Rhetorical analysis is a fancy way of saying “how you use your words to influence people.”
When you write a college paper responding to what other writers have said, you are using rhetorical analysis without even knowing it.
But if we dig even further, it’s not really about words at all.
The point is to explain how the parts of a work create a certain effect – whether to persuade, entertain, or inform.
These parts can be “higher” general things or “lower” specific things. In an essay, organization would be “higher” and grammar would be “lower.”
The great thing about rhetorical analysis is that you can use it to analyze pretty much anything, from books to websites to TV shows and yes, even to advertisements.
Since ads are a fast, visual message we can all relate to, let’s practice some rhetorical analysis with a few examples.
Here’s an ad for a palm pilot.
On a “higher” level, think about the general sense you get from the ad. There is obviously a feeling of contrast between the left and the right. The left side is complex and disorderly, and the right side is clear and serene.
On a “lower” level, what makes the ad give you this impression? Of course the words “Chaos” and “Order” are at the top, but all the details of the pictures help create the contrast. If you were the person on the left, you would feel lost, out of place, and unable to keep up with your tasks. But the person on the right – using a palm pilot, of course – has everything together and can rest easy.
It’s obvious that the point of the ad is to persuade you to buy the palm pilot, and its argument is that doing so will help you organize your life and, as a plus, feel a little peace in a hectic world.
Let’s try another one.
Here is an ad for Gucci perfume featuring actress Blake Lively.
You can see this ad works very differently from the last one.
Instead of setting up a contrast visually, it uses subtle suggestion.
The actress is beautiful, dressed in a flashy and revealing dress, and looks at the audience mysteriously through a window overlooking the city.
The image of the perfume bottle and brand name – Gucci – are prominently featured.
The suggestion is this: if you wear Gucci perfume, you will be beautiful, seductive, and cosmopolitan – just like the actress.
Isn’t it easy to take just a little more time seeing how the details of the ad create the whole picture?
This is the same thing you do when you analyze a book or article.
And the benefit is often two-fold – usually you will get not only a better understanding of the message, but also the realization that the message is not really true.
Most of us realize that wearing a certain perfume will not make us more beautiful; this ad is using an emotional appeal to persuade you to buy a product.
Women want beauty, not necessarily the scent of the perfume – in fact, from the ad there is no way to tell what the scent even is without a visual impression!
Let’s “switch gears” on this last advertisement.
These shots are from a commercial for Dr. Pepper 10.
You can see the prominent slogan “It’s not for women” and the shots of a bearded, outdoorsy man enjoying his doctor pepper during rugged activities.
At first glance, most people realize the premise of this ad is ridiculous. Either you find it funny or your find it sexist.
Rhetorical analysis helps us think about why the company might have chosen this strategy.
The most important thing to consider is audience.
Perhaps Dr. Pepper conducted a study and found that it was losing popularity among men, so it created this ad to try and change that.
Much like the perfume ad, the premise is not actually true – Dr. Pepper 10 is not, in fact, only for men. Many women like it, and if a woman tries to buy it from the store, she won’t be refused.
The real intent is to appeal to a certain audience’s deep desires and then link these to a product. Here the desires are for manliness, ruggedness, and adventure. The advertisement says – drink Dr. Pepper 10 and you will be a man.
I hope you had fun using rhetorical analysis to pick apart some ads.
Whether you see a billboard while driving or read an article for class, remember to ask the same critical questions:
What is the purpose or effect of the piece?
Is it trying to persuade, entertain, inform?
How do the parts – the words, the images, the sounds – create that impression?
And most importantly, do I agree with the argument?