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Holiday Appeals

posted: 12.12.14 by Donna Winchell

I just read on cnn.com about the Hendersons of Hurricane, Utah, who have cancelled Christmas in an effort to teach their three children to stop being disrespectful and to stop acting entitled. They will celebrate the religious meaning of Christmas, but Santa won’t be visiting their house this year.

Ads also appeal to their audience’s values, and during the Christmas season, there is an extra push to remind people to exhibit the spirit of Christmas by sharing with the less fortunate. If you’ve ever dropped some money into a Salvation Army bucket–or felt guilty for not doing so–you have been targeted by one of the most visible of the season’s appeals to values.We all know the common complaints about the commercialization of Christmas. In fact, the Christmas season is a good time to look at the commercials that start showing up around Halloween. If we think about commercials as arguments designed to convince us to buy a product or act in a certain way, we can analyze the needs and values that they are appealing to. In Elements of Argument and The Structure of Argument, we use Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to examine how arguments affect an audience–from appealing to the most basic physiological needs of food, drink, health, and sex (think recent commercials for Viagra) through appeal to safety needs, social needs, esteem needs, and self-actualization needs. Your students should be able to come up with examples of ads that appeal to any or all of these.

There are scores of legitimate charities that benefit from the seasonal reminders to share our plenty during the holidays with those who lack the basics and who might otherwise not be able to provide gifts for their children. Unfortunately, we have to be careful about being too quick to trust appeals to our emotions. Just last month, St. Joseph’s Indian School, which raised $51 million last year through its mass mailings, was forced by a CNN investigative report to admit that the children who wrote moving letters to potential donors about their difficult lives were fictional.

The holidays can bring out the best in people or the worst. We can teach our students to be more aware of the tactics used by those who market the spirit of the season.

[Photo: by John Martinez Pavliga, on Flikr]

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