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Structures of Persuasion

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Not two weeks ago, I was sitting at a small table eating breakfast at the Marriott closest to San Francisco Airport. If you get the chance, travel there some day. Take your breakfast at one of the picture windows with a view of the bay and peninsular runway. There's always something to see.

While the mind strives for fixedness, the eye chases movement. At breakfast, it was the comings and goings of planes as observed from about a mile's distance. (Somewhere, just out of frame: all our fears of planes wrenched off their routes and turned against us.)

At high tide, the marsh is, inch by inch, overtaken—a development followed with great interest by teams of nervous little shorebirds intent on plucking what looked like worms or snails from the muck.

At sunset, your eye catches the by-turns-comical and breathtaking aerobatics of seabirds, most fully themselves, pivoting, stopping mid-air, then plummeting down for glinting silver fish. Or the sight of water rippling fabric-like in a chill wind. God bless our eyes.

I was sitting there with my poached eggs on toast and the morning's newspaper. The sound system piped in that category of music that is often called (somewhat derisively) “light jazz.”


I did precisely what you are not supposed to do in these situations: actually listen to the music that is meant to be a generic category without specific features. As it turned out, though, it wasn't the usual, breezy jazz that accompanies our awkward, head-down moments in elevators and the downtime before a public company's conference call. This jazz had more interesting, more muted tones. Parts of it might have been a soundtrack from a film, when the lead character is at a crossroad in life or separated from the one that the plot, by its structure, must return him/her to.

Yes, there I go again—observing the structure and flow of the experience, rather than just living it. (That's not good, I know. It's as though I'm peering through a running crawl of text, the filter of thoughts that can keep the world at arm's length.)

This is an occupational hazard. Because let's face it, friends, as marketers we are in the business of mindfully structuring appearances and messages to create an attractive experience that is calculated to persuade.

These “experience flows” are premised, of course, on certain values and assumptions about whom we're trying to persuade (or please or impress).

Think about this. Every single day, you must weave your physical and mental self within a fabric of choices made by civil engineers (the network of highways and traffic flows), architects (designs that account for those who like to walk rather than drive; uses of windows and light; low ceilings that make one feel trapped), politicians at all levels (amount of park space and the balance of business interests and quality of life), developers, school curriculum designers, furniture and automobile designers, not to mention online information architects, radio station formatters, newspaper editors, and, of course, those of us who make no bones about the fact that we want to sell you something.

In this made or produced environment, what choice have we other than to be consumers of these experiences and to move through these various preordained flows? You can't very well opt out of ordinary life. (One of the great appeals of a virtual existence—or, for that matter, an active imagination—is the capacity for shape shifting and at-whim remixes and edits and never really having to grow up.) By and large, we must take the readymade environment as it is.

In an article that will only raise questions and offer no answers, here are my first questions.

Assuming that we are nudged along by various structures—sometimes persuaded to take a certain action or purchase a good, sometimes just guided in innocuous and unimportant ways—are we changed even a little by regular exposure to these structures?

And let's say that an experience architect (an ad agency, a cable television “issues program” producer, a motivational speaker, an image shaper for a politician, an infomercial entrepreneur, a barker for a New Orleans strip show, a designer of slot machines) has a less than flattering, if not corrosive, view of we human beings—i.e., that getting us to do just about anything is simply a matter of stimulus/response, mechanical repetition and intermittent reinforcement—does repeated exposure to experiences built on these assumptions actually rob us, bit by bit, of our humanity? Or is such repeated exposure just a null event… the equivalent of empty calories?

Just so you know where this article is headed: First, I briefly cite some examples of what I'm calling “structures of persuasion.” (The word “persuasion” is, I admit, a bit off-kilter. Sometimes these structures are calculated to create pleasure or entertainment.)

From there, I will proceed to a series of quotes from a groundbreaking scholarly paper from 1996 about rhetoric and advertising language.

Finally, I'll close with what I hope are some evocative citations drawn from a variety of sources: a newspaper interview and article, a philosopher's book and a poem by Amy Lowell. It's a longish trip. Pack a lunch.

Structures of Persuasion: A Few Examples

  • The cookie-cutter format of most infomercials

  • The orchestration of lights, voices and music that are part of the slot-machine experience

  • The design of your average Las Vegas hotel, with its dark, air-conditioned, windowless casino between the front door and the elevator to your room

  • Seminars on real estate investing or self-actualization.

  • The formulaic romance novel or detective novel or popular song

  • The use of ages-old and long-studied rhetorical devices

  • Advertising based on business-to-business testimonials or case studies

  • The Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient Greece that required participants to begin their spiritual journey with a very real processional

  • The classic striptease performance

  • Military or corporate boot camps

  • A tent revival preacher's sermon

  • Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and 12-step recovery programs in general

  • The design of point-counterpoint-style cable television political programming

  • Jazz group improvisations with individual solos (yes, even these have an accepted form)

Figures of Speech as Structures of Persuasion

Though the word “rhetoric” has become a shadow of its former, august self and now means only the emptiest types of communication, it's important to remember that “from Aristotle up until the advent of modern social psychology, the discipline of rhetoric was the primary repository of Western thinking about persuasion.”

That's a quote from a remarkable (amazing, really) article by Edward F. McQuarrie and David Glen Mick, “Forms of Rhetoric in Advertising Language,” which first appeared in the March 1996 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.

What follows are some revealing quotes from this article that, for me at least, point to avenues for further wandering and investigation.

  • Unfortunately, the many techniques catalogued by rhetoricians since antiquity (e.g., rhyme, antimetabole, pun, hyperbole) have remained largely unacknowledged, undifferentiated, and uninfluential in advertising theory. This paper attempts to correct that.

  • When persuasion is the overriding goal, the rhetorical perspective suggests that the manner in which a statement is expressed may be more important than its propositional content. The promise of rhetoric is that there exists a system of identifying the most effective form of expression in any given case. Thus, a rhetorical approach to advertising language will rest on three premises: 1) that variations in the style of advertising language, in particular the presence of rhetorical figures, can be expected to have important consequences for how the ad is processed; 2) that these consequences can in turn be derived from the formal properties of the rhetorical figures themselves; and 3) that these formal properties are systematically interrelated.

  • Rhetorical figures were first identified and discussed over 2000 years ago in classical antiquity. Efforts to systematize the wealth of available figures are almost as old… Despite some attention to individual figures, no effort in the social sciences to date has incorporated a wide range of rhetorical figures. In fact, from the perspective of advertising theory, previous efforts to systematize the set of rhetorical figures have all been handicapped by one or more of the following shortcomings: either the taxonomic categories are too vague or too coarse grained, or the categories are not linked to consumer responses, or the focus is on outcomes other than persuasion.

  • Like aesthetic objects generally, a rhetorical figure provides a means for making the familiar strange. Deviation, then, is a matter of creating what consumer researchers might call incongruity. A key contribution of rhetoric is to explain how certain kinds of text structure, i.e., rhetorical figures, can produce incongruity in advertising texts.

McQuarrie and Mick go on to cite some useful examples of various rhetorical figures in actual advertising headlines: “Now Stouffers makes a real fast real mean Lean Cuisine,” “Performax protects to the max,” “Make fun of the road” (a Ford ad), and “Say hello to your child's new bodyguards” (a Johnson & Johnson ad accompanied by a picture of Band-Aids emblazoned with cartoon characters.)

Their conclusion?

Most advertising texts must perform their function under circumstances where the consumer is free not to process them at all. Here lies perhaps the most fundamental contribution of this paper to consumer research: its explanation of how rhetorical figures function as a useful adaptation to field conditions of advertising exposure. If consumers do not have to read an ad, then one had best motivate that reading. If consumers will only skim an ad, then one must make it memorable at a glance. Rhetoric integrates and explains stylistic devices that may be used to accomplish these and related goals.

This will not seem a surprising conclusion. After all, who needs to be reminded that we live in an era of splintered attention… a kind of enforced attention-deficit disorder? Countermeasure: Make those ads memorable.

What's brilliant about that? Read the article here. It is dense in parts, but well worth your sustained attention. The authors are saying that there are ancient structures (rhetorical figures of speech) that can, regardless of content, make advertising more effective.

Which brings me to my next set of questions: If there are such surefire devices or structures that can, when correctly applied, assure that marketing messages will win the day or move the markets regardless of “propositional content,” is it not in citizens' and consumers' best interests to be conscious of these structures if only as a kind of self-defense?

And, if you buy the set-up of the last question (and I'm not sure that even I do quite yet), what are the ramifications for other aspects of our lives, e.g., the marshaling of support for a given public policy, indeed, the very nature of governance in a free society?

Some quotes in the order that I found them over the past several months

But, as soon, of course, as one has become aware of these passions that underlie the spirit of abstraction, it becomes possible to understand that they have their place even among the most dangerous of the causes of war. There are numerous of urgently relevant observations that force themselves on us here. The most important of them seems to me to be the following: as soon as people (people, that is to say, the State or a political party or a faction or a religious sect, or what it may be) claim of me that I commit myself to a warlike action against other human beings whom I must, as a consequence of my commitment, be ready to destroy, it is very necessary from the point of view of those who are influencing me that I lose all awareness of the individual reality of the being whom I may be led to destroy. In order to transform him in to a mere impersonal target, it is absolutely necessary to convert him into an abstraction: the Communist, the anti-Fascist, the Fascist, and so on… I am not, of course, in any sense making the claim that this is a method which any human mind sets about coldly or consciously to apply. The truth lies much deeper. The fact rather is, or so it seems to me, that the element of resentment in human natures is profoundly linked to a tendency to conceptual dissociation—in this, lying at the opposite pole to the element of admiration…

Let me note in passing—and this does seem to me an observation of the greatest importance—that the extraordinary setbacks of which the contemplative spirit has suffered in our time do seem to be linked on the one hand to the development of the spirit of abstraction and on the other hand, which is a much more serious matter, to the intensification of the warlike spirit in our world…

We ought, I think, to go farther and to observe that our world—and this perhaps is one of the aspects under which it appears most clearly as a world under condemnation—is a world where abstractions become embodied without ceasing to be abstractions: or in other words, they materialize themselves without really becoming incarnate. (As an example that may make my drift clearer, I would observe that the extraordinary poverty and bareness of architecture in the contemporary world is to all appearances linked to this general state of affairs.) It is from this point of view that we ought to consider the sinister use that has been made of the idea of ‘the masses' in the modern world. ‘The masses'—this seems to me the most typical, the most significant example of an abstraction which remains an abstraction even after it has become real: has become real, I mean, in the pragmatic sense of becoming a force, a power. Such realized abstractions are in some sense pre-ordained for the purposes of war: that is to say, quite simply, for the purposes of human inter-destructiveness.

(Excerpted from Man Against Mass Society by Gabriel Marcel, 1952, a book I inadvertently “stole” from the M.D. Anderson Library at the University of Houston.)

We pay particular attention to not only what the president says but what the American people see," Mr. Bartlett said. "Americans are leading busy lives, and sometimes they don't have the opportunity to read a story or listen to an entire broadcast. But if they can have an instant understanding of what the president is talking about by seeing 60 seconds of television, you accomplish your goals as communicators. So we take it seriously.

(Excerpted from “Keepers of Bush Image Lift Stagecraft to New Heights,” by Elisabeth Bumiller, New York Times, May 15, 2003)

[New York Times]: And why did you put the Table of Contents on the back cover of the magazine?

(Heidi Julavits]): If you think about it, that's actually the easiest place to find it.

(Excerpted from “Where Hip and Haute Are Intellectual Allies,” an interview with Heidi Julavits, the creator of the new literary magazine, The Believer, in the New York Times, May 17)

Patterns
by Amy Lowell (1874-1925)

I walk down the garden paths,
And all the daffodils
Are blowing, and the bright blue squills.
I walk down the patterned garden-paths
In my stiff, brocaded gown.
With my powdered hair and jewelled fan,
I too am a rare
Pattern. As I wander down
The garden paths.

My dress is richly figured,
And the train
Makes a pink and silver stain
Of the borders.
Just a plate of current fashion,
Tripping by in high-heeled, ribboned shoes.
Not a softness anywhere about me,
Only whalebone and brocade.
And I sink on a seat in the shade
Of a lime tree. For my passion
Wars against the stiff brocade.
The daffodils and squills
Flutter in the breeze
As they please.
And I weep;
For the lime-tree is in blossom
And one small flower has dropped upon my bosom.

And the splashing of waterdrops
In the marble fountain
Comes down the garden-paths.
The dripping never stops.
Underneath my stiffened gown
Is the softness of a woman bathing in a marble basin,
A basin in the midst of hedges grown
So thick, she cannot see her lover hiding,
But she guesses he is near,
And the sliding of the water
Hand upon her.
What is Summer in a fine brocaded gown!
I should like to see it lying in a heap upon the ground.
All the pink and silver crumpled up on the ground.

I would be the pink and silver as I ran along the paths,
And he would stumble after,
Bewildered by my laughter.
I should see the sun flashing from his sword-hilt and the buckles on his shoes.
I would choose
To lead him in a maze along the patterned paths,
A bright and laughing maze for my heavy-booted lover,
Till he caught me in the shade,
And the buttons of his waistcoat bruised my body as he clasped me,
Aching, melting, unafraid.
With the shadows of the leaves and the sundrops,
And the plopping of the waterdrops,
All about us in the open afternoon—
I am very like to swoon
With the weight of this brocade,
For the sun sifts through the shade.
Underneath the fallen blossom
In my bosom,
Is a letter I have hid.
It was brought to me this morning by a rider from the Duke.
“Madam, we regret to inform you that Lord Hartwell
Died in action Thursday sen'night.”
As I read it in the white, morning sunlight,
The letters squirmed like snakes.
“Any answer, Madam,” said my footman.
“No,” I told him.
“See that the messenger takes some refreshment.
No, no answer.”
And I walked into the garden,
Up and down the patterned paths,
In my stiff, correct brocade.
The blue and yellow flowers stood up proudly in the sun,
Each one.
I stood upright too,
Held rigid to the pattern
By the stiffness of my gown.
Up and down I walked,
Up and down.

In a month he would have been my husband.
In a month, here, underneath this lime,
We would have broke the pattern;
He for me, and I for him,
On this shady seat.
He had a whim
That sunlight carried blessing.
And I answered, “It shall be as you have said.”
Now he is dead.
In Summer and in Winter I shall walk
Up and down
The patterned garden-paths
In my stiff, brocaded gown.
The squills and daffodils
Will give place to pillared roses, and to asters, and to snow.

I shall go
Up and down,
In my gown.
Gorgeously arrayed,
Boned and stayed.
And the softness of my body will be guarded from embrace
By each button, hook, and lace.
For the man who should loose me is dead,
Fighting with the Duke in Flanders,
In a pattern called a war.
Christ! What are patterns for?


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Chris Maher is president of Fosforus, an Austin-based, business-to-business marketing, media, and interactive design firm. Reach him at CMaher1997@aol.com

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