The Persuasion Triangle: Applying Aristotle’s Framework to Advertising
In a world increasingly preoccupied with AI and the omnipresence of algorithms, does your brand struggle to actually stand out in a sea of sameness? How can you cut through the noise, reach real humans and evoke an emotional response with your message? When frustrated, remember the valuable advice attributed to experimental neurologist, psychologist and physiologist Ivan Pavlov: If you want a new idea, read an old book.
And here comes Aristotle’s Rhetoric – a collection of his students’ notes from his lectures that later became a book. In it, the ancient philosopher spoke of the three Modes of Persuasion: Ethos, Pathos and Logos. The framework elaborated by the famous Greek 2,300 years ago is surprisingly accurate today, especially when using all three modes in combination to elevate your brand message.
Curious? Check out our selection of key takeaways from particular ad campaigns in order to help you utilize the Persuasion Triangle and supercharge your marketing strategy:
- “Before there was Ogilvy, there was Aristotle”. When considering Aristotle’s framework and its applicability in advertising, note that it’s based on the three main ways we persuade people to do something: Ethos (a.k.a. Ethical appeal), Pathos (a.k.a. Emotional appeal), and Logos (a.k.a. Logical appeal). Considering that a large majority of our everyday culture are merely improvements from the ancient Greeks, the so-called Persuasion Triangle can be successfully applied to advertising. Read on to find out how exactly.
- Ethos (Greek for “character” or “credibility”) – according to this guide to arguments, ethos focuses attention on trustworthiness and takes one of two forms: “appeal to character” or “appeal to credibility.” Advertising that relies on doctors’ statements or political records often uses an appeal to ethos. Schlomo Genchin, Head of Creative and freelance copywriter, gives an example with Patagonia named the most trusted brand in the US and one that “religiously follows Aristotle’s Persuasion Triangle”. For Patagonia, being ethical means “being at home” with your listeners – sharing their manners and tone. In another case study, of a successful 2021 Subaru Crosstrek ad campaign, the element of ethos used is the message that “some relationships get better with time”. It indicates to the viewer that Subaru has been around for a long time and that their vehicles are reliable, thus establishing credibility.
- Pathos (Greek for “sympathy” or “experience”) – focuses attention on the values and beliefs of the intended audience, appealing to the audience’s capacity for empathy, often by using an imaginable story to exemplify logical appeals. Advertisers use pathos by making an audience feel what they want them to feel, whether it’s humour, anger, pity, or any other emotion. According to Schlomo Genchin, pathos means connecting to your audience’s emotions. In the case of the Patagonia ad, the message “We Can be Both: Mothers at Work” is caring and empathetic, positive and inspiring. Similarly, the Subaru ad features a grandmother and a granddaughter bonding, drinking milkshakes, laughing, etc. appealing to our emotions and giving us a sense of serenity. Subaru’s tagline is “Love, it’s what makes Subaru, Subaru.”
- Logos (Greek for “word”) – focuses attention on the message. Often called a “logical appeal,” or an “appeal to reason”, logos points out internal consistency and clarity within its argument. Logos frequently uses rationality and data to support its claim. At the end of the Subaru ad, we learn that “97% of Subaru vehicles sold in the last 10 years are still on the road”, meaning they are reliable vehicles. Patagonia’s ad urges us: “Take nothing with you”, applying the principle “show benefits, not features” and Aristotle’s idea that facts are meaningless unless relevant to the listener’s life.
- … and a bonus concept: Kairos (Greek for “right time,” “season” or “opportunity”). Kairos refers to the “timeliness” of an argument. Often, for an ad or an argument to be successful, it needs appropriate tone and structure and to come at the right time. In advertising, it can mean finding the right platform, format, timing and context for your ad campaign. For example, an ad featuring Avril Lavigne would be more effective for a teen magazine in 2002 than in 2012 or 2023. A Sears ad featuring Kim Kardashian would be more appropriate in Teen Vogue than it would be in another magazine.
- Incorporate them into your entire brand. In the above example, Subaru doesn’t just use ethos, pathos and logos in their ads. Their entire marketing strategy is built with these. In an interview for Forbes, Alan Bethke, Senior Vice President, Marketing at Subaru of America, stated in 2017 that the campaign “continued to build a new identity for Subaru”, with ‘Love’ being the uniting factor among the brand’s loyal customer base, and adding: “It’s what makes a Subaru, a Subaru”. In this way, the use of ethos, logos and pathos by companies goes deeper. Organizations incorporate these concepts into their entire brand — their mission statements, their marketing materials, their positioning, how they train their employees, their PR, etc.
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