The Psychological Rhetoric of Visual Arguments

January 25, 2008

I was particularly interested in Blair’s chapter (2) regarding the persuasive and argumentative nature of visuals. Even though I am generally against either/or statements (as opposed to both/and), I thought it pertinent of him to point out that not all pathetic images are arguments, despite the fact that viewers may be persuaded into action/non-action because of the image’s appeal to the emotions. In this way, Chapter 2 was a neat extension of Chapter 1, in which Hill expounded upon why and how images work to persuade viewers.

In terms of engaging with Chapter 2 to really understand what Blair was getting at, I decided to make our point of stasis his definition of an argument: “To be an argument, what is communicated by one party to another or others, whatever the medium of communication might be, must constitute some factor that can be considered a reason for accepting or believing some proposition, for taking some other attitude or performing some action. A test of whether such a factor is present is whether it would be possible to construct from what is communicated visually a verbal argument that is consistent with the visual presentation” (49).

After this explanation, Blair provides the example of the 1964 “Daisy Ad” in support of Lyndon Johnson. To juxtapose the argument in the Daisy Ad (i.e. vote for Johnson because not doing so might cost our nation the lives of innocent children) with non-argumentative but undoubtedly persuasive ads, Blair offers a Pepsi commercial that features small boys and puppies (two melt-your-heart-American-lovethings). What makes the Pepsi ad different from Johnson’s ad is that there is no reason provided in the Pepsi commercial for viewers to act; no permissible syllogism can be constructed from the images. The juxtaposition, Blair offers, is what distinguishes argument from (mere) psychological association–the latter is the kind of persuasion that works from the emotional influence of the symbols on the viewer alone, apart from the presence of reason(s).

Further, Blair points out that because argumentative images in-and-of-themselves often do not encompass both sides of an issue (dissoi-logoi), they should be categorized as rhetorical rather than dialectical. “When argument is visual,” Blair states, “it is, above all, visual rhetoric” (59). Importantly, Blair does concede that a visual alone is often not as argumentative or persuasive/influential without the incorporation of at least some verbal or textual material (c.f. the Daisy Ad). Such an assertion is key because in order for Blair to use the “traditional” definition of argument, he must not stray too far from its denotative history which is in text and the orality.

While I was reading about the Daisy Ad, I was reminded of an ad from just about a year ago that made some waves even before the current presidential race was a big story. Here’s the video, which some of you may remember:

I think Blair would say this ad is consistent with the tenants of argument as defined above. Certainly, there are enthymemic reasons provided for voting for Obama (If you vote for Hillary, she will turn the nation into a 1984 Orwellian state; Obama stands for the power of the individual [as represented in the only person in *color* {another level of meaning here} in the ad] to make change in an otherwise “broken” society, etc.).

Now, here’s an Obama ad from December of 2007.

Is there a real argument here? Or are we being influenced by the stirring music in the background, the abstract ideals hinted at but not explained, the huge crowd cheering as he speaks? I have to admit, I got goosebumps when I watch this video and Obama isn’t even necessarily my candidate of choice.

Are campaign ads like these truly rhetorical visual arguments as Blair defines the terms? Or are they cases of psychological influence in which no reasoning occurs? For me, it’s actually hard to tell. Furthermore, in the case of the 1st Obama ad, does it make a heuristic difference if I told you that the ad was actually originally an Apple commercial unveiling the Mac that aired during the 1984 Super Bowl and that the only thing the creator changed was the face on the jumbo screen to be Hillary’s?

I watched lots of campaign ads before writing this post, and, at least for me, it’s often difficult to say definitively “ah yes, THIS is visual rhetoric because I can construct the argument that’s being made.” More often, I leave with mixed feelings of pathos and logos intermingling to create a tension that I don’t think Blair covers with the extreme examples he offers to support his points.


One Response to “The Psychological Rhetoric of Visual Arguments”

  1. what is the name of blair’s book? i am currently writing a paper on the visual rhetoric of the daisy spot and might find that book extremely helpful.

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