal is frequently mixed with humor to great effect even though it has no logic to it whatsoever. The perennial example is the beer commercial. These advertisements often feature scantily clad women who are for some reason aroused by a man drinking a beverage. Think about the absurdity of that proposition. It is a wonderful example of a rhetorical fallacy: the non sequitur. Great teaching moment. No, beer commercials are all about pathos. They want to create mental and emotional associations between consuming their product and sex. They are both about satiation of basic appetites. If there is a logic to these commercials, it is more a cultural logic rooted in image and self-perception, not so much associated with the product as the behavior, particularly the suave demeanor, nonchalance, and self-assurance exhibited by the ruggedly handsome men drinking from the bottle. We don’t so much want to drink the beer as to be more like the male model, but we forget about him and remember the beer after all is said and done. Clever marketing to be sure.

Jingles and gimmicks are also a great way to get a product stuck in the consumer’s mind. The FreeCreditReport.com commercials always feature a band singing the same tune with different words about the consequences of not knowing your credit. It is easily recognizable and generally amusing. It connects with youth because the musicians are young and the problem a very real concern to that demographic who often demonstrates poor financial decision making that affects their credit score. Honda put out a commercial a few years ago creating an elaborate domino effect involving the various car parts of the product being pitched. It was fascinating to watch and kept you gripped to see the whole thing play out, ending with a complete picture of the vehicle. That was a fun gimmick that worked well giving you a different take on the automobile.

Cultural icons also work very well. For example, getting a major athlete to endorse a product spurs sales. Again, consumers want to emulate their role models more than they really want the product. It is about image and perception. Shoe companies have long used this method to generate sales. We looked at a Nike commercial with Michael Jordan. The shoes may or may not be a good product, but hell, Michael Jordan wears them, so I want a pair. This is more of a pathos argument, too.

Original characters make an indelible mark. We examined the Aflac duck, Geico’s gecko, and Jack from Jack-in-the-Box. Each of these characters engages in ridiculous antics that really have zero bearing on their product usually, but they create brand recognition. These corporations have mastered the art of branding, so that you associate a kind of hipness or personality with their company. Little things like this may seem inconsequential, but they make all the different in split-second decisions on where to eat or they may push you in a direction when considering a change in car insurance or whatnot.

Dove has an interesting ethical appeal on alternative forms of beauty. In one of their recent commercials, they begin with a billboard with a beautiful face and work backwards through the airbrushing and photo shoot to the original face. They want the consumer to think that they are a mature and responsible company that is proposing a healthier notion of beauty, an original beauty without embellishments and alterations. In this way, they hope to earn kudos for their company’s moral stance by generating a memorable ethos, as a form of buzz about their company. It works if one only looks skin deep, pun intended. The reality of the matter is the company sells hygiene and cosmetic products, so for all their high falutin talk about beauty, they are still selling you the air-brushed image on the billboards, even if their commercials claim otherwise.

The Toyota Prius commercials combine an appeal to logic and ethics by attempting to validate their target audience’s environmental views. The commercial shows the Prius pulling a sun through a landscape of color-coded people and ends with an environmental mantra sure to appeal to the logical foundations of their consumer “Harmony between man, machine, and nature.” The Prius is expensive, and the great 50 MPG is not worth the exorbitant cost unless gas costs go up over $4, so Toyota downplays that aspect of the vehicle and emphasizes the environmental impact. The idea is the same as that of the political spin at FOX News and CNN. Spin a product or news with a slant to validate and confirm the viewership or consumer in their pre-established prejudices and intellectual convictions. It works every time because people are always seeking affirmation of what they think and how they feel and how they view themselves.

Finally, stories can be effective. We looked at a beer commercial from Budweiser involving a horse that really wants to pull the old fashioned beer wagon. We never actually see any beer in the entire commercial, but the effect is quite amusing and even touching. It emphasizes playfulness and tenderness wrapped up in the traditional iconography of the company’s brand, stunning horses pulling a beer wagon. You think of the horses with fondness, and by association, you feel the same way about the beer. Brilliant!

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