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What is Pathos?

Luke Leighfield
Luke Leighfield
Content Writer

Advertising exists to persuade you to buy something. A few years ago, a Greek guy called Aristotle came up with three ways that we can persuade people to do something. Together, they're known as ‘modes of persuasion’.

There's ethos (using ethical appeal, or the speaker's personal character), pathos (using emotional appeal, or prompting the viewer to feel an emotional response), and logos (using persuasive arguments, or the particular words of the speech). Today, we’re going to talk about pathos.

Pathos, as demonstrated by Pencil the Dog

What is the definition of Pathos?

Pathos is a Greek word that means both suffering and experience. It’s the root of the words empathy and pathetic. Pathos is when we use emotional appeal – rather than logical arguments – to get people to do something. It’s when we ‘tug on the heartstrings’ or ‘dial up the emotions’. When we talk about ‘feeling all the feels’, that’s pathos.

Advertisers often use pathos to appeal to an audience's emotions, like making them feel sorry for their subject. They might also make their audience feel angry towards something, so that they're motivated to take action. Or they might make them laugh. That’s all pathos.

Don Draper was nearly right when he said: 'Advertising is based on one thing: happiness'. Throw in sadness and anger, too, and you're nearly there.

Interested in harnessing the power of pathos as a means of persuasion? Here are a few examples of pathos-packed adverts out in the wild.

Pathos in family

First Shave, the story of Samson

Gillette's new ad is drenched in pathos. It's the very definition of 'all the feels'. The concept is simple – a dad teaching his son how to shave for the first time. But there's a twist: the son in the ad is transgender activist Samson Bonkeabantu Brown.

Suddenly, when Samson's dad tells him not to be scared, it takes on a whole new meaning. Because we're not just talking about shaving. We're talking about the challenge of life as a trans man, too. And Gillette's coming for your heartstrings to give them a big ol' tug.


Using humour with pathos

IKEA home delivery

This spot from IKEA take a different approach to the use of pathos: lols. We've all been the person in the ad – stuck in traffic on the way back from IKEA – and it's no fun. No matter how many meatballs you manage to chow down before leaving.

The ad makes you feel it all. The rage of being stuck in traffic. The humour of those obscenely-large rabbits. The zen vibes of the whistling delivery driver. Yes, the ad makes you laugh. But it also makes that £3.95 home delivery option seem like a mighty fine idea next time you need a new Billy bookcase.


Pathos in the charity sector

World Water Day - Nora's Story

The charity sector's understood the power of pathos for a long time. Its typical technique is to make you feel sorry for people in need – playing sad images with a serious voiceover. Then, naturally, asking you to donate money. This charity: water ad, however, throws a few different shades of pathos into the mix.

Yes, we feel sorry for the people drinking dirty water. But we also go gooey for six-year-old Nora, as she explains why she gave $8.15 of her money away. And there are a few laughs in there as Nora shows off her drawings (no offence, Nora). There's a whole smorgasbord of emotions flying around. All of which encourage us, the viewer, to dig deep and donate.


Outrageous pathos

This festive ad from British supermarket, Iceland, takes a different approach to the warm 'n' fuzzies of John Lewis and co. There are no cosy, cuddly emotions here. Only anger and outrage. Hello, Christmas!

By filling us with rage about the sheer destruction caused by farming palm oil, we're motivated to act. It's an emotional appeal to the viewer, instead of a logical appeal. The ad was banned from being broadcast because it was ‘too political’.


Using Pathos in your work

Pathos is a powerful tool. Combine it with an understanding of the other modes of persuasion and it has the power to grip your audience.

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