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a critical and rhetorical look at the art and artifice of the movie trailer


Rhetorical Detour #1

Classical rhetoric has given us three concepts which I think will be useful in determining the relative degrees of persuasion and manipulation found in movie trailers: ethos, logos, and pathos. These concepts were originally used in discussing oratory, but I think they can be applied to the present discussion equally well.

Ethos: an appeal based on the character or reputation of the speaker. In terms of the trailer, ethos will be an appeal based on the reputation of the director, or – overpublicized private lives aside – the reputations of the actors in a given film. Ethos-driven trailers will also try to sell the movie based on awards garnered at film festivals, or awards given to its stars. While the presence – or oftentimes absence – of certain actors in a trailer can be an effective element of their overall persuasiveness, trailers rarely – if ever – rely on this tactic alone. Furthermore, the strategic inclusion of “awards won” – usually near the trailer’s end, or before the action has gotten underway – seems to me to be beside the point. After all, Academy Award WinnerTM Halle Berry’s track record was far more compelling before she took home the Oscar for Monster’s Ball in 2001.

Logos: this is an appeal based on logic and argument. As previously stated, it may be difficult to understand what could possibly be logical – in an intellectual sense – about the persuasiveness of your average movie trailer. We will discuss this more as we examine individual trailers, but for now I think it is sufficient to say that a logos-driven trailer will attempt to present the artistic and/or aesthetic merits of a movie without relying on pandering or titillation to get its point across. This is not to say that only the highest of high-brow artsy “films” will be able to appeal in this way. It depends largely on the character and tone of the film itself. If crude humor and gratuitous or narratively improbable exposure of female flesh are integral elements of the final product, then it would be far more honest for a trailer to present those elements persuasively, and with the least amount of undue manipulation. This may sound like total nonsense, and perhaps it is, but I imagine that closer inspection of the oeuvre of Kevin Smith might help to illuminate this point a bit.

Pathos: an appeal based on pathos will try to elicit an emotional reaction. I would have to say that most trailers fall into this category, and perhaps all trailers utilize this type of appeal to some degree. Pathos-driven trailers and advertising are so prevalent that they hardly need further explanation. The only thing I feel the need to mention is that “emotion” refers equally well to “exciting passions” and drives as it does to the more obvious appeal to any number of various psychological flavors - happy, sad, et al.

In the course of our discussion, I think we’ll find that trailers are primarily pathos-driven, though really good trailers will attempt to maximize a sense of logical appeal. Perhaps it could be said that these two – logos and pathos – are often vying for dominance in any given trailer, while appeals based on ethos are either secondary or merely implied.


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