The advertisement depicted above uses the persuasive technique of a rhetorical question to encourage its audience to eat porridge for breakfast, a healthier alternative to sugary cereals.
Rhetorical questions have been shown to increase the persuasiveness of a message since they force a target audience to process the message being presented to them more intensely (Pratkanis, 2007). In support of this, Zillmann (1972) aimed to examine the persuasive impact of rhetorical questions on participants’ recommended prison sentence for a young adolescent charged with the second-degree murder of his father. Participants first received background information on the case, which manipulated their attitude towards the defendant as either unfavourable, favourable or neutral. Participants then listened to the defense’s attorney, who presented arguments either in the form of a statement (e.g. ‘Johnny was a peaceful boy’) or a rhetorical question (e.g. ‘Johnny was a peaceful boy, wasn’t he?’). A recommended prison sentence was then given. It was found that participants in the rhetorical question condition gave lower prison sentences than did those in the statement condition, that is, the defense’s attorney more successfully persuaded participants to act in favour of the defendant through the use of a rhetorical question, rather than a statement. This was particularly the case when participants had initial opposing attitudes towards the defendant, demonstrating just how persuasive a message can be when it uses a rhetorical question, even when presenting the same argument. Not only do we process a message using a rhetorical question more intensely (Burnkrant & Howard, 1984), but we also associate rhetorical questions with stronger arguments (Zillmann, 1972). Therefore, by using a rhetorical question in the above advertisement, people are more likely to question their current breakfast eating habits, thereby increasing the likelihood that they will be swayed into eating porridge for breakfast.
The advertisement also employs humour by using the pun; “Now that’s oat[out] of this world!” in recognition of the benefits porridge fosters. In doing so, the advertisement attempts to induce a positive mood amongst its audience, which has likewise been shown to increase the persuasiveness of a message due to the fact that people are less likely to attend to the quality of the argument (Worth & Mackie, 1987). Thus, through the use of humour and the subsequent positive mood it produces, the above advertisement ought to more effectively persuade its audience to eat porridge for breakfast.
Burnkrant, R. E., & Howard, D. J. (1984). Effects of the use of introductory rhetorical questions versus statements on information processing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 47, 1218-1230.
Pratkanis, A. R. (2007). Social influence analysis: An index of tactics. In A. R. Pratkanis (Ed.) The science of social influence: Advances and future progress (pp. 17-83). New York: Psychology Press.
Worth, L. T., & Mackie, D. M. (1987). Cognitive mediation of positive affect in persuasion. Social Cognition, 5, 76-94.
Zillmann, D. (1972). Rhetorical elicitation of agreement in persuasion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 21, 159-165.
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