Module 7. Pragmatic issues of mass media


C.L. Kell

(USA, Western Kentucky University)

My appreciation for the integrative nature of rhetorical activity in American popular culture extends to students in classes across the decades that have informed me about their lives and the persuasions addressed to them. Almost without exception, every class in persuasion, broadcasting, communication theory, and American popular culture has been instructive about how all of us are searching for happiness and meaning in our lives.
Moreover, students in my classes have taught me what forms of argument worked for them and what forms of argument did not work. As term papers piled up semester after semester, a pattern emerged as the impetus for this present study. From losing weight to gaining friends, from adding muscle to developing relationships, and from discovering one’s self to the search for one’s soul, the messages from my students came to have a rhetorical unison that seemed deceptively simple.
Over the years, students led me to discoveries that were as profound as they were basic to any understanding of culture. They taught me that the rhetorical mantra of success is based on fundamental American values that have innumerable arrangements and configurations of artistic and emotional appeals. Taken together or separately, these success rhetorics have a sweet, satisfying taste to an American public that hungers for the easy, painless solution to their problems.
Furthermore, students have taught me that the rhetorics of success are designed to charm and seduce listeners with promises for which no price is too high and no reach is too far. Like the fakir or Indian snake charmer, American success rhetorics mesmerize and convince us that we need what they have as we sway and dance in the rhythms of their music.
With eyes wide open, everywhere I looked, I discovered the same argument. Whether in the weight loss movement, success seminars, treadmill advertisements, New Age literature, or numerous self-help industry-related products, there it was – dressed in different emotional appeals to suit the subject, but at its core, the same argument. Simply put, it reads, “if you want it badly enough, work hard enough, you can have it. If you are willing to pay for it, someone can provide it.”
Developed here, for the first time, is the rhetorical theory of deficiency to sufficiency that seeks to explain the persuasive themes underlying all success rhetorics. At the core of the theory, we are all especially aware that work, a credit card, a check, cash or some human currency is all that is required to be worthy, to be momentarily sufficient, a concept fundamentally central to the rhetorics of success. It is one’s work equity and personal resources that define one’s efforts to move towards some benchmark of success.
To undergird the theory, the concept of rhetoric is understood to be the classical as well as the current understanding of how message senders develop arguments to influence receivers. Arguments may be defined or loosely arranged evidentiary statements, emotional appeals, statements of common knowledge, or any combination thereof. In a carefully prepared or casually arranged order, arguments marshaled to confirm or negate a sender’s position may be said to be rhetorical (persuasive) and the body of arguments taken as a whole Rhetoric.
In the exploration of the theory, I explore a wide range of rhetorics among the peoples, seminars, books, and programs that define a broad across-the-board under-standing as a rhetoric of success.
I affirm that success is an embedded element of an American civil religion where the mantra of accomplishment is a never-ending theme of self-fulfillment and discovery. I have come to understand that people believe that they can achieve some forms of success because they understand it to be their American birthright. Thus, if we choose to succeed, we recognize and celebrate our birthright. Such a circular proposition continually feeds back on itself, day after day, month after month, so as to generate salient arguments that drive consumers to realize their dreams. I conclude that the master argument of success rhetors, products, and seminars is an “argument by deficiency,” defined by the various self-help/self-improvement industries, as a profound unhappiness with who we are and what we possess.
In the rhetoric of deficiency, there are two roads to success: the high road of hard work, and the low road “the luck of the moment,” the “magic” pill for weight loss, and the rhetorical theme of, for example, “seven steps to success.” Whatever road is traveled, the success industries envision a new America built on a heightened, transitory state of self-satisfaction or self-actualization requiring repeated injections of motivational and persuasive appeals to maintain the journey to sufficiency (Farnsworth, 2018).
It is my contention that the rhetorics of success are a set of argumentative conditions requiring exhortations to spur participants on to personal goal setting, the acquisition of “success products,” and, at other times, to reinforce the “sweat equity” necessary to earn one’s way towards success.
In the rhetoric of success, I find four master terms:
1.power – the sufficiency to chart and measure one’s life.
2.knowledge – the mental and physical skills necessary to chart and measure one’s life.
3.control – the ability to marshal one’s resources to change one’s life.
4.inclusion – the full and measured range of effective intrapersonal and interpersonal relationships that develop and expand the focus of one’s life.
The continuing search for inner peace is a derivative of these four master terms. Whether it is the self-discovery of the spirit within or the deeper discovery of a Supreme Other, the search for the spiritual appears to be the zenith of the rhetorics of success (Barnes, 2016).
I argue here that common to all rhetorics of success is an awareness that achieving (or coming close) to a state of sufficiency never lasts for very long. We “reinvent” sufficiency, as we reinvent ourselves, in order to retain our self-styled place in the world.
I argue throughout the process that the rhetorical/ persuasive nature of success argumentation, in all of its forms, is reductive in nature. That is, success rhetoric motivates us away form a solitary existence into a fully measured involvement with the world in which we live, with all of its inducements to champion the self.
In a way, the term seductive loses its negative meaning, transforming into a positive force of persuasion wherein we strive for immediate rewards and develop our innate resources to achieve our wants and needs. I have come to understand that none of the rhetorics of success model are particularly aware of the other save, perhaps, for the paradigms of weight loss and exercise.
Moreover, it is clear that the producers and presenters of the varied messages of success rhetorics are unaware of the similarities in their marketing and advertising messages of other products and services. Yet, these messages are blatantly similar in style and delivery. It is interesting to note that the phases in the rhetorical model offered here are progressive in nature. Simply put, the journey to inner peace often begins with a diet or an exercise program. While certainly not an explanation for everyone to whom success messages are directed, it is my contention that the flow of success persuasions represents the path of progress from a stasis of deficiency to an evolving, unsteading state of sufficiency.
The Rhetorics of Success model suggests that people will be offered a self-driven or group-motivated plan to accomplish their goal(s). I argue that success is clustered in seven areas as represented in the model. At any moment in time, people may be working on several areas at once, with varying degrees of accomplishment. However, I suggest that one goal such as weight loss, exercise, business or relationships may well dominate a person’s focus. Based on life-threatening, health-threatening or business-fluctuations, individuals often focus on meeting a single goal to solve an immediate problem. Once accomplished (weight loss, for example), other developmental phases come into focus. Thus, people with positive weight reduction often have an enhanced self-image, an accompanying exercise program, and so on.
Moving from deficiency to sufficiency is a tenuous experience. People want closure on goal accomplishment, but often such closure is only temporary. Once attained, weight loss, physical condition, business success, or spiritual peace are fleeting plateaus of experience. Just as one can move physically closer to a rainbow after a rain, the further he or she is actually from the physical end of that rainbow. Likewise, as one works toward goal attainment, the further that goal attainment – success often appears to be.
The road to success, along any of these seven initiatives, is both a product of an outer-driven persuasive campaign from many sources to win a consumer’s attention and consent to their messages as well as an inner-driven motivational drive to persevere in the quest toward goal(s) attainment. Together, persuasive appeals from the “self-help” (success) industry and one’s inner motivational urges combine to create a powerful argument that moves us to succeed in our quest.
The Rhetorics of Success model can be viewed as either a focused drive to accomplish a single goal such as weight loss or as a drive to meet a number of goals loosely connected one to another. The model indicates that we begin with the life-long problem of weight loss and self-image, moving clockwise through the model to a final level of success and inner peace.
The case for the rhetorics of success is that everyone enters and exits these stations at various times in their lives, with varying degrees of accomplishment. We never seem to be at a point of stasis. In the shadows of the rhetorics of success model, the process of working on our deficiencies often appears more interesting, entertaining, and motivational at times than actually achieving one’s goals.
The seductive nature of the rhetoric of success may well be in the striving to win rather than wearing the ribbons and medals of success. In that regard, the term “seductive” never sounded so good. For every celebration of a goal attained, there is the beginning of another process to accomplish even more.
As the model suggests, the notion of deficiency is the centerpiece (Lawler, 2019). The model proposes that the dominant argument offered by the success industry is the message that our lives are incomplete, weak, or deficient. From that inner core within us all may come the harmonic response to a persuasive message that convicts and persuades. It is impossible to know which comes first, the drive from within or the message from without. As in the changing turns and colors of a kaleidoscope, any personal encounter with the success model offers an ever-changing combination of colorful arguments and attractive appeals.
It goes without saying that the Rhetorics of Success theory begs to be tested. In the process of developing these ideas, such an exchange will surely come about between listener and the material presented in this paper. I hope that the testing process will be personal, rewarding, and successful and that the analysis will be compelling and engaging.
If we do not want to understand how the success industries and their messages of success work, then my fellow scholars in the academy should go no further. If we do not want to learn how the rhetoric of success works, then we should let their siren songs ring out. Perhaps, my commentaries and theory-building attempts will be seductive enough so that you will begin the odyssey of searching for success rhetorics in your culture and identifying the standards of your contemporary popular culture that sustain their places in the buying public.


  1. Barnes A.S. Principles of Persuasion. – Oxford: University Press, 2016. – 329 p.
  2. Farnsworth S.P. Classical English Rhetoric. – N.Y.: Appleton, 2018. – 268 p.
  3. Lawler P.K. American Political Rhetoric. – New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2019. – 198 p.
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