Buyer Beware, Rhetor Beware

My mobile phone service provider Ting tweeted about an endorsement they received on reddit recently. Commericial rhetoric often serves as classroom fodder for analysis of manipulative persuasive techniques, but the reddit discussion demonstrates some different problems that arise in a context where reader suspicions go too far. Nevertheless, the discussion also shows the potential for productive discourse as well, offering a refreshing counter-balance to the at times tendentious analysis of advertising to which writing students are sometimes treated.

Brouwer's The Bitter Tonic remixed to replace tonic with an I-phoneRedditor Dr_Sheldor posted his recommendation including a referral link that provides both him and those who use the link with a Ting credit. Dr_Sheldor included the disclaimer: “(Full disclosure, I believe I also get some sort of credit…)”. He notes in a later edit that he added the specific amount for the credit, but he also responds to the suspicion voiced by some of his being a company shill and suggests that they may have overlooked that his “includ[ing] a disclaimer in the beginning.”

Skepticism is never unwarranted when evaluating recommendations for a commercial service. In fact, I think the extent some companies go to in their advertising strategies warrants a great deal of skepticism, so I don’t find a comment such as the following completely off base: “this post (and particularly OP’s replies here) reeks of (well-done) social media advertising, regardless of whether or not Ting is actually a good deal.”

A mindset of hyper-vigilance, however, can lead to seeing something that isn’t there or overlooking something that is there, such as a disclaimer. Those familiar with Ting would understand Dr_Sheldor’s post for what it is: a word-of-mouth recommendation earned through the quality of Ting’s service and not a manufactured ad. This is not to say Ting doesn’t vigorously pursue and publicize word-of-mouth recommendations on social media. They do, but those recommendations are genuine, not astro-turfed Madison Avenue scripts. Both compliments and complaints are publicly available on Ting’s help forums for the critical consumer to peruse.

Another rhetorical problem occurs when a redditor uses over-generalization to present his position as sensible and to dismiss the position of those with whom he disagrees. After using Ting’s calculator to compare services, he claims that he wouldn’t save money with Ting because he is among those “who you know… actually use their phones.” Phone use here is defined as those who make heavy use of data, a population that Ting’s service doesn’t necessarily best serve. By presuming that all people who “actually use their phones” use them in the same way and that those who have different patterns of use don’t “actually use their phones,” the commenter neatly and unfairly cleaves a group of stakeholders from the debate denying their viewpoint as worthy of inclusion in the discussion.

These two issues aside, Dr_Sheldor’s post also demonstrates how discussion generates recommendations through the back and forth of proposition, criticism and response. The final edit in his post sums up the discussion on the thread, noting how Ting’s service best suits those who do not make heavy use of mobile data and suggests Republic Wireless as a service that might work better for those who do.

The interactive quality of the discussion, including both its strengths and faults, speaks well to using such examples in the writing classroom, not to displace traditional analyses of commercials and the like but to supplement the range of rhetorical material and the variety of arguments studied.

Image Credit: Mike Licht, | CC BY 2.0

About Todd Battistelli

Rhetorician and writing teacher. Keeping an eye on the state of civic discourse.
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