9 Visual Arguments

Features of Visual Arguments

Many advertisements use what some rhetoricians might call “scare tactics” to create a persuasive argument. Some might call these “faulty emotional appeals,” which would be an example of a logical fallacy, which we will study more closely in a subsequent learning module. However, context is important in assessing these appeals and many could be considered ethical in the sense that they are raising awareness on important public health issues. Here is an example from the Truth campaign, which attempts to create awareness on the dangers of smoking. (1)

An image of a pair of feat poking out from beneath a white sheet in a morgue. The foot on the left side of the image has a toe tag with the iconic Marlboro Cigarettes red packaging. The toe tag reads 'Smoking Kills.' The text at the top of the advertisement reads ' About 440,000 Americans die each year from diseases related to smoking. 90% of them started as teen smokers.'
Smoking Kills is by Stellapark 025 [ Source Link ] and is available under a CC By-SA 4.0 license.

Assessing Visual Arguments

Whatever their purpose, assessing and responding to multimodal arguments is an important critical practice in a culture that is simply saturated with such messages. Many of these rhetorical negotiations take place on an intuitive level. We understand, for instance, that just because musician Lil Wayne pours champagne on his Samsung Galaxy S7 phone in a popular television advertisement, we shouldn’t necessarily follow suit (although, as if we needed further clarification, Samsung includes the phrase “do not attempt” in the fine print at the bottom of the commercial). But the fact remains that speeches, public-service announcements, press addresses, print advertisements, podcasts, and television news stories dominate our informational environment. Making sense of how these messages operate rhetorically is important for us as consumers, citizens, and cultural participants, and that process begins with a clearer understanding of how various media and different genres logically organize and present information. (1)

Analyzing Visual Rhetoric

An important element of understanding visual rhetoric, which most commonly takes the form of advertisements, is understanding context. Context refers to the informational landscape in which the communication act takes place, and this includes a variety of elements:

  • Historic and social context —when was the piece created, and what were the important cultural and social events and movements of that era?
  • Genre —does this piece fall into a particular genre (i.e. the celebrity appeal, the layperson appeal, the appeal to fear, or the familial appeal)?
  • Media —where was the piece first disseminated? Did it appear in magazines, newspapers, or online? Is the piece intended for broad audiences or smaller, more esoteric groups?
  • Origin —who designed the piece? Which company sponsored its creation and dissemination?
  • Purpose —what is the piece trying to do? Is it asking an audience to purchase something, or to choose a particular brand over a competitor? Is it trying to raise awareness or educate an audience?
  • Timing and targeting —is the piece seasonal? Is it specific only to a given field or profession?
  • Warrants —what are the underlying assumptions that the producers of the piece share with the audience?
  • Branding —does the producer of the piece attempt to associate the message with a particular symbol? Ralph Lauren (polo player), Nike (the swoosh), and Lacoste (an alligator) are among the pioneers of building a powerful connection between audiences and symbols.
  • Audience —which audience is the piece targeting? How do all of the elements listed here come together to illustrate this, and is the particular document effective in connecting with its audience?

Taken together, developing a stronger understanding of how these elements create meaning in visual rhetoric can help consumers of information make informed decisions about which products they purchase, which causes they support, and how they live their lives. (1)


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Writing About Texts by Lumen Learning is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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