Learning Objectives Self-Check
Read through the following statements/questions. You should be able to answer all of these after reading through the content on this page. I suggest writing or typing out your answers, but if nothing else, say them out loud to yourself.
- Define "pathos."
- List 2-3 ways that pathos can be established with an audience.
- List 2-3 ways that pathos can be compromised with an audience.
- What is "fake pathos" and how can it compromise your argument?
Please watch the commercials below before continuing.
McDonald's Baby Commercial (1:04 minutes)
Play Station Vue "Menace" Commercial 2016 (1 minute)
Children See. Children Do. (1:31 minute)
What was your reaction to each of these videos? Was your reaction to each similar in any way? Different? If you have not already, take a moment to think about how each commercial tried to persuade you through its emotional content.
To Watch Now
Please click on the link below for an explanation of pathos.
- Video Explanation of pathos from Purdue University Online Writing Lab
As noted in the video, pathos can be defined as "the emotional quality of the speech or text that makes it persuasive to the audience." Though most often associated with sympathy, sadness or similar "sad" emotions, pathos can utilize the full range of human emotion, including anger, joy (e.g., through laughter or inspiration), frustration, suspicion, curiosity, scorn, repulsion, jealousy, desire, compassion, hope, love, and more.
Please take a few minutes and think about all the ways that the commercials at the top of the page attempt to elicit an emotional response. Do these attempts make the commercials more persuasive? Why or why not?
The McDonald's commercial uses one of advertising's favorite pathos tool - the baby. Babies tend to elicit all kinds of positive emotions - e.g., happiness, sympathy, love, and compassion. When in doubt, find a way to put a baby (or puppy) into your advertisement! (No, seriously. Next time you see some advertisement, see how often a baby or puppy appears.) The commercial also uses humor and (for parents, anyway) empathy. Even the music evokes pathos. Note that the baby is essential to the plot of the commercial, but I submit that (s)he has absolutely nothing to say about whether or not I should eat at McDonald's. Pathos does not need to be logically consistent with the rest of the work. It is meant to play on the audience's emotion(s). This is one thing that distinguishes the first ad from the second.
The second ad uses kind of an odd mixture of suspense, dread, and humor to get its point across. The humorous aspect in and of itself has little connection to the product. (It should be noted that there is some humor in the first commercial as well, e.g., the girl hurriedly sliding over the counter in the middle of it.) However, the negative emotion created by the man's reaction to the cable bill and the woman's to the telemarketer could be said to have a direct connection to real-life experience of issues related to cable TV. Of course, this is all seriously overdramatized (at least for me, but I suppose everyone reacts to their bills in their own way), but milder versions of the emotions expressed are not far-fetched.
The third ad uses pathos (sympathy, sadness, anger, etc.) to get its point across, but the pathos is very much consistent with the message of the video. Speaking for myself, the imagery used in the third video makes it much more impactful than an article providing statistics about how parents' behavior can negatively impact children. In other words, the pathos served its purpose.
I consider the pathos in the McDonald's ad to be "fake pathos," which was described in the video from Purdue. From my perspective, the McDonald's ad is a clear attempt at emotional manipulation (though I don't think they want the viewer to think that), and thus compromises the ethos of the company because it calls into question their credibility. Call me a cynic, but I don't think that McDonalds' goal in making the ad was to spread joy and laughter. As the folks from Purdue mentioned, that is the risk you run if your pathos is not genuine. The Sony commercial is overdramatic, but it's so "over the top" that it's quite clear that it is done in jest and (again, speaking for myself) does not compromise ethos. Regardless of how genuine or fake the pathos is, it is still used to create an emotional response. To a large extent, the impact on ethos is subjective.
Pathos in Writing
Pathos is the most commonly used rhetorical strategy in advertising (both print and video) because it is often relatively easy to do with imagery. See below for an interesting example from the World War II era.
Pathos can also be conveyed in writing. As noted in the video, this often boils down to word choice, in particular, adjective choice. In fact, word choice often provides the reader with insight into the motivations of a writer.
To Read Now
The two articles below are about the same issue - the revised "Clean Power Plan" announced by the Obama Administration in August of 2015, which has since been revoked by the Trump Administration. This plan was designed to reduce CO2 emissions from power plants in an effort to "take real action on climate change" by requiring states to meet emissions standards set by the federal government. This would impact some states more than others - states who get a high percentage of their electricity from coal would be particularly impacted. As you can well imagine, this is not without controversy. When reading the articles below, pay special attention to word choices that can elicit emotion, especially when other, more neutral words could have been used. Note that both are from reputable websites, but that both are opinion pieces.
- Climate-Change Putsch," Wall Street Journal (the article is unattributed, but it appears it was written by the Editorial Page Editor Paul Gigot). This was accessed via Kentucky Industrial Utility Customers. Here is a .pdf in case you cannot access it.
- "Obama Administration Issues 'Strong and Smart' Final Clean Power Plan - Biggest U.S. Carbon Emission Reduction Measure in History," by Ken Kimmell, President of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
To Read Now
Here is another short article about the Clean Power Plan. See if you can pick up on any use of pathos from the author, or not.
- "Could Obama's Clean Power Plan Lower Your Electric Bill?," by Daniel White, Time Magazine.
Was pathos used by the author? The only instances of pathos are used to describe what other people are saying - e.g., "slashing jobs," "driving up prices" - the author himself writes dispassionately about the topic. This demonstrates good reporting, using more ethos and logos (see next section) to persuade the audience.
Add and/or change some words from the Time Magazine article to evoke more pathos in the following paragraph. Have some fun with it!:
"In a report released last week, public policy professor Marilyn Brown found that boosting renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power would reduce energy costs in the long run as they become more readily available. Even if energy costs did go up in the short run, she argued that would cause consumers to invest more in things like energy-efficient appliances, which would again lead to lower electricity bills over time."
Please note that I am not advocating one opinion over the other on this topic, nor am I saying that either of the authors are telling untruths. I am merely pointing out word choices that convey pathos. Perceptive readers will pick up on such word choices, which may compromise ethos. Pathos can be an effective persuasive technique, but generally only if the reader agrees with the author's arguments. As critical thinkers, you should be skeptical of anyone that uses pathos in such a way that appears to try and persuade you to believe one thing or another, whether or not you agree with the overall point.
Finally, back to the statements at the beginning of this lesson. Which one is most pathos-filled?
- I think solar panels are a wonderful technology, don't you?
- I have been in the energy business for almost 40 years, including 30 in the oil and gas industry. But like you, I'm a cost-conscious homeowner with bills to pay. I've never seen a technology as potentially game-changing as solar panels. Those things are going to change the world, and better yet they will save you money.
- Did you know that Tesla Energy will install and maintain solar panels on your roof at no extra cost? You don't have to lift a finger, and you will end up paying less for electricity than you do now. You can save money and get inexpensive, clean electricity. And all of it is guaranteed by contract!I had them install panels on my house, and couldn't be happier. They'll do the same for you.
- You know, every time I see that old coal-fired power plant I think of all of the innocent children living nearby that are probably having asthma attacks because of the pollution. That's why I added solar panels to my roof.
Of course, the last one is the correct choice. The use of children's suffering and in particular the use of the word "innocent" are both meant to elicit pity, and ultimately sympathy. Even if it is true, the statement is unnecessarily emotive. I could have just kept to the facts and stated that said power plant has been shown to cause asthma problems for children. This is a strong reason to be concerned. It is still an example of pathos, but does not lay it on quite as thick.
Optional (But Strongly Suggested)
Now that you have completed the content, I suggest going through the Learning Objectives Self-Check list at the top of the page.