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2.6: Rhetorical Analysis

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    Rhetorical Analysis

    We have heard that “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” but, in fact, we do it all the time. Daily we find ourselves in situations where we are forced to make snap judgments. Each day we meet different people, encounter unfamiliar situations, and see media that asks us to do, think, buy, and act in all sorts of ways.

    In fact, our saturation in media and its images is one of the reasons why learning to do rhetorical analysis is so important. The more we know about how to analyze situations and draw informed conclusions, the better we can become about making savvy judgments about the people, situations, and media we encounter.

    Rhetorical Analysis is a high-order critical thinking skill. It takes practice to become effective at formal and intentional analysis of text and media. An analysis breaks a subject apart to study it closely, and from this inspection, ideas for writing emerge. When writing assignments call on you to analyze, they require you to identify the parts of the subject (parts of an ad, parts of a short story, parts of Hamlet’s character), and then show how these parts fit or don’t fit together to create some larger effect or meaning. Your interpretation of how these parts fit together constitutes your claim or thesis, and the task of your essay is then to present an argument defending your interpretation as a valid or plausible one to make. Our biggest bit of advice about analysis is to don't try to do it all in your head. Analysis works best when you put all the cards on the table, so to

    speak. Identify and isolate the parts of your analysis, and record important features and characteristics of each one. As patterns emerge, you sort and connect these parts in meaningful ways.. The critical reading skills you are developing–like differentiating fact from opinion and making inferences–will help you become a more savvy consumer and a more discerning citizen.

    Figure: Image from Pixabay

    Facts versus Opinions


    Facts are statements that can be definitely proven using objective data. The statement that is a fact is absolutely valid. In other words, the statement can be pronounced as true or false. For example, 2 + 2 = 4. This expression identifies a true statement, or a fact, because it can be proved with objective data.


    Opinions are personal views, or judgments. An opinion is what an individual believes about a particular subject. However, an opinion in argumentation must have legitimate backing; adequate evidence and credibility should support the opinion. Consider the credibility of expert opinions. Experts in a given field have the knowledge and credentials to make their opinion meaningful to a larger audience; this credibility is sometimes called “ethos” and is one way that we make our arguments persuasive. For example, you seek the opinion of your dentist when it comes to the health of your gums, and you seek the opinion of your mechanic when it comes to the maintenance of your car. Both have knowledge and credentials in those respective fields, which is why their opinions matter to you. But the authority of your dentist may be greatly diminished should they offer an opinion about your car, and vice versa. In writing, you want to strike a balance between credible facts and authoritative opinions. Relying on one or the other will likely lose more of your audience than it gains.

    Media and Rhetoric

    Media is one of the most important places where this kind of analysis needs to happen. Rhetoric—the way we use language and images to persuade—is what makes media work. Think of all the media you see and hear every day: Twitter, television shows, web pages, billboards, text messages, podcasts, and more. Media is constantly asking you to buy something, act in some way, believe something to be true, or interact with others in a specific manner. Understanding rhetorical messages is essential to help us become informed consumers, but it also helps evaluate the ethics of messages, how they affect us personally, and how they affect society.

    Take, for example, a commercial for men’s deodorant that tells you that you’ll be irresistible to women if you use their product. This campaign doesn’t just ask you to buy the product, though. It also asks you to trust the company’s credibility, or ethos, and to believe the messages they send about how men and women interact, about sexuality, and about what constitutes a healthy body. You have to decide whether or not you will choose to buy the product and how you will choose to respond to the messages that the commercial sends.

    Because media rhetoric surrounds us, it is important to understand how rhetoric works. If we refuse to stop and think about how and why it persuades us, we can become mindless consumers who buy into arguments about what makes us value ourselves and what makes us happy.

    Rhetoric as Social Influence

    Our worlds are full of these kinds of social influences. As we interact with other people and with media, we are continually creating and interpreting rhetoric. In the same way that you decide how to process, analyze or ignore these messages, you create them. You probably think about what your clothing will communicate as you go to a job interview or get ready for a date. You are use rhetoric when trying to persuade your parents to send you money or your friends to see the movie that interests you. When you post to your blog or favorite social media app, you are using rhetoric.

    Most of our actions are persuasive in nature. What we choose to wear (tennis shoes vs. flip flops), where we shop (Whole Foods Market vs. Wal-Mart), what we eat (organic vs. fast food), or even the way we send information (snail mail vs. text message) can work to persuade others.

    Chances are you have grown up learning to interpret and analyze these types of rhetoric. They become so commonplace that we don’t realize how often and how quickly we are able to perform this kind of rhetorical analysis. When your teacher walked in on the first day of class, you probably didn’t think to yourself, “I think I’ll do some rhetorical analysis on her clothing and draw some conclusions about what kind of personality she might have and whether I think I’ll like her.” And, yet, you probably were able to come up with some conclusions based on the evidence you had.

    However, when this same teacher hands you an advertisement, photograph or article and asks you to write a rhetorical analysis of it, you might have been baffled or felt a little overwhelmed. The good news is that many of the analytical processes that you already use to interpret the rhetoric around you are the same ones that you’ll use for these assignments.

    Exercise 1

    • Watch the Mad Men advertising pitch for “The Kodak Carousel,” "Mad Men - It's not a slide projector, or a wheel... it's a Carousel" by SpeechCoachLA, and think about the way the advertisers use images and language to persuade…this is rhetoric!
    • Answer the following questions in a file/document:
      1. What is it about the advertising pitch that is supposed to connect with the public and get them to buy the product, in this case the Kodak Carousel?
      2. What is it about nostalgia (Don Draper said in Greek it means “the pain of an old wound”) that is more powerful than memory?
      3. Is the advertising pitch by Don Draper effective at persuading the public? Why or why not?

    You will be graded on the following criteria:

    Rhetorical Analysis and Media
    Describe an author’s point of view and tone
    Analyze an author’s effectiveness in achieving intended purpose
    Explains why advertising pitch will appeal to consumer
    Explains what it is about nostalgia that is more powerful than memory
    Explains why advertising pitch is or is not effective at persuasion

    Exercise 2: Further study

    1. Download Backpacks vs Briefcases: Steps Toward Rhetorical Analysis.
    2. Annotate the text.
    3. Answer the following questions in a document/file:
      1. What are the implications of rhetorical analysis? (p. 3, p. 46)
      2. What is the “rhetorical situation”? (p. 5, p.48)
      3. What is the argument in rhetorical analysis? (p. 9, p. 52)
      4. What does context have to do with Rhetorical Analysis? (p.12, p.55)
      5. Why is rhetorical analysis important in college? (p.14, p.57)
      6. What are examples of rhetoric that you see and hear on a daily basis?
      7. What are some ways that you create rhetoric?

    Contributors and Attributions

    This page was most recently updated on June 5, 2020.

    This page titled 2.6: Rhetorical Analysis is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Athena Kashyap & Erika Dyquisto (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .