What is Persuasion?
Persuasion is a communication practice that dates back to Ancient Greek philosophy. Plato was already investigating whether rhetoric as an art of persuasion is ethically justifiable or not. He identified that hiding bad thoughts within good arguments was the threat of persuasion and claimed that it did not include any real knowledge. It is often handled as a rather dangerous means – “rhetoric can be used to deceive, mislead, exploit, and oppress” (Simons, 2001, p.4). Aristotle, however, would argue that rhetoric can be an instrument for giving effectiveness to truth. Since persuasion deals with judgement rather than certainty, there are different opinions of the truth. In fact, persuaders can also serve the interest of their audiences and achieve power together instead of performing power over others.
Inducement, Coercion and Persuasion
In The Study of Persuasion (2001) Simons defines persuasion as “human communication designed to influence the autonomous judgements and actions of others” (2001, p.7). The author puts persuasion in contrast to other forms of influence. Other than material inducement or coercion, persuasion is addressed to the “autonomous, choice-making individuals” (2001, p.8) and does predispose, but not impose. It seeks to alter the way others think, feel or act by affecting someone’s sense of what is right or wrong. However, the persuader is never the agent of consequences a person might encounter by being convinced. With the other forms of influence the influencer is always an agent, since inducers promise positive consequences and coercion threatens with negative consequences. Persuasion is therefore a form of influence where people often do not even realise they are being convinced and do not know that their decision might not derive from own reasoning.
The Ethics of Persuasion
There are also gray areas of persuasion, where the intent to persuade is masked and it is not obvious whether your teacher, for instance, is knowingly trying to promote his or her point of view. The ethical implications of persuasion are also not clearly determined. If we put together Plato’s and Aristotle’s arguments, persuaders could have good and bad intentions – one could lie to exploit or communicate the truth to make positive changes – both are ways of rhetorical persuasion. They could promote justice as well as injustice and therefore not simply moral or immoral. In both cases it is not important how the statements are related to the notion of truth, but in which way they are presented. However, one could argue that truthfulness will always outlaw untruthfulness and logic will always win against unreasonable claims.
In his research article Sonesson (2013) combines rhetorical and cultural analysis by reflecting on the advertising campaigns of Absolut Vodka and IKEA. He shows that persuasion works with using stereotypes of countries in different ways to target different audiences by using different strategies. While the Swedish IKEA campaign uses stereotypes from its place of origin in Smaland, advertising outside of Sweden draws on attributes Europeans associate with Swedish people. Absolut Vodka – originally from Sweden – however, ignores its heritage to target a European audience. In order to persuade consumers, companies have to use known examples that speak to specific audiences.
Sonesson also gives four or rather five parts of classical rhetoric. Stage one is gathering information and subsequently stage two sorting and organising material. Elocutio is concerned with stylistic figures such as metaphors and the way information are expressed. Part four is simply memorising the information and the last important stage five is the action and pronouncing of the discourse.
Persuasion is a practice used in politics, science, public and private life, and especially in advertising. To illustrate what persuasion and rhetoric means, I will give the example of cigarette packages. In 2016 most countries introduced images on packs of cigarettes that were intended to persuade the public to stop smoking. They range from pictures of cancer patients over smoking babies to men struggling with impotence. Although one might think that the shocking pictures imply coercion, it is rather persuasion due to the message behind it. The packages neither state that if one stops smoking he or she will definitely be healthy, nor do they argue that if one continues smoking this person will die immediately. The pictures rather make the smoker reevaluate their behaviour by implying the risk of becoming terminally ill. The person has to decide whether to be persuaded or not, since she or he is an autonomous and self-reliant individual and being a smoker is one’s own choice. To ethically evaluate, this case shows persuasion that is morally good, since the pictures try to persuade costumers to stop smoking due to health risks.
Simons, H.W. (2001). The Study of Persuasion. In: H.W. Simons with J. Morreale & B.E. Gronbeck, Persuasion in Society (pp. 3-24), Thousand Oaks: Sage.
Sonesson, G. (2013). Two strands of rhetoric in advertising discourse. International Journal of Marketing Semiotics, 1(1), 6-24.