Techniques in Persuasion

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As a concept, persuasion does not carry any particular character, it is neither a positive nor a negative, but it is extremely useful. Today, persuasion can be found everywhere. It is a part of advertisement campaigns, attention raisers, social events, health care policies, teaching strategies, and, of course, political competitions. The event under analysis in this paper is the 2015 Federal elections in Canada. The particular focus of this essay is the persuasion technique in the speech of the leader of the Conservative Party, Stephen Harper. The chosen address was delivered by Harper on the 1st of September at Algoma’s Water Tower Inn in Sault Ste. Marie. In the speech, Harper mentions some of the most frequently discussed issues such as the world’s struggle with terrorism and also comments on the approaches of his opponents Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau.

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These days, the word “persuasion” is often associated with propaganda and brainwashing, especially when it is used within or applied to political subjects. Dainton and Zelley define persuasion as a type of communication between people that is delivered to create influence on the listeners affecting their beliefs, values, and opinions (104). At the same time, Gass and Seiter argue that persuasion is a rather flexible concept and does not necessarily have to be intended or deliberate (22-23). For instance, if a speech is particularly repulsive, the speaker may unintentionally persuade their audience to do exactly the opposite of the actual goal of the address. Corner’s statement about propaganda being tricky to define agrees with Gass and Seiter as the author emphasizes the universal application of the tool (670). Regardless of the neutral status of persuasion as an activity, Harper in his campaign speech employs persuasion exploiting social bias (Islamophobia) as the basis to gain support and to differentiate himself from his opponents.

Starting his address, Harper outlines his main argument right away saying “we’ve seen jihadist terrorism not only in the Middle East, but in some of the nations we are closest to and, of course, also here” (Rebel Media). According to Gass and Seiter’s description of pure and borderline cases of persuasion, this statement is a case of pure persuasion that is applied by the speaker deliberately (23-25). Harper uses a powerful weapon and applies it to one of the most influential human emotions – fear. This persuasion technique is known as pathos, or emotional appeal (The University of North Carolina 2). Harper strengthens his argument by reminding his audience about the events of 9/11 and the attacks in Ottawa in 2014. That way, historical facts are used as tools to help the speaker make his point. Next, Harper moves on to the subject of the Islamic State and its growing size and impact in the Middle East to connect all of these events and present them as one major threat to the Canadian population.

Including in his speech such popularized arguments as the danger of terrorist attacks from the side of Middle Eastern terrorist organizations and using them as the key points of his election campaign, Harper applied for the audience heavily impacted by the media framing and news. They are Harper’s intended audience. As pointed out by Jowett and O’Donnell, the target audience of press and media propaganda are the individuals who are too busy to think critically about global events and who prefer to rely on the opinions imposed on the public by the mass media (98).

As a true conservative, Harper rejects the new ideas such as a tolerant attitude towards the Islamic nations, a bias-free approach to the problem of global terrorism, and the awareness of Islamophobia and its skyrocketing rates in the western world. These new ideas are his main arguments in his criticism of Trudeau and Mulcair as Harper emphasizes that his opponents “can’t bring themselves to say the words “violent jihadism” (Rebel Media). His way to oppose his competitors lacks constructive points of view and is based mainly on irony and sarcasm as he portrays Mulcair as a weak leader unable to make tough decisions and Trudeau – as a politician who relies on his charm but not his professionalism. Harper refers to the latter using his first name only to emphasize that this opponent should not be taken seriously but treated like an immature child instead. This is another use of pathos, this time the emotion is disrespect, and it is directed at the undermining of an opponent’s reputation.

Besides, in his speech, Harper targets the Jewish population of Canada emphasizing his party’s support of the politics of Israel and partnership between the two states. This key point is also used by the politician to underline the difference between his views and those of his rivals as he mentions that his party is often criticized by the NDP and the Liberals for “not being friendly enough with Iran, but being too friendly with Israel” (Rebel Media). The ovations that follow the claim indicate that this use of emotional appeal based on cultural identification was extremely successful.

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Overall, Harper’s persuasive techniques are well-crafted and strong because the politician employs some of the strongest social problems, events, and emotional subjects of the modern days to emphasize his point of view and also, to differentiate himself from his rivals. His speech is filled with words that signify the emotional appeal to fear, such as “danger”, “threat”, “security”, “safety”, to name a few. Emphasizing his approach as the only way to provide a safe future for the nation, Harper intentionally frames his competitors as unreliable and weak. Unlike his opponents, the conservative leader rejects tolerance and political correctness embracing Islamophobia and expanding it in the minds of his viewers. Harper mentions the Canadian troops involved in the armed conflicts in Iraq and Syria, the attacks in Ottawa in 2014, and those on the United States to make the phantom threat as real as possible. This is Harper’s way to convince his audience to vote for him because according to him, “we live in a dangerous world” (Rebel Media).

To conclude, in delivering his speech Harper relied on the persuasive technique known as pathos or emotional appearance. The speaker exploited fear, disrespect, and the individuals’ cultural identification to put his point across and to minimize the importance of the other candidates. Harper skillfully pressed some of the soft spots of his target audiences – the Islamophobic individuals, the people of Jewish background resizing in Canada, the supporters of Canada’s participation in the events in the Middle East, and those who have no time to think critically about the contemporary global events. In my opinion, this strategy is extremely useful and effective. It is likely to secure the votes of the older population for this candidate, but the younger individuals, who prefer to analyze the news independently, may notice Harper’s persuasion tricks and prefer more genuine candidates.

Understanding Public Opinion

Contemporary politics is based on communication of both verbal and non-verbal character, language is it’s main and the most influential tool (Partington 12). During the election campaigns, the primary objective of the competing candidates is to inform their potential voters about their intentions using various methods among which there may be political debates, addresses, speeches, claims, and promotional events. At this stage, a candidate needs to secure as many votes as possible. The support of the citizens is gained using targeting their most important interests and applying to the largest and most powerful groups of candidates. It is measured using various methods. This paper will evaluate such public opinion gauging methods as the media and the use of interest groups and conclude that even though the former may provide better electorate coverage, the latter is likely to give a clearer idea of the preferences of the citizens.

The 2015 Federal Elections in Canada have five main competitor parties – the Conservative Party, the New Democrats, the Liberal Party, Bloc Quebecois, and the Green Party. In my opinion, the likely winner is the Conservative Party.

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Any promotional election campaign seeks to address the most important interests of its voters. However, to respond to any preferences of the citizens, the team of a candidate needs to identify, monitor, and process them first. Besides, the prevailing desires of all the citizens are to be evaluated to adjust the program and apart from acting on the requests of the already loyal voters to gain the appreciation of new population groups. A candidate’s promoters could try and guess the likes and aspirations of various citizens, but for that, they would use standard assumptions concerning the targeted populations. At the same time, this method might not be as effective as it seems since the perceptions of the world around and the appropriate political course are shaped and impacted by the external tendencies that can result in rather unpredictable public orientations (Lippman 1).

To demonstrate how indirectly human beings interact with the world around Lippman uses an example of an island where people lived without knowing the latest events (1). The author pointed out the gap between the shift of reality and the adjustment of people’s minds. These days, in the era of rapid technological progress and total connectedness one would expect that the gap is almost non-existent as the news spread incredibly fast in the modern world. However, this is not the case, as total connectedness is the contemporary source of the gap between reality and its perception as public opinion is influenced by powerful sources of propaganda and framing.

Turning to the help of media would be an effective way to learn about the realities modern individuals live in and their hopes for the future. Today, media work both as the source of information for the citizens and as the storage of opinions. That way, exploring the information that can be found in the media will help the politicians to learn the public opinion and the influences that shape it (Brooker and Schaefer 3). The Conservatives and their leader Stephen Harper is ever-present in the Canadian mass and social media with a powerful promotion campaign. The support of their ideas for the side of the Canadian population is obvious, even though it is hard to tell which support is real and which is fabricated to create the image of ubiquitous admiration and impact the public opinion applying to its crowd instinct.

Monitoring the media and the way they present news may help a politician understand the public opinion and the mechanism to impact it – this is an advantage of this method of public opinion gauging. The disadvantage is the limited presence of the population groups expressing opinions (when social media is used, for instance, the points of view of elderly voters cannot be accessed there). Another disadvantage is the lack of reliability of media sources and the high possibility of distortion of the presented facts. In other words, by exploiting mass and social media to shape the public perception of reality the politicians may fall into their traps. The Conservatives rely on the media presentation of events heavily. The framing of the Middle East as an ultimate threat to their security is extremely helpful for their success. This way, the huge population of news followers who blindly soak in the information presented by the press is the main supporters of Harper and his team.

Another popular way to measure public opinion is using employing interest groups where small groups of individuals represent the society as a whole. The most obvious weakness of this approach is the fact that interest groups may fail to represent all the population groups. This misrepresentation occurs because poorer and less politically involved populations may struggle to find suitable lobbyists, so the interest groups may be limited to the wealthier and more competent part of the society only. The strength of this method is represented by the lobbyists themselves, as they are often well-equipped with legal knowledge and understand how policies work. Lobbyists are capable of presenting the public opinion in the most unbiased and practical way for the politicians to comprehend what exactly the society wishes for and how these goals can be achieved. That way, interest groups compiled of lobbyists comprise a valuable link between the politicians and the public. While many activists protest the armed conflict in the Middle East and the participation of the USA and Canada in it, very few shout for its continuation. This fact makes interest groups quite a useless means about this aspect of Harper’s campaign and its main points.

To sum up, to increase their impact on society and the potential voters, the politicians are to familiarize themselves with the public opinion tendencies and trends first. The politicians may choose one or several methods of gauging public opinion, but all of them work based on the representation through the samples. The use of interest groups relies on the work of educated and competent lobbyists while the media cover public opinion in a general way. In their election campaign of 2015, the Conservatives heavily rely on the media as the mechanism to assess and shape public opinion, while interest groups are the means that are likely to work against them.

References

Brooker, Russell G. and Todd Schaefer. Methods of Measuring Public Opinion. London, United Kingdom: Wadsworth Publishing, 2005. Print.

Corner, John. “Mediated politics, promotional culture and the idea of ‘propaganda’.” Media, Culture & Society 29. 4 (2007): 669–677. Print.

Dainton, Marianne, and Elaine D. Zelley. Applying Communication Theory for Professional Life: A Practical Introduction. New York, New York: SAGE Publications, 2010. Print.

Gass, Robert H. and John S. Seiter. Persuasion, Social Influence, and Compliance Gaining. New York, New York: Pearson, 2010. Print.

Jowett, Garth S., and Victoria O’Donnell. Propaganda & Persuasion. New York, New York: SAGE Publications, 2014. Print.

Lippman, Walter. Public Opinion. New York, New York: Penguin, 1922. Print.

Partington, Alan. Persuasion in Politics. Milan, Italy: LED Edizioni Universitarice. Print.

Rebel Media. “Harper on national security.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 2015. Web.

The University of North Carolina. The Tools of Persuasion: Ethos, Logos, & Pathos. 2002. Web.

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