Rhetoric: 2,000 Years of Powerful Persuasion


Rhetoric: the key to persuasion

In many ways, rhetoric is neuroscience’s older, wordier brother. pic.twitter.com/hGAb3siqo1 Share on X

Guest article by Gavin McMahon

In many ways, rhetoric is neuroscience’s older, wordier brother. The one that never got a college degree.

Neuroscience did go to college. He’s got one of those advanced ‘ology degrees. But he’s a young whippersnapper compared to rhetoric. Neuroscience first came onto the stage just 50 years ago. Rhetoric dates back thousands of years to the Roman forum and the Greek agora. Neuroscience has quickly gained a reputation. Working in marketing and business, while rhetoric has lost its way.

If it’s remembered today, rhetoric is a dusty classics class, or empty political bluster. Yet rhetoric is all around us, and just as persuasive as ever. Michael Erard, linguist & author, points out the problem with rhetoric. It is “sorely in need of a usability upgrade.”

We’re working on that upgrade. Dirty Rhetoric is a project to bring tried and true rhetorical techniques to a wider audience.

Rhetoric is everywhere. Look at any advertising campaign, piece of persuasive copy, or good sales presentation. You will see and hear rhetoric at work.

Here are five pieces of ‘found’ rhetoric.

Foresound and Backsound

Found Rhetoric - Foresound - Jet Blue Advertising
[Note: Dirty Rhetoric cards are available at http://dirtyrhetoric.com]

Here’s an example from the copywriters at JetBlue. If you’ve seen any of their campaigns, you know they mix modern and fun. The line “Don’t be late for your latte” does exactly that. It’s a very simple rhetorical technique called Alliteration. In Dirty Rhetoric we call it Foresound. Neighbouring words that all start with the same letter and sound.

Found Rhetoric - Backsound - Verizon Advertising

Here’s another rhyming example. What we call Backsound. In classical rhetoric it’s Homeoteleuton (pronounce that if you can). What the Greeks and Romans knew, McGlone & Tofighbakhsh confirmed in their paper, “Birds of a feather flock conjointly.” Rhyme has a strange effect on the brain. It makes sound bites sticky. Statements that have rhyming qualities appear more plausible.


Found Rhetoric - IBM Advertising - Humanize

If you’ve strolled through an airport recently, you may have seen these ads from IBM. In this promotion for data analytics, the line used is, “Groceries now shop for people.” The groceries are humanized by giving them a human action to perform. It’s the almost unpronounceable rhetorical technique prosopopoeia, giving voices and emotions to inanimate objects. It’s a clever technique that makes you stop and think. Even better, it’s reflected visually. Look at the picture. See the fore/ ground gestalt of the human/ spray bottle?


Found Rhetoric - Daily Show Description

It’s a tricky job to fill the shoes of the great Jon Stewart. But Comedy Central are gamely taking it on. In this new Daily Show promotion they’re playing off the change with the line, “Brand new host. Brand same show.” Using the opposite words of new and same creates dramatic contrast. This rhetorical technique is antithesis.


Found Rhetoric - NY Cab - Snickers Advertising

Wordhacking is in a lot of campaigns, not just in advertising but politics. Birther, Reaganomics, Islamophobia anyone? Here we see it on top of a new york taxi, adorned with the phrase, “Snaxi.” What makes this wordhack work is the context. The visuals — typography and color treatment — are pure Snickers. The placement is pure taxi. Put them together and you have a snaxi.

These rhetorical techniques play with the language (and visual) processing parts of our brain. Sometimes they make it fun, sometimes they make sticky sounds, sometimes they make the brain work a little harder. Whatever they do, two thousand years of practice says they work.
Rhetoric copy techniques work, says 2,000 years of practice. pic.twitter.com/hGAb3siqo1 Share on X

  1. Keith Dickinson says

    Great article. I try to emphasize the importance of rhetorical skills in effective communication for my students and this will definitely help.

    Well done.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      The debates leading up to the 2016 election should be a great learning lab for your students, Keith!

  2. Terry Clayton says

    I’m a believer.

  3. Tanvir Hossain says

    Oh Gavin,
    Don’t know how to give you thanks. This article will help me build up new and creative ideas for copy writing and tag lines. I like the “Humanize” approach most.

  4. Román Esqueda says

    Very interesting. We have been using rhetoric (without calling it that way) in qualitative marketing research (finding “insights”, evaluatiimg ads, political marketing, etc… ) for many years. It is one of the most powerful tools in the market. We start our qualitative research with what the romans called “inventio” to find out the beliefs and feelings of the target market towards a brand, product, etc..In order to find the peruasive “content”. Once we are done with it we give rhetorical advice to the advertising agencies. Then we evaluate their creative proposals with rhetorical tools.
    It is interesting to notice that storytelling has been left out of rhetoric and it is sometimes even opposed to it. The greeks and romans used and recommended narratio as one of the most powerful tools to achieve persuasion.
    Thank you and keep publishing these interesting articles.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Thanks for stopping by, Román! We will try to stay interesting!

  5. Gavin McMahon says

    Thanks for the comments. Once you start looking for it, it’s amazing all the places rhetoric shows up. I want to give a shout out to Peter Watts Paskale, who has been my partner in crime in developing Dirty Rhetoric.

  6. gerry mcmahon says

    Interesting insight into how the advertising industry is moving further into this practice as it becomes harder to differentiate products and impress upon potential buyers that this is the product to buy. The subliminal element needs to be discovered by readers without them becoming aware they are being influenced in their buying patterns.
    Current examples are the range of adverts for Volvo motor cars with the “strap line“ VOLVO MADE FOR SWEDES or VOLVO MADE IN SWEDEN.. The rhetoric of these adverts is that the Chinese company Geely owns Volvo but, if that is left unsaid, the perceived strength of Volvo becomes the emphasis even though Volvo went out of business due to high costs and poor designs.
    IT is a thin line between rhetoric and advertising creativity both disciplines can benefit from more integration.

  7. Susie Maloney says

    Cool stuff. We use rhetoric all the time. Just didn’t know it! Particularly in developing memorable “sound bites” to pepper in during negotiations. Love it.

    1. Gavin McMahon says

      It’s one of those things (I am sure Roger knows the neuroscience behind it) where once you learn to recognise the formula you see rhetoric all the time. Like buying a new car. When you first look at a particular make or model, you may think, “I don’t see many of those” but once you’ve bought it, you see it all the time.


  8. Matthias says

    Great little article! Thanks Gavin. In case you haven’t read it I recommend this book: The Art of Being Right: 38 Ways to Win an Argument by A. Schopenhauer. Was written in 1831 and still has value today.

    1. Gavin McMahon says

      Thanks Matthias – I will check it out.

  9. Janice Leuschen says

    Where have you been all my life? I’ve been trying to create a link between my knowledge of rhetoric and its usefulness in marketing copy to grow my copywriting business, but have had no success. I studied rhetoric in university and I know that it’s key to good copy. It’s convincing others of its value that is difficult. hmmmm Maybe I’m not so skilled in rhetoric after all. Anyway, this article has renewed my efforts to continue promoting my knowledge of rhetoric and how it makes me a good copywriter. Thanks!

    1. Gavin McMahon says

      Thanks Janice – if you check out dirtyrhetoric.com you will see that we have made all these rhetorical techniques into handy cards. Ideal for putting some charisma in your copy…


Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.