Updated: Dec 30, 2020
On the first day of my persuasive communication course students are eager to learn how to convince others to see things their way. They want to know how to negotiate employment benefits, get assigned to the best projects, and sell their ideas. But before we learn to persuade others, we discuss how to be critical receivers of persuasive messages.
Not only do I want them to think critically about the persuasive arguments their classmates will present during the semester, but I want them to learn to think critically about the information they consume outside of the classroom.
Most of us receive many more messages than we send. According to Nielsen, American adults spend over eleven hours a day consuming media content. In addition to listening to, watching, reading, or interacting with media, we receive hundreds of appeals from family, friends, coworkers, and companies over many channels (e.g., face to face, phone, email, text).
The messages you receive attempt to influence your attitudes, opinions, beliefs, values, and actions. Understanding where you stand can help you reduce your chances of being fooled by yourself and others.
According to Hugh Rank, “kids are growing up in a propaganda blitz unparalleled in
human history... School should shift their emphasis in order to train the larger segment of
our population in a new kind of literacy so that more citizens can recognize the more
sophisticated techniques and patterns of persuasion.” He wrote that in 1976.
Understanding Rank’s intensify/downplay model will improve your ability to analyze and critically think about the persuasive messages you receive. Rank argues two basic strategies are used in most persuasive situations.
Intensify: The message sender seeks to increase the significance of certain positive elements. They accomplish this by intensifying their good points or intensifying the bad points of their opposition.
Downplay: The message sender seeks to avoid calling attention to their negative elements. They accomplish this by downplaying their own bad points or downplaying the good points of their opposition.
Rank identified three intensify tactics and three downplay tactics. Those tactics are depicted in the graphic below and an example from each tactic follows the graphic.
One way to intensify good or bad points about a product, person, or candidate is to repeat them over and over again. Band Aid uses repetition to intensify the point that its adhesive bandages stick. The television jingle goes like this: “I am stuck on band aid brand ‘cause band aid's stuck on me. I am stuck on Band Aid brand ‘cause germs don’t stick on me. Cause they hold on tight no matter what. On fingers, toes, and knees! I am stuck on Band Aid brand cause Band Aid helps heal me!”
Association is an intensification tactic that links a brand, candidate, cause, or idea to something already liked or disliked by the audience. Corporations, non-profit organizations, politicians, and special interest groups use connections and endorsements to further their causes.
Nike’s campaign to celebrate the anniversary of the company's "Just Do It" tagline included former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the phrase “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” By partnering with Kaepernick, Nike is linking its brand to activism. Some say this ad is consistent with other “rebellious” themed Nike ads of the past.
Composition is an intensification tactic that uses physical composition of the message to emphasize one’s own good points or the other side’s bad points. This tactic usually involves the use of nonverbal or visual means. The image below is a print advertisement for Heinz ketchup. The layers of sliced tomatoes depicted in the form of a ketchup bottle suggest the product is natural.
Omission is a downplay tactic where persuaders leave out critical information to avoid highlighting their own shortcomings or the competitor’s strengths. The image below is an advertisement from a Coca Cola campaign that associated the drink with happiness, but it omitted that a 16 oz bottle includes 52 grams of sugar. That’s more sugar than most health experts recommend consuming in a day.
Diversion shifts the attention away from another’s good points or away from one’s own
bad points. The 5-hour Energy commercial depicted below compares the amount of caffeine in one shot of 5-hour Energy to two different Starbucks coffee drinks. Comparing a shot to a latte diverts attention from the fact that the target consumers of the energy drink often consume it with other substances.
This tactic creates confusion in the audience’s mind. Faulty logic, confusing design, and statements that don’t provide real answers are three ways persuasive appeals can confuse the message receiver. For example, it’s not clear how eating at Subway equates to living green.
Awareness of these common persuasive tactics is important. Now you have a basic framework to critically analyze and evaluate persuasive messages. Unfortunately, so much of our behavior is influenced by our subconscious mind and, as a result, we make many decisions without much thought. Therefore, for the big decisions - not the ones when deciding what sneakers or ketchup to buy - consider asking yourself the following questions to assess the persuasive appeals you have heard:
Repetition: How has the frequency with which I have been exposed to this idea shaped my perception of it?
Association: Why does the association matter?
Composition: How has the composition of the message shaped my thinking?
Omission: What has been omitted from the appeal?
Diversion: What did the message divert my attention away from?
Confusion: What is the premise of the argument?
Communication is so much more than sending messages. This model reminds us to think critically about the persuasive appeals we receive and ask questions rather than assume the best intentions of the message sender.
Larson, C. (2012). Persuasion: Reception and responsibility. Nelson Education.
Rank, H. (1976). Teaching about public persuasion. In D. Dietrich (Ed.), Teaching and Doublespeak. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.