Persuasive communication: The case of marketing
By: MARIE-ODILE TAILLARD
Two of the goals of human communication are: to be understood and to be believed. In
persuasive communication, both of these acts are fulfilled. Pragmatists have investigated
the first goal and how it is carried out, while social psychologists have focused on the
second goal. This paper attempts to shed new light on persuasion by reviewing work from
both fields and sketching the outline of a model integrating such work. Relevance theory
bridges communication and cognition and, as such, provides a solid foundation for further
research on persuasion. Marketing communication offers a rich domain of investigation
for this endeavor: we show that pragmatics can only benefit from an analysis of persuasive
communication in an “optimized” context such as marketing.
One of our goals, when we communicate, is to be understood. Another goal is to be
believed: we try to affect our audiences’ beliefs, desires and actions. Persuasion is the
communicative act that carries out both these goals – an audience that has been
persuaded has understood an utterance, and believed its message1
. Accounting for the
understanding aspect has typically been the work of pragmatic theorists, while
explaining how attitudes change has been the focus of social psychologists. A plausible
study of persuasion must bring the two fields together. Both disciplines have so far
fallen short of providing satisfactory models of persuasion because they have failed to
take each other’s work into account. My principal aim in this paper is to begin to
remedy this shortfall and to show how pragmatics and social psychology interact in
persuasion. I will review work on persuasion in both disciplines and introduce the
outline of an integrated model of persuasive communication, beginning with the
speaker’s intention to communicate and persuade, through to the hearer’s potential
attitude change. My second goal is to utilize this framework to look at a specific type of
persuasive communication, marketing communication. I will show how and why both
marketing and pragmatics can benefit from using marketing as a domain of investigation
in studying communication.
2 Persuasion and Communication
2.1 Speech Act Theory and Perlocutionary Acts
2.1.0. Persuading someone is performing an act (roughly, that of affecting someone’s
beliefs or desires) using some form of communication, usually language. As such,
persuasion constitutes a “speech act,” an act performed in, or by speaking. The notion of
speech act and the theory that was developed around it were first introduced by J.L.
Austin in his William James Lectures at Harvard in 1955, and published in 1962 in his
How To Do Things With Words. I will review Austin’s work as it relates specifically to
persuasion, as well as other work by speech act theorists, and pragmatists who have also
looked at similar speech acts. I will show how and why persuasion, and related speech
acts, turn out to be perplexing and somewhat frustrating for pragmatists.
2.1.1 Austin (1962). The verb “to persuade” is typically given as one of the first
examples of perlocution by speech act theorists. Indeed, Austin (1962), when he
develops speech act theory and introduces the term “perlocutionary act”, uses the
utterance “He persuaded me to shoot her” as his first example (Austin 1962: 102).
Perlocutionary acts are the third in Austin’s tri-partite nomenclature of speech acts.
After locutionary acts, which are simply “saying something,” and illocutionary acts,
which are performed “in saying something,” perlocutionary acts are performed “by
saying something.” Here is an example from the world of advertising: