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  • M. Christine Benner Dixon

Rhetoric Sells

You have 30 seconds. You have to establish your company's ethos, provide evidence of your product desirability, and motivate your audience to give you their money. Good luck. May the gods of rhetoric smile upon you!


"Rhetoric, you say?" I do. Rhetoric: the art of effective communication. In (good) advertising, every image, every note, every word is purposeful. The ad has been designed to evoke a specific response from a specific audience. The emotions, reason, and values of the audience have been calculated in the equation. This ad is meant to delight a child so that they reach for a particular cereal box, this one to scare an old lady into buying a home security system, this one to encourage an entrepreneur to invest in a new computer for their business.


Because my area of expertise is writing, I am going to zero in on verbal rhetoric, though visual and musical rhetoric can, of course, make or break an advertisement. Picking apart a couple of famous and successful taglines from advertising history, we can see the craft that goes into this kind of writing.

Maybe she's born with it. Maybe it's Maybelline.

Bravo! There's a reason this tagline lasted for 25 years. Not only do we have a nifty little anaphora (the repetition of "Maybe" at the beginning of both sentences), but the "Maybe" is embedded in the product name itself for a third repetition. The audience won't mistakenly ascribe this tagline to a different brand of makeup. And the "Maybes" aren't merely convenient for setting up the brand name; the advertiser leans into the appeal of a seemingly natural, effortless beauty. And let's be honest, until the current twenty-somethings are dead and in their graves, the phrase "born with it" will evoke the name of Maybelline.


A Diamond is Forever.

Say what you will about the diamond industry (and please, keep saying it), this was a heck of a slogan. It's a short, clean declarative sentence. By singling out "a" diamond, it creates a crisp image: a solitaire steady and sure in the transient world. It's true enough (most diamonds will outlast you and me, anyway), but diamonds aren't alone in this. Styrofoam is forever, too, but you don't hear them bragging about it. And there are other true things you could say about diamonds: they are really hard, they are very sparkly, they are relatively plentiful on the earth. But those features weren't part of the story. De Beers was creating a narrative for diamonds as symbols of eternal love and legacy investments. And they did.


We could go on and on. But let me end with a word of caution. Just because an ad employs some intentional rhetorical touches does not mean it is going to be successful. As an example, let me drop this here:



Okay, I can see what you're doing here, Lincoln. I see your little "most people" anaphora. Cute. Catchy. But I remain fairly critical of the writing in this advertisement. Here are my quibbles: 1. Can you really justify the claim that your buttons aren't just buttons or your speakers aren't just (kind of pretty) speakers? 2. The idea that journey is the destination is so commonplace that it's silly. 3. Do you REALLY want your tagline to be: "Most people haven't driven a Lincoln"? As in, your car is not very popular? Yes, it's a luxury brand, so maybe you are counting on the appeal of elitism, but no matter how many times I listen to the ad, I can't get over how self-defeating that line sounds.


So, whatever you're selling, remember that there are powerful rhetorical tools and techniques to help you craft an effective advertisement. But these are not plug-and-play devices. They have to serve your larger story or they could do as much harm as good. Write responsibly!


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