Rhetrickery and rhetruth in digital space
Barbara Stern’s elaboration of Wayne C. Booth’s notion of rhetrickery, defined as a spectrum of “dishonest communicative arts producing misunderstanding – along with other harmful results” (Booth 2004, 10), coupled with her own explication of “rhetruth”, a strategy ostensibly aimed at fostering the public good, provide the scaffolding for our analysis of online testimonials as key elements in the construction of the “polyphonic discourses” embedded in the fertility websites under survey. Stern’s contributions to Booth’s work encourage vigilant “readings” of advertisements as strategic “polyvocal” literary texts or “consumption scenarios”.
By unmasking their rhetorical anatomy, she unveils the surreptitious ruses in messaging that manipulate via “innovative” uses of “characterization”, plot, and structure to augment persuasive power. These ruses thereby operate to promote “rhetruth” by foisting positive, persuasive, and educational content within an otherwise dubious medium (Stern 2008, 52, 60–63).
Stern’s work remains sensitive to the “network of meanings co-produced by authors, informants, and readers” (Stern 1998, 57). However, Stern does not consider how “rhetrickery” and “rhetruth” operate within a digital environment.
We build upon her insights by introducing the concept “digirhetrickery”, the use of deceptive rhetoric in digital space, in the analysis of online testimonials by fertility marketers. Because they blur the lines between “organic”, and “manufactured”, “coherent” and “crafted”, and author/speaker/expert/audience, online testimonials provide a window into understanding how language can mask the operations that effectively conspire to make the dubious seem natural or authentic.
As far as we are aware, no marketing theorist has addressed the need to update rhetorical analyses to scrutinize online advertising, its unique persuasive abilities, and consumer “voices” and interactions in digital space.
“Total fertility awareness”: the problem with “natural” fertility discourse
In spite of current marketing moods that favor femvertising, many authors continue to argue that the advertising industry represents women in negative ways that debase them morally and psychologically (Attwood 2014; Nelson 2012; Sivulka 2012). Advertising has been held accountable for body dysmorphia and low self-esteem in men as well as women.
Drawing on a rich tradition of works (Berger 1972; Schroeder 2002; Schroeder and Borgerson 1998; Stern and Schroeder 1994) having interdisciplinary attention to art criticism, feminist theory, advertising, and psychology, we call attention to a dominant, recurring image from that advertises “Total Fertility Awareness”, Heidi’s (paid) membership-only, “clinically proven self-acupressure system for (natural, IUI & IVF) pregnancy success”. In this image, themes of powerful and paradoxical “nature” and the “natural” “myth of Edenic unity” (Thompson 2004) form a crucial component of the vocabulary of persuasion (Evernden 1992).
More important for our discussion, images like these, when anchored within gendered visual stereotypes that link women with nature/natural health treatments (Thompson 2004, 163–164), serve to obfuscate the “unnatural” medical intervention that a majority of the profiled patients use. Indeed, the urgency for “nature” in advertising is all the more acute as present-day techno lives have never been so remote from their “natural state”.
The image features a smiling Heidi Brockmyre high-fiving an ecstatic pregnant woman whose hand rests on her belly. Both women are pictured against a sunshine-filled, lush, tropical bamboo background. Their appearance, save for the woman’s pregnant belly, is similar: perfectly coiffed (sporting comparable hairstyles), with minimal, “natural” makeup.
This visual demonstration tells a story of fertility success through female collaboration and camaraderie and, as previously discussed, expertise and empathy. The photo clearly serves as a strategic visual introduction to the many positive consumer testimonials in textual form (and one video), highlighted in bright pink on the same page.
In a pure state of Rousseauist “natural goodness”, the Total Fertility Awareness photo advert shows an unabashed reverence for utopian nature unencumbered by the machinations and noxiousness of state and society (and presumably, the sterile clinical setting of the conventional medical facility). Tellingly, it also excludes men.
This image of what we call “fertility nostalgia” depicts an idealized, prelapsarian epoch of abundant fertility, oneness with an Emersonian, nature-inspired spirituality, (“every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact”), innocence, and zero artifices (Emerson 2009). It, therefore, sells the past to the future, the idealized and romanticized “way things were” (Berger 1972).
However, there are discrete fissures in the visual discourse. The holistic “total fertility” ideal is undermined by the scientific artifice of ART (discretely embedded in brackets at the top of the web page) that Heidi Brockmyre embraces in her enlightened, pro-woman fertility enhancement endeavors. However, the hyperbolic dominant “natural narrative” of the picture seeks to overwrite this inconvenient dissonance, or at best “naturalize” it.
Knowing that fertility problems in men and women are caused in part by environmental factors, the rarefied “perfect nature” scenario (ironically situated in a digital vitrine) highlighted in the photo covers up the urbanized technophilia that are “unnatural” features of twenty-first-century consumer lifestyles. Thus, the image becomes a cruel reminder of the disconnect between “real” consumers’ lives and the exalted, air-brushed, neatly packaged “Total Fertility” in its digital frame.
Moreover, the “Total Fertility” VIP package, with its sizeable price-tag of USD 4997.00, is a harsh reminder of class privilege, which through stratified pricing, creates a hierarchy among women who can afford total fertility treatments and those who cannot; the “care package”, with less “benefits”, is priced at USD 1997. However, if these kinds of dissonances are readily extracted from the visual and narrative elements in Heidi Brockmyre’s website, the “rhetrickery” they employ is more obfuscated within the testimonials featured in the web pages of Natural Fertility Info.
“Digirhetrickery” and “rhetruth” in testimonial narratives
A testimonial is a form of advertising in which the personal experiences of a “typical consumer” are foregrounded to extol the virtues of a product and/or a service and – either indirectly or explicitly encourage the audience to emulate his/her choices and example. Leiss et al. describe the testimonial as a type of “personalized format” in which the “significance of the product becomes mediated by direct and personalized relationships” (Leiss et al. 2005, 186).
Despite the testimonial’s aura of authenticity, its words are packaged and publicized by the producer, retailer, or service provider to form part of a marketing campaign. That aura, its promise of fulfillment, and its ideological underpinnings interest us here.
Testimonials have become common components of communication and recruitment practices with the rise of web-based consumer marketing. Notwithstanding persistent research gaps on the influence of positive direct consumer experiences upon consumer decision-making processes, several studies have pointed to trends that are relevant to the conclusions of this study.
As the evaluation of visual imagery and textual discourses in our surveyed testimonials suggests below, there is a direct correlation between 1) the desirable qualities or experiences of a testifier (patient), 2) the appeal of a product or service (or its purveyor, the fertility expert), and 3) the potential consumer of that product or service. It may well be the case, as the essays in Schweitzer and Moskowitz’s edited volume on testimonial marketing in the United States presume, that testimonials “mediate negotiations between producers and consumers and shape modern cultural attitudes about social identity” (Moskowitz and Schweitzer 2009, 3).
Here it is worth noting, as Van Hoye and Lievens have demonstrated in their study of web-based recruitment sources that testimonials may cause consumers to attribute less credibility to an organization than when independent sources attest to the efficacy of a product, service, or practitioner. However, when those testimonials focus on individual experiences, they are not only more attractive to consumers but may also mask recruitment motives (Van Hoye and Lievens 2007, 374, 378–79).
As we note in the studies of two fertility websites below, they also raise questions about the ways in which their messaging reinforces predominant perceptions about the gendered body, particularly when it does not function in line with its intended biological capacities.
Author: Jennifer Takhar & Kelly Pemberton