Analyse persuasive communication

We need not worry ourselves at this stage about the precise differences between different kinds of persuasive communication. For example, Jowett and O'Donnell (1999)  spend quite a lot of time distinguishing between propaganda and persuasion, while specialists in the field would want to insist there are significant differences between advertising, marketing, and public-relations. As usual, I am going to abstract a few of the techniques that seemed to be described in the literature on all these different activities, and simply ignore much of the substantial theoretical work focusing on the details.

Any kind of strategic or persuasive communication needs to involve the audience, for example. It is only the most extreme of wartime propaganda that simply blares on, hectoring the audience with direct messages about who to hate, combined with the most disgraceful images of the enemy. Incidentally if anyone wants to see an example of this kind of Nazi wartime propaganda, the appalling film Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew) is one of the finest. You will need a strong stomach to watch it, as it bombards you with images of Jewish people, followed by rats in sewers, and ends with what purports to be ritual slaughter of cattle in a gloomy slaughterhouse, which is strongly contrasted with the sunlit noble buikldings of modern Berlin. Even in this film, however, which was meant to harden the hearts of trainee concentration camp guards, it was felt necessary to slightly disguise the film as a kind of documentary, complete with off-screen narrator and factual anchors (see the file on being a film critic). Propaganda films like this offer the most blatant examples of what all persuaders do in terms of manipulating evidence, suppressing alternatives, and disguising intentions. I suggest that the file on critical rationalism will suggest an excellent way to try to penetrate these manipulations.

For most modern audiences, that sort of heavy-handed propaganda would simply be seen as trying far too hard, and it would arouse the suspicions of the audience. What is more effective, arguably, is the 'soft sell', communications that apparently simply inform or entertain the audiences, with only subtle indications of what the author's message actually is. For some marxist analysts, including those who follow Gramsci, an awful lot of conventional television, even that produced by the BBC, is best seen as persuasive in this softer sense. The BBC's impartiality, and the professional codes that allegedly govern its personnel lend an air of authority, while its actual messages are hegemonic.

Other techniques have been noted to disguise the intentions of the authors. Nike advertisements, for example, barely mention the product at all, and offer instead what looks like a condensed version of some popular cultural television material. One purports to show a slice of life in a black American neighbourhood, for example, with the right sort of music, settings and people, with the Nike logo only appearing right at the end. The idea, say Goldman and Papson (1998), is to create a sense of some  'Nike culture', which the viewer can join, and which will end, eventually, in the purchase of some trainers. Other advertisements similarly offer renditions of quiz programmes, soap operas, documentaries, feature films, music videos, and a whole host of other genres. In terms of static images, cigarette advertising became famous for its striking visual parodies of artistic movements such as surrealism -- packets of Benson and Hedges disguised as Egyptian pyramids, for example  (see some more examples here). (See also the RLO on consumerism here)

There are a number of ways in which the audience can be brought into the communication. As Jowett and O'Donnell (1999) argue, some of these techniques were known to the ancient Greeks. One, for example, involves setting up an argument so that the audience is able to complete it and draw the conclusion, apparently  'for itself'. We have given some examples in the file on being a film critic, such as the pleasures to be derived by anticipating the conclusions to a detective story, or to some melodrama or scene in a soap opera. Some educational discourse probably involves this sort of technique, as in what analysts have called  'the stage management of discovery'. These days, viewers are also expected to decode some of the more puzzling images for themselves, to read the metaphors, or understand the allegories. The best advertisements get people actually trying to understand them, standing in front of billboards, or hoping for a repetition of the television advert!

The audience can also be treated as a sophisticated one. The idea is to give full credit to the scepticism and the existing knowledge of the people who are watching. There are several famous examples. One, in Barthes (1973), involves an advertisement for margarine that begins by saying that margarine is not a very pleasant product compared to butter, and that no self-respecting cook would ever use it. Having apologised for the product, and apparently announced no intention to deceive the viewer, the advertisement then proceeds to say that for all its faults, it is useful and healthy to consume margarine. Nike apparently has an advertisement that involves a well-known athlete addressing the camera directly and arguing that he is not a role model to be emulated, and that parents are the best people to become role-models. In both cases, any opposition from the audience is openly acknowledged, and already dealt with in the advertisement itself. Members of the audience are flattered by this sort of treatment, possibly, and a relationship is built between the advertiser and the viewer, even though the immediate commercial interest is delayed.

A skilled persuader will build on the audience's knowledge, which has perhaps been gleaned from focus groups, in order to establish some bridge. Once a common interest has been established, the persuader can then try to move the audience on to his or her ground Jowett and O'Donnell (1999) use the term  'anchor' to describe the shared understanding, rather as we described  'factual anchors'in the file on being a film critic. Anchoring in this case might involve an appeal to common values beliefs or attitudes. Successful anchoring permits what Jowett and O'Donnell refer to as  'resonance'--  'the recipients do not perceive the themes of messages to be imposed on them... Rather... [they]... perceive the anchors on which the message is based as coming from within themselves' (33).

The great thing about getting the audience to do the work is that persuaders can disguise their intentions. Excellent examples are available from classic works on advertising such as Williamson (1978). In one analysis, Williamson says that an advertisement for Chanel No. 5 consists of a picture of a bottle of the perfume in the foreground, with a portrait of the iconic French film actress Catherine Deneuve in the background (see file) . The advertiser does not actually need to say anything, because they are relying on the viewer to connect the two images. Indeed, advertisers would not want to claim openly that using their perfume will make the consumer as attractive as Catherine Deneuve, because that would be clearly ludicrous for all but the most gullible. However, the viewer is permitted to make this sort of connection for themselves, however fleeting or bound up in fantasy it might be. Viewers similarly can connect the possession of all sorts of consumer goods with the qualities of the people who appear in the advertisements.

Finally, let us try to bring some of these points together in describing a particularly well analysed form of persuasive campaign -- the  'moral panic'. There are several versions of how a moral panic works. One particularly well-known one, by Hall et al (1978), refers to a press campaign about street crime in the 1970s. The press decided to start reporting episodes of particularly violent attacks in pursuit of theft, and to connect these episodes together to suggest some kind of emerging general trend, a rise in crime, a threat to all of us. Other elements began to be woven into the story: a senior policeman, just back from a course in the USA used an American term for the phenomenon --  'mugging'. Events in Britain were seen as potentially leading to much more serious events as in America. A number of the muggers were black youths, which enabled the press to 'racialise' the story and connect the rise in street crime with a number of other anxieties that the public felt -- increasing black immigration and the changes it would bring in British society. The campaign eventually turned into a strong demand for public action like more policing, tougher sentencing, a restriction of immigration -- all those involved were experiencing a  'moral panic'.

The point is that the press did not exactly make up the elements of the story. Members of the public had already developed fears about crime, black youth, social change in Britain, immigration, and whether or not social order was breaking down like it had in America. These fears, beliefs or values were the anchors on which the press could develop their particular form of persuasion. The press (and other bodies such as the police, local politicians and some members of the judiciary) decided to persuade people to see these incidents connected in a particular way, and also to offer suitable solutions which would reassure people.

This suggests one fairly simple link with policy about sports, health, leisure and physical activity. Does such policy show any signs of being a moral panic? Take the campaign against obesity, for example -- what fears, beliefs and values already shared by the public does it build upon? Does it attempt to connect to obesity with other undesirable characteristics, especially some lack of moral worth, laziness, parasitical dependence on the health service, self-harm, ignorance of the facts and so on? How are these matters connected exactly? Is there any detectable moral or social comment in the analyses or the remedies?


Barthes, R. (1973) Mythologies, London: Paladin.

Goldman, R. and Papson, S. (1998) Nike Culture. London: Sage Publications.

Hall, S. Critcher, C., Jefferson, T., Clarke, J., and Roberts, B. (1978) Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order, London: Macmillan.

Jowett G and O'Donnell V (1999) Propaganda and Persuasion, 3rd edition, Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, Inc

Williamson, J. (1978) Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising, London: Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd.

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