Attraction and persuasion in advertising: A beginner’s guide to visual rhetoric

An average person is exposed to about 1,000 advertisements a day, and up to 32,000 ads a year (“STAND lesson,” 2012). Advertising is arguably one of the most omnipresent things in our lives. Have you ever thought of how it works and how it influences us?


Look at the ad above! It is a Dior’s perfume ad. At one glance, it features Eva Green as the model. She’s emerging from the water. The ad is for Midnight Poison perfume. You may have also caught the tagline “A new Cinderella is born.” This is it, you are ready to move on the next ad…

Wait! What does Eva have to do with Midnight Poison or Cinderella? Probably nothing. But is there something mesmerizing rises from the ad? Do you start to think Midnight Poison will make a girl unique and captivating? If you are a young middle to high-class lady, the target audience of Midnight Poison, you are most likely to stop and give this ad a second glance. If so, the ad has fulfilled its purpose. And do you understand why? Keep your thoughts for a moment as we will come back to this ad later.


We mentioned that there is a plethora of ads that people encounter every day. As a result, people have to employ perceptual defense to simplify and control their ad processing. Only a few ads among the many encountered in a day is processed, while the majority is simply ignored. Such consumer’s selective attention has become one of the greatest challenges for advertisers, which produces a tremendous waste of advertising dollars (O’Guinn, Allen & Semenik, 2008). The advertiser’s questions have long been how to make one ad capture more attention than others and how to make it more persuasive than others. Hence, it poses a need for a proper research on how ads affect their consumers.

To answer for such need, advertisers arrived at the use of visual rhetoric, or more commonly known as visual metaphor. According to Leigh’s (1994) research, more than 74% print ads employed visual rhetoric to catch more consumers’ attention. Lending support to Leigh’s notion, Jeong (2008) analyzed the rhetorical use in U.S. magazine ads from 1954 to 1999 and found that visual rhetoric has been dominantly and increasingly used throughout the period. Much research agrees that visual rhetoric is not only an attention-grasper but also an effective persuasion toward the readers (Jeong, 2008; McQuarrie & Mick, 1999; Mzoughi & Abdelhak, 2011). Therefore, visual rhetoric has long been widely used to deliver advertising communication messages. Is it indeed a perfect solution for advertising?

(And did the Midnight Poison ad hold you back a moment longer than you had thought?)


Derived from the ancient Greece as a discipline of argumentation, rhetoric is a theory that studies how a message can influence and persuade audiences (Aristotle). A speaker designs a persuasive argument with the five canons, through which his or her intention would be understood and evaluated: invention (argument discovery), arrangement (argument organization), style (correctness and appropriateness), memory (speeches memorization), and delivery (voice and gestures).

Based upon Aristotle’s rhetoric, Barthes (1977) proposed the idea of visual rhetoric as a series of discontinuous signs and connotations derived from the image. Visual rhetoric employs celebrities, animals, objects or even animated pictures strategically to create a persuasion that goes beyond the character’s literal meaning. Jeong (2008) and Stathakopoulos, Theodorakis, and Mastoridou (2008) further described that through the arrangement of pictures, visual rhetoric provides a rhetorical comparison between two unrelated objects. This comparison makes the subject diverge from its normal usage and assume the characteristics of the other object. Since the two objects are unrelated, and mostly used with minimal verbal explanations, visual rhetoric is often more implicit and can bear more than one possible interpretation (McQuarrie & Mick, 1996).

For example, in the two anti-smoking ads above, the cigarettes were arranged to represent something else. The first ad shows a comparison between a hand holding a cigarette with a hand holding a gun. As the gun usually creates a killing, dangerous or deadly atmosphere, the cigarette assumes these characteristics and makes audiences think smoking is just as deadly (as shooting). On the other hand, the second ad provides two metaphors. The cigarettes were grouped to look like a bunch of dynamites, which are sensitive, explosive and destructive. The clock is a metaphor of time. Altogether, the ad wants to convey the message that smoking can destroy your future, as it burns away the time you have left. The visual rhetoric here requires audiences not to take the ads for their literal meanings and analyze more carefully to understand the deeper messages.

(Now can you try to explain what Eva Green and the setting represented in the Midnight Poison ad?)

Further, as with Aristotle’s rhetoric, visual rhetoric also entails persuasion capability. Scott (1994) construed three canons in visual rhetoric from the original five canons. First, the visual elements must be able to invent an argument through their concepts, abstractions and metaphors. Second, the arrangement of pictures must guide the arguments. Finally, the visual delivery must be meaningful and suggestive of the intended arguments.

For example, the Adidas’s ad shown above invented the argument that with Adidas shoes, the athlete manages to run so fast that his shadow cannot keep up. The arrangement in the ad fulfilled the intention, as audiences would be able to understand the argument through the ad. Moreover, the delivery presented in an illogical and exaggerated manner that could draw audiences’ interest and make him process deeper into this ad.

Another example is the WWF’s ad above about global warming. The ice-cream here should not be treated in its normal usage as a sweet, cold dessert; instead, it is the metaphor of the earth. The ice-cream melting is the suggestive argument that the earth is melting away from global warming. By using the metaphorical image and minimal text, the ad manages to make audiences wonder what the message is and capture their attention longer.


It delivers more, and delivers faster.

As the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” then using image cleverly could equal to delivering a lengthy essay. According to Bulmer and Buchanan-Oliver (2006), visual advertising can signify a remarkable amount of information in a glance. Through images, multiple elements like colors, lighting, arrangement, gestures and expressions are delivered simultaneously. Additionally, the researchers asserted that visual rhetoric works even better than its verbal counterpart as it is less ambiguous and perceived more universally, so the audiences could receive the message not only in greater amount, but also at a shorter time. Such delivery style works especially well when there’s a need of attention capture in a short amount of time, like the issue that advertising is currently facing.

It is persuasive.

The main advantage of visual rhetoric is its persuasion effect. Visual rhetoric works similarly to the original, verbal rhetoric yet it uses visual cues to structure persuasion. As much research posited, due to the metaphorical effect of rhetoric, arguments employed visual rhetoric are more persuasive than literal messages (Jeong, 2008; Stathakopoulos et al., 2008).

The persuasiveness in visual rhetoric can be explained with Petty and Cacioppo’s (1986) elaboration likelihood model. According to them, elaboration is the process of information in working memory integrates with prior knowledge structures. If a message resonates with audiences’ knowledge, predisposition and involvement, it is more likely to be processed carefully; and the more audiences think about the message, the better chance it has to persuade them.

Much research has extended the model to the visual realm and has found that consumers are more sensitive to both visuals in general and rhetorical figures specifically. However, in their studies on visual rhetoric in advertising, McQuarrie and Mick (1999), Bulmer and Buchanan-Oliver (2006), Jeong (2008) and Stathakopoulos and colleagues (2008) stated that if metaphorical image is easy to recognize, or it is more central to the audiences’ lives, it invites audiences to process in a more intense way, evokes more complex cognitive elaboration in their minds than literal images. Likewise, ads containing visual metaphor without verbal explanation lead to most cognitive activities, while ads containing only literal visuals with verbal explanation produce least cognitive activities. As a result, since it makes audiences thoughtfully consider the message, visual rhetoric help them better organize the information, and may lead to stronger belief change (Jeong, 2008).

For example, the above Elter’s ads desire to spread the message “an unwashed vegetable can become a deadly weapon.” The shocking and deadly atmosphere implied by the weapons creates a strong impression in the audiences and make the ads more memorable and the message more explicit.

Here, instead of using the plain images of unwashed vegetables with the verbal message, the ads employed the metaphorical figures of a grenade, an explosion cloud and a time bomb, embedded in the literal artichoke, mushroom and tomato images. As the vegetables are central to everybody’s meals, and the metaphorical images are familiar and recognizable, the ads aim to evoke more thoughtful consideration from the audiences.

It makes the brand appear more positive.

In his book The responsibility of forms, Barthes (1985) coined the idea “pleasure of the text” produced by rhetorical figures. He asserted that texts with multiple interpretations are more pleasurable to readers than simple, one-dimensional texts. This pleasure comes from the aesthetic value of rhetorical arrangement and from the referent (the person or thing that is implied or referred to) of such text. Based on Barthes’s notions, McQuarrie and Mick’s (1996, 1999) investigation extended the idea to visual rhetoric. The researchers asserted that similarly to text rhetoric, visual rhetoric also produces a subtle yet powerful nudge toward audiences and makes them perceive the ad more positively. Further, applying the concept to advertising, Stathakopoulos and colleagues’ (2008) research found that an ad with rhetorical elements is considered more favorable than an ad without rhetorical elements. Therefore, they recommended that advertisers apply rhetoric in advertising to generate a positive impact on viewers’ attitudinal responses.

It promotes brand credibility.

Source credibility and persuasiveness are two correlated elements. As an argument is evaluated as credible, audiences would accept the message more readily, and vice versa. According to Jeong (2008), in verbal rhetoric, a communicator who uses metaphors is regarded as more credible because the creativity is weighed more heavily. The perceived credibility thus leads to greater acceptance of the communicator’s arguments. Likewise, artful and creative visual rhetoric can promote brand credibility. Further, as visual images are more persuasive than verbal propositions, visual rhetoric was also found to better leverage the brand’s perceived credibility than literal images.


Back to the aforementioned Midnight Poison ad, have you figured out what makes this ad unique and captivating? The reason lies on the visual rhetoric that the advertiser carefully implanted in this ad.

Eva Green, the model, is a depiction of a rare, dark beauty, with an impenetrable temperament. Her image used in the ad delivers an exotic, rebellious and daring sense. When the character of Eva and the image setting combined, the ad delivers the message that “the new Cinderella is born,” a new, unique beauty, not a traditional beauty with a generic look.

Did this ad deliver more (message), and deliver faster? Yes. Did it somehow whisper to you that “only Dior could give you this like-no-other enchanting look?” Instead of verbally stating that everyone who wears Midnight Poison will feel stunning, different and bewitching, through the metaphorical image of Eva and the accompanied text, the ad can deliver a whole fairytale of “the new Cinderella is born” and make audiences want to be the new Cinderella just like Eva.

Is this ad pleasurable to view? Yes. The creative and aesthetic sense in this ad is irrefutable. The concept, lighting, setting arrangement, model choice and acting altogether presented the ad in the most elegant and classy way, making it a joy to view and capturing the second (and maybe third) glance of its target audiences.

Finally, is this ad persuasive and credible? Yes. By using the visual rhetoric through the model ( Eva Green connotes a shimmering and dreaming image) and inductive reasoning (Eva is such a rare beauty; therefore, wearing this perfume, you can be as unique as her), the ad convinces people to buy Midnight Perfume. This Midnight Poison ad, along with other thematic commercials in the same campaign, delivered the enchanting persuasion to its audiences and made the product a commercial success (“Midnight Poison,” 2007).


Like everything else, visual rhetoric also has its limitations. Overuse or misuse this strategy in advertising may cause unwanted effects. Until now, detailed specifications for visual rhetoric in advertising have yet to be fully constructed. Nevertheless, we could draw some recommendations for effective use of visual rhetoric in advertising from the existing literature.

Avoid complicated rhetorical figures.

Scott (1994) stated that audiences’ background and experience related to the images are accounted for their perception and understanding of the images. Moreover, according to Mzoughi and Abdelhak (2011), if the rhetorical figures used in ads are complicated, audiences may spend all their cognitive resources to solve message and cannot remember the brand name. In this case, audiences who encountered advertisements without figures could recall the names better than those encountered ads with complex figures. As a result, it is recommended that advertisers employ familiar and simple rhetorical figures in the ads to accommodate their audiences’ interpretation.

Avoid unrelated rhetorical figures.

We discussed before that cognitive elaboration makes an ad appears more persuasive. However, it only works if the elaboration is strongly related to the intended arguments. Obviously, a rhetorical figure that is clumsy or hard to understand cannot have a positive impact on consumers’ attitude (McQuarrie & Mick, 1999); but a well-crafted rhetorical figure may produce the same result. Advertisers may be tempted to make an ad with creative, stand-out rhetorical figures, trying to attract attention from audiences. As Mzoughi and Abdelhak (2011) pointed out, if the figures have nothing to do with the argument, the increased elaboration actually has a negative effect on persuasion, as the distraction from the figures can overcome the main message.

Minimize accompanied text.

Stathakopoulos and colleagues (2008) suggested that metaphorical figures without verbal explanations in advertising can persuade audiences better than literal images with straightforward arguments. This notion is supported by Jeong’s (2008) research when he concluded that the argument of an ad mainly comes from the images and metaphorical rhetoric, supplementary verbal explanation may not be necessary. The researchers all arrived that visual metaphor without verbal propositions produces a greater degree of cognitive activity and thus makes the ad more persuasive and credible to audiences.

Only use text to prevent confusions.

The first recommendation does not mean we can ignore texts altogether. As McQuarrie and Mick (1996) stated, an image may bear more than one interpretation. Think back about the Elter’s vegetable ads, without the tagline, could we perceive them differently? Could we say consuming those vegetables has always been harmful? Yes, we could, as the images by themselves do not say anything about “unwashed.”

Barthes (1977) saw the caption as a meaning anchor to direct audiences through the metaphorical images. As images can have a number of meanings, without the caption, they can be understood incorrectly. For Barthes, the text here serves to direct the interpretation, causing the audiences to avoid confusions and receive the intended meaning.


As the title says, this is an introduction to visual rhetoric and its uses in advertising for beginners, who want to understand more about the ad realm. This guide introduced the needs of getting quick attention and delivering persuasion in advertising, how visual rhetoric could address those needs and how to effectively use visual rhetoric in advertising. This guide also provided ad examples along the way to better illustrate the ideas. Much academic research has proved that visual rhetoric can deliver more messages in a shorter time, make the argument more persuasive, highlight the brand’s positivity and promote brand credibility. With all the advantages visual rhetoric can bring to you brand, however, it also has some unwanted effects that advertisers need to know. It is recommended that advertisers avoid complex or unrelated rhetorical figures, use minimal text only to confusion from the audiences. Hopefully, this guide can help you understand the basics of visual rhetoric and apply it to your ad design, or simply analyze your favorite ads.


By: Clāra Ly-Le, MComm MPRCA, the Managing Director of EloQ Communications (formerly Vero IMC Vietnam). Originally posted on her LinkedIn account in 2014. As the article still receives unwavering attention after five years, Clāra decides to re-post it on EloQ’s blog for the wider audience.

(X-posted on Clāra’s blog)



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