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The Rhetorical Triangle — Using Pathos, Logos, and Ethos in your Projects

Darin Bradley

Leading your audience to a particular conclusion is an art unto itself — a classical art, at that. Here’s how understanding pathos, logos, and ethos will improve your film and video projects.

The rhetorical triangle ties together three concepts from the world of classical rhetoric — pathos, logos, and ethos. Every project — be it creative, corporate, or informative — relies on these three means of persuasion to make its point and lead the audience to a conclusion or series of conclusions. Those conclusions might be something like feel this way about this story, or decide to buy this product, or believe the moon landing was fake. 

Even if you haven’t been considering these concepts in the development of your film or video projects, they’ve been there, lurking beneath the surface and classifying what you’ve been doing.

Rhetoric, the discipline where we find these means of persuasion, is more interesting than it sounds. Let’s take a moment to define the terms and how they work, with a few examples in action that have been right under your nose.


The Rhetorical Triangle

Rami Malek in Mr. Robot

The creators behind Mr. Robot used ethos to lead perceptive viewers to a “realistic” or “believable” conclusion about how they were telling the story — a key to narrative success for stories of this kind — by keeping the code used by hackers throughout the series accurate. This creates trust for the showrunners, and deploys logos to improve the authority of the story itself (image via USA Network).

First, fun facts for your next dinner party: the rhetorical triangle — or “rhetorical appeals,” or “means of persuasion,” or even “rhetorical tetrahedron” (!) — comes from Rhetoric, Aristotle’s famous treatise from the 4th century BCE. In it, he lays down some ground rules on the art of persuasion (rhetoric). Add in grammar and logic, and you have the three ancient arts on discourse, which guided the development of ancient Greek law, politics, and poetry. The influence of ancient Greek law, politics, and poetry on the development of western civilization is . . . well . . . a post for another time.

The three “appeals” of the rhetorical triangle work independently and in unison to create compelling arguments that will lead audiences to particular conclusions. The short breakdown goes like this:

  • Pathos represents your audience and your project’s appeal to their emotions.
  • Logos represents your project itself and your project’s appeal to reason (things making sense).
  • Ethos represents you and your credibility or trustworthiness as the creator of a specific project.
Socrates with Bill & Ted from Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure

Socrates taught Plato, who taught Aristotle, who gave us the foundations of rhetoric (and the need for this post). Collecting actual historical figures for your high school presentation would be an excellent use of ethos. Image via Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (Warner Bros.).

So, the rhetorical triangle is talking about you, your project, and your audience — and how the whole relationship either works or doesn’t. We don’t create content in vacuums (the “rhetorical tetrahedron” goes more into context, if you want to read up), so how we write scripts, create ads, and appear on social media is a constant back-and-forth that alternates what we emphasize at which point of the content experience.

First up, let’s take a look at pathos.


Pathos

Pathos is audience manipulation, pure and simple. You’re appealing to people’s emotions by featuring material that will cause particular emotional reactions: fear, sadness, anger, etc. Using pathos in content creation relies upon an audience’s ability to empathize with your message, story, or ad. One of the clearest examples of all time is Sarah McLachlan’s famous ASPCA commercial (which even she can’t watch).

The sad, trembling animals. The haunting sounds of the piano. The desperate wish to reach through the screen to give some hugs and scritches. This is pathos in action. The goal here is to get people to conclude to send some money to the ASPCA. Pathos isn’t actually the only tool at play here, but it’s so blatant that it’s easy to recognize. This video is asking a simple question: “Do you think animals are cute, and do you wish they didn’t suffer?” If the answer isn’t anything other than a resounding Yes!, then the video’s counter-question is simply “What kind of person are you?”

The video is making you feel sad, so it’s appealing to you, the audience (see how it works?) to feel guilty, sad, or angry enough to follow the unspoken equation of the whole experience: if you give us money, this won’t happen. And guess what: it worked. That ad campaign raised $30,000,000 in the first two years alone.

Atreyu and Artax in the Swamp of Sandness in The NeverEnding Story

The scene when Atreyu loses his beloved horse Artax in the Swamp of Sadness is still a shockingly brutal dose of pathos to build empathy between Atreyu and the audience. Image via The NeverEnding Story (Warner Bros.).

Eventually, though, the severity of this appeal created unintended consequences. People got to where they simply couldn’t watch the ad again and would mute the TV or change the channel. Sure, you felt bad doing it, but not as bad as watching the commercial again. It’s safe to say that most of the time, after bailing on the ad, you didn’t go back and conclude to send in more cash. So rhetorical failure.

So how you use pathos to lead an audience to a particular conclusion needs a steady hand and a bit of subtlety if you want it to work the majority of the time for a majority of the people. Ease your audience into your emotional appeals. Even if your goal is simply “make people think my film has a sad ending,” don’t just shove them off an emotional cliff — unless you’re ready to get called out for emotional manipulation. That’s fine because we are manipulating emotions, but if you’re trying to develop a reputation as a skilled filmmaker who understands the nuances of the human condition and how to capture it with a camera, maybe don’t just make movies about sad animals.


Logos

Logos is all about information. In the interplay of the rhetorical triangle, logos is your project itself — specifically how much (or how little) sense it makes. Numbers, data, and “facts” (let’s be flexible with that term for a minute) are the name of the game. If you’re writing an ad to sell sticks of gum, and your script includes a line like “Scientifically proven to strengthen your teeth,” then your logical appeal here is stronger than a script that has nothing at all to say about science. Neither of these two scripts is wrong or right; however, the one with science behind it is creating a more compelling logical appeal, which brings us one step closer to the conclusion we want: buy gum.

Stephen Colbert coined the term "truthiness" to talk about the mutability of facts.

Stephen Colbert famously introduced us to the mutability of facts when he came up with “truthiness.” (Image via Comedy Central.)

Content creators get creative with the “facts” of a logical appeal. It’s easy to trim some data, shape a quote, or otherwise manipulate the truth to get it to say what you want in your project. Your audience isn’t always going to have time to check your data and validate your facts. (How are they going to know you paid for the study that yielded the science about stronger teeth?) This means there’s room for . . . creativity in how you build the world your project lives in. Should you be blasé about your facts? That isn’t for us to say, but it’s definitely a reality of the creative world.

It’s easy enough to see how this might apply when writing ads, creating documentaries, or directing a corporate video, but what about the purely narrative script? What does it even mean to talk about data when we’re talking about a movie? Let me give you an example.

The Enterprise from the Kelvin Timeline.

I look at the Enterprise from the 2009 Kelvin-timeline Star Trek, and I just see a space ship, but not everyone does . . . (Image via Paramount).

When the Kelvin-timeline Star Trek franchise spooled up in 2009, I was stoked. I’m a big fan of Star Trek, and I’m not particular about iterations. I mean, I think the Klingons in Star Trek: The Next Generation look light years better than we saw in the original series. I think they look even more authentic (whatever that means — they’re fictional, but a feeling of authenticity is logos at work) in Star Trek: Discovery. (Which is probably why I’m never invited to any Star Trek parties anymore.) So, what’s the takeaway? I’m a pretty easy Star Trek fan to please.

But not all of them are.

A close friend of mine, who is arguably a much bigger fan than I am, was furious when 2009’s Star Trek came to light. He just absolutely hated the design of the Enterprise. I looked at it, and I saw . . . a space ship. He looked at it, and he couldn’t comprehend where Engineering would go, or how it would fit. The authenticity (the “facts” of this ship) was toast for him, so there was zero logical appeal. And then things got weird with transporter physics, and the worldbuilding of this movie fell apart for him. The appeal to logos didn’t work.

Apollo 11 Appeal to Logos

Every documentary leads its audience to one conclusion or another, despite the journalistic veneer. Documentaries are full of appeals to logos, but Apollo 11 takes it to the next level. The entire film is nothing but facts and evidence without any narrative intrusion. (Image via CNN Films.)

So, there are rules that you establish with your audience as you go, based on what type of movie you’re making, what the audience is used to seeing in this vein, and what seem to be the governing laws of the universe. If you violate these rules due to bad writing or production design, you’ll end up less likely to lead your audience to the conclusion you want — which is probably something along the lines of this is a good movie.


Ethos

Ethos is credibility. It’s a reason why your audience should listen to you rather than that person over there. Anything that proves (or seems to prove) that you know what you’re doing or what you’re talking about is an appeal to ethos. This is why over-the-counter medicines or products like to feature doctors’ endorsements. They’re doctors, after all. If we can’t trust them, who can we trust? The same, strangely, holds true for celebrities. Many people consider celebrities inherently more correct or informed about, well, anything simply because they’re famous. This mentality holds that famous people are better than not-famous people. So, the idea is be more like famous people.

Celebrities create an "ethical appeal."

Brad PittLeonardo DiCaprioQuentin Tarantino, and Margot Robbie  are good examples of high-profile Hollywood celebrities who create an “ethical appeal,” when they sign on to a project. (Image via IMDb.)

In the narrative film world, this is a good reason why we spend what we spend on famous actors and directors. The studios are presenting the rhetorical argument that we should give them our money to watch the latest thing they’ve made. We generally like hanging on to our money, and there are lots of movies to choose from, so here’s where the why should we listen to you comes in. It’s a bit of a self-perpetuating circle. A director who has made successful films in the past is likely to do so again, so paying them plenty of cash to sign on to a project is a worthy investment for a studio. It attaches credibility to the project, so now famous actors are more likely to sign on, and we’re more likely to pay the money to watch the movie because wow, look at all that ethos!

But you may not have the budget to bring J.J. Abrams onto your passion project. There are other ways to build credibility. It’s very likely that your audience won’t know anything about you, your crew, or the project. If they’re watching your movie, it’s either because you marketed it correctly, someone recommended it, or it’s just dumb luck. In the last scenario, good luck — there’s not much ethos can do for you here. In the first two, however, your project has a reputation to live up to: the reputation you created with your trailers, your social campaign, and even the title you chose. If you deliver what you promised, demonstrating that you know your way around a camera, a crew, and a set, your audience will develop plenty of reasons to attach ethos to your operation. Trick photography and cool camera stunts are tempting, but if they don’t land, neither will your movie, and you will have a credibility problem, not an advantage.

Be sure you’re delivering on the reasons people came to watch what you’ve made. And if it’s online, and you see a like, or a subscribe, or a link, that’s ethos in action.


All Three in Action

To bring this full circle, I want to return to the ASPCA video featuring Sarah McLachlan. It’s not any easier to watch now than it was two minutes ago, but go ahead and give it a shot for the sake of discussion . . .

Now, we already called out the use of pathos. It’s glaring, so we don’t need to come back to the subject. However, I said before that there was more going on here than simply an appeal to pathos — and now you can see what I’m talking about. Sarah McLachlan is a highly recognizable celebrity, and her music is widely known. By layering her music as a soundtrack, and signing her on as a spokesperson, the ASPCA not only brought immediate ethical appeal to their campaign, they brought it to this specific video featuring the music. And if you were able to successfully make it through this time (go ahead, try again . . .), you will have noticed that before we even see McLachlan or hear her sing a note, we get an appeal to logos with the information that “Every hour, an animal is beaten or abused.” So somebody’s done some research. Later, we hear that the contribution only needs to be $18 per month to save an animal, meaning, again, somebody crunched some numbers and figured that out for us.

So we see a one-, two-, three-punch combo in action with this video, which goes to show you how different projects will need you to tune those three dials differently. Documentaries will be a little heavy on the logos out of the gate, but they can improve the appeal to ethos with recognizable narrators. Social media videos don’t leave a lot of time for appeals to logos, so concentrate on the pathos and ethos instead. And if you’re making a corporate training video, then crank all three — you’re going to need all the help you can get.


Looking for more on creating successful video projects? Check out these articles.

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