Visual rhetoric: the art of persuasion through images


By Gillian McIver

Manet, Edouard, 1832-1883; A Bar at the Folies-Bergere
A Bar at the Folies-Bergère
Édouard Manet (1832–1883)
The Courtauld Gallery

The term visual rhetoric is not encountered much in contemporary media discussions, which may be a bit surprising since the aim of most media communications is, in fact, rhetoric or the art of persuasion. Form advertisement to documentary film making, constructing and delivering an argument (a set of points or reasons offered with the aim of persuading others about an action or idea) is at the foundation of media communication.



Visual rhetoric is at the core of art too, both in historical paintings and in modern filmed entertainment such as movies and TV shows and even games. When we tell stories through images – as we increasingly do – visual rhetoric is part of the process.


What is visual rhetoric?


Visual rhetoric what happens when the arrangement of images and their content persuades the receiver. Persuades then of what? To pay attention, first of all. Then the image or images convince the receiver who or what to identify with. They cajole the viewer by building up a visual argument that is more sensual and emotional than logical or intellectual. In the end, the receiver should feel sympathy with whatever it is the particular artwork wants to say.


The content is not just the subject matter: it’s how it is arranged. Use of colours and tonality, composition or movement, for example, all communicate and can be used to persuade. It’s safe to say that in any communicative image, nothing is there by accident.


Being a part of it: Identification and persuasion


I mentioned the word “identify” just now. This is really important. The great theorist of modern rhetoric, Kenneth Burke, said that “identification” is actually even more critical than simple persuasion. What is identification in the rhetorical sense? Basically, it means that the receiver feels a commonality with whatever is being proposed.


When I make a film that attempts to persuade, identification occurs: the viewer must “identify” with the cause that I want to create sympathy for. The one who becomes persuaded sees themselves as ‘like’ another in some way. For example, in the film Okja (2017, directed by Bong Joon-ho), the viewer comes to identify with a non-meat-eating point of view – at least for the duration of the film. This is done by constructing the film to create identification with the character of Mija, but we’re also offered the opportunity to identify with other characters as well as the “superpig” Okja. One way we do this is by agreeing to ‘hate’ the villain characters.  I mention Okja here because it’s an explicitly animal-rights oriented film that valorises the Animal Liberation Front and is unabashedly political. It’s an easy one to analyse rhetorically. But to really get it, watch Okja with the sound and subtitles off. You’ll see perfectly how the imagery creates identification.


Not necessarily malign


In the 1960s, critics pointed out the ways that visual images (as well as words) operated to manipulate the masses into political alignments and consumer behaviour. Roland Barthes’s ground-breaking 1957 essay collection Mythologies led the way. Barthes demonstrates how to examine cultural materials such as popular entertainment and advertisements to expose how bourgeois society asserted its values through them. These ideas – with variations – permeate the work of the Situationists (who strongly influenced punk aesthetics) and John Berger’s magnificent Ways of Seeing (1972; book and TV series)


However, we should be clear that visual rhetoric – the art of persuasion and identification – is not necessarily malign. Although sometimes there might be a plot to manipulate the masses, there is much more to visual rhetoric than that. It is part of human nature to try to persuade one another and to seek identification. We have done this through visual communication since the first human began to decorate their body with ochre, or to make a string of beads, or to paint or carve on a wall.


In my research on visual rhetoric on film and art, I have been able to identify many different ways in which images communicate.


As a storytelling tool


To make a story you have to have a narrative, a journey from one point to the other. To tell this journey through images, you have to arrange them in a certain way so that they communicate. This is as true of single image stories such as the painting A Bar at the Folies-Bergère by Édouard Manet (1882) as it is of a feature film. Manet persuades us not just what the bar looks like, but what it feels like. How does he do this? Who do we identify with? Why? How? Do you think that what is communicated are the same things that were communicated back in 1882?


Visual rhetoric works in two ways. When you understand it, it becomes a useful tool allowing us the build effective visual communication. It is incredibly valuable for working out visual storytelling, building identification and persuading the audience to stick with it and to accept the denouement. But it is also a tool that allows us to analyze the ways that visual communication operates.


We live in a world increasingly dominated by visuals. The average person today sees more images in one day than a person of the 14th century might see across their entire life. We see more new images every day – thanks to the Internet – than even a person of the 1950s might have seen over their whole life. Therefore, it is more important than ever that we know how to read, dissect and understand images. We also need to be able to produce compelling visuals that communicate well. Visual storytelling has never been more important.


text ©GillianMciver2019

Gillian McIver is a filmmaker and writer. She is the author of Art History for Filmmakers: the art of visual storytelling  (Bloomsbury Press 2016) and is currently researching visual rhetoric in the way history is represented.