When did rhetoric die?

There’s a story about two novice monks.

During prayers, one monk whispers to the other: "Coming outside for a smoke?"

The second monk says he can’t, he’s been forbidden by the abbot.

The first monk says the abbot gave him permission.

The second monk says: "How can that be?"

The first monk says: "It all depends how you ask."

The second monk says he doesn’t understand.

The first monk says: "Well, what did you ask the abbot?"

The second monk says: "I asked him if it was okay to smoke during prayers and he said no."

The first monk says: "Well, that’s where you went wrong: I asked him if it’s okay to pray while smoking and he said it was, with his blessing."

This illustrates the Framing Effect.

One way, smoking is presented as an interruption to prayers.

The other way, the prayers are presented as an addition to smoking.

The monk’s behaviour is identical but, in the first situation, the prayers lose; in the second situation, the prayers win.

This is basically what we do.

We don’t lie – we simply change the perspective.

This is called rhetoric.

Rhetoric was defined by Aristotle as "The faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion."

That’s what we do: we use rhetoric to present our client’s product in the most persuasive light.

If we don’t do that, why would anyone pay us to advertise their product?

What would be the point?

And, yet, rhetoric and persuasion seem to have fallen out of favour.

It’s considered old-fashioned to mention what makes one product different to others.

Why anyone might want it or need it.

Why it might be worth paying extra for, why it lasts longer, why it’s easier to use.

Any appeal to reason is seen as dinosaur thinking.

New thinking must be purely emotional – rational thinking is for old fogies.

Current thinking is that we will show you a nice picture that has nothing to do with the product.

It will give you a nice feeling and you will be more likely to buy the product.

This does seem a little naïve to me.

That someone should do exactly what we want without any attempt at persuasion from us.

This seems to me to have about as much thought as sticking a picture up on the fridge in the kitchen.

"That’s a nice one, I like that – let’s put it up."

If this is all there is to it, why do clients need us?

If there’s no attempt at persuasion, no rhetoric, why do they need marketers, strategists, planners, innovation directors, content curators or any of the other impressive titles?

If it’s as basic as sticking up a picture they like, why don’t they just do it themselves?

Advertising agencies have never been so full of people with pompous titles.

But advertising has never been less about rhetoric or persuasion.

Advertising has also never been less about the product.

Advertising has never been less about entertainment or involvement.

Advertising has never been less liked or less successful.

Advertising has never been so complicated.

In fact, advertising has never been less like advertising.

I wonder if there’s a connection there somewhere.

Dave Trott is the author of Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three.


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