Speaking of rhetoric in everyday life, I love a smart and savvy Craigslist ad:

baller bikeGrab a paper bag, breathe into it and calm your ass down. You’re hyperventilating because you ain’t never seen a deal like this before. Now collect yourself, then keep reading this incredible description that barely serves to do justice to my 2003, 19″, KONA Muni Mula, 7005 Double-butted Aluminum, multi-gear mountain bike. Also known as the greatest bike the suburbs have ever had the privilege of existing around.
What makes this bike so much better than every other bike that has ever been pedaled? Glad you asked. It starts with the paint scheme. It looks like 24 Karat gold if they made bikes out of 24 karat gold. That’s bold, son. Curb appeal.
What else? Ryan, the paint’s a little dinged up. Yeah, well, that’s called real life. It comes at you fast, bro. Besides, you really want this glimmering, shimmering sex machine catching the eye of some small time thief? You really don’t want to be living your own version of PeeWee’s big adventure. Consider the lived-in feel a natural crime deterrent. If this bike were denim jeans, it’d be called “de-stressed” and you’d be paying extra for the privilege. I’m not gonna charge you extra for it, though. Cause I’m not trying to take advantage of you. But you should take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
What else? Let’s talk about that Marzoochi Bomber front fork for a second. It’s as gnarly as it is exotic. Like the tropical, saw-toothed platypus. Which is a species that does’t even exist. Fortunately this crazy front fork does. It offers bomb-a$$ shock absorption, as the name implies.
What else? Did you see those Shimano Deore Rapid-Fire Shifters? These shifters make you wanna take this thing off road in a big way. They also offers a terrific chance to introduce that dome of yours to a tree. So don’t trip. Ride safe. Get a helmet and if you’ve never ridden a bada$$ mountain bike, maybe it’s time to move along, young sir because this thing is made for big hills and mud trails. What this bike does offer is a one-way ticket to legits-ville. Find a bowling ball. Then find another one. Your nuts must be at least that big to even consider making this whip the dreamiest object to ever take up space in your garage. But you’ll be filled with joy once you throw a leg over this flawless piece of cycling excellence.
But, Ryan, aren’t you sad about selling the greatest bike on earth? No. When you ride this bike once it permanently eliminates your ability to feel sad about anything ever again. Even for little puppies who are afraid to walk down the stairs, because the stairs…they’re so big, and they’re so little. Puppies who are young, but have already discovered the world to be a cold, unforgiving place. But you won’t give a shit about it because you’ll be on your awesome new bike living the dream.
And you’ve just learned something else about me. That’s right, my name is Ryan. And your name is lucky motherfather if you make the best choice of your life and pay me cold, hard cash for this ridiculous ride.
2003, 19″, KONA Muni Mula, 7005 Double-butted Aluminum, multi-gear, hard-tail mountain bike with Marzoochi Bombers, Deore Shimano Rapid Fire Shifters. Barely Ridden, like new.
In no rush to sell, big ballers only, no low-ballers. $650 OBO
Contact Chris near Alum Creek Trails
In terms of rhetorical strategies, I love how this is simultaneously a spoof on typical advertisements and a genuinely persuasive advertisement at the same time. It has that sense of humor which builds rapport between the seller and the audience as well as talks up the bike in that “and that’s not all” infomercial genre. Very clever.

In the wake of tragedy, rhetorical reflections…

I don’t have much to say in the wake of Sandy Hook’s tragedy.  And of the little I think I could say with passable confidence, I’m going to reserve, and instead take the moment to ruminate—turning over the ideas, opinions, and arguments again and again to make sure they’re properly digested.

Here are three of the most useful pieces I’ve encountered in reflecting on some of the rhetorical elements at play in this awful situation.  Well, there are two pieces directly relevant to the massacre, and one to help pull you out of that pit of gloom you are probably curled up in if you’ve watched more than an hour of media coverage.

1.  I’ve linked to Charlie Brooker’s rhetorical genius before on Harlot, so perhaps some of you are already familiar with his work in breaking down the formulas of mass media.  From what I’ve witness on television in the past twenty-four hours, however, the lesson bears some repeating:

2.  Nate Silver knows as well as any other politically astute fellow that you don’t win any long-term argument without first shifting the key terms of the debate in your favor.  In his post, “In Public ‘Conversation’ on Guns, A Rhetorical Shift,” Silver has an introductory paragraph that should make just about any rhetorician shiver with gratitude:

Friday’s mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., has already touched off a heated political debate. Opponents of stricter regulation on gun ownership have accused their adversaries of politicizing a tragedy. Advocates of more sweeping gun control measures have argued that the Connecticut shootings are a demonstration that laxer gun laws can have dire consequences. Let me sidestep the debate to pose a different question: How often are Americans talking about public policy toward guns? And what language are they using to frame their arguments?

3.  Straight and simple: Buzzfeed’s, “26 Moments that Restored Our Faith in Humanity.”  There are plenty of uplifting stories in here, and more than a few tear-jerkers, so be prepared.  I made it through most of the way with a grateful grin and welled eyes, but I’m a hopeless dog lover, so I pretty much lost it at #23:

When John Unger had suicidal thoughts after a breakup, it was his dog Shoep who brought him back from the brink. This photograph shows Unger cradling his friend in lake Superior to soothe the dog’s arthritis.


What’s in a (candidate’s) name?

Every campaign season, I become a bit fixated on all of the lawn signs (bumper stickers, etc.) proudly broadcasting candidates’ names. Not their accomplishments, not their credentials, just their names. And maybe even a schnazzy design!

Sometimes it’s because they’re hilarious: a personal favorite from Columbus, OH in 2008 said simply “Serritt [Sherrit?] has Merit.” For whatever reason, that cracked me up; it seemed to say simply, “S/He’s okay. Worth considering, anyway.” Then again, I just checked “merit” the Oxford English Dictionary, and it turns out s/he was actually making a pretty good claim to excellence, entitlement to gratitude or reward… and/or “quality (in actions or persons) of being entitled to reward from God.” Impressive. I take back my mockery.

But still (and apologies for the Seinfeld-ism): What is the deal with all of these names plastered all over every neighborhood? Has anyone ever seen one of these signs and thought, “You know, that’s really persuasive. I’m going to vote for that guy.” or “That name sounds trustworthy and intelligent — and look at that innovative use of red, white, and blue! She’s got my vote.” or even “Well, if all of these strangers who live around here think that’s the right choice…”?

I guess there’s some hope that familiarity breeds comfort or that perceptions of popularity breed actual popularity. In theory, that makes sense… though I remain skeptical. Especially when opposing candidates’ names appear alongside each other’s…

But then again, name recognition might backfire when people are fed up with all of the campaign materials — someone’s name plastered all around town can seem pretty invasive and obnoxious. While waiting (for hours) to vote early this morning, I chatted with other voters about whether the campaign supporters waving signs and shouting their candidates’ names would actually alienate people right before they step into the polls. If I’m standing online (for hours) to vote, chances are I’ve already made up my mind. And that you’re annoying me.

I’m genuinely curious: Does anyone know whether this name-inundation “works”? And at accomplishing what, exactly? Generating awareness and conversation? Accumulating actual votes?

It’s probably very lucrative for sign-makers. Otherwise, it just seems wasteful in so many ways.

Language Intelligence: A Non-Academic’s Take on Rhetoric

Not really a book review (because I haven’t read it, duh!), but more of a heads-up: political blogger Joe Romm (from ThinkProgress) has just released his book Language Intelligence: Lessons on Persuasion From Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Lady Gaga. As you can tell from the subtitle, it’s more or less a pop take on rhetoric, partly a “what to look for” and partly a “how to” manual… Romm delves into politics (naturally), but also into areas like scientific discourse and popular culture. I’ve glanced at some blog posts about the book, and from what I can glean, it delves heavily into matters relating to style (lots of references to “the figures of speech”) and oratorical performance. Maybe worth a read?

The Age of Persuasion

Here’s the route of today’s discovery: reading about Philosophy Talk‘s recent award at the New York Festivals International Radio Competition => peruse former winners => see that last year’s winner is a piece on how advertising created the “Happy Housewife” image => look into who made it => discover “The Age of Persuasion,” a Canadian news program that “explores the countless ways marketers permeate your life, from media, art, and language, to politics, religion, and fashion.”

A quick survey of past episodes reveals a treasure trove for those interested in the persuasive tactics of marketers, mad and otherwise.  The archive dates back to 2008 and lists so many provocative titles (such as “Marketing the Invisible,” “Sun Tzu and the Art of Persuasion,” and “Man Women: The Great Women of Advertising“) that I’m overwhelmed and not sure where to start.  A lovely predicament.

Head over to The Age of Persuasion and check it out for yourself!

enculturation: McLuhan at 100

If you haven’t already, I encourage to check out enculturation‘s latest issue: Marshall McLuhan @ 100: Picking Through the Rag and Bone Shop of a Career, launched on the final day of centenary celebrations, 21 years to the day of McLuhan’s death.  Editors David Beard and Kevin Brooks have pulled together quite a stunning issue.

McLuhan quote

image by stefan.erschwendner, flickr

Sitting will F*%$ You Up

Since we talked about moving our bodies last week, it seems only pertinent to bring up this poster that everyone’s been talking about in the blogosphere:

The creators of this poster seem to have struck an interesting balance between pathos and logos. They provide plenty of statistics with the scary goblin-like images to scare us into standing up. Plus, even though there are scary-Halloween images, the people themselves are hardly ever villainized. The objects themselves (chairs, tvs, etc) have shadows that are out to get us, but the people themselves tend to be bright cutouts. The obese cutouts, however, are represented in black much like the evil shadows. So, we’re clearly supposed to favor one over the other–feel aligned toward one of the other. It certainly does grab your attention, for sure.

Honestly, though, I will always favor the ads that offer a solution over the ones simply pointing out the problem. I mean, don’t most of us know we should be more active? Well, may I suggest more GirlTalk? I think that counts. 😉

Simplifying. Reducing. Healthifying.

More evidence from the food front that macro-shifts in consumer choices/awareness are persuading companies to reconsider their products–and the future of food:

This summary comes from a recent Chicago Tribune article outlining the manifold effects the food movement has had on behemoth corporations.  Major players like Wal-Mart (largest food purchaser in the country), Kraft, and PepsiCo are scrambling to figure out how to twist fundamentally unhealthy products into “healthier options.”

To be more accurate, though, I should say that this is an effort to further twist fundamentally unhealthy products into something they can’t be.  We’ve been seeing great changes over the past several years: “Made with Whole Grain” now adorns cereal boxes from the top shelves (“adult” cereals) to the bottom (where the kiddies look); RbGH-milk is in significant decline; and “low-sodium” banners are proliferating across labels.  While the food is being tweaked, the accompanying advertisements are being amplified to a much greater extent.  “Change it a little and promote the hell out of it” has long been an approach of the food industry.  But of course, “just because a processed food is a little bit less bad than it used to be,” as the always-enjoyable Marion Nestle words it,  [it] doesn’t necessarily make it a good choice.”

Hobbyist rhetoricians might take pleasure in tracking a few threads in the food arena:

1) The obvious: changes in a food labeling.  Make it a game with your family and friends!  Award points based on a ratio between how brazenly stupid a phrase/picture is and its potential persuasiveness.  So for instance, “Picked Fresh!” would receive 20pts, while “Naturally Cut” could get up to 40pts, depending on the product.  When you find produce being declared “Cholesterol Free” then you’ve hit the jackpot!  Give yourself 100pts!  If you spot “Locally Known” then you’ve won the game: 1,000pts. (Points may be redeemed for candy-bars and/or plastic trinkets.)

500 points!

2) The less obvious: changes in food placement.  The layout of a supermarket is rhetorically designed, with staples such as dairy, bread, and meat often occupying the back corners.  Walk the periphery of a store and you’ll most likely find all the good stuff you need.  Walk through any of the numerous aisles in between and you’ll be confronted with staggering variations of corn and soy.  Chips and soda are located in the same aisle: while supermarkets very rarely make a profit off of soda, the percentage markup on chips easily makes up for it.  They know the salty goes with the sweet.

Though supermarket(er)s have known the appeal of placement for some time, the technics of it are going through a period of increased research scrutiny, with psychologists getting in on the game.  Thankfully, proponents and marketers of healthy foods are discovering that savvy rhetorical strategies are just as applicable to their product as those that push junk.  NPR recently reported that grocery stores are shining a new light on healthy foods–quite literally:

NPR: "Nudging Grocery Shoppers Toward Healthy Food"

Take product placement and soft, focused lighting, for example. Items that are highlighted in this way — even if they aren’t on sale — sell about 30 percent more, Wansink [author of Mindless Eating] says. They just look more appealing than products under harsh, overhead fluorescent lights.

One area where the rhetoric of food placement is getting a lot of attention is in the cafeteria.  I highly recommend you check out this interactive piece published by the New York Times that outlines how the lunch line is being redesigned to highlight healthier foods.  In one research report, the simple act of putting fruit in an attractive fruit bowl rather than the usual stainless steel bowl more than doubled the amount of fruit sales.  Putting the chocolate milk behind the regular milk (instead of beside) greatly reduced its selection.

Keep your eye out for how stores are shifting food placement to affect choice, regardless of whether it’s for the good or bad.

3) Time traveling through analogy: Big Food as Big Tabacco.  I’m beginning to see a lot more parallels being made between where Big Food is at right now with where Big Tabacco was at in the late ’80s and early ’90s, in the ramp up to the Master Settlement Agreement.  Tabacco companies got sued in an effort to recoup health care costs dumped on states.  We could see the exact same discussion about food taking place over the next few years, as more evidence arises that links our cheap food with high health care costs.  And just as Tabacco sought frantically for many years to discredit information that linked it to cancer, the Producers of Processed will work to undermine similar science that does little else than simply confirm common sense.  In the meantime, we can enjoy a variety of mind-spinning industrial concoctions that purport to have our best interests in mind; “lite-sugar” products are the equivalent of ultra-lite cigarettes.

I’ll be interested to hear from any rhetoricians out there where they’re seeing these elements and how they’re being leveraged.  Send word to Harlot in a savvy article and we’ll work to get it published, yo.


When he buys an item of food, consumes it, or serves it, modern man does not manipulate a simple object in a purely transitive fashion; this item of food sums up and transmits a situation; it constitutes an information; it signifies.

~ Roland Barthes


data, aesthetics, and rhetoric

I ran across this very cool visualization of debt statistics (from David McCandless’s Information is Beautiful collection) yesterday:

Cool, right? It’s a smart way to present the info, well-executed, even charming for Gen Xers. It’s the Tetris narrative (enhanced by the accelerating tune) that seems ripe for rhetorical effect, I think. But when I showed it to my (logical) partner, he immediately called out the problem: It has no argument. The numbers, while striking in contrast, have unclear relationships and have been selected, or at least arranged, without seeming to have a point… which may not have been the goal of the creator, obviously.

But imagine the kinds of sweet rhetorical work could be done with such creative approaches to representing sharing data…