Know Your Enthymeme

“Just because it says 100% whole grain on the box doesn’t mean it has to taste like 100% whole grain,” reads an advertisement for some kind of healthy cracker. I’ve been noticing a lot of these lately while flipping through ads — no, not advertisements promising good tasting yet healthy products. Specifically, really interesting enthymemes.

Enthymemes, at the risk of oversimplification, is basically a truncated syllogism. A syllogism is the basic unit of an argument in logic — two premises and a conclusion. For example:

Premise #1: Aristotle is human.

Premise #2: Humans are animals.

Conclusion: Therefore, Aristotle is an animal.

Now, even the most novice philosopher or rhetorician will notice that the syllogism is not perfect in deriving truth. For example:

Premise #1: Aristotle is an animal.

Premise #2: Cats are animals.

Conclusion: Aristotle is a cat.

The rumors were true!

Unless your cat’s name is Aristotle, this argument’s conclusion is not true, despite its internal consistency. Syllogisms are useful in framing the world and can be used to derive truth, but it’s not a fool-proof way of figuring things out.

What does this have to do with enthymemes, 100% whole grain wheat, or advertisements? Everything. An enthymeme is, as said before, a truncated syllogism, which means out of the three parts (two premises and one conclusion), one of the parts is left out. For example, a enthymeme might go like this:

Premise #1: Aristotle is an animal.

Conclusion: Aristotle is a cat.

Enthymemes may seem stupid to you now, but they are an incredibly powerful tool, and just as how the syllogism is the basic unit of logic, enthymemes could be suggested as the basic unit for rhetoric. The sheer power of enthymemes relies on the fact that the unsaid portion (usually one of the premises) must be a “social truth” that the audience believes. Social truths do not necessarily have to be true in the clinical, sterilized sense. For example, “loyalty to the state is a virtue” is a social truth in China, but not so much in America. However, social truths contain an immense amount of power. Try telling an American, for example, that the American social truth “distrust in the government is healthy and a virtue” is not actually a “truth,” it’s just a socially accepted norm.

When enthymemes succeed, and when enthymemes fail (and why)

For example, here’s an enthymeme that has persuaded a good portion of the country to believe it is true:

Premise #1. The traditional, nuclear family is good and all-American.

Conclusion: Gay marriage should be banned.

Huuuuuh? How did we get here, pro-gay marriage proponents will rage (and often do). This is because they don’t understand that there’s a powerful, unsaid current of social truth lying underneath this seemingly perplexing argument, like a raging underground river.

Unsaid premise: Homosexuality hurts and undermines the traditional nuclear family.

Of course, whenever anti-gay marriage proponents try to convey their message to the family, they try to do it tactfully and will often present it as this seemingly logical (to them) argument.

Premise #1: Homosexuality hurts and undermines the traditional nuclear family.

Conclusion: Gay marriage should be banned.

But the problem is that most of the pro-gay marriage community might actually take issue with the social truth “the traditional nuclear family is good and all-American,” which they usually do not share. And thus, the argument falls flat and just seems silly. But we can still see how the enthymeme can tap into normally dormant and latent lines of communal, societal power. When done right, it’s quite literally the perfect mix of logos (syllogism), pathos (social truth), and ethos (when delivered by the right person). Aristotle’s ultimate rhetorical machine.

The power of social truth and emotion

In fact, this unsaid social truth is where the enthymeme derives its fear-inducing, awe-inspiring power from. For example, President Obama is often criticized of being too much of a policy wonk. The pundits often say he has failed to “sell” health care. Why should the President “sell” anything? Numbers are numbers, right? So when he gets up at the pulpit and lays out all the logical, mathematical reasons for why we should have universal health care, the numbers and data should convince us, right?

Except rhetoric is never about whether someone is wrong or right (a common misconception of rhetoric). It’s about moving people to action, and numbers don’t move people. Enthymemes move people, or, that is, tapping into powerful social truths move people. So when President Obama fails to deliver, in step the Republicans (whose political machine is genius at making effective enthymemes) and they lay out this simple argument:

Premise #1: Obamacare stifles innovation.

Conclusion: Therefore, we should stop Obamacare.


Premise #1: Obamacare is government control.

Conclusion: Therefore, we should stop Obamacare.


Premise #1: Obamacare hurts American business.

Conclusion: Therefore, we should stop Obamacare.

The unsaid premises are, of course, that innovation and American business is what makes America great, durn it, and government control is un-American. These are powerful social values Americans, especially conservative Americans, hold, and that’s why these arguments hold such powerful sway over the targeted demographics, even if the arguments themselves might not actually be “factual” or “right.” What really matters is if it persuades.

Rhetorical whole grains

So, 100% whole grain wheat and tasty crackers. What do enthymemes have to do with them? The thing is, commercials use enthymemes all the freaking time to get us to buy things, and the unspoken premise pushed is often an incredibly dangerous and destructive one. For example, what unspoken premise does this specific snack company want to push on us in order for us to buy 100% whole grain wheat crackers that don’t taste like 100% whole grain wheat?

Spoken premise: 100% whole grain wheat is good for you.

Unspoken premise: 100% whole grain wheat tastes bad.

Conclusion: 100% whole grain wheat crackers that don’t taste bad are best for you.

In this case, the unspoken premise is relatively harmless (well, my medical student sister wouldn’t agree). However, the unspoken premise is a powerful social truth, but also holds the distinction of not being true — I’ve sampled many dishes that have whole grains which taste amazing. And I know of many people who become very distrustful of anything that is 100% whole grain because it might taste bad. This unspoken premise taps into a very potent emotional vein (what we like to eat) and then uses it to try and convince you that their 100% whole grain wheat is the best. We often know what the advertisement’s goal is — to sell us something. But what we may not notice is the unspoken premises that they push on us, and this is where the really destructive stuff lies.

For example, take a look at this camera advert:

Find the enthymeme in this picture!

Find the enthymeme in this picture!

What enthymeme is Nikon pushing (and believe me, all advertisements are pushing enthymemes)? This is the one I came up with, but certainly there can be others:

Spoken premise: Nikon’s cameras can take sexy pictures.

Conclusion: Buy this camera and you can take sexy pictures.

What is the unspoken premise?

Unspoken premise: Sexy pictures make you awesome (if you’re a female) or taking sexy pictures makes you awesome (if you’re a male).

Here, again, illustrates the power of social truths (and also why sex is used so often in advertising, and why it sells so well). What is wrong with sex? Sex is good, right? It feels good, and it’s one of the two major biological drives of every organism! But think! A camera that can take sexy pictures magically through the simple act of ownership? Absurd! Every critically thinking human would reject that such a camera exists — that even with zero skills and zero access to sexy people (here using the cultural, worldly definition of sexy), buying this Nikon camera will make this come true.

The power of the enthymeme thus comes in a two-stage sucker punch. Powerful advertisements will use a very strong social truth (like “sex is awesome”), but will then make you feel like you came up with the idea yourself because, as the audience, you filled in the blank. You realized that there needs to be two premises to make at least once conclusion, and your semantically wonderful, pattern recognizing, connection creating brain filled in the blank and now you think that the unspoken premise (“Sexy pictures make you awesome”) is your idea. Yeah, Inception was completely wrong; making someone think that an idea is actually an idea that he or she came up with is incredibly easy. Advertisements do it all the time. And just as Inception suggested, feeling the thought is your own (rather than someone else’s) is very powerful. And if you’re not taking sexy pictures, then man, you are not awesome, and you came up with the idea all by yourself! Nikon had nothing to do with it!

Or did they?

Here’s another advert:

Okay, you know the drill. What’s the enthymeme? Here’s the one I came up with.

Spoken premise: Isaiah Mustafa is epic (or hawt, pick your adjective).

Conclusion: If you buy this body wash, you will be that much closer to being as epic as Isaiah Mustafa.

And the dangerous unspoken premise?

Unspoken premise: Wow, you (or your man) is not even close to Isaiah Mustafa, huh? This is bad.

Old Spice’s own description for this video on YouTube says it out right: “We’re not saying this body wash will make your man smell into a romantic millionaire jet fighter pilot, but we are insinuating it.” At least they’re honest. But this speaks to a powerful inadequacy that males are enduring culturally. On top of a recession that has been mostly punishing males and emasculating them by taking away their jobs, more than ever the elusive “ideal male physique” has entered the cultural mindscape, via advertising. But since males are culturally able to handle it or not care, we don’t hear about it. Still, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, over 1 million men suffer from eating disorders. It’s hard to say that Old Spice adverts make men want to throw up (literally) after eating, but I think we can all agree that this kind of internal message is not helping.

Advertising agencies are brainwashing you and rhetoric will save the day (kind of)

I once posted a blog about how I, for one, embrace this new age of targeted ads because it beats the age of untargeted ads (and the volumes of junk mail, both physical and electronic) carpet bombing my residence and inbox in hopes that they’ll hit the right demographic. But my friend Jill very quickly pointed out the problem with this unabashed love affair with advertising:

The point of marketing is to convince you that you are not content. You of all people understand the power of rhetoric. Seeing a fleeting image of a thin, happy woman with a Nikon D3 in her hands may make me roll my eyes and move on because I’m not foolish enough to believe buying a Nikon D3 will solve all my problems. But on a subconscious level, I have associated happiness with not only that Nikon, but with attractiveness as well.

Targeted ads do more then present you with options to save money on stuff you would have normally bought. They make you buy things you wouldn’t have before (regardless of how “in control” you think you are…sometimes a deal is “too good” to pass up right?). But worse, they add to the repository of images that subconsciously tell you that you are not happy.

And Jill was right; of all the people she knew, I should have been the first one to jump and down and say advertising as a whole seems unsustainable, or at the very least, maliciously and intentionally destructive towards their own targets. And what’s even worse is that they don’t need to destroy us; they’re happy enough to sow the seeds of discontent and watch us destroy ourselves (and hopefully spend a lot of money in the process).

Which is why I am taking the time to write about enthymemes. We’re all aware of logic, and a good portion of us are even aware of the rhetorical term logos. But enthymemes are not something they teach unless you take at least a 200 level course specifically in rhetoric, and let’s be honest — who does that anymore?

While advertising may “add to the repository of images that subconsciously tell you that you are not happy” in general, and while I will admit that advertising will always have some sort of affect on us, even if we’re conscious of it (Kimberly, a logic minor, pinned me to the wall when I said that a knowledge of rhetoric will make you completely immune to the effects of advertisment — she abhors the vacuum of judiciously placed qualifiers), I believe that at the very least, a knowledge of what enthymemes are how to look for them can steel us against the massive blast advertising tries to fire over and over again.

In “How to Teach a Child to Argue,” Jay Henrichs details the results of taking the time to educate his young children on the hows and whys of rhetoric. In the end, he notices this interesting scene:

My kids grew so fond of debate, in fact, that they disputed the TV itself.

“Why should I eat candy that talks?”

“A doll that goes to the bathroom? I have a brother who does that.” It was as if I’d given them advertising immunization shots.

Why, indeed, should I eat candy that talks? Or buy bodywash that puts me on a horse with some tickets to that thing she really likes? Or use a camera to take sexy pictures? And that’s the beauty of identifying and isolating enthymemes. Just like how Aristotle is not a cat, cameras cannot only take sexy pictures, candy can’t talk, and bodywash will not magically make me a romantic millionaire jet fighter pilot, much to my wife’s loss, I guess. I would venture to guess that at least half (if not 75%) of the advertisements I see today seem purely insulting[1], if not sad. Like the enthymeme of Aristotle is an animal, and thus, therefore a cat, advertising’s logic really starts to break down once you start ferreting out the unspoken premises that lie in wait, sometimes to hilarious results, but also dark and disturbing. Like the age old question of whether art imitates life or whether life imitates art, does advertising reflect social truths, or are social truths created and enforced by advertising? And when you see that weird, deep, gut emotion premise that they’re trying to push on you, it’s not enough to just recognize them. Challenge it. In the words of Jay Henrichs:

Our culture has lost the ability to usefully disagree. Most Americans seem to avoid argument. But this has produced passive aggression and groupthink in the office, red and blue states, and families unable to discuss things as simple as what to watch on television. Rhetoric doesn’t turn kids into back-sassers; it makes them think about other points of view.


[1] For example, a billboard for breast implants along I-5 in Utah once read, “Finally, getting D’s is a good thing.” This, more than any other breast implant advertisment, seems to really prey on insecurity.

Spoken premise: D’s are usually a bad thing.

Conclusion: If you get breast implants and increase your bust size to D’s, it will be a good thing.

Unspoken premise: You usually get D’s, huh? You’re not too bright, are you? Perfect. Wow, not only is it insulting your physical appearance, but your intelligence, too. Nasty.

Very honest advert.



Filed under wordsmithing

2 responses to “Know Your Enthymeme

  1. Fantastic. As a child, I was probably one of the easiest targets of TV advertising. I would constantly be telling my mom, “Mom, Mom! We should get a ________!” She carefully weeded this trait out of me, but not by teaching me rhetoric or argument. Instead she would just say:
    1) We can’t afford it. OR
    2) We don’t need that.
    or, as my Dad would say: Let’s not and say we did! (With at least partially feigned enthusiasm and a silly grin)

    This is a great post, and I recognize that these things are often illogical, but I don’t very often examine what the unspoken bit is.

    • Ted

      Often, those two reasons is enough to cancel out almost all of the things I want to buy. It’s solid advice, even if it’s not tutelage in classical rhetoric.

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