“Be Like Mike” on Aristotle’s Rhetorical Playground–Ready-made lesson(s)

I love this lesson which combines two of my favorite things: 1) serious philosophical inquiry and terminology and 2) popular culture (we are right in Pulp Teacher’s wheelhouse!) (I’d say anyone from 6th grade up can get the basics and the older/more mature the students the more sophisticated the reasoning).

Aristotle identified 3 forms of appeal or persuasion–ways to convince people to do things: 1) Ethos, 2) Logos, and 3) Pathos. Working in reverse–appeals or persuasion based in Pathos are primarily emotional appeals; appeals based in Logos are primarily appeals to reason; and 3) appeals based in Ethos are appeals based in character–that of the one being appealed to as well as the one doing the appealing. It turns out that ALL forms of advertising are forms of appeal or persuasion–they are arguments (in their limited way) to get you to do something–buy a product or support a cause. Once we set this minimal intellectual scaffolding up we can do some cool things. Most advertisements, because of limited space or time, lean heavily on one or the other of these–truly complex arguments will, of course use all three in remarkably dextrous fashion. But, for teaching purposes there is nothing like the bald-faced arguments of advertising.

Every kid has seen a commercial and most of us can recognize commercials that others describe; it’s a bit trickier now with increased niche marketing but it is still easy enough to do. I habitually raise the Gatorade commercial “Be like Mike.” (Easy to show YouTube clips if you wish). It is pretty nakedly an appeal based in Ethos, to whit, “If you drink Gatorade, then you will be like Michael Jordan.” In this version there are no doctors backing this up with claims about nutrition, hydration, the science of making Gatorade (all Logos appeals) or even much of the appeal to victory, success, etc. that some times depends on Pathos. Kids always recognize appeals like the ones for Save the Children with pictures of kids in abject poverty and a voice promising that if you donate a certain amount you will change their lives. This appeal, through the visual image is primarily one of Pathos (with small elements of Logos and Ethos–though at this point I downplay the combinations until they can accurately identify main form of appeal). Television commercials that are Logos-based are harder to come by (the medium–as everyone has observed–is scarcely conducive to complex arguments) still, students can usually identify a Volvo commercial or something that cites safety statistics extensively.

Because I have an excellent relationship with our library, I get them to give me ALL of the magazines that they are throwing away and after I divide them into groups of 2 or 3 I give them a few magazines with the request to find examples of all different appeals (say 3 each). This doesn’t take terribly long and each group reports back to the whole class showing the ad and then explaining how they grouped it. For homework, each student has to do such individually and we do a quick inventory the next day to see if everyone gets the basics. By this time, they begin to see that ads with celebrity pitch-people are usually Ethos based, ads with lots of text are Logos based, and ads that contain beautiful people (while often containing a fair amount of Ethos-based argument) are filled with Pathos as described in sex appeal or humor. Gender issues are interesting and tricky here–what appeals to a woman about a make-up ad with a model is primarily Ethos-based, the male looking at it may find it Pathos based. (While it is a bit reductive, I do tell them that for right now humor and fear are Pathos–I’ll undo that semi-lie later on).

I can spend as long as I need to and give students more and more complex advertisements. I usually extend the fun when I use “arguments” from their parents and the school–“I’ll brain you if you talk to me like that” (Pathos!); “I want you to grow up to be like your Uncle Tim” (Ethos!); “If you study hard and do well and go to medical school you will secure your future.” (Logos!) As teachers we better have all of these arrows in our quivers and now we have given the students the tools to identify the ways we talk to them. “If you don’t study you will flunk and have to go to summer school” (Pathos!) “I had the same questions as you when I was a student.” (Ethos) :”The reason to work hard in this class is to secure a good grade which will help you get into the college you want to go to.” (Logos!) Students soon realize that 1) Pathos-based arguments are powerful hooks but often do not have staying power; 2) Ethos-based arguments are difficult to control–if you don’t like LeBron James you aren’t going to buy what he is selling; and 3) Logos-based arguments are often dry and boring, require work to understand–but may have the best long-term success.

Just two steps to go and you’ll have a small army of rhetoricians taking YOUR arguments apart! Ask them to take a stance like opposing teenage smoking and create an Ethos-based, a Pathos-based, and a Logos-based argument not to smoke. They almost always hit this out of the park. Next try having them create ads for buying insurance for a young family. Next, look at political ads.

Our tiny band of Aristotelians are now ready for some meatier stuff–try these three documents from the American Revolution: Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” (Pathos–a virtual locker-room speech [I’ve also used Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God” for Pathos, too]); Benjamin Franklin’s “Speech at the Constitutional Convention” which is such pure Ethos I will often term it “Be Like Ben” after they identify it. Lastly, take on the “Declaration of Independence” which for most of it list-making last three-quarters is primarily Logos.

They’ll be mixing and matching appeals in no time. They’ll construct better arguments. And, the next year you can teach them about Stephen Toulmin!

From the classics to pop culture back to the classics and into their lives–a Pulp Teacher favorite.

I think next week we take on semiotics, Ovid, and kinds of readers.



Filed under Aristotle, books and learning, critical thinking, definitions, education, inferential skills, pathos, pedagogy, popular culture, rhetoric, teaching, Uncategorized, writing exercise

3 responses to ““Be Like Mike” on Aristotle’s Rhetorical Playground–Ready-made lesson(s)

  1. Joe Rooney

    Hey Dan,

    I’ve done a very similar activity in my AP Government classes using political campaign advertisements. It always seems to be a high interest activity and I get some lively debate as to what is the main device used to influence the audience. You can find virtually every political tv ad for every presidential election since Eisenhower on “The Living Room Candidate” website: http://www.livingroomcandidate.org

    • Hi Joe,

      What a great application–thanks for the link to the website on political tv ads. I’m going to figure out how to use that. I love getting kids thinking about how appeals (manipulation?) works–on them and others.



      Daniel J. McMahon, Ph.D. Principal DeMatha Catholic High School 4313 Madison Street Hyattsville MD 20781 240-764-2202 240-764-2275 fax ________________________________________

  2. Linda Barta

    Thank you souch. I have been thinking about this.lesson for a group of advanced 4th graders who must write a persuasive piece at the end of the quarter. Your entry really got my juices flowing. I appreciate you, and look.look forward o reading more.

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