Advertising isn't just about facts and figures. It's about striking an emotional chord, making us feel something powerful that motivates us to act.

In commercials, we are constantly trying to draw eyeballs onto the TV and then get people to buy products in stores. That requires using different modes of persuasion.

The one we're focusing on today is pathos.

Pathos taps into our deepest emotions to create a connection between us and the product or service being advertised. and today, we're going to extrapolate that and how it's used.

Let's dive in.

Pathos Definition

Pathos is the use of the "pathetic appeal." But not the "pathetic we know." This is appealing to people’s emotions or sense of identity- think "empathy."

If you can make consumers feel an emotion, or appeal to their sense of identity, you’re using pathos. This is all about what you evoke in others. Can you make them angry about a cause? Can you get them to feel guilty for not doing something?

You're using pathos.

Advertisers employing pathos want you to feel something strongly so that feeling influences your decisions about their product or service.

Aristotle in Advertising

Most of the storytelling we deal with harkens back to Aristotle's "Poetics." It was the building block for drama and became a must-read for anyone interested in crafting their own plays, movies, televisions shows, and now advertisements.

As advertising leans more and more on storytelling, "Poetics" has become even more important today.

In "Poetics," Aristotle said:

Of the modes of persuasion furnished by the spoken word there are three kinds. The first kind depends on the personal character of the speaker; the second on putting the audience into a certain frame of mind; the third on the proof, or apparent proof, provided by the words of the speech itself.

But what were the three modes of persuasion Aristotle found?

The Three Modes of Persuasion

  • Ethos (ἦθος—disposition or character)
  • Pathos (πάθος—emotion or passion)
  • Logos (λόγος—argument or discourse)

These modes are referred to as ethical strategies or rhetorical appeals.

They're based on the idea that persuasion is achieved by the speaker's personal character. By the speaker, I mean the author of the advertisement. You want to seem credible as an author. Whether that's the writer, director, or anyone working in that space.

Your persuasive ideas must stir something in the reader—an emotional reaction.

This cannot just be through your written or spoken words. You have to exhibit an inherent or apparent truth. That way, you appear to have all the answers to the question you asked the reader.

All this manifests itself in each of the aforementioned modes.

Pathos Examples

What kinds of ads rely heavily on pathos?

How about beer commercials?

Sure, many of them focus on people having a blast, but Budweiser also knows how to tug at your heartstrings. They've become perennial favorites with their animal ads during the Super Bowl.

The "lost puppy" one is one of my favorites.

It stuck with me and brought a tear to my eye.

Other moving ads that deal with Pathos can be targeted at certain groups.

Toys R' Us ran an incredibly successful campaign targeted at parents who wanted to share Star Wars with their kids.

This ad not only has cute babies but the maturation of a kid who grows to love and understand her father. It uses humor to sneak into your heart and stays there.

Why is Pathos Important to Advertisers?

Pathos is all about audience manipulation. You want to make sure you gather emotional responses from viewers. It can be positive or negative, but each has to pop.

Think about ads for acid reflux. We see people in pain, but medicine makes them better. Or think about ads where we see people having fun or doing good works.

How can your product help improve their lives?

Methods of Using Pathos in Advertising

  • Storytelling: Ads often tell mini-stories to trigger emotions:
    • The Underdog: A person or group overcoming challenges, making us root for them (Dove's "Real Beauty" campaigns).
    • The Transformation: Showing someone's life improving because of a product (weight loss ads, home renovation before & afters).
    • The Heartwarming Moment: Simple scenes of love, kindness, or achievement (Life insurance ads focusing on family).
  • Vivid Imagery: Visuals are powerful for evoking emotions:
    • Color: Red evokes excitement, blue calmness, etc.
    • Symbolism: Animals, objects, or settings with cultural associations (A lone wolf = strength).
    • Contrast: Before/after pictures, or a stark difference to highlight a problem.
  • Music & Sound:
    • Uplifting melodies: Create joy or a sense of triumph.
    • Haunting tunes: Generate sadness or a sense of urgency.
    • Sound effects: Emphasize action or create a specific feeling (sizzling food = crave).
  • Loaded Language: Words have emotional weight:
    • Evocative descriptions: "Luscious flavor", "Peaceful getaway"
    • Action words: "Protect", "Fight", "Discover"
    • Hyperbole: "Best ever", "Life-changing" (Exaggerations play on desires)

Let me know what you think in the comments.