What Is a Rhetorical Ploy?

What is a rhetorical ploy? To answer that, we first need to understand what “rhetoric” means.

Rhetoric is the art of persuasion, aimed at influencing the thoughts and actions of others through effective speaking or writing. It encompasses techniques used to convince or sway an audience, from politicians debating legislation to advertisers promoting products.

Although the study of rhetoric originated in ancient Greece, it’s still alive and well today in politics, on social media and even at the grocery store.

Of course, not all arguments are equally valid. When people can’t defend their stances with logic, they may resort to underhanded tactics. Fallacies are a common example; these arguments rely on faulty thinking to prove a point.

Rhetorical ploys are similar but can be more insidious. The good news is that if you can identify a rhetorical ploy, you can avoid getting taken in by the argument.

What Are Rhetorical Ploys?

What is a rhetorical ploy? It’s a non-argumentative type of persuasion that uses pathos over logos. Good arguments appeal to reason, but it can be easier to stir up people’s feelings rather than walk them through sound logic. If your argument has no logic, you have two options: Confuse your audience with buzzwords or tap directly into their emotions.


You’re probably familiar with buzzwords, as they’ve become something of a joke in marketing. Here are a few examples:

  • Synergy
  • Pivot
  • Pain point
  • Scalability
  • All-natural

Some buzzwords are so common that they’ve become cliches and lost some of their power. However, when buzzwords are shiny and new, they can draw in consumers who are unfamiliar with their empty meanings.

Buzzwords sound appealing, but they don’t offer any substance. For example, “all-natural” sounds like a great thing for food, beauty products and medicine, but once you learn that there’s no regulation of the term, you realize that anything and everything can listed as “all-natural.”

Acronyms and jargon have similar effects. Both create an air of exclusivity since only people “in the industry” understand them. These rhetorical ploys can make orators seem authoritative and knowledgeable without adding anything to their arguments.

Appeals to Emotions

What are rhetorical ploys that appeal to emotions? There are about as many examples as there are feelings:

  • Appeal to ridicule
  • Scare tactics
  • Appeal to pity, guilt or compassion
  • Appeal to popularity

Some rhetorical ploys appeal to our attractions rather than our emotions. For example, a soda ad featuring a supermodel uses physical attraction to bypass our reasoning. We know soda may be sugary and unhealthy, but we’re more inclined to buy it because the person selling it is beautiful.

Rhetorical ploys may also prey on widespread hopes and dreams, such as fame and wealth. Celebrities endorsing a snack brand can prompt us to buy products to emulate their status.

What Is an Example of a Rhetorical Ploy?

A smokescreen is another rhetorical ploy you may have used when things get awkward. (I know I have.) Smokescreens are a military tactic to cover movement and confuse the opposition; a rhetorical smokescreen uses words to deflect questions, accusations or arguments the speaker doesn’t want to address.

Changing the subject is a great example. If friends ask about a topic you don’t want to talk about, you may ask them questions to avoid answering. While this example is innocent, bad actors can use the same ploy to avoid accountability.

What Rhetorical Ploys Have You Heard?

Understanding what a rhetorical ploy is can make you a more conscientious consumer — and a better writer. Can you think of any rhetorical ploys we missed? If so, comment them below!


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