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Konyism: The Power and Peril of Pathos

Emotional appeals are the redheaded stepchild of crafting and supporting an argument. Pathos, the black sheep of Aristotle’s three modes of persuasion (which also include ethos and logos, ethical and logical rhetorical devices), has long been regarded as a slippery slope on which to base a claim, albeit a powerful one. This is not intended to be an intro course in communications; I’ll spare you that brand of drudgery on a spring-ahead-induced sluggish Monday. Still, there is much to be said about the important role emotions play in framing a point, and how they can make or break your audience connection.

By now you’re well aware of the Invisible Children charity and the Kony 2012 video that went viral last week, prompting a social media conversation about the documentary’s effectiveness, the charity’s agenda and the deliberate plucking of the viewer’s heartstrings. An interesting dialogue developed in our office about the pathos devices utilized in the video, with admittedly split opinions as to their worth. Concerns over perceived emotional manipulation via scenes of the documentarian’s young son learning about kidnappings in Africa, and segments blatantly designed to elicit sympathy provided a thought-provoking discourse that dominated our discussion topics on Friday.

Regardless as to what side of the fence you reside concerning Invisible Children, there is no denying that emotional appeals are powerful rhetorical tools. When employed in the correct manner alongside established credibility and logic, they provide a tangible ‘human’ element to any argument. Over-utilized, however, and you run the risk of denigrating your entire point and invalidating yourself.

Many of our clients secure our services for the placement of op-eds, and these often contain personal accounts that have contributed to a concrete opinion. While stories comprised of supportive evidence of the emotional variety have their place, we caution our clientele from overusing them. Unabashed emotive appeals undermine your argument and can potentially alienate your audience. As seen from the rapid (and rabid) responses to the Kony documentary, these types of claims are not always well-received, and can be interpreted as ‘cheap shots’ with purely manipulative intentions.

Providing a layer of humanity to formulate an argument is Communications 101, and is an essential component of supporting a claim. Tread lightly when emphasizing the emotional, however, as you risk the possibility of creating a disconnect with your readers. Invisible Children accomplished their goal of making Joseph Kony famous overnight, but by relying heavily on the emotional spectrum they may suffer a loss of support for their cause.

-Carter Breazeale

PR/PR Public Relations

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