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Language and Persuasion. Philip K. Dick, “The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words.” Richard Moore, “Language is a field of battle, the media is the artillery, and vocabulary is the ammunition.”. Language and credibility. Bush-isms

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language and persuasion

Language and Persuasion

Philip K. Dick, “The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words.”

Richard Moore, “Language is a field of battle, the media is the artillery, and vocabulary is the ammunition.”

language and credibility
Language and credibility
  • Bush-isms
    • “Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?”
    • "They misunderestimated me." (Bentonville, Ark., Nov. 6, 2000)
    • "...more and more of our imports are coming from overseas.“ (reported in Slate, Sept. 25, 2000)
    • "Recession means that people's incomes, at the employer level, are going down, basically, relative to costs, people are getting laid off."—Washington, D.C., Feb. 19, 2004
    • "There's an old saying in Tennessee -- I know it's in Texas, it's probably in Tennessee --that says, fool me once, shame on ... shame on you. Fool me ... You can't get fooled again.“ (Baltimore Sun, Oct 6, 2002)
    • "Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream." (LaCrosse, Wis., Oct. 18, 2000)
language and credibility continued
Language choices affect source credibility

Senator George Allen referred to a man of Indian descent as a “macaca,” a racial slur

Misspellings and grammatical errors can reduce credibility

in resumes or emails

In everyday interaction

example: “Me and her been to that movie.” “I seen that movie too.”

Language and credibility--continued
language expectancy theory
Language expectancy theory
  • Burgoon & Siegel (2004): people have expectations about what they consider to be normal, acceptable language use in various situations.
  • When a persuader violates an audience’s expectations, the violation may be viewed positively or negatively.
    • Depending on the source’s attractiveness
    • Depending on the sources reward power
green labeling
Green labeling
  • Environmentally friendly labels vie for consumers’ attention
    • Dolphin-safe tuna (fish nets that don’t kill dolphins)
    • “Fair Trade” coffee label (ensures poor coffee growers receive a fair price)
    • “Sweatshop free” clothing
    • “Free Farmed” label (humane treatment of dairy cows and animals slaughtered for meat)
    • “Green” products (earth friendly goods and services)
    • Environmentally friendly companies
  • Roberts (2008) more than 90% of green labeling is misleading
    • more than 50 percent of eco-labels on the shelves today promote some type of narrow eco-friendly attribute, such as recycled parts or content. However, they neglect to refer to inherent environmental drawbacks like manufacturing intensity.
    • Example: Tyson Chicken promotes its chicken as "all natural," even though the company treats chickens with antibiotics
    • Example: Kraft's Post Selects Cereals, touts that its cereals have "natural ingredients" when, in fact, the corn in the cereal is genetically engineered
beware of labels
“Healthy,” “nutritional”

A study of 30 nutrition bars (protein bars, meal replacement bars, diet bars or energy bars) found that 60% did not live up to their labels.

15 of the bars had more carbohydrates than claimed. Some had sodium and saturated fat levels that were 2- to 3-times greater than the labels stated.


This term doesn’t mean anything. The FDA has no regulations governing the use of the term “natural” on foods. It is simply a “buzz” word consumers like to hear.


68 percent of Americans said they thought “organic” foods were safer to eat or healthier than foods without such a label.

In a recent interview on ABC News' 20/20, Organic Trade Association director Katherine DiMatteo reiterated that organic products are not safer or more nutritious than other foods.

Beware of labels
the power of naming
The Power of Naming
  • People reconstruct reality through language: Kenneth Burke, “humans are symbol using, symbol misusing, symbol making animals.”
  • The symbol is not the thing: symbols are arbitrary, but people don’t always realize this
    • example: living in the “909” versus “90210” or the “O.C.”
  • The ability to name something defines reality, shapes perceptions, confers power
    • example: terms for African-Americans
    • example: “undocumented worker” versus “illegal immigrant” or illegal alien”
    • example: “evil-doer,” “terrorist” versus “freedom fighter” or “martyr”
    • example “Clear Skies Initiative” (which weakened EPA regulations)
politics and language
Politics and language
  • Bush morphs the meaning of WMD in Iraq
    • August 2002: Weapons of mass destruction
    • June 2003: Weapons of mass destruction programs.
    • October 2003: Weapons of mass destruction-related programs.
    • January 2004: Weapons of mass destruction-related program activities.

“Already, the Kay Report identified dozens of weapons of mass destruction-related program activities." State of the Union Address, January 20, 2004

more on the power of naming
More on the power of naming...
  • Richard Weaver, “language is sermonic”
    • god terms: freedom, family values, progress, balanced budget
    • devil terms: deadbeat dad, ethnic cleansing, gang member, sweatshop, sexual harassment
    • charismatic terms: freedom, democracy, critical thinking, empowerment, “thinking outside the box”
  • Terms may evolve and change over time
    • “political correctness,” “affirmative action” “liberal”
the power of renaming
The power of renaming
  • “progressive” versus “liberal”
  • “troop reduction” versus “cut and run”
  • “peer-to-peer file-sharing” instead of “music piracy”
  • “pre-owned” instead of “used”
  • “physically challenged,” “handicapable” “differently abled”
  • Womyn instead of woman
  • “in the event of a water landing…”
the power of renaming1
The power of renaming
  • March 23, 2009
  • The massive insurance operation will henceforth be known as AIU Holdings, Ltd., a process that began this past weekend with the removal of the large, front-end AIG sign from the its Manhattan office.
what s in a name
What’s in a name?
  • Naming prescription drugs
    • branding companies typically earn between $50,000 and $250,000 for coming up with a desirable name for a new drug. But depending upon the scope of the project, the price tag can reach into the millions of dollars.
    • Viagra, Levitra
    • Celebrex
    • Lunesta
    • Rogaine
    • Claritin
    • Serafem
language and subculture
Language and Subculture
  • Language can serve as a passport into a subculture
    • example: drug culture “4:20” or “chronic” (for marijuana), “Jones” (for a habit)
  • Language can be used to show solidarity, cohesiveness
    • example: gay rights movement “We’re queer, we’re here!” referring to heterosexuals as “breeders”
  • Herbert Marcuse’s theory of “desublimation”: the larger society tends to appropriate symbols from subcultures
    • example: appropriating rap, hip-hop culture (keeping it real, representing)
double speak euphemisms
Double-Speak & Euphemisms
  • double-speak: ambiguous or evasive language
    • example: Clinton’s answer during his taped deposition about the definition of “sexual relations” or the word “is.”
  • euphemisms: substituting inoffensive terms for offensive ones
    • gaming (versus gambling)
    • commercial sex worker (for prostitute)
    • collateral damage (for civilian casualties)
    • down-sizing, right-sizing, bright-sizing (for layoffs)
    • aggressive interrogation techniques or tension positions (for torture)
language dichotomies for people with disabilities
People with disabilities are often labeled with heroic terms




People with disabilities are often labeled with pitiable terms




language dichotomies for people with disabilities

However, people with disabilities are simply people, not necessarily heroic or pathetic

Put the person first, e.g., “a student who is hearing impaired,” versus “a hearing impaired student”

powerful vs powerless language
powerful Vs. powerless language
  • Powerless language tends to reduce persuasiveness
    • hesitations: “well,” “um,” “uh”
    • hedges: “kind of,” “sort of,” “I guess”
    • intensifiers: “really,” “very”
    • polite forms: “If you wouldn’t mind…” “Could I please get you to…”
    • tag questions: “...don’t you think?” “…isn’t it?”
    • disclaimers: “This may sound dumb, but…” “You’ll probably think I’m crazy, but…”
powerful powerless exceptions
powerful/powerless, exceptions
  • exception: Bradac & Mulac (1984) found polite forms increased persuasiveness (e.g., being diplomatic)
  • exception: cross-gender effect: Carli (1990) found females were more persuasive with men when they used powerless speech, but more persuasive with women when they used powerful speech. (a result of male expectations?)