Believe Me Because I Want You To

Cartoon of the devil

Here’s why you should trust me.

Trust me. In his book on rhetoric, Aristotle laid out three basic methods of persuasion. One was logic, which, as I always told my writing classes, is effective with an intelligent reasonable audience. As I also told them, since an intelligent reasonable audience is so rare, there is a second method, of using emotion. As examples of this method, we can cite 98% of all advertising and 99% of political campaigns. It works.

By far the most interesting method Aristotle discussed is related to the credibility of the speaker or writer. Our technical term for this in studies of rhetoric is “ethos”. This is actually one of the most critically important aspects of rhetoric. If someone is simply brilliant and has a golden tongue for words, but you totally don’t trust a word they say, then what they say doesn’t matter.

There are various kinds of built-in ethos, such as sitting in a doctor’s office and trusting whatever stranger walks in with a white coat on. Another kind of ethos may be still more interesting, as it comes basically from what the writer or speaker says right there on the spot, trying to create that trust by sounding trustable, whatever that might mean to the audience.

On Tuesday this week within a couple of hours I saw the word “guaranteed” used twice in reference to food products. Once was on a box of some very generic-looking cereal, and at the top of the box was the phrase “Guaranteed Value”. The other usage was a guarantee regarding satisfaction with a container of store-baked cookies.

I’m pretty sure the word “guaranteed” did not actually mean anything in these contexts. I doubt that anyone is going to take that generic box of cereal, regardless of what they paid for it, and think “Hey, this isn’t real value. I should claim that guarantee.” What would the guarantee consist of? (Under the circumstances where I saw the box, it was especially unlikely, as I spent Tuesday volunteering at a food bank, so the “value” in that case was free.)

With the cookies, which were on the breakroom table for food bank staff, maybe the guarantee is backed up, sort of. Maybe you really could take those cookies back to the store, go to customer service, and say, “I’m not entirely satisfied. I don’t know, they’re just…they could be better.” OK, the store might say, here’s your two dollars back. Probably not costing the store a lot of money.

Putting the word “guaranteed” on these cheap products must be almost entirely rhetorical, trying to persuade people to buy with an appeal to ethos. You can trust us, and we promise this will be good. A strong ethos really does work, but are these strange examples effective? Does anyone look at a box of generic cereal (or a box of anything made on the planet Earth) and see the phrase “Guaranteed Value” and think “Hmm, in that case I guess I’ll buy it”?

Obviously someone thought it might work. Or maybe they didn’t think about it all, maybe it just looked good up there at the top of the box. Speaking as a professional writer, which I’m willing to do in spite of not being paid very often, I declare that the world is filled with weak, careless writing, even on cereal boxes.

You’ve probably also been in this world long enough to hear someone begin a sentence with “Trust me…” or “Believe me…” We also see this in writing. Speaking again as a professional writer, I want to bang my head on the wall when I see this. I always think “Are your readers such morons they will believe you just because you say to?” Though I guess I hate to contemplate the probability of the answer.

In an article from 2008, the political strategist David Canzini gave advice to would-be politicians, including the very specific advice “Don’t say ‘trust me’”. In a chat room I also found a discussion of whether or not you would trust anyone who uses that phrase. In fact, saying “trust me” is sloppy lazy rhetoric. Instead of giving actual reasons for trust, the phrase somewhat assumes that the audience members are stupid and will trust merely because they are told to.

So if you want to sell cereal or run for office, tell us how crunchy it is and how you plan to fill potholes. I mean…crunchy, I want crunchy. And I hate potholes.

That’s better rhetoric. I guarantee it.

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1 Comment

Filed under Language

One response to “Believe Me Because I Want You To

  1. Word, David. I did buy my guaranteed ‘organic’ garden seeds from the Seeds of Change–satisfaction guaranteed website…and when, not if, the spindlelee sprouts wither or rot in my too much grow light or overwatered care…I will call Seeds of Change customer service and tell that I am not satisfied. Guaranteed.

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