The Art of persuasion


When PC explains that there were 114,000 known viruses for PCs in 2005, the perlocutionary effect is that the audience now believes that viruses are rife on PCs. The use of such a large, precise figure is a very pointed attempt at scaremongering, and at giving that scaremongering some statistical substantiation. In truth, most computer viruses are quite malign intrusions that even the most rudimentary antivirus software will be more than capable of removing. This figure, coupled with PC’s larger-than-life ill-health, is intended to make the audience believe that PC viruses are both rampant and devastating.

This fact is also untrue, but as Sperber (ibid, p. 135), explains, our reliance on communication leaves us “vulnerable to misinformation, deception and misguidance”. Mac responds to PC by saying, “PCs… not Macs. ” How one interprets this depends on the context on which it is considered. John Rogers Searle (1969, p. 24-25) explains that, “Illocutionary and propositional acts consist characteristically in uttering words in sentences in certain contexts, under certain conditions and with certain intentions. ” Mac’s response carries a lot of hidden meaning in these three words.

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His reply is subtle, and tinged with condescension. There is a definite suprasegmental effect in his voice, the implication that he is inviting us to join in a private joke at PC’s expense. He is suggesting that Macs are immune to viruses, a suggestion similarly made when PC warns him to stay back and Mac replies, “I’ll be fine. ” Sperber (1994) and Wilson (1999) write about persuasion and relevance, and divide the speaker’s intention into two parts: informative and communicative. The speaker wants the hearer to hear what is being said (informative intention) and to understand it (communicative intention).

Relevance theory dictates the extent of success for that communication, such that the more relevant the utterance, the more successful the speaker will be in getting their message across. Sperber and Wilson (ibid. ) further break down hearer understanding into three strategies. A “nai?? vely optimistic” hearer will accept what they hear, even if the speaker has consciously sculpted the relevance of their message in order to deceive or mislead. A “cautiously optimistic” hearer can detect insufficient relevance but will retrieve the speaker’s intended meaning by considering what they meant to convey.

The final group, those who demonstrate “sophisticated understanding”, can detect deception. When we consider the target audience for Apple’s “Get a Mac” advertising campaign, it is most likely the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of computer users: users who are not irretrievably committed to either platform and who have opted for a PC in the past because they are unaware of (or unconcerned by) the alternatives. Those hearers who don’t know very much about computers or who have a very limited understanding of the technology are likely to be the people who deferentially accept what they are being told in the advert.

The more initiated computer user will be more likely to understand computer viruses and be aware that, contrary to the message carried in the adverts, Macs are in fact susceptible to viruses, Trojans and worms. According to Petty and Cacioppo (1986), there are two paths to persuasion, both dependent on the way in which information is processed. Information that is centrally processed uses cognitive resources to understand an argument, while peripherally processed information demands less cognition and allows for automatic mechanisms to take hold. The latter mechanism will often associate what Petty and Cacioppo (ibid.

) term a “cue”, with a long-held belief. In the case of the “Get a Mac” adverts, the reference to PCs crashing may resonate with a recollection of the term “blue screen of death”. Here, motivation plays a significant role. Someone who is uninterested in computers and/or who is not intending to buy a new machine (low motivation) may watch the “Virus advert” and glean from it that PCs are prone to viruses. Later, if asked their opinion on Macs, they might respond that they never get viruses, or that they are “healthy”. This is an example of peripheral processing at work.

The advertisements tackle the issues that are likely to be at the forefront of consumers’ minds: safety, security, stability and functionality. They are largely comparative, mentioning both the product being sold and its competitor in order to distinguish the marketed product as being superior. Indeed, in many of the advertisements the focus is concentrated mainly on disparaging the competition. But many of the criticisms levelled at PCs are unfair and play on long-established cliches such as the “blue screen of death” freezes that have plagued Windows-based systems over the years.

In fact, these problems are far less prevalent in modern systems. The implication is that Apple are actually attacking Windows’ reputation rather than the product itself. Even if the veracity of their advertising is dubious, one cannot fault the logic behind identifying such a preconception and exploiting it. Some researchers, such as Fiske (1980), argue that negative information, rather than positive information, is more likely to draw attention. Taylor (1991) notes that negative stimuli produce “more cognitive activity,” “more cognitive work,” and “more complex cognitive representations” than do positive stimuli (pp.

70-71). The negativity in Apple’s advert has prompted something of an industry backlash against the company. One criticism is that ‘PC’ is an acronym for ‘personal computer’ and can be applied to computers running Windows or Mac operating systems (it is generally accepted that by saying “PC,” Apple is in fact referring specifically to Windows-based computers). Microsoft’s chairman, Bill Gates, has complained that Apple’s criticisms of PCs do not bare “even the slightest shred of truth” (PC Retail Magazine Website, Feb 15th 2007). Apple is, however, very careful not to mention Microsoft in any of the advertisements.

With a 5% market share, Apple is scarcely a significant threat to Microsoft. Indeed, the mere presence of Apple in the marketplace helps Microsoft to combat the suggestion that it is a monopoly. But for as long as there is the possibility of Microsoft ceasing to produce software for the Mac, these subdued (if mean-spirited) attacks at Windows computers are unlikely to get any more belligerent. Conversely, Nancy Bernard (Step Inside Design website, 2006) defends the advert, arguing that “the hip guy is so solicitous of the nerdy guy, and the script is so careful not to exaggerate, that you come away feeling sympathetic to both of them.

” But there is no escaping from the message they seem to be promulgating: that Macs are too cool for anyone other than the people already using them. In that sense, the adverts play like an in-joke. As SLATE’s Seth Stevenson asserts, “isn’t smug superiority (no matter how affable and casually dressed) a bit off-putting as a brand strategy? ” (Slate Magazine website, 2006). There is no denying the positive impact of wittiness in advertising. Bernard provides statistical evidence that “53 percent of ads that people think are funny or smart succeed, while 73 percent of ads that people think are boring fail.

” Here lies part of the advertising prowess behind the “Get a Mac” campaign: the acrimonious comparison between the two platforms is sufficiently masked in humour that it becomes palatable. When one tries to assess whether or not the campaign is a success, it seems at least intuitively valid to consider the timescale in which the adverts have been aired. In the US, the first advert premiered in May 2006, with more adverts airing on a monthly basis for the remainder of 2006. Apple reported a 39% rise in sales for the fiscal year ending September 2006, although numerous other factors and market forces could have had impacted on this.

Apple’s campaign comes at a crucial time when many PC users will be considering an upgrade to the new Windows Vista operating system, and this decision will be particularly pertinent due to the hardware compatibility implications of Vista.

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Persuasive Signs: The Semiotics of Advertising, Walter de Gruyter. Bernard, Nancy (2006). Funny Business. Step Inside Design. V. 22 I. 6 P. 88-89. Fiske, S. T. (1980). Attention and Weight in Person Perception: The Impact of Negative and Extreme Behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 38, 889-906. Gu, Y. (1993) The Impasse of Perlocution. Journal of Pragmatics 20: 405-432. Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1980) Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. Petty, R. E. & J. T. Cacioppo (1986) Communication and Persuasion: Central and Peripheral Routes to Attitude Change. Springer Verlag, New York.

Searle, J. R. (1969) Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. Sperber, D. (2000) Metarepresentations in an Evolutionary Perspective, in Sperber, D. (ed. ). Metarepresentations, Oxford University Press, Oxford. Sperber, D. & D. Wilson (1986) Relevance: Communication and Cognition. Blackwell, Oxford. Sperber, D. & D. Wilson (1995) Relevance: Communication and Cognition. Second Edition. Blackwell, Oxford. Taylor, S. E. (1991). Asymmetrical Effects of Positive and Negative Events: The Mobilization-Minimization Hypothesis. Psychological Bulletin, 110, 67-85.


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