Back to Blog

The Rhetoric of Super Bowl Ads (and what that might mean for learning programs).

corporate training gamification instructional design Feb 09, 2022

Jonathan Peters, PhD - Chief Motivation Officer, Sententia

As I write these words, directly behind me are two shelves of books dedicated to copywriting and persuasion. I would guess that most of them pay homage to a book written almost 2400 years ago (which is sitting in another section over my right shoulder). But unlike most of those writers, I’ve actually read Aristotle’s Rhetoric (and therefore, don’t recommend it unless you are frustrated with Sophists). 

A quick summary of Rhetoric: Book 1 defines and discusses rhetoric (which means something different today), and Book 3 covers speaker style and delivery. But for all the writing and philosophizing that Aristotle did, it's Book 2 of Rhetoric that he is most known for because its key concepts are comprehensive and condensible. 

In Book 2, Aristotle proposes that to be effective, a speaker must employ logos, pathos, and ethos in equal measure. Logos, of course, is where we get the word 'logic.' Since Plato had logos pretty well covered, Aristotle spends most of his time discussing pathos and ethos, and this is where things become interesting and practical. 

But first, a pause to consider our learning programs. Aristotle would be critical of them because they rely too much on logos, and thus are dry, dull, and boring. They have a didactic structure that starts with Step 1, then Step 2, then Step 3, point after point, followed by a quiz. From Aristotle’s perspective, while such structure and rationale are needed, too much logic, and our learners will check out. 

He notes emotions (pathos) are what cause people to change their minds. Therefore, a speaker should not simply lay out “his” proposal (always a man for Aristotle), but should also engage listeners’ emotions in certain ways to elicit the response he (the speaker) wants. Aristotle goes on to define each emotion and their logical and material grounding (in exactly the boring manner he cautions against).

So in our learning programs, we don’t want to add just any emotion; we want to be strategic in which emotions we elicit and how. If learners get angry and/or end up in tears, it will be difficult for them to learn. On the other hand, if they are feeling joy, empathy, loyalty, wonder, curiosity, and so on, not only will they engage in the learning, they’ll remember it better. 

Which brings us to ethos. For the ancient Greeks, ethos refers to virtue, and it is true we listen to people we trust. But for Aristotle, ethos is a little more nuanced. The speaker must display the morals of “his” audience. According to Aristotle, when speaking with young people, the speaker must demonstrate the qualities of being easily satisfied and changeable (characteristics of young people). At the same time, the speaker must avoid the excesses of “his” audience. For instance, when speaking to old people, “he” must avoid displaying greed (the excess of pursuing profit). 

If you’ve been in conversation with me, you’ve heard about “Self Hugging.” Aristotle's ethos is an ancient aspect of that discussion. If we want to persuade our learners, we need to appeal to the positive attributes of their Motivational Profile. From Aristotle’s perspective, if our audience has a high desire for Power, we need to focus that desire on supportive leadership, not on dominating others. 

But you were probably told that ethos was about credibility and authority. Well, no, at least from an Aristotelian perspective. It is true that Aristotle expanded ethos by noting three categories: 

    1. Phronesis: Practical wisdom and skills
    2. Arete: Virtue
    3. Eunoia: Goodwill for the audience. 

So, the fact that I have a PhD and have written many books is not as persuasive as the practical skills and wisdom I would love to share with you so that you can have strategies and tools to create enjoyable learning experiences. 

Instead of exerting your authority over your learners, demonstrate that you have practical wisdom and skills to share with, and that you care about them. Oh, and be virtuous. 

So what does all this have to do with Super Bowl ads? Let’s have fun learning about logos, pathos, and ethos while giving a purpose to watching Super Bowl ads. (If you’re reading this after the Big Game, watch the ads on YouTube). 

Aristotle said that to be persuasive, logos, pathos, and ethos need to be in balance. As we watch the ads, let’s identify how (and if) an ad uses them, and if so, are they used in equal measure? 

For instance, is this celebrity spokesperson virtuous, credible, and care about our well-being? What emotions and at what intensity are being elicited in the ad (why so many dogs and one cat in the commercials)? And does this ad make sense logically (people from another dimension walking out of refrigerators)? 

Let’s have some fun in the comments section! Share examples of logos, ethos, and pathos (or lack of them) you saw.

Don't miss a beat!

New moves, motivation, and classes delivered to your inbox. 

We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.