Video Rhetorics: Televised Advertising in American Politics. John Nelson and Bob Boynton. University of Illinois Press, l997. 269-page book and 63-minute VHS video.

"Paradigms of Politics." From Video Rhetorics.
Political science professors John Nelson and Bob Boynton, of the University of Iowa, have published a book-video package titled Video Rhetorics: Televised Advertising in American Politics designed to "to teach us how to better understand political ads (telespots) by attuning ourselves to their video rhetoric—their themes and stories, atmosphere and characterization, feelings and images, and their use of popular genres—from film to fiction, from MTV to game shows." The 269-page book is accompanied by a 63-minute VHS video of illustrative materials. Included on the tape are stand-alone lessons on paradigms of politics, how music and image deliver argument, orchestrating politics, communicating feeling, and the politics of feeling. Although the quality of the audio on the tape is maddeningly uneven, the Nelson-Boynton work illustrates their belief that a combination of audio-visual and print communication is more powerful pedagogically than is either in isolation.

Analyzing a George Bush campaign ad.
From Video Rhetorics.
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The strength of the work resides in the fact that Nelson and Boynton are teachers with a talent for the apt illustration. The video's demonstration of the impact of pacing is particularly memorable as is the authors' treatment of gradations of color vs. "a binary image in which each pixel is black or white" (p. 97). Their treatment of political ads through the perceptive of such popular genres as sci fi and horror films is inspired and useful as long as one remembers that these are frames for analysis not claims about inherent characteristics of messages. For example, the Bush ad featuring a buzzard and a barren landscape that some called "nuclear winter" and that Nelson and Boynton describe as "a meld of horror and dystopia" can also be interpreted as a parody of political ads worthy of Saturday Nite Live.

"Humble Beginnings." One of the paradigms from Video Rhetorics.
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The work has the flaws of most introductory texts and of many political spots. It simplifies complex ideas and makes categorical pronouncements when the evidence requires greater nuance. A number of the claims in the book will surprise scholars of rhetoric. "Not all ads have explicit arguments," note the authors. "This seems to scandalize the rhetorical critics, but it is a sign that political ads persuade through aesthetics that range beyond what westerners from Plato onward are used to counting as arguments" (pp. 156-57). The rhetorical critics? Who? Where? Not the ones that take seriously Aristotle's notion that the enthymeme is the soul of persuasion. As such statements as "the colors of rhetoric are integral to electronic argumentation" (p. 97) indicate, Nelson and Boynton conflate argument with persuasion. Of course, one can make arguments verbally, visually, or in some combination. However, just as not all arguments are persuasive, not all persuasion is the byproduct of argument.

Just as meaning does not reside in texts but in people so too arguments exist at the intersection between a complicitous audience and a text which can consist of a single visual image. Indeed, the most powerful persuasion probably occurs when a member of an audience is not led claim by claim to a conclusion but rather gets there on her own—in Aristotle's term enthymematically—with the slightest of incentives from a communicator.

Nelson and Boynton miss this point when they describe an ad for Madeleine Kunin which juxtaposed pictures of New York City, underscored by harsh sounds, with pastoral pictures and soothing sounds of Vermont. "This is Vermont,"
"Communicating Feeling": Madeleine Kunin campaigning for governor of Vermont. From Video Rhetorics.
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the speaker noted. Then the ad concluded with the governor herself, posed heroically in a still photo. "And this is how we keep it that way: Madeleine Kunin." Nelson and Boynton conclude, "The argument is in the sounds" (p.120). I disagree. The argument is in the audience's inference, invited by the juxtaposition of images, sounds, pictures and texts, that Kunin will ensure that Vermont retains its pastoral identity and does not become the New York of the ad.

Westerners from Plato onward have understood that what Nelson and Boynton call aesthetics plays a role in persuasion; they just did not consider such things argument. Nor do Nelson and Boynton make a compelling case for that label. Instead, they focus on arguing that the non-verbal elements in messages matter.

Westerners from Plato onward knew this. The authors know this—at least they know it in one of the chapters of the book. After all, on page 99 they write that "Even Aristotle knew the importance of the voices of rhetoric. He thought delivery to be "a matter of how the voice should be used in expressing each emotion." Similarly, on pages 94-95 they synthesize western theorists who did "not limit delivery to use of voice; they include the evocation of images along with the movement of gestures. In fact they mobilize metaphors from all the senses. . . ."

There are other points in the text that scholars of rhetoric might well contest. "Of the five overarching concerns of classical rhetoric, only one was slighted throughout antiquity" (p. 87). Aha, you might be thinking. They are now going to treat the so-called lost canon, memoria? Wrong. This is a chapter about delivery. While indicating why "[I]nattention to delivery is not hard to explain, at least for the West" (p. 87) the authors might want to explain that it was the elocutionary movement's obsession with delivery to the exclusion of the other canons of rhetoric that led a number of major institutions of higher learning to abandon the study of rhetoric altogether.

The authors owe Aristotle an apology. Their preface says they "set about healing the lasting wounds that Aristotle inflicted on rhetorical analysis. . . ." To do so, they "integrate dynamics of ethos, logos, and pathos with considerations of mythos and poetics" (p.xiv). That is, of course, what Aristotle did and is the reason that the Rhetoric and Poetics are customarily published in the same volume and taught together.

Finally Video Rhetorics caused me to meditate on my own identity. Before pleading innocent or guilty to being a logocentrist (p. 98), I ask the jury to consider that Nelson and Boynton quote me analyzing visual meaning (p. 39), music and images (p. 208), and implicit as well as explicit meaning (p. 189).

Logocentrist or not, I do acknowledge their worries about my role in institutionalizing adwatching, a process they dismiss as the "institutionalized ad police" (p. 134; see also p. 66) but believe that their real concern is that adwatchers attend to visual, tonal, musical, and audio as well as verbal information in ads—something good adwatchers do. The adwatchers I applaud also carefully weigh the adequacy of their own evidence before drawing conclusions. Before claiming, for example, that the Bush ad about Clinton's tax plans "was misleading, in ways that none of the critics we heard acknowledged" (p. 31) and declaring that "The truth squads of reporters and scholars should learn how ads work before judging them," (p. 31) a good adwatcher would conduct a comprehensive review of the adwatching done on that ad on TV (including PBS), radio (including NPR), and in print in l992.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson
Annenberg School for Communication of the University of Pennsylvania

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Book/Video Review of Video Rhetorics: Televised Advertising in American Politics
Copyright © 1999 by The Journal for MultiMedia History.

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