Forms of Propaganda: Emotional Appeals

As the term implies, an emotional appeal, or pathos, calls upon the audience’s emotions or feelings. It’s one of Aristotle’s three modes of persuasion, along with ethos (appeal to authority) and logos (appeal to logic).

An emotional appeal is the most natural form of persuasion. It’s powerful. It’s effective. Sometimes, it can even support a weak argument, or obscure a good argument’s logical focus.

Examples Of Emotional Appeals

When you hear a politician share an anecdote about Jill in San Bernardino, who can’t pay the bills because she recently had an operation to remove a large mouth bass from her left big toe, that’s an emotional appeal to your sympathy.

When you see a commercial on television about cruelty to animals, with images of poor and abused dogs and cats, you can’t help but feel bad, that you should do something. You respond emotionally.

An Emotional Appeal To Fear
Image: Flickr/Lee Maguire

When you pass a billboard on the street asking you to consider the dangers of nuclear war, that, too, is an emotional appeal, speaking to your fear for the future.

Emotional appeals can trigger a variety of responses: fear, pity, hope, anger, guilt, desire, compassion, pleasure, flattery. The entire spectrum of human feeling.

Emotional Appeals Can Be Useful, But Distracting

An appeal to emotion, while not necessarily untrue, is a logical fallacy, because it focuses attention on the audience’s feelings — their fears or dreams or sympathies — rather than on a valid, logical argument.

Sometimes, it’s a distraction. A red herring.

An emotional appeal can, of course, be used to effectively support an argument in a way that doesn’t distract. Audiences want to feel good about an argument before they’ll support it, obviously. So incorporating emotion into an argument is, in many cases, required.

Emotional appeals, when used appropriately, can also create greater connections with listeners, or bolster already supported claims.

You must be very careful, however, not to use emotional appeals as the basis for your entire argument. Rely on them too heavily, or use them to manipulate your audience, and you’re heading into logical fallacy territory.