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Ethos, logos, and pathos are powerful storytelling tools you can use when making a compelling case in advertising and commercials or campaign videos for social media.
Ethos, logos, and pathos also form what is known as ‘the rhetorical triangle’ or ‘the persuasion triangle.’:
In other words, you’re trying to persuade people to do something, e.g., buying your product, agree with a certain point-of-view, or do something – a call-to-action – like voting.
Ethos, logos, and pathos are known as rhetorical appeals and are the brainchild of Greek philosopher Aristotle. If you aren’t already familiar with the meaning of these terms, here’s a short definition:
Aristotle’s rhetorical appeals ethos, logos, and pathos are tools you can use to persuade an audience and turn them to your side. Ethos represents the speaker’s credibility and authority, logos appeals to the listener’s logic and reasoning, and pathos appeals to the audience’s emotions and passions.
As information, ethos is the speaker, logos is the message, and pathos is the receiver’s emotional response.
Let’s take a look at how you can use ethos, logos, and pathos in your commercials and campaign videos.
How to use ethos in commercials and campaigns
Ethos means that a character is speaking from a point of credibility and authority.
Credibility can be established in many ways but is often established through the speaker’s profession, experience, or knowledge.
Do you want to shoot a product video for a new pair of running shoes? Try to team up with a known professional athlete, e.g., a marathon runner who is also an Olympic medalist.
An Olympic marathon runner has a lot of experience and knowledge about running, so if she chose the shoes, it gives the impression that the shoes are perfect for the average runner.
But if you were to put the Olympic marathon runner in a commercial for toothpaste as some expert, then the appeal wouldn’t be credible, and you would fail in persuading the audience to buy your product. – Unless the marathon runner just happened to be a dentist as well, of course.
Example 1: Colgate commercial
The Colgate commercial above makes strong ethos appeals as credibility is sought to be established in several different ways:
First, we get the “real consumer testimonials accurately portrayed by actors.” – We all have teeth (or most of us do), so we can all relate to these “Jane Does” not wanting to have gum disease.
Notice also that the women are shot in a living room setting with warm, comforting colors as if it was in their own home to add to the credibility that these are “real people.”
Second, we get the “dentist” who presents “real dentist testimonials.” What he says, i.e., the “data” from the dentist testimonials, are logos appeals. But because the actor assumes a dentist’s role and apparently recites real dentists’ testimonials, we get the sense that what he says comes from a credible source.
Notice also, that to help his credibility along the way and to establish authoritativeness, the actor is wearing a lab coat, with a strategically well-placed pencil, and he’s filmed in a cold (white, blue, and metal) clinical setting with a dentist chair blurred in the background.
Example 2: Taylor Swift: Stay Extraordinary (Diet Coke Ad)
In some cases, the main profession of a character doesn’t have to be directly related to the subject of your campaign or product in your ad.
We often see this when a product is tied to an influencer star with no apparent connection whatsoever, like in the commercial with Taylor Swift from Coca-Cola above.
The credibility here is established through Swift’s fame, stardom, and overall good moral image. She lives an extraordinary life, and she’s beautiful and has a slender figure.
Of course, the message here is that if you also drink Diet Coke, you too can get a taste of the extraordinary life of Taylor Swift. You might even get or keep a slender figure too.
The danger here is, that because Taylor Swift is such a big star, she can seem unrelatable.
The commercial solves this by establishing a connection between Swift and the average Joe (that’s you!) when you see a girl playing her song on a guitar or a guy singing her song in his car.
Another danger in using this method is if the star of your commercial suddenly fades. If your protagonist suddenly decided to take drugs and cause a scandal, if she got caught while driving under the influence, then the new negative image could reflect badly back upon your campaign.
This is not an uncommon scenario, so choose your celebrity carefully.
Example 3: Kristin Davis announced as UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador
It is usually a good idea to establish some connection between the character and the subject for it to seem credible.
In the campaign video above from the UN Refugee Agency, we see actress Kristin Davis, who’s best known for her role as Charlotte York in the tv-series Sex and the City.
We get to see her on her travels to the African continent where she talks to and helps refugees as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR. – A big contrast to the high society life presented in Sex and the City.
Of course, the video is also strong on Pathos, but it also makes a strong appeal to ethos due to Kristin Davis’s stardom and likability.
The video is from 2017, and we get informed that Kristin Davis has been traveling with UNHCR since 2014, which makes her role as an ambassador even more credible.
The video makes a strong ethos appeal to fans of Sex and the City (and Kristin Davis) to support UNHCR, which I can only recommend doing.
UNHCR often use this strategy of employing celebrity ambassadors, and they state this explicitly under an interview with Angelina Jolie:
“UNHCR benefits from the high profile support of its Goodwill Ambassadors and celebrity friends. This includes messages and short films in support of key campaigns, events and emergency appeals, helping give powerful voice to the refugee cause.”
Ethos isn’t necessarily the same as ethical
It’s important to stress, that ethos doesn’t automatically imply, that the speaker is moral or good.
Even though ethos forms the root of ethikos, which means “morality”, or being a “moral character”, ethos itself has more to do with the credibility and authority of the character that speaks.
For example, an evil character in a movie can speak with credibility and authority because we’ve been presented with evidence that suggests that he is a bad-ass. Just think about Darth Vader from Star Wars, who can be very persuasive.
Okay, granted, maybe that’s a bad example because if his subjects don’t believe him, he’ll strangle them with the Force. But you get the point.
That doesn’t mean that the speaker can’t be moral or good either, which is probably a better point of departure for your commercial than threatening to force strangle someone if they don’t buy your product or service. I could be wrong, though.
How to use Logos in commercials and campaigns
Logos is the appeal to logic or reason. We often see logical appeals in commercials, advertisements, and campaigns as the presentation of data or facts.
In the Colgate commercial above, we hear statements like “clinically proven,” “12 hours”, and “reduces plaque up to 98%”, which is accompanied by some graphics to make it more believable.
Using graphics and numbers on the screen is a common way of stressing the point, and we often see logos represented by numbers, statistics, charts, and graphs.
Like using burned-in open captions for SoMe-videos, by using graphics, you make sure that the audience gets the data even though they might have muted the tv during commercials or turned down the volume on their phone while commuting on the subway, train, or bus.
A logical appeal doesn’t have to be logical
A logical appeal doesn’t have to be logical. It’s enough that the company – or the person representing the company – attempt to use logos to persuade the audience.
In fact, there are a lot of logical fallacies to avoid, e.g. generalizations and ad hominem.
If we stay in the world of toothpaste advertisement, you quickly discover some discrepancies.
Fx, GSK, which makes Sensodyne, claims that 9 out of 10 dentists recommend using Sensodyne.
But Oral-B claims that “Oral-B toothpastes are some of the most commonly recommended by dental professionals”.
And Colgate-Palmolive was famously warned by the Advertising Standards Authority (“ASA”) not repeat the claim that “More than 80% Of Dentists recommend Colgate”.
So what’s going on here?
Toothpaste advertising makes for a good case study of the presentation of data as facts when the truth is that it is an interpretation of data from limited studies (often done by the companies themselves) instead of independent studies metastudies.
And when companies get called out for misleading numbers presented as facts in advertising and poor survey practices, it reflects back upon the credibility you tried to establish in your advertising campaign, and in the end on the company itself.
Example 1: Volvo SIPS commercial
The Volvo SIPS commercial above starts strong with an appeal to logic with the statement, “One in four accidents are like this one.” Then we see the actor slowly and calmly turn his head towards the oncoming car that smashes into the side of the Volvo a second later.
Still calm and collected, the actor then goes on to explain about “Volvo’s technologically advanced Side Impact Protection System [SIPS]” while broken glass is still flying around and the metal of the car is bent out of shape.
In contrast, if the commercial had used a pathos appeal, they could have played on fear instead.
Fx they could have shown a family driving the car down an ordinary road and get hit by another car. And then the instant terror of the accident being transformed into a warm feeling of joy and relief as they realize that everyone is okay due to the SIPS-system.
The closing statement “Volvo – a car you can believe in” also speaks to the reasoning in the audience, i.e., here is a car you can trust to protect you and your kids.
Example 2: Volunteers of America
In this campaign video from Volunteers of America, you get presented with a lot of stats about the sad homeless situation in the US: “Over 670,000 Americans are homeless”, “48 million people go hungry each night”, and “46.2 million Americans live in poverty”.
The statements are mixed in with haunting images of homeless and poor people, and the combination acts as a strong pathos appeal.
Volunteers of America also present some hope when they write, “We help over 2.5 million a year […] and counting”. The call-to-action is indirect, as this number is much too low compared to the millions of poor people who need help, implying, “we need your help too.”
How to use pathos in commercials and campaigns
Pathos appeals to emotions, i.e. when you use a pathos appeal, you try to evoke an emotional response in your audience.
For the sake of clarity, let’s break down human emotions into these six:
You can appeal to each of these basic emotions in many different ways in your videos. And often a combination of two – like fear and surprise – is more effective.
In the table below, I’ve shown some ideas and examples:
losing your job
losing your home
|what happens to your family if you die?|
the offer ends soon
buy a Volvo and be safe
get a smoke alarm
|Anger towards…||Inequality of money/power |
Disregard for Human Rights
Destruction of our
|support Volunteers of America|
|Happiness caused by…||Inclusion|
Seeking a common ground
Appeal to desires
|I’m gonna let you in on a little secret!|
Do you also remember those long summer nights?
This steaming frozen pizza tastes like ItalyWhat a sexy lady, I better buy that car she’s advertising
For the modern guy…
Jokes, funny characters
|Sadness caused by…||Inequality of money/power|
The behavior of a certain group
Animals treated poorly
|Poverty. Let’s end it together!|
The youth does nothing but look at their phone all-day!
Be a hero for animals!
|Surprise caused by..||Flipping viewers expections upside-down|
Combine Surprise with fear
|“You’re not you, when you’re hungry.” – Snickers|
Carrie remake viral video
|Disgust caused by…||Cigarettes|
|Show the disgusting sides of smoking like lungs with cancer|
Gobs of fat clogging the arteries
Dirty floor or toilet – clean your house
Blackened and decaying teeth
Viewers’ attention span is very short, so if you can cause an emotional tricker in a few seconds, the ad will be much more successful.
Let’s take a look at some real-world examples of pathos being using as the appeal in commercials and campaigns.
Example 1 (fear): 13 Quit Smoking Campaign from Australia
This campaign video aims to get people to quit smoking. It makes a strong pathetic appeal using fear (plus sadness and loneliness) on several levels.
First, we feel with the little boy, who got away from his mom in a busy train station. He’s alone and terrified, and we can all recall a time from our childhood when we felt the same too.
And if we’ve become parents ourselves, we know the fear of losing our kid – even for a brief moment.
And then comes the twist that hits us like a hammer: “If this is how your child feels after losing you for a minute, just imagine if they lost you for life!”
And then a cut to a link to the place where you can get help to quit smoking. Brilliant and effective!
Example 2 (anger): Presidential ad: “Windsurfing” George W. Bush vs. John Kerry
In this run-for-office campaign from 2004, where George W. Bush squared off against John Kerry, we see John Kerry windsurfing off the coast of Nantucket and being carried whatever way the (political) wind blows.
We then hear Bush calling out Kerry on some major political issues where Kerry had said one thing and done another.
The campaign discredits Kerry as unreliable and not worthy of leading the country, which feeds into the public distrust and anger towards politicians in general and the anger from republican voters towards democrats.
Example 3 (happiness): Dr Oetker Ristorante Mozzarella Pizza Commercial 2019
This commercial from Dr Oetker frozen pizza is a good example of appealing to our desires.
It targets men, who traditionally spend less time cooking dinner in the kitchen, than women.
It shows how easy it is – even for a man – to make an appetizing pizza “wherever you are,” and apparently, you also get the girl for doing so. Plus an Italian accent. It’s a win-win situation for all parties involved!
Example 4 (sadness): TrueMove H: Giving
This brilliant advertisement from TrueMove H (a mobile telecommunication operator in Thailand) uses sadness combined with surprise and feel-good happiness to make a strong pathetical appeal.
It’s a beautiful pay-it-forward kind of story which starts of really sad with a small boy getting caught stealing three packs of painkillers for his mother because they can’t afford to pay for it themselves.
We see how the boy bends his neck in shame, and it’s a saddening sight to behold.
A man intervenes and pays for the medicine and gives the child some food from his street food restaurant.
30 years later, we see the street food restaurant owner still helping those in need as he hands over food to a younger man. Thus we are led to believe that this might be the same kid still struggling to get by 30 years later.
Suddenly, the restaurant owner drops to the ground as he suffers from a stroke and is taken to the hospital. And we see his daughter in despair, as she doesn’t know how to pay the medical bills. She put up the restaurant or house for sale.
Again, a sad and hopeless situation.
Then we cut to the hospital where the daughter sleeping at the side of her father’s hospital bed. She is clearly exhausted from all the worrying and despair.
As she wakes up, she finds a letter on the bed stating, “All expenses paid 30 years ago […] with three packs of painkillers and a pack of veggie soup”.
It turns out that the doctor who treated her father was the same kid who she and her father had helped 30 years ago.
This is brilliant storytelling, and now I’m getting all misty-eyed again.
Ahem… moving on….
Example 5 (surprise): Telekinetic Coffee Shop Surprise (Carrie 2013 marketing campaign)
In this marketing campaign for the movie Carrie 2013, which went viral, we get a pathetical appeal using fear, surprise, and humor.
But instead of scaring us as viewers, we are taken behind-the-scenes of the preparations for the scene, like is the case for tv-shows featuring pranks.
In turn, we as spectators are humored by the fear expressed by the surprised customers, a New York City coffee shop.
I’m not much of a horror fan, and I would probably never have noticed that a new version of the Stephen King classic Carried had been filmed. In fact, I’ve never seen the trailer or tv-spots. But I know about it from this marketing stunt.
Example 6 (disgust): Lamisil – It’s Alive (2003)
In this commercial from Lamisil, we see the animated creepy figure “Digger the Dermatophyte” – dermatophyte being a type of fungus that causes nail infection.
The character borders on funny – that is, until it lifts a toenail and squeezes in-between the nail and the toe.
We then see it jumping around beneath the nail and even having a party with the friends.
You can almost feel your toenails getting bent backward and the feeling of the fungus dancing underneath your nails. And it’s a disgusting feeling.
The solution to stop the fungus party? Buy Lamisil of course!
I hope this has given you some ideas on using rhetorical appeals in your next commercial or campaign video.
As with all marketing, you need to know your audience. A young audience might find a campaign funny and gritty, whereas an older audience might find it disgusting.
And often, you’ll need to use all three appeals in some form or another to make your persuasion effective.
So you need to tailor your video campaign to your audience. But with the skillful use of rhetorical appeals, you can make a strong, compelling case for whatever product, service, or political campaign you’re seeking to promote.
About the author:
Jan Sørup is a videographer and photographer from Denmark. He’s the owner of filmdaft.com and of the Danish company Apertura, which produces video content for big companies in Denmark and Scandinavia. Jan has a background in music, has drawn webcomics, and is a former lecturer at the University of Copenhagen.