Backpacks vs. Briefcases: Steps toward Rhetorical Analysis
Laura Bolin Carroll
Imagine the first day of class in first year composition at your university.*
The moment your professor walked in the room, you likely began
analyzing her and making assumptions about what kind of teacher she
will be. You might have noticed what kind of bag she is carrying—a
tattered leather satchel? a hot pink polka-dotted backpack? a burgundy
brief case? You probably also noticed what she is wearing—trendy
slacks and an untucked striped shirt? a skirted suit? jeans and a tee
It is likely that the above observations were only a few of the observations
you made as your professor walked in the room. You might
have also noticed her shoes, her jewelry, whether she wears a wedding
ring, how her hair is styled, whether she stands tall or slumps, how
quickly she walks, or maybe even if her nails are done. If you don’t
tend to notice any of these things about your professors, you certainly
do about the people around you—your roommate, others in your
residence hall, students you are assigned to work with in groups, or a prospective date. For most of us, many of the people we encounter in
a given day are subject to this kind of quick analysis.
Now as you performed this kind of analysis, you likely didn’t walk
through each of these questions one by one, write out the answer, and
add up the responses to see what kind of person you are interacting
with. Instead, you quickly took in the information and made an informed,
and likely somewhat accurate, decision about that person.
Over the years, as you have interacted with others, you have built a
mental database that you can draw on to make conclusions about what
a person’s looks tell you about their personality. You have become able
to analyze quickly what people are saying about themselves through
the way they choose to dress, accessorize, or wear their hair.
We have, of course, 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
Implications of Rhetorical Analysis
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. Even as you read this chapter, more ways to
get those messages to you quickly and in a persuasive manner are being
developed. 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 to 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.
Or, in another situation, a Facebook group asks you to support
health care reform. The rhetoric in this group uses people’s stories of
their struggles to obtain affordable health care. These stories, which
are often heart-wrenching, use emotion to persuade you—also called
pathos. You are asked to believe that health care reform is necessary
and urgent, and you are asked to act on these beliefs by calling your
congresspersons and asking them to support the reforms as well.
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. For example, research has shown that only 2% of women consider
themselves beautiful (“Campaign”), which has been linked to the
way that the fashion industry defines beauty. We are also told by the
media that buying more stuff can make us happy, but historical surveys
show that US happiness peaked in the 1950s, when people saw as
many advertisements in their lifetime as the average American sees in
one year (Leonard).
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 also using rhetoric when you
try 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 tweet you
are using rhetoric. In fact, according to rhetorician Kenneth Burke,
rhetoric is everywhere: “wherever there is persuasion, there is rhetoric.
And wherever there is ‘meaning,’ there is ‘persuasion.’ Food eaten
and digested is not rhetoric. But in the meaning of food there is much
rhetoric, the meaning being persuasive enough for the idea of food to
be used, like the ideas of religion, as a rhetorical device of statesmen”
(71–72). In other words, 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
The Rhetorical Situation, Or Discerning Context
One of the first places to start is context. Rhetorical messages always
occur in a specific situation or context. The president’s speech might
respond to a specific global event, like an economic summit; that’s part
of the context. You choose your clothing depending on where you are
going or what you are doing; that’s context. A television commercial
comes on during specific programs and at specific points of the day;
that’s context. A billboard is placed in a specific part of the community;
that’s context, too.
In an article called “The Rhetorical Situation,” Lloyd Bitzer argues
that there are three parts to understanding the context of a rhetorical
moment: exigence, audience and constraints. Exigence is the circumstance
or condition that invites a response; “imperfection marked by
urgency; it is a defect, an obstacle, something waiting to be done, a
thing which is other than it should be” (Bitzer 304). In other words,
rhetorical discourse is usually responding to some kind of problem.
You can begin to understand a piece’s exigence by asking, “What is this rhetoric responding to?” “What might have happened to make
the rhetor (the person who creates the rhetoric) respond in this way?”
The exigence can be extremely complex, like the need for a new
Supreme Court justice, or it can be much simpler, like receiving an
email that asks you where you and your friends should go for your road
trip this weekend. Understanding the exigence is important because it
helps you begin to discover the purpose of the rhetoric. It helps you
understand what the discourse is trying to accomplish.
Another part of the rhetorical context is audience, those who are
the (intended or unintended) recipients of the rhetorical message. The
audience should be able to respond to the exigence. In other words,
the audience should be able to help address the problem. You might
be very frustrated with your campus’s requirement that all first-year
students purchase a meal plan for on-campus dining. You might even
send an email to a good friend back home voicing that frustration.
However, if you want to address the exigence of the meal plans, the
most appropriate audience would be the person/office on campus that
oversees meal plans. Your friend back home cannot solve the problem
(though she may be able to offer sympathy or give you some good suggestions),
but the person who can change the meal plan requirements
is probably on campus. Rhetors make all sorts of choices based on
their audience. Audience can determine the type of language used,
the formality of the discourse, the medium or delivery of the rhetoric,
and even the types of reasons used the make the rhetor’s argument.
Understanding the audience helps you begin to see and understand the
rhetorical moves that the rhetor makes.
The last piece of the rhetorical situation is the constraints. The
constraints of the rhetorical situation are those things that have the
power to “constrain decision and action needed to modify the exigence”
(Bitzer 306). Constraints have a lot to do with how the rhetoric
is presented. Constraints can be “beliefs, attitudes, documents, facts,
traditions, images, interests, motives” (Bitzer 306). Constraints limit
the way the discourse is delivered or communicated. Constraints may
be something as simple as your instructor limiting your proposal to
one thousand words, or they may be far more complex like the kinds
of language you need to use to persuade a certain community.
So how do you apply this to a piece of rhetoric? Let’s say you are
flipping through a magazine, and you come across an advertisement
that has a large headline that reads “Why Some People Say ‘D’OH’ When You Say ‘Homer’” (“Why”). This ad is an Ad Council public
service announcement (PSA) to promote arts education and is sponsored
by Americans for the Arts and NAMM, the trade association of
the international music products industry.
Since you want to understand more about what this ad means and
what it wants you to believe or do, you begin to think about the rhetorical
situation. You first might ask, “what is the ad responding to? What
problem does it hope to address?” That’s the exigence. In this case, the
exigence is the cutting of arts funding and children’s lack of exposure
to the arts. According to the Ad Council’s website, “the average kid is
provided insufficient time to learn and experience the arts. This PSA
campaign was created to increase involvement in championing arts
education both in and out of school” (“Arts”). The PSA is responding
directly to the fact that kids are not getting enough arts education.
Then you might begin to think about to whom the Ad Council targeted
the ad. Unless you’re a parent, you are probably not the primary
audience. If you continued reading the text of the ad, you’d notice that
there is information to persuade parents that the arts are helpful to
their children and to let them know how to help their children become
more involved with the arts. The ad tells parents that “the experience
will for sure do more than entertain them. It’ll build their capacity to
learn more. In fact, the more art kids get, the smarter they become in
subjects like math and science. And that’s reason enough to make a
parent say, ‘D’oh!,’ For Ten Simple Ways to instill art in your kids’ lives
visit AmericansForTheArts.org” (“Why”). Throughout the text of the
ad, parents are told both what to believe about arts education and how
to act in response to the belief.
There also might be a secondary audience for this ad—people who
are not the main audience of the ad but might also be able to respond
to the exigence. For example, philanthropists who could raise money
for arts education or legislators who might pass laws for arts funding
or to require arts education in public schools could also be intended
audiences for this ad.
Finally, you might want to think about the constraints or the limitations
on the ad. Sometimes these are harder to get at, but we can
guess a few things. One constraint might be the cost of the ad. Different
magazines charge differently for ad space as well as placement
within the magazine, so the Ad Council could have been constrained
by how much money they wanted to spend to circulate the ad. The ad is also only one page long, so there might have been a limitation on the
amount of space for the ad. Finally, on the Ad Council’s webpage, they
list the requirements for organizations seeking the funding and support
of the Ad Council. There are twelve criteria, but here are a few:
1. The sponsor organization must be a private non-profit 501(c)3
organization, private foundation, government agency or coalition
of such groups.
2. The issue must address the Ad Council’s focus on Health &
Safety, Education, or Community. Applications which benefit
children are viewed with favor—as part of the Ad Council’s
Commitment to Children.
3. The issue must offer a solution through an individual action.
4. The effort must be national in scope, so that the message has
relevance to media audiences in communities throughout the
Each of these criteria helps to understand the limitations on both who
can participate as rhetor and what can be said.
The exigence, audience and constraints are only one way to understand
the context of a piece of rhetoric, and, of course, there are other
ways to get at context. Some rhetoricians look at subject, purpose, audience
and occasion. Others might look at the “rhetorical triangle” of
writer, reader, and purpose.
An analysis using the rhetorical triangle would ask similar questions
about audience as one using the rhetorical situation, but it would
also ask questions about the writer and the purpose of the document.
Asking questions about the writer helps the reader determine whether
she or he is credible and knowledgeable. For example, the Ad Council
has been creating public service announcements since 1942 (“Loose
Lips Sink Ships,” anyone?) and is a non-profit agency. They also document
their credibility by showing the impact of their campaigns in
several ways: “Destruction of our forests by wildfires has been reduced
from 22 million acres to less than 8.4 million acres per year, since our
Forest Fire Prevention campaign began” and “6,000 Children were
paired with a mentor in just the first 18 months of our mentoring
campaign” (“About”). Based on this information, we can assume that
the Ad Council is a credible rhetor, and whether or not we agree with
the rhetoric they produce, we can probably assume it contains reliable information. Asking questions about the next part of the rhetorical
triangle, the purpose of a piece of rhetoric, helps you understand what
the rhetor is trying to achieve through the discourse. We can discern
the purpose by asking questions like “what does the rhetor want me to
believe after seeing this message?” or “what does the rhetor want me
to do?” In some ways, the purpose takes the exigence to the next step.
If the exigence frames the problem, the purpose frames the response
to that problem.
The rhetorical situation and rhetorical triangle are two ways to
begin to understand how the rhetoric functions within the context you
find it. The key idea is to understand that no rhetorical performance
takes place in a vacuum. One of the first steps to understanding a piece
of rhetoric is to look at the context in which it takes place. Whatever
terminology you (or your instructor) choose, it is a good idea to start
by locating your analysis within a rhetorical situation.
The Heart of the Matter—The Argument
The rhetorical situation is just the beginning of your analysis, though.
What you really want to understand is the argument—what the rhetor
wants you to believe or do and how he or she goes about that persuasion.
Effective argumentation has been talked about for centuries. In
the fourth century BCE, Aristotle was teaching the men of Athens
how to persuade different kinds of audiences in different kinds of rhetorical
situations. Aristotle articulated three “artistic appeals” that a
rhetor could draw on to make a case—logos, pathos, and ethos.
Logos is commonly defined as argument from reason, and it usually
appeals to an audience’s intellectual side. As audiences we want to
know the “facts of the matter,” and logos helps present these—statistics,
data, and logical statements. For example, on our Homer ad for
the arts, the text tells parents that the arts will “build their capacity to
learn more. In fact, the more art kids get, the smarter they become in
subjects like math and science” (“Why”). You might notice that there
aren’t numbers or charts here, but giving this information appeals to
the audience’s intellectual side.
That audience can see a continuation of the argument on the Ad
Council’s webpage, and again much of the argument appeals to logos
and draws on extensive research that shows that the arts do these
• Allow kids to express themselves creatively and bolster their
• Teach kids to be more tolerant and open.
• Improve kids’ overall academic performance.
• Show that kids actively engaged in arts education are likely
to have higher SAT scores than those with little to no arts involvement.
• Develop skills needed by the 21st century workforce: critical
thinking, creative problem solving, effective communication,
teamwork and more.
• Keep students engaged in school and less likely to drop out.
Each bullet above is meant to intellectually persuade parents that they
need to be more intentional in providing arts education for their children.
Few of us are persuaded only with our mind, though. Even if we
intellectually agree with something, it is difficult to get us to act unless
we are also persuaded in our heart. This kind of appeal to emotion
is called pathos. Pathetic appeals (as rhetoric that draws on pathos is
called) used alone without logos and ethos can come across as emotionally
manipulative or overly sentimental, but are very powerful
when used in conjunction with the other two appeals.
Emotional appeals can come in many forms—an anecdote or narrative,
an image such as a photograph, or even humor. For example,
on their web campaign, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
(PETA) uses an image of a baby chick and of Ronald McDonald
wielding a knife to draw attention to their Chicken McCruely Un-
Happy Meal. These images are meant to evoke an emotional response
in the viewer and, along with a logos appeal with the statistics about
how cruelly chickens are treated, persuade the viewer to boycott McDonalds.
Pathos can also be a very effective appeal if the rhetor has to persuade
the audience in a very short amount of time, which is why it is
used heavily in print advertisements, billboards, or television commercials.
An investment company will fill a 30-second commercial with
images of families and couples enjoying each other, seeming happy,
and surrounded by wealth to persuade you to do business with them. The 30-second time spot does not allow them to give the 15-year
growth of each of their funds, and pathetic appeals will often hold our
interest much longer than intellectual appeals.
The ad promoting the importance of art uses humor to appeal to
the audience’s emotional side. By comparing the epic poet Homer to
Homer Simpson and his classic “d’oh!” the ad uses humor to draw
people into their argument about the arts. The humor continues as
they ask parents if their kids know the difference between the Homers,
“The only Homer some kids know is the one who can’t write his
own last name” (“Why”). The ad also appeals to emotion through its
language use (diction), describing Homer as “one very ancient dude,”
and describing The Odyssey as “the sequel” to The Iliad. In this case,
the humor of the ad, which occurs in the first few lines, is meant to
draw the reader in and help them become interested in the argument
before the ad gets to the logos, which is in the last few lines of the ad.
The humor also makes the organization seem real and approachable,
contributing to the ethos. The humor might lead you to think
that Americans for the Arts is not a stuffy bunch of suits, but an organization
you can relate to or one that has a realistic understanding of
the world. Ethos refers to the credibility of the rhetor—which can be
a person or an organization. A rhetor can develop credibility in many
ways. The tone of the writing and whether that tone is appropriate for
the context helps build a writer’s ethos, as does the accuracy of the information
or the visual presentation of the rhetoric.
In the Homer ad, the ethos is built in several ways. The simple, humorous
and engaging language, such as “Greek Gods. Achilles Heel.
Trojan Horse. All of these icons are brought to us by one very ancient
dude—Homer. In The Iliad and its sequel, The Odyssey, he presented
Greek mythology in everyday language” (“Why”) draws the audience
in and helps the tone of the ad seem very approachable. Also, the
knowledge of Greek mythology and the information about how the
arts help children—which also contribute to the logos appeal—make
the ad seem credible and authoritative. However, the fact that the ad
does not use too many statistics or overly technical language also contributes
to the ethos of the ad because often sounding too intellectual
can come across as pompous or stuffy.
Aristotle’s artistic appeals are not the only way to understand the
argument of rhetoric. You might choose to look at the claim or the
unstated assumptions of a piece; someone else might consider the visual appeal of the rhetoric, like the font, page layout, types of paper,
or images; another person might focus on the language use and the
specific word choice and sentence structure of a piece. Logos, pathos,
and ethos can provide a nice framework for analysis, but there are numerous
ways to understand how a piece of rhetoric persuades (or fails
Looking at the context and components of a piece of rhetoric often
isn’t enough, though, because it is important to draw conclusions
about the rhetoric—does it successfully respond to the exigence? Is it
an ethical approach? Is it persuasive? These kinds of questions let you
begin to create your own claims, your own rhetoric, as you take a stand
on what other people say, do, or write.
Beginning to Analyze
Once you have established the context for the rhetoric you are analyzing,
you can begin to think about how well it fits into that context.
You’ve probably been in a situation where you arrived way underdressed
for an occasion. You thought that the dinner was just a casual
get together with friends; it turned out to be a far more formal affair,
and you felt very out of place. There are also times when discourse fails
to respond to the situation well—it doesn’t fit. On the other hand, successful
discourses often respond very well to the context. They address
the problem, consider the audience’s needs, provide accurate information,
and have a compelling claim. One of the reasons you work to
determine the rhetorical situation for a piece of discourse is to consider
whether it works within that context. You can begin this process by
asking questions like:
• Does the rhetoric address the problem it claims to address?
• Is the rhetoric targeted at an audience who has the power to
• Are the appeals appropriate to the audience?
• Does the rhetor give enough information to make an informed
• Does the rhetoric attempt to manipulate in any way (by giving
incomplete/inaccurate information or abusing the audience’s
• What other sub-claims do you have to accept to understand
the rhetor’s main claim? (For example, in order to accept the
Ad Council’s claim that the arts boost math and science scores,
you first have to value the boosting of those scores.)
• What possible negative effects might come from this rhetoric?
Rhetorical analysis asks how discourse functions in the setting in which
it is found. In the same way that a commercial for denture cream seems
very out of place when aired during a reality television show aimed at
teenagers, rhetoric that does not respond well to its context often fails
to persuade. In order to perform analysis, you must understand the
context and then you must carefully study the ways that the discourse
does and does not respond appropriately to that context.
The bottom line is that the same basic principles apply when you
look at any piece of rhetoric (your instructor’s clothing, an advertisement,
the president’s speech): you need to consider the context and the
argument. As you begin to analyze rhetoric, there are lots of different
types of rhetoric you might encounter in a college classroom, such as
• Political cartoon
• Wikipedia entry
• Scholarly article
• Bar Graph
• Op-Ed piece in the newspaper
• YouTube video
• Book chapter
• PowerPoint Presentation
All of the above types of discourse try to persuade you. They may ask
you to accept a certain kind of knowledge as valid, they may ask you
to believe a certain way, or they may ask you to act. It is important to
understand what a piece of rhetoric is asking of you, how it tries to
persuade you, and whether that persuasion fits within the context you
encounter it in. Rhetorical analysis helps you answer those questions.
Implications of Rhetorical Analysis, Or Why Do This Stuff Anyway?
So you might be wondering if you know how to do this analysis already—you can tell what kind of person someone is by their clothing,
or what a commercial wants you to buy without carefully listening to
it—why do you need to know how to do more formal analysis? How
does this matter outside a college classroom?
Well, first of all, much of the reading and learning in college requires
some level of rhetorical analysis: as you read a textbook chapter
to prepare for a quiz, it is helpful to be able to distill the main points
quickly; when you read a journal article for a research paper, it is necessary
to understand the scholar’s thesis; when you watch a video in
class, it is useful to be able to understand how the creator is trying to
persuade you. But college is not the only place where an understanding
of how rhetoric works is important. You will find yourself in many situations—from boardrooms to your children’s classrooms or churches
to city council meetings where you need to understand the heart of the
arguments being presented.
One final example: in November 2000, Campbell’s Soup Company
launched a campaign to show that many of their soups were low
in calories and showed pre-pubescent girls refusing to eat because they
were “watching their weight.” A very small organization called Dads
and Daughters, a group that fights advertising that targets girls with
negative body images, contacted Campbell’s explaining the problems
they saw in an ad that encouraged young girls to be self-conscious
about their weight, and asked Campbell’s to pull the ad. A few days
later, Campbell’s Vice President for Marketing and Corporate Communications
called. One of the dads says, “the Vice President acknowledged
he had received their letter, reviewed the ad again, saw their
point, and was pulling the ad,” responding to a “couple of guys writing
a letter” (“Media”). Individuals who understand rhetorical analysis and
act to make change can have a tremendous influence on their world.
1. What are examples of rhetoric that you see or hear on a daily
2. What are some ways that you create rhetoric? What kinds of
messages are you trying to communicate?
3. What is an example of a rhetorical situation that you have
found yourself in? Discuss exigence, audience, and constraints.
“About Ad Council” Ad Council. Ad Council. n.d. Web. 11 March 2010.
“Arts Education.” Ad Council: Arts Education. Ad Council. n.d. Web. 27 July
“Become an Ad Council Campaign.” Ad Council. Ad Council. n.d. Web. 27
July 2009. <http://www.adcouncil.org/default.aspx?id=319>.
Bitzer, Lloyd. “The Rhetorical Situation.” Philosophy and Rhetoric 1 (1968):
1–14. Rpt. in Martin J. Medhurst and Thomas W. Benson, eds. Rhetorical
Dimensions in Media. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 1991. 300–10. Print.
Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969.
“Campaign for Real Beauty Mission.” Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. 2008.
Web. 27 July 2009. <http://www.dove.us/#/CFRB/arti_cfrb.aspx%5Bcpdocumentid=
Leonard, Annie. “Fact Sheet.” The Story of Stuff with Annie Leonard. n.d.
Web. 27 July 2009. <http://storyofstuff.com/resources.html>.
“The Media’s Influence.” Perfect Illusions: Eating Disorders and the Family.
PBS. 2003. Web. 27 July 2009. <http://www.pbs.org/perfectillusions/eatingdisorders/
“Why Some People Say ‘D’oh’ When You Say ‘Homer.’” Ad Council: Arts
Education. Ad Council. n.d. Web. 27 July 2009. <http://www.adcouncil.
Backpacks vs. Briefcases: Steps toward Rhetorical Analysis
by Laura Bolin Carroll
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Writing spaces : readings on writing. Volume 1 / edited by Charles Lowe
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1. College readers. 2. English language–Rhetoric. I. Lowe, Charles,
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