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7: Ethos

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    Ethos refers to who other people think we are, based on what and how we write and speak. One of the ways we can try to persuade people to do or think something is to create a positive ethos. We do this by writing or speaking in such a way that others trust us and think we are good people. Ethos refers to who other people think we are, so the way we construct our ethos will depend on who our audience is in each particular rhetorical situation. Different people value different character traits. Think of the contrast between the way you write and speak with friends, and the way you write and speak when applying for a job. 


    History of Ethos 

    Ethos is one of the key concepts that comes from ancient Greece, and you will see references to this work elsewhere in this text. In On Rhetoric, Aristotle identified three methods of persuading listeners to think or do something. The first is ethos, about which he says, “it makes much difference in regard to persuasion. . .that the speaker seem to be a certain kind of person” (120). The second approach to persuading listeners according to Aristotle is pathos, which is when the speaker or writer arouses emotions such as pity, anger, or fear that will lead the listeners to do or think something. (For further discussion of pathos, see “Additional Key Concepts.”) The third approach is logos, which is when we appeal to reason, or the soundness of the argument itself.  

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Rhetorical 1 of 2 (Copyright; Brett Jordan licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Flickr)


    Aristotle’s discussion of ethos in On Rhetoric can be a little confusing. Sometimes it seems that he thinks ethos is something we invent in our text; elsewhere in this work, he is clear that ethos refers to one’s moral character, and thus refers to something that exists in the person. Other rhetoricians of the time debated whether ethos was something one could just make up depending on what one is trying to achieve at that moment, or whether it had to come from a deeper sense of justice and wisdom within one’s character. Isocrates, for example, scolded other rhetoricians’ hypocrisy for claiming to be whoever their audience wanted them to be (Isocrates). 

    One way to understand ethos is that it is both. We must convince our audience that we are trustworthy, that we have their best interests in mind, and that we know what we’re talking about. Perhaps the best way to accomplish this in our writing and speaking is to actually be trustworthy, generous, and knowledgeable. 


    Ethos Today 

    Politicians and celebrities rely heavily—in some cases, exclusively—on ethos to persuade people to vote for them or consume their music and movies. And in the era when the star of Celebrity Apprentice is also a top politician, it’s interesting and important to pay attention to the ways that celebrities construct their ethos in political spheres.  

    Consider Chance the Rapper. In March of 2017, Chance met with then-Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner to discuss funding of Chicago Public Schools. While most Black men from the South Side of Chicago would not get through Rauner’s security, Chance relied on his established ethos as a Grammy-winning artist to get a meeting with the governor. 

    However, in interviews after the meeting, we see him crafting his ethos in more subtle ways. Chance claimed “I’m not a politician. I’m here ‘cause I’m a dad, I’m an after-school teacher” (Strauss). Identifying as a dad like this, Chance is trying to complicate his celebrity status and construct an ethos as a concerned Chicago citizen. One author writing about the press conference describes his ethos, contrasting it with that of a politician’s: “...he spoke not with grand oratory but with his typical shy-guy humility” (Kornhaber). There is an element of pathos here, too: raising in his audience the protective, tender feelings a man has for his child. 

    Chance could not persuade Rauner to address the problems with the Illinois budget so that more money would reach Chicago Public Schools. As a result, Chance then donated $1 million of his own money toward CPS’s arts education. Announcing this donation, he again relied on his ethos as a celebrity to leverage the circulation of news about himself. Speaking to reporters from industry magazines, he said, “I want y’all to do your jobs. The international and national publications out there—Complex, Billboard, people that post about me walking down the street and shit—if you guys could give a comprehensive history on how we ended up here” (Kornhaber). Here we see him using language to signal that he’s talking as a rapper again—not a politician or a dad: the “y’all” and “walking down the street and shit” and “you guys” all help listeners and readers to see him as a successful artist in this particular moment. 

    The example of Chance illustrates how speakers and writers can use language to leverage who they are to persuade other people to do things. It also illustrates how one’s ethos can shift depending on who your audience is and how important it is to consider how you’re constructing your ethos in different situations. It is useful for Chance to be a dad in one situation, a rapper in another, and a political advocate in a third. There are many in Chicago and beyond who hope he’ll one day decide to work on his ethos as a politician and run for public office. 


    Ethos and Other Concepts 

    While classical rhetoricians were mostly concerned with how individual politicians and lawyers persuaded an audience to believe them, today we can use the concept of ethos to think about institutions and brands, too. Recall that our short definition of ethos is “who other people think we are, based on what and how we write and speak.” A brand is what customers think of a product, based not just on the product itself, but on what the company says and does in ads and other PR. Creating a successful brand depends, in part, on constructing an ethos that consumers can trust and relate to. 

    An example from January 2019 illustrates how one brand tried to construct such an ethos with divided results (reflecting a stark division in the country in 2019). Razor company Gillette launched an ad that ran during the Superbowl, converting their traditional tagline “Gillette, the best a man can get” into a question. 

    To a soaring orchestral soundtrack, the commercial presents scenes of girls being told to smile, women being diminished in the workplace, and boys’ aggression being excused. A gentle voiceover announces “Something finally changed. And there will be no going back. Because why? We believe in the best in men. To say the right thing. To act the right way. Some already are, in ways big and small. But some is not enough. Because the boys watching today (pause) will be the men of tomorrow.” 

    Gillette seized upon a kairotic moment—a national conversation about toxic masculinity in light of a boorish president, the #MeToo movement, increased awareness of bullying, and continued systematic inequality. The commercial was met with praise from many but derision, as well, all having to do with responses to ethos. 

    If you agree with the progressive social message about changing gender roles and definitions of masculinity, you like and identify with the ad’s ethos. If, however, you identify with a more old-fashioned male ethos, you joined the #BoycottGillette backlash. 

    X (formerly Twitter) user @akaplan41 summed up this response by saying, “The problem with the ad is its premise is insulting—the premise is that all men are bad somehow and need correcting. It’s actually quite offensive to men. Why are they lecturing us?! Most men are good. I will join the boycott. #gilletteboycott #GilletteAd.” In the advertising world, the commercial is successful either way. Whether you responded positively or negatively to the ethos of the ad, it got attention. 

    Presumably Gillette was trying to construct an ethos characterized by the energy and momentum of a current social movement. By referencing real social media, such as a video of a dad coaching his little daughter to say “I am strong” into a mirror, they construct credibility via real voices. It is as if Gillette is signaling it is enlightened. 

    The backlash represented a group clinging to older norms. Gillette risked losing their business to embrace and represent a warmer ethos. It was a gamble involving demographics and the reality that younger generations are exercising more evolved thought as consumers. 

    The Gillette ad seems to illustrate the point that the best way to convince your audience that you are trustworthy and good is to actually be trustworthy and good. The words and images you use to construct a particular ethos should be connected to substantive knowledge and sincere values. 

    In his book The Economics of Attention, rhetoric scholar Richard Lanham argues that we have to think about not just the stuff we produce—our arguments and stories, or a company’s products—but how we might bring positive attention to that stuff. Successful rhetoricians do both in such a way that readers go back and forth between the two. Alphabetic text is particularly important in this respect because it involves choices about the stuff, or what you put into words, as well as choices about the surface features such as fonts, colors, and arrangement on a page or screen. 


    attention + stuff = ethos 

    It might be tempting to just “throw a picture in there” to make a page pretty and bring attention to what you’re saying. However, inventing a positive ethos requires making deliberate decisions about our use of image as well as sound, video, and other modes, and thinking carefully about the affordances and constraints of each. 

    Writing in the 21st century requires making these various, complicated decisions not just in each piece we do, but across platforms. If you use social media at all—Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, any of it—your ethos is in constant, possibly eternal, circulation. It’s important to be mindful of circulation as you construct your ethos on various sites. 

    This is especially the case when you are applying for jobs. The ethos you want to create in your career will depend on your field, and what the values and principles are that govern that field. Is the field hip and fast-paced or more conservative? Does it value intelligence, playfulness, rigor, creativity? Depending on your answers to these questions, you will have to decide how you fit in, how you will communicate those values, and whether you do so across all the pieces of your online presence. This is ethos: changing not who you are, but how you express who you are, depending on your goals. 


    Looking Ahead 

    You can usually remember a good conversation for its ethos—that collective identity that comes out of the spontaneous back-and-forth, the personalities involved, the setting, even things like the music that was playing at the time. Stop and think about memorable conversations that you either observed or participated in. Talking to a friend about important things. Witnessing a meaningful dialogue in class. Bonding with teammates, camp buddies, a mentor. How did it make you feel? 

    You can look at your academic work as one long conversation, at its best, one of those really good ones that you remember for a long, long time. Many of your courses may be designed to create exactly that kind of conversation in a seminar setting, but even courses that rely less on class discussion or more on other forms of delivery can still be seen as a conversation in writing, as students read texts of all kinds and respond to them by writing in a variety of ways, remixing them into the unique text of each student’s education. If we think of an education as something that shapes who you are as it shapes what you know, then we can think of the whole process as one of ethos formation.   

    Throughout that process you face decisions you must make about ethos in each course you take and each assignment you complete. These decisions might be picky (“Can I use the pronoun ‘I’ in my text?”) or grave (“How forcefully should I make a point about something I believe in?”) or tactical (“Can I get away with being funny?”). In any course you might find it helpful to ask questions about ethos like these: What expectations about what constitutes a positive ethos do you face from your instructor and your peers, and how will you respond? What kind of self-presentation presents your work in the most effective ways? How do you acknowledge the debts your work owes to the work of others? How can you draw on personal connections to the material you are studying to make work with credibility, expertise, integrity?


    Ethos in AI-Assisted Writing 

    Questions like these are especially hard to answer in the context of the recent advent of highly sophisticated Large Language Modelling (LLM) artificial intelligence (AI) programs, which can generate text in response to queries drawing on its vast database of writing and language practices from across the landscape of digital information. Does AI-generated text even have an ethos? Or is it simply the outcome of a sustained series of educated guesses, with no more “self” than a coin toss, ultimately? 

    The implications for our understanding of writing, and especially of writing done by students, are profound. In the case of students, there is a particular ethical burden, that part of the ethos of students (successful ones, anyway) is that they are expected to uphold standards of academic honesty, which means using no unacknowledged aid on work you claim as your own. 

    Are students who use AI on writing assignments plagiarists? Or are they early adopters, adapting their writing to new technologies, just as students are supposed to do? Perhaps as our use of the AI interface becomes more sophisticated, we will be able to issue prompts and queries of great complexity or subtlety that will allow sophisticated AI users to evolve new tactics for constructing authorial identities in the text. 


    Writing with Ethos 

    As is the case for many of the key concepts in this book, ethos is common sense: we tend to do things instinctively that we think will persuade people to like us or to do or think the things we want them to. However, writing in an online, networked environment multiplies the number of decisions we have to make, so it’s important that we don’t always rely on instinct. Not only does technology increase the resources (words, image, sound, video, color, and so on) available to us as we communicate, but the Internet makes our ethos far more public than it used to be. Therefore, it’s worthwhile to consider questions such as the following: 

    • Who am I trying to persuade with this piece of communication, and what do they value? Do I share those values, and if so, how do I demonstrate that I share those values? 

    • Do I know what I’m talking about? Do I actually care about my readers? Am I being honest? And if I answer “no” to any of these questions, how should I proceed and what are my goals? 

    • Do all the elements of this piece of communication—font, images and other modes, arrangement, and so on—work together to contribute to the positive ethos I am trying to create? 

    • How important is careful editing and proofreading for creating a positive ethos with this particular audience? How do issues such as word choice, spelling, punctuation, and format affect my ethos in this text? 

    • Is my ethos in this piece of communication consistent with the other texts I’ve produced that are circulating online, for example, my social media profiles and updates, my website, my portfolio? 


    Ethos Activity 

    Can acts of intentional misrepresentation create an ultimately positive ethos? This paradoxical question lies at the heart of the work of the Yes Men, an activist organization that engages in infiltration and impersonation of corporate representatives to carry out what they term “identity correction.” Search the internet for “Yes Men” and “identity correction” and you’ll find multimedia essays and interviews in which Yes Men Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonnano (both assumed names, an important part of their ethos-making) in which they explain why and how they use what they call “operations” and their targets call “hoaxes” to bring out the truth. “By catching powerful entities off guard,” they write, “you can momentarily expose them to public scrutiny. This way, everyone sees how they work and can figure out how to control them.  We call this identity correction.” 

    You can see their theory in practice by watching one of the films they have made to document their work. The 2010 film The Yes Men Fix the World is available license-free on At about 28 minutes in, it shows how Bichlbaum successfully appeared before millions of viewers on the BBC World Service’s radio and television coverage of the 20th anniversary of the 1984 Bhopal, India, chemical disaster—the world’s worst industrial accident, which killed thousands and has produced ongoing health problems throughout the region. Posing as a Dow Chemical spokesperson named Jude Finisterra, Bichlbaum claimed the Dow Chemical corporation, owners of Union Carbide, who ran the Bhopal plant, took full responsibility for the accident for the first time. Jude Finisterra detailed plans to liquidate Union Carbide to pay reparations to the people of Bhopal. 

    As you watch, notice ways that Bichlbaum systematically constructs his ethos as Dow spokesman Finisterra. Pay special attention to the way written texts help him convincingly portray himself as a corporate spokesperson. How and why does his ethos as Finisterra work to convince his audience that what he says is true? Is good? 

    The Dow impersonation was quickly noticed and responded to by Dow, whose actual spokespeople denounced the operation as an act of deception. The theory of Identity Correction expects and anticipates the development, urging its practitioners to “capitalize on the target’s reaction.” As you watch the documentary’s narrative of these developments, take a moment to notice how the language and presentation of Dow’s swift and complete denials of responsibility for Bhopal construct the corporation’s ethos, especially by way of contrast to the version of the corporate ethos offered by Jude Finisterra. Who offers a more compelling or appealing ethos for Dow? What larger impressions or inferences could viewers draw between the fictional idea of Dow the Yes Men offered, and the actual Dow corporation that denounced them? Could or should Dow’s public comments have put forward a different ethos? 

    Once the deception is exposed, the Yes Men are summoned back to the BBC to discuss the prank. In an angry interview, a BBC anchor asserts that “the real tragedy of the day” is that the people of Bhopal were given a brief period of false hope.” What do you think of that allegation?  Is the Yes Men’s project in ethos construction ultimately unethical? As you watch Bichlbaum respond to the media attention the deception’s exposure causes, pay careful attention to the way Bichlbaum’s ethos is distinct from Finisterra’s. How does he adjust the way he appears in the text for this new rhetorical situation? 

    This segment concludes with the Yes Men interviewing health care workers in Bhopal and asking if they had felt injured by their prank. Here we see the Yes Men building ethos at yet another level: as the makers and narrators of the documentary film accounts of their projects. How does this final sequence affect the way you see them and their work? And ask yourself, does “identity correction” work? Did Dow, momentarily caught off guard, reveal anything that makes you see their larger corporate ethos in a different way? Finally, reflect on the complexities of how ethos works at multiple levels and in multiple ways through this project. What can you learn from their experience that could help you more effectively craft an ethos for a specific rhetorical situation? 


    Works Cited 

    @akaplan41 (Andrew Kaplan). “The problem with the ad is its premise is insulting—the premise is that all men are bad somehow and need correcting.” X (formerly Twitter), 19 January 2019. The problem with the ad [].  

    Aristotle. On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. Ed. George A. Kenney. Oxford Press, 1991. 

    Bichlbaum, Andy, Mike Bonanno, and Kurt Engfehr, directors. Yes Men Fix the World. Peer-to-peer edition. HBO, 2010. Internet Archive, uploaded 13 August 2010, Yes Men Fix the World []

    Gillette. “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be” commercial. January 2019. 

    Isocrates. From Antidosis. Translated by George Norlin. Rpt. In The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. Eds. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. Bedford Books, 1990. 

    Jordan, Brett. Rhetorical (1 of 2). 2011. Flickr, Rhetorical []. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.  

    Kornhaber, Spencer. “Chance the Politician.” The Atlantic, 6 March 2017. Chance, the Politician []

    Lanham, Richard A. “Economics of Attention.” The Economics of Attention: Style & Substance in the Age of Information. University of Chicago Press, 2006, pp. 42-77.  

    Strauss, Matthew. “Chance the Rapper on IL Governor Meeting: ‘He Gave Me a Lot of Vague Answers.” Pitchfork, 3 March 2017. Chance, the Rapper [].


    7: Ethos is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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