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ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated

The Use of Persuasive Appeals

Standing in the check-out line, I glanced at the rows of gum to my right. Instantly, my tongue slid across my front teeth. Had I forgotten to brush? Automatically, it seemed, my right hand closed over a package of Dentyne, and an echo rumbled in my head: "Nine out of ten doctors recommend…"

When it comes to persuasion, our advertisers truly deliver the goods. A solid ad hits its audience, grabs their attention, hooks and lands it—in thirty-seconds flat. So, while we might find many advertising approaches to be annoying, we must admit that they do work. They draw, in fact, upon two thousand years of sound rhetorical theory. So, using them for support when creating our own persuasive messages can be extremely effective.

In the fifth century B.C., Aristotle wrote his three-volume Poetics, providing advice to those preparing to argue cases in Greece's courts. His second volume still serves as a striking study of human nature in which the philosopher outlines three basic types of appeals which can be used to motivate and persuade audiences. Aristotle labeled these persuasive appeals ethos, logos, and pathos. Marketing experts still apply them to their work, and writers charged with the task of creating persuasive messages can benefit from their use as well.


Today, we think of ethical practices as being right, just and true; and we think of ethical people as being of good character. Thus, using ethos or "ethical" appeals means relying on character or personhood as a means of persuasion. Using ethical appeals involves providing "testimony" from people that we admire, respect or like. Effective ethical appeals involve "endorsement" by quoting:

  • Celebrities - people we admire and emulate because of their talent or fame
  • Experts or authorities – people we respect because of their knowledge or positions
  • Our friends and neighbors – the people we like because they are just like us


"Logical" appeals are rooted in reason and proof. Using logos involves providing an audience with reasons for adopting a proposed attitude, belief, value or practice. Those reasons are then supported with "evidence" drawn from facts and figures, studies and statistics.


"Emotional" appeals are rooted in feeling. Emotional appeals tap our capacities for laughter and tears. Thus, using pathos involves providing illustrations and examples of people's experiences as recounted in real life or literature.

When we understand Aristotle's basic appeals, it is easy to spot examples of their use in our media and apply them to our own persuasive messages. A word of caution, though, is important here. When advertisers use these appeals, they tend to use them exclusively. In a single print item or thirty-second spot, an advertiser will probably use only one type of appeal. In longer messages, though, the exclusive use of any one type can actually "boomerang" or backfire. When a writer seems to endlessly quote others, an audience begins to wonder if he or she has anything of his or her own to provide. Audiences generally have to work to fully grasp the meaning of statistics or scientific data; thus, their overuse can have a numbing effect.

And, finally, too much emotion can result in maudlin or melodramatic messages that end up putting audiences at bay. The classical Greek principle of moderation and balance in all things is a wise one to follow when it comes to persuasion.

So, when it comes time to place supporting material in your persuasive messages, look for a healthy balance of testimony, evidence, and illustration. After all, "nine out of ten doctors recommend" a balanced diet.

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