Talk about an eye-roller. Seriously, sometimes it seems like these marketing people just make things up as they go along. Persuasive commercial? I know what you are thinking, “Is this what I am paying for? Isn’t it implied that we want our ads persuasive?” Of course, but, as you’ve probably guessed, it’s a bit more complicated. In fact, to fully understand persuasive ad techniques, we start with a refresher on Aristotle.

This post was updated in May 2021

Aristotelian Rhetoric and Persuasive Advertising

Sounds deep, right? In its entirety, Aristotle’s Rhetoric, written in the 4th century BCE, is considered by scholars of law, philosophy, and political history to be “the earliest authoritative analysis of persuasive discourse and argumentative techniques.” Luckily, for the purposes of this post, we will focus on the crux of the full work (available here if you are so inclined) and how it pertains to persuasion in advertising. Hang in there. It’s about to get a lot more exciting!

Basically, Aristotle’s main point is that effective persuasion appeals to an audience with an appropriate balance of ethos (ethics and credibility), pathos (emotion), and logos (logic and reason). Depending on the audience, each of these appeals will be present in varying strengths. Apparently, he was onto something because more than 2500 years later, advertisers worldwide are still using his ideas to make persuasive commercials and reach audiences.

The Effect of Ethos

Persuasive ads with an ethos concentration use the perceived credibility of a speaker, to sell the audience on your brand’s trustworthiness and reliability. The narrator or spokesperson in your commercial, appearing to be dependable, becomes a symbol of your brand’s dependability. Advertisers convey this with a few approaches:

  • Partnering with a respected, not necessarily well-known, industry leader
  • Hiring influencers and celebrities for your video and audio advertising
  • Local and regional businesses often use current and former sports icons

Usually, ad budgets don’t have room for celeb endorsements. In that case, ethos in persuasive commercials arises from the information given. Perhaps, without even realizing it, you’ve seen these commercials and acted. The ones that claim that “more Moms choose Jif” and “four out of five dentists” recommend a certain chewing gum or mouthwash. The narrator, lending credibility to the brand, shares the results of surveys of an untold number of people with particular expertise. 

Brands Helping Brands

Also, brands can use affiliations with other respected brands to boost their ethos. For instance, last year, the NFL had its first official wine sponsor. Babe Wine has teamed up with the NFL giving the growing wine in a can company a little credibility. Moreover, the move provides the NFL with the opportunity to let us little ladies know that we’re welcome at the stadium because they offer a canned pink lady drink scrawled with the word BABE. To think, all these years, I’ve been sitting down to watch football with man beer when what I needed was a sparkling rose. The reach may not resonate with every female NFL fan, and it is a reminiscence of Bic’s Pen for Her failure of 2012. While the messages potentially perceived as brutish women like wine or even ladies can like football won’t appeal to all, they seem to be working.

Persuasive Commercials Different Types of Advertising and Commercials

The Power of Pathos

Undeniably, you have fallen victim to the power of pathos, the technique used to appeal to an audience using emotion. Remember that Sarah Mclachlan commercial for the ASPCA? If not, definitely click the link and watch.

Sara’s song, In the Arms of an Angel, plays quietly in the background. The images of abused animals with their dejected little faces fade in and out. It is gut-wrenching. Seriously, this is the result of the ASPCA deciding to make a persuasive commercial instead of having Ms. Mclachlan come to your home, punch you in the stomach, and steal your wallet.

Ultimately, after two years, the commercial, credited with raising more than $30 million, was the ASPCA’s most profitable fundraising effort ever. Why? Because of pathos. And because sad kitties and puppies make you open your wallet, and if they don’t, at the very least, you will feel terrible about it for a long time. 

Varied and Successful Use of Pathos

Inasmuch as heartstring-tugging works for fundraising efforts, techniques using pathos cross the gamut of emotions:

There are so many emotional approaches that writers and advertisers can take when creating persuasive commercial scripts. Although, often, a less ‘in your face’ attitude, employed by gently weaving an emotional appeal through an ad, and offering more balanced use of ethos, pathos, and logos. 

The Leverage of Logos

Out of the three persuasive ad techniques, we, as consumers, probably want to believe logos is the one that really speaks to us. Undoubtedly, logic and reason play a substantial role in our purchases and financial decisions. But, from the persuasive advertising perspective, it makes sense to use logos sparingly.

Where ethos and pathos seem limitless because we really can’t get enough of cute puppies and celebrities, logos has limited appeal. While we want to know the facts and statistics that prop up the product or service being sold, let’s be honest, most of us work with a limited attention span. The balance of information that can be digested in a 30 to 60-second persuasive commercial is finite. Where emotion and star power grab our attention, logic and reason will justify our choices. When conceptualizing or writing a script for a persuasive commercial, the right amount of logos will usually depend on the product and the target market.

Overwhelming Amounts of Stats and Facts

In the case of direct-to-consumer advertising of pharmaceuticals, legal requirements play a major factor in ad creation. In these instances, the makers, distributors, and creatives would prefer much less logos. The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulate content and ensure compliance. In this Ambien CR commercial, the advertisers need to convey:

  1. The main character has a sleeping problem
  2. The sleeping problem is affecting many aspects of her life
  3. Ambien CR may be the solution – how it works
  4. She asked her doctor about Ambien CR
  5. Ambien CR solved her problem

In this instance, the writers only had the first 22 seconds and the last five seconds of the voiceover to cover the key points of their message. Forty seconds of the voiceover has to be committed to warnings and potential side effects. That is a difficult task, considering recent studies tell us that the average person is working with an attention span of around eight seconds.  A few questions:

  • Did you watch the commercial?
  • Was the problem to be solved immediately understood?
  • Did you immediately recognize the proposed solution?
  • Honestly, how much of the 40 seconds of warnings did you actually absorb?

I’ve watched it four times, and I am going to have nightmares about sleep driving with a swollen tongue. If I had to venture a guess, maybe I absorbed five seconds of the 40 seconds worth of warnings. Moreover, that was five seconds on my fourth watch after I told myself that I was going to pay attention the entire time!

The point? Logos is a persuasive ad technique that requires careful consideration. In reality, a successful persuasive commercial is going to have all three rhetorical elements to varying degrees.

Persuasive Commercial Success with Ethos, Pathos, and Logos

The perfect combination of credibility, emotion, and logic can be seen in a back to school commercial for Old Navy. Amy Poehler, not just a famous comedian but a Mom as well lends credibility; the cute kids provide emotion, and the banter about the low prices gives us the reason.

Another excellent example of the ideal rhetoric combo is this one for Samsung Galaxy S4. Of course, the celebratory nature of graduation brings the emotion to the story, and the subtle way that the ingenious technical aspects of the phone are woven throughout the story is a creative and exciting use of logos.

But what about ethos? Who gives this product credibility? The young, good-looking trendy people. If the young, good-looking trendy kids want that phone, you should too. Obviously. By openly mocking us old folks and our iPhones, Samsung is letting us know that the Galaxy S4 is the cutting edge of technology (FYI – this commercial is from 2013. You now need a Galaxy 10 Plus to even converse with a young person without being mocked).

What Do I Do With All of This Info?

It is a lot, right? Presumably, if you have read this post all of the way through, you are not a marketing guru. Hopefully, you are someone running a small business that you are passionate about, with a limited marketing and advertising budget. Even the littlest bit of knowledge about how persuasive commercials work should help you move forward with your own advertising ventures.

If you haven’t already, you may eventually decide to outsource your creative advertising.

When you do, you will already have in mind the persuasive ad techniques that will speak to your target market. You will be able to give a scriptwriter better insight into the approach that you feel is best suited for your product. Most importantly, you will be able to analyze the final product and know that even minute details can play a starring role in a successful persuasive commercial.