Can Including Rhetorical Questions in Your Message Increase Persuasion?

Rohini Ahluwalia
University of Minnesota
Robert E. Burnkrant
Ohio State University

Overview of Findings

The use of questions in persuasion settings dates back to the 1800s. However, many questions about the effectiveness of rhetorical questions are still unanswered.

Does the inclusion of rhetorical questions in your advertisements and/or sales presentations make them more persuasive? Does your editorial appear more convincing if it poses questions? In what situations should you use and when should you avoid using rhetorical questions in your persuasive communications? Recent research by Ahluwalia and Burnkrant (2004) attempts to answer these questions.

Questions are termed rhetorical when the answer is implicit within the question. For instance, marketers are interested in understanding the effects of rhetorical questions, aren’t they? Rhetorical questions are a type of rhetorical figure available to advertisers (others incude puns, metaphors, etc).

Past research (McQuarrie and Mick 1996) suggests that rhetorical figures represent an artful deviation in the style or form of the message, and therefore, symbolize a violation of expectations. People tend to respond to such deviations in a variety of different ways.

Ahluwalia and Burnkrant (2004) suggest that this response depends, in part, upon how salient or noticeable the rhetorical format is to the audience. In two experiments, they find that when this format is not very salient or noticeable (e.g., light usage of questions, only a rhetorical headline), people exposed to ads with a rhetorical question, tend to simply answer the question.

Answering questions, directs greater attention to the message content. As such, if the message arguments are strong, inclusion of a rhetorical headline increases persuasion. On the other hand, if there are some holes in your argument, by including a rhetorical heading you are likely to make those more apparent to the audience, and hence reduce persuasion.

In contrast, when the rhetorical format is very salient or noticeable (e.g., heavy usage of questions in the body of the message), the audience directs their thoughts to the message source and the tactics being used, instead of focusing on the message content per se. As such, the subsequent persuasion in this case is more dependent upon the audience’s prior disposition towards the source (e.g., company, salesperson, candidate, ad execution), instead of the quality of the message arguments per se.

With a liked source, the inclusion of rhetorical questions conveys the perception of openness, a less pressuring style which lets people “decide”, and therefore, enhances persuasion. In stark contrast, when the source is disliked, a similar usage of questions is perceived as “pressuring” and “aggressive”, and therefore, makes the audience more resistant to the message.

Significance of the Research

 This research is the first to point out that the persuasion effects of rhetoricals are likely to differ for audiences who differ in their predisposition towards the message source. More importantly, it provides an integrative framework which delineates distinctly different persuasion outcomes as well as underlying processes for the various rhetorical formats: light versus heavy usage.

Past literature implies that these differences in format don't matter. Most rhetorical figures, however, could be used both in the body as well as the headlines of the ad. The findings urge communicators to pay attention to these differences in usage and to exercise caution in generalizing the findings obtained with one format to the other.

Implications for Marketers

Should you or should you not use a question in your persuasive communication? Ahluwalia and Burnkrant’s research suggests that it depends on how strong your message arguments are and the audience predisposition towards your message source (e.g., company, brand, and candidate).

If you are trying to win people over from the other camp (audiences who have a negative disposition towards your message source), using a number of rhetorical questions in your message (heavy usage) can backfire. In this scenario, rhetoricals can help enhance persuasion only if used sparingly (such as a headline or opening sentence) in a message that has very strong arguments. The use of questions is questionable under all other conditions for these skeptical audiences. 

What if the audience has a positive disposition towards your company, brand or candidate? The implications are very different for this scenario! A heavy usage of rhetorical questions can enhance the persuasive impact of your message, especially, if you feel that your arguments are not the most compelling!

If your arguments are very strong, use fewer questions (e.g., only headlines). If they are weaker, use some more rhetoricals in the message. Please note that in Ahluwalia and Burnkrant’s experiments, heavy usage conditions comprised of 3 rhetoricals in an ad. 

What if the audience disposition is somewhat neutral towards your company, brand or candidate? In this scenario, effectiveness of rhetorical questions may depend upon the message execution. With executions that typically generate favorable source perceptions (e.g., humor, two-sided appeals), the inclusion of rhetorical questions in the body of the message is likely to enhance persuasion. However, rhetoricals are not recommended when the message execution is likely to result in negative source perceptions (e.g., negative advertising, fear appeals).

References cited

Ahluwalia, Rohini and Robert E. Burnkrant (2004), "Answering Questions about Questions: A Persuasion Knowledge Perspective for Understanding the Effects of Rhetorical Questions", Journal of Consumer Research, June, 26-42.

McQuarrie, Edward F. and David Glen Mick (1996), “Figures of Rhetoric in Advertising Language,” Journal of Consumer Research, 22 (March), 424-438.

Additional References

Mothersbaugh, David L., Bruce A. Huhmann, and George R. Franke (2002), “Combinatory and Separative Effects of Rhetorical Figures on Consumers’ Effort and Focus in Ad Processing,” Journal of Consumer Research, 28 (March), 589-602.