Media Literacy: Common Persuasion Techniques

By Rob Williams
Issue 127, November/December 2004

media collage with teenage mutant ninja turtleYou and your children can become more critical media observers (and have fun!) by learning to spot these 11 persuasive techniques commonly used by our media culture’s most powerful players.

      1. Symbols Persuading through the use of idea-conveyances (such as an American flag on a lapel pin) that associate one thing (a politician) with another (support for his speeches or policies). Symbols are often phrases (“Just Do It”), images (the famous “Earth seen from space” photo), graphic brands (McDonald’s golden arches), or icons (well-known politicians, athletes, or artists). Symbols are rarely used by accident or chance; they are always employed very carefully.

      2. Big Lie Persuading through dishonesty; not telling the truth about X. An easy technique to spot in advertising (“Smoking makes you glamorous,” “Drinking makes you cool”), but sometimes harder to spot in political propaganda. This is where reading a variety of independent media sources comes in handy.

      3. Flattery Persuading through insincere or excessive complimenting. Advertisers use this technique all the time (“You deserve a break today”); television programs, including so-called “reality TV,” use this technique in more subtle ways, suggesting that the audience is smarter, cooler, etc. than people on the screen.

      4. Hyperbole Persuading by making exaggerated claims. Found all the time in advertising media (“The best smoke ever!”), and often in political propaganda.

      5. Bribery Persuading through the offering of a bribe—money, favors, savings, a little something extra. Advertisements use this technique repeatedly: “Act now and we’ll throw in extra X or save you Y dollars.”

      6. Bandwagon Persuading by insisting that “Everyone’s doing X.” Works in both advertising and political propaganda.

      7. Simple Solutions Persuading by offering a simple solution to either a manufactured or a more complex problem: “Take these pills and lose all the weight you need!” But what about a responsible diet, regular exercise, the influence of genetics on body weight, and a healthy sense of individual self-esteem, despite one’s being larger than some others?

      8. Rhetorical Questions Persuading through the asking of questions designed to provoke further exploration or generate a certain predicted response. “Do you want greasy hair?” “Why did politician X lie about Y?”

      9. Humor Laughter is often the best medicine, especially if you don’t want people to think too deeply about something.

      10. Testimonial Persuading by invoking support from respected individuals or institutions—such as having a former surgeon general endorse your pharmaceutical products.

      11. Plain Folks The opposite of testimonial; persuading by appealing to the common man or portraying yourself as “just one of the guys/gals.” Used in many beer advertisements, as well as by millionaire politicians who stage photo opportunities that have them chopping wood, fishing, or reading to schoolchildren.

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