This past Thursday my classes discussed Athanasius' "On the Incarnation of the Word." The text is a 4th-century treatise, and since one of the main goals for the course is helping students learn how to read a variety of genres of theological literature, I explained to the class that in a treatise, the way the author makes his argument is just as important as the argument itself.
To illustrate this point, we began our class time with an exercise in salesmanship. The class divided into three groups, each of which had 10 minutes to look over a product description and plan their pitch to the rest of the class. One group was assigned to sell a high-end HD TV, a second a $2M luxury "green" home, and a third group the 2011 Ford Fusion hybrid. The presentations were (predictably--I love this exercise) hilarious, and gave us the opportunity to talk about the various kinds of appeals marketers use to convince us that we should buy their products instead of those of their competitors. That's really what a late antique treatise seeks to do, too, except that instead of selling a product, the author is selling an ideology.
The next day, while this activity was still fresh in my memory, I had the TV on and saw one of the most ridiculous commercials I've ever seen. I say "ridiculous" because the advertisement's claims were so over-the-top that the producers must be either be hoping that their viewers will purchase the product because the sheer inanity of the commercial makes it stick in the memory, or they must believe that they are selling to a bunch of lemmings who have forfeited or chosen never to develop their right to independent thought (but that's a subject for another post, I think).
The commercial in question is the newest commercial for a well-known jeans store chain, and it features a skinny 20-something woman singing about how cute her jeans make her. I thought about including a link to the commercial on YouTube, but 1) doing so would probably violate copyright law and 2) I actually find a couple of scenes in the commercial offensive. Besides, what I want to do in this post is analyze the rhetoric of the commercial. Let's think about the kinds of arguments this commercial is making.
1. The commercial's basic claim is easy to spot: you should wear [brand] jeans because they make you look cute. "Super cute," to be exact. So the first appeal is to vanity. I'd like to think that I'm immune to the baser instincts (vanity is one of the seven deadly sins), but I'm not. At some level we all make judgments about others based on nothing but appearance. If I go for a job interview, I want the interviewer's first visual impression of me to be one of confidence and professionalism, and I know that what I wear contributes to that impression. But at ## years of age and 5'2", I definitely don't want to look "super cute." So this argument doesn't get very far with me.
2. A second claim is embedded within the many scenes of the commercial: when you wear [brand] jeans, you can do anything. The model croons that she is "super cute" whether she's getting a mani-pedi (that's a manicure and pedicure, for you guys out there) or a root canal. Thus, the second appeal is to usefulness or some other practical benefit. Now the marketers are speaking my language--I'm all about practicality. But the extreme to which this commercial takes the appeal is, well, extreme. These jeans will make oral surgery a breeze? I'd better run out and get a pair right now, since I have a spot in the back of my mouth that doesn't respond to local anesthesia. Maybe I'll finally be able to drive a stick shift and parallel park, too! To quote one of our favorite British comedies, "a remarkable garment, indeed!"
3. A third claim of the commercial is that wearing [brand] jeans will get me out of traffic tickets. Now, I realize that in the overall context of the commercial, this claim is a direct by-product of looking "super cute" (a link presumably underscored by the model's dancing/gyrations in front of the "officer"). But think about it: do you really want your local law enforcement officers to show favoritism based on "cuteness?" I mean, what chance would those of us who aren't models or Hollywood stars have? On the other hand, maybe, just maybe, the producers are really saying that [brand] jeans include complimentary legal representation in court. Now that's value for money. But somehow, I doubt that's what they mean...
We may not read many treatises in our (post)modern era, but we are bombarded every day by attempts to persuade us: buy this product. Vote for this candidate. Support this cause. The more aware we are of the types of appeals that speakers employ in their cause, the better informed our decisions will be. If my students only remember one thing from last Thursday's class, I actually hope it will be the point of the opening exercise: the way an argument is made is just as important as the argument itself. Oh, and just in case there was any doubt in your mind, this post is a shameless attempt to persuade you to think critically and independently. How did I do?