III. Rhetorical Situation
A key component of rhetorical analysis involves thinking carefully about the rhetorical situation of a text. You can think of the rhetorical situation as the context or set of circumstances out of which a text arises. Any time anyone is trying to make an argument, one is doing so out of a particular context, one that influences and shapes the argument that is being made. When we do a rhetorical analysis, we look carefully at how the rhetorical situation (context) shapes the rhetorical act (the text). In addition, when you set down to compose a text, you should consider the various elements of rhetorical situation as they apply to your own work in order to help you make the best rhetorical choices to write and communicate effectively.
We can understand the concept of a rhetorical situation if we examine it piece by piece, by looking carefully at the rhetorical concepts from which it is built. The philosopher organized these concepts as purpose, author, setting, text, and audience. Answering the questions about these rhetorical concepts below will give you a good sense of your text’s rhetorical situation – the starting point for rhetorical analysis.
You may have learned about rhetorical situation in previous course work or reading, though the particular aspects addressed may be slightly different. Though these five aspects of rhetorical situation are some of the most traditional in Western discussions of rhetoric, rhetorical situation itself is a little like a pizza — it can be cut into eight slices, six slices, triangles, or squares, but it is still the same pizza. Different discussions of rhetorical situation may use different divisions, and may combine some aspects and split others, but they are all generally referring to the same concepts. For the purposes of this course and textbook, one easy way to remember the 5 parts of rhetorical situation is to think of PASTA:
We will use the example of T-Mobile’s 2023 Super Bowl ad  to sift through these questions about the rhetorical situation (context). The video of this advertisement is included below.
Looking at a text’s purpose means looking at both the or — what motivated the author to write the text in the first place — and the — the end goal or what the author hoped to accomplish with the text. Of course, you may not be able to know why an author created a text, but understanding the author’s motivations for creating it may give you insight and understanding.
Purpose is impossible to really understand without taking into account the author, the setting, and the audience and their relations to each other. When an author creates a text, they have decided to start a conversation or join one that is already underway. Why have they decided to join in? In any text, the author may be trying to inform, to convince, to define, to announce, or to activate a debate or discussion. When determining rhetorical purpose, consider the following in regard to the author:
- What is the author hoping to achieve with this text?
- Why did the author decide to join the conversation about the topic?
- What does the author want from their audience? What does the author want the audience to do once the text is communicated?
When you write your own texts, you may be prompted by wide ranging exigencies of needing to fulfill the course requirements, to respond to an email that someone has sent, to complain about a broken product received in the mail, or any number of other specific situations. You may also have multiple tele (plural of telos) for a single text. For instance, your text may both have the purpose of receiving a good grade on an assignment and persuading your classmates to see your point of view about a specific topic. Taking a moment to identify your own telos to yourself will help you stay focused in your construction of your texts.
The exigence or occasion was the need to advertise a new service, home internet, to a broad audience during Super Bowl LVII. The author’s telos in this advertisement was to convince viewers to purchase home internet from T-Mobile.
The author of a text is the creator – the person who is communicating in order to try to effect a change in their audience. An author doesn’t have to be a single person or a person at all – an author could be an organization. To understand the rhetorical situation of a text, one must examine the identity of the author and their background. The relationship between the author and the audience and the relationship between the author and the content are both important to take into consideration.
- What kind of experience or authority does the author have in the subject about which they are speaking?
- What values does the author have, either in general or with regard to this particular subject?
- How invested is the author in the topic of the text? In other words, what affects the author’s perspective on the topic?
When you write your own texts, consider not only who you are as the author and how your identity may shape your text and tone, but also what aspects of your identity you may need to convey to your audience. For instance, if you have personal experience with or some kind of expertise about a topic, do you need to convey that experience or expertise to the audience in order to increase your persuasiveness? What might be the most effective ways of communicating that information? The ways in which you establish your identity as someone who is trustworthy is known as and will be discussed in more depth in another section. In addition, you need to consider your relationship with your intended audience — are you friendly or antagonistic? Is one of you in a supervisory position over the other? Your identity in relation to your audience will affect what types of evidence are most persuasive and the tone you choose among other things.
The author of this advertisement is T-Mobile’s marketing firm. T-Mobile is a well known international provider of cellular phone services, though at the time that this advertisement first aired, it was not well known as a provider of home internet.
Nothing happens in a vacuum, and that includes the creation of any text. Essays, speeches, photos, political ads – any texts – are written in a specific time and/or place, all of which can affect the way the text communicates its message. One way to think about setting is to examine both place and time (both — actual linear time– and — timeliness). Looking at Setting can also overlap with Purpose and the occasion or exigence of a text.
Looking at the Place of a text means pay attention to location in both a literal and figurative manner. For instance, texts created in different countries will need to follow different cultural and linguistic expectations for structure and evidence. In some places in the world, argument from authority is seen as very convincing, but in the United States, such evidence is seen as weak or even fallacious.
In addition to “where in the world” is the text constructed and expected to be read, the location of a text might refer to the medium or place of publication. How might a text publish online on a blog be understood or read differently than a text in a printed magazine? What different expectations for the text are reflected in place?
Just as with place, there is both a literal and figurative understanding of time when considering rhetorical situation. In literal/linear time, or , when a text was written and the history/culture of the time matter when understanding a text. For instance, the address to the legislature of New York by Elizabeth Cady Stanton on the rights of married women in February of 1854  is much more understandable and conveys more nuance if the audience understands the laws restricting the various classes, races, and genders at the time and the intersection of the history of civil rights for women and African Americans. Similarly, knowledge of the 1950s and 1960s civil rights fight makes Martin Luther King’s writings and speeches more powerful and convincing.
In addition to linear/chronological time, the setting of a text also refers to the text figurative time, or “timeliness.” The term is an ancient Greek word that, in rhetoric, refers to the notion that timing can impact the effectiveness of a message. For a message to be received effectively, the recipient has to be ready and able to receive the message. However, many factors can impede a recipient’s ability to receive a message. They may be distracted by other issues, experiencing strong emotions, or just be too busy to hear the message. While any individual may not be able to receive a message at a given point of time, to be effective, a speaker should consider factors that could prevent many of their intended recipients from receiving their message.
It is important to note that kairos is not about censorship or freedom of speech. It doesn’t mean that a speaker is prevented from speaking. Have you ever tried to tell a friend something when they’re distracted by something else? For example, if you’re chatting with a friend while they’re driving, they may lose their focus on the conversation for a few minutes while navigating heavy traffic. Kairos is about timing that message so you speak when your friend is ready to listen; you might pause the conversation until traffic becomes lighter.
Kairos is easy to observe in commercial speech. You don’t see advertisers putting out school supply ads in November or April. Instead, they wait and advertise their wares in July and August when parents are thinking about purchasing supplies for back to school. Similarly, marketers don’t wait to sell Super Bowl T-shirts two months after the game ends. Instead, they famously print sets of T-shirts featuring each team. They recognize that fans are most likely to part with dollars for apparel immediately following the game, so they make sure they’re ready to capitalize on the moment no matter which team wins.
When a speaker doesn’t take kairos into consideration, their message may not be received effectively by the recipient. An example of this is Cinnabon’s Twitter message about Carrie Fisher back in 2016. . Although the message is, on the surface, a tribute to Carrie Fisher and her iconic portrayal of Princess Leia in the Star Wars films, there is also a secondary purpose. Cinnabon is a commercial entity. Its Twitter account is primarily promotional; it is intended to persuade potential consumers to buy one of its cinnamon rolls.
So why is this message ineffective? Viewing the tweet with the distance of several years, recipients may not immediately recognize why this tweet was received with outrage. The tweet, dated December 27, 2016, was made on the same day that Fisher died. Many viewers of the ad were in shock, mourning the sudden loss of a favorite movie star. The timing of the tweet led the message’s intended recipients, potential Cinnabon customers, to view the message as exploitative and insensitive rather than a humorous tribute.
Had Cinnabon released the same message at another point in time, perhaps to coincide with a Star Wars movie release, it may have been received differently. This same message may have been received as a nostalgic tribute and an effective marketing moment. But, because Cinnabon did not adequately consider the timing of the message, they instead deleted the tweet and issued an apology for the message.
When considering the timing of your message, ask yourself:
- How will my audience be likely to receive this message?
- Are there problems with the timing of this message?
- Is there a better time to convey this message effectively?
When considering the setting in terms of rhetorical analysis, consider the following:
- Where was the text? Where was it expected to be read? What aspects of location might affect or influence the meaning of the text?
- In what place is the text found? What medium or genre or publication? How might these aspects of setting influence the expectations or conventions of the text?
- What context, historically speaking, needs to be known to understand the arguments being made? What historical information is helpful in understanding the occassion or exigence of the text?
- Was there a debate about the topic that the author of the text addresses? If so, what are (or were) the various perspectives within that debate?
- Did something specific occur that motivated the author to speak out?
- How is the text timely (or not), taking into account the kairos of the situation?
When you are writing your own texts, remember to pay attention to the events in the world around you — consider not only what may prompt your own writing, but also how current events will influence the way your audience understands your text. Consider the place — are you writing an essay, an email, an instagram post, or a chat? Where is your audience? Will their location in the world or different cultural background affect how they receive your text? Are there current events than mean your text needs to be distributed at a specific time or not be distributed at a particular point in time? Remember that paying attention to rhetorical situation is not meant to determine what you “can and can’t” say, but meant to help you determine how to make your text accomplish your purpose in the most effective way.
This advertisement aired during Super Bowl LVII. The Super Bowl, which is the annual championship game of the National Football League, is well known for its advertisements in addition to its halftime show (and the game itself). Due to its large number of viewers, airtime during the Super Bowl is well known to be extremely expensive. Marketers often prepare for the event by developing new, highly polished advertising campaigns intended to capture viewers’ attention. The kairos of the advertisement comes from T-Mobile’s capitalizing on a major marketing opportunity (the Super Bowl) to launch its new service, home internet.
In addition, the advertisement draws on knowledge of the movie Grease and its actors. The movie came out in 1978, and this ad was aired 45 years later. The popularity of the original movie, especially among teens and young adults, lasted for years after the release. Therefore, most of the original audience of Grease (and the actors) would now be middle aged. T-Mobile was savvy in choosing a film that evoke a nostalgic reaction from their target market.
When analyzing the rhetorical situation of a given text, it is important to consider the format, or medium, in which the text is being made. If you are analyzing an image for rhetorical situation, elements such as shading, color, and placement are part of the argument being presented. Other forms of media that a text might take include a written essay, speech, song, protest sign, meme, or sculpture. Visual elements apply to papers as well, of course — typeface (font) choice, design and formatting, etc. can influence the first impression that a text gives the reader and affect how they understand the ethos or credibility of the author.
In addition to medium or form, examining the text may mean looking at the tone, the register of the language used (the formality/informality of the word choice and formatting), style, organization, etc. Examining the text as part of rhetorical situation can include word choice, such as whether or not the text uses contractions (such as isn’t rather than is not) or whether the text uses second person pronouns (you) or local slang (y’all, fixing to).
When examining the rhetorical situation of a text’s medium and style, ask yourself the following:
- What is gained by having a text composed in a particular format/medium?
- What expectations of genre/medium does the text meet or not meet?
- What limitations does that format/medium have?
- What opportunities for expression does that format/medium have (that perhaps other formats do not have?)
- How does the language used affect the audience’s understanding of the text? What is the register of the word choice? What style and organization choices were made and how do they affect the presentation of the text as a whole?
When composing your own text, take the time to make sure you understand the conventions and expectations of the medium or form you plan to use. Using the appropriate tone and formality for the situation is one part of attention to the rhetorical situation of the text. The second part means paying attention to other details. For instance, if you are writing an email to a potential employer, you may want to make sure you follow conventions of professional email — short paragraphs, extra space between paragraphs, but no first-line indents, and an email signature on the bottom. If you are recording a video presentation, you might consider the level of transitions, design, etc. that are appropriate for the situation. You might also consider the conventions for accessibility such as captions or subtitles for videos or alt-text for images on a web page or PDF.
Advertisements are intended to persuade viewers. Television advertisements are inherently multimodal — using visuals, words, and sounds to convey their text. Analysis of the text of this ad would need to include the words of the song, the tune, the stage setting of the neighborhood in the background, the costuming choices, the dance moves, and even some of Travolta’s facial expressions. Because they have little time to connect with viewers, advertisements often will use repetition, jingles, popular songs or versions of popular tunes, familiar symbols or references to cultural commonalities, and other devices in order to help their message stick in the viewer’s mind. Although the tone of an advertisement can be serious, this one is funny and nostalgic in order to connect with viewers’ emotions. The nostalgia also serves to make something new and strange (like a cellular phone company providing home internet) seem more familiar.
In any text, an author is attempting to an audience. Before we can analyze how effectively an author engages an audience, we must spend some time thinking about that audience. An audience is any person or group who is the of the text. In addition to audience engagement, analysis of a text’s audience will help you identify what level of knowledge the audience is expected to have, the attitude or position of the audience toward the topic, and the reasoning behind some of the author’s rhetorical moves. In addition, understanding the intended audience of a text can help you determine if you are a part of that intended audience or not.
In addition to evidence from within the text itself, audience can also be determined based on the setting of the text (where was it published? What to other texts are connected to it, and what do they together reveal about the evidence?) and the purpose of the text (what is the author trying to accomplish? And who would be in a position to make a difference?).
Any text has potentially at least three audiences, though the some of these audiences may be the same. The audience may be
- The intended audience — who the author meant to read the text. As mentioned above, whom the text is written for can often be determined by understanding the setting and purpose of a text. For instance, Informed Arguments as a textbook is intended to be read by students, instructors, textbook reviewers, and course designers.
- The implied audience — who the text seems to be addressing in the text. This is often more evident in literary texts, where, for instance, a poet may be addressing a lover, though the intended audience is the readers of the book rather than an actual lover. In non-literary texts, however, an implied audience is often indicated by the use of the second-person. Oftentimes the intended and implied audiences overlap, but are not identical. This textbook, for instance, has an implied audience of students in a rhetoric and composition course, though the intended audience is a bit broader. One of the indicators of the implied audience is the use of “you” and the imperative mood (commands).
- The actual audience — who actually reads the text. In many cases, a text may move beyond the intended audience and the implied audience and be read by people whom the author may not expect. This is particularly true of older texts — as authors can’t really predict how culture and history will unfold, there is a good chance, for instance, that things considered common knowledge in the past may need more explanation now. If you are a part of the actual audience of a text, but not part of the intended audience, you may need to do slightly more work and perhaps background research to understand the text more fully.
Sometimes all three audiences are the same — for instance, if you receive an email, there is a good chance you are the intended, implied, and actual audience. Other times, however, considering these three aspects of audience and their relationships can lead to insights into the interpretation of a text’s meaning and an understanding of the text’s effectiveness.
To understand the rhetorical situation of a text, one must examine who the audience is by thinking about these things:
- Who is the author addressing?
Sometimes this is the hardest question of all. We can get this information of who the author is addressing by looking at where an article is published. Be sure to pay attention to the newspaper, magazine, website, or journal title where the text is published. Often, you can research that publication to get a good sense of who reads it.
- What is the audience’s demographic information (age, gender, etc.)?
- What is/are the background, values, interests of the intended audience?
- How open is this intended audience to the author?
- What might the audience make about the author?
- In what is the audience receiving the text?
When you are preparing to compose your own text, thinking about audience can be a bit tricky. As discussed above, in one sense, your audience is the person or group that you intend to reach with your writing. However, again, any text likely also has an unintended actual audience, a reader (or readers) who read it even without being the intended recipient. The actual audience or reader might be the person you have in mind as you write, the audience you’re trying to reach, but they might be some random person you’ve never thought of a day in your life. You can’t always know much about random readers, but you should have some understanding of who your audience is. It’s the audience that you want to focus on as you shape your message. The audience works in tandem with the other elements of rhetorical situation to shape the choices you make for the most effective text to convey your message and achieve your purpose.
T-Mobile was addressing Super Bowl viewers during this advertisement; the ad was broadcast nationally on Fox. However, it is important to note that T-Mobile’s audience was actually even broader; they shared the ad on YouTube before, during, and after the Super Bowl event, ensuring that the ad was able to reach an international audience as well.
When considering who, within that general audience, T-Mobile was specifically appealing to, you may consider the details of the advertisement. What pop culture references are they making? Would Grease references and John Travolta be as recognizable to a teenager as they would to a Gen Xer? What about the other famous faces in the ad? Would a Baby Boomer be as likely to recognize the stars of Scrubs as a Millennial? Consider which demographic groups are most likely to be in a decision-making position about home internet. Does it make sense that T-Mobile is appealing to a middle-aged audience?
This section contains material from:
Jeffrey, Robin, and Emilie Zickel. “What is the Rhetorical Situation?” In A Guide to Rhetoric, Genre, and Success in First-Year Writing, by Melanie Gagich and Emilie Zickel. Cleveland: MSL Academic Endeavors. Accessed July 2019. https://pressbooks.ulib.csuohio.edu/csu-fyw-rhetoric/chapter/rhetorical-situation-the-context/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Archival link: https://web.archive.org/web/20201027010031/https://pressbooks.ulib.csuohio.edu/csu-fyw-rhetoric/chapter/rhetorical-situation-the-context/
OER credited in the text above include:
Burnell, Carol, Jaime Wood, Monique Babin, Susan Pesznecker, and Nicole Rosevear. The Word on College Reading and Writing. Open Oregon Educational Resources. Accessed December 18, 2020. https://openoregon.pressbooks.pub/wrd/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. Archival link: https://web.archive.org/web/20230711210420/https://openoregon.pressbooks.pub/wrd/
Jeffrey, Robin. About Writing: A Guide. Portland, OR: Open Oregon Educational Resources. Accessed December 18, 2020. https://openoregon.pressbooks.pub/aboutwriting/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Archival link: https://web.archive.org/web/20230711210756/https://openoregon.pressbooks.pub/aboutwriting/
- T-Mobile, "New year. New neighbor 2023 Big Game Day Commercial T-Mobile Home Internet," YouTube video, February 9, 2023, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jSO-Whn2sCQ&t=2s ↵
- https://www.loc.gov/item/55045184/ ↵
- Cinnabon, "RIP Carrie Fisher, you'll always have the best buns in the galaxy," Instagram post, December 27, 2016, post deleted. ↵
A classical Greek philosopher and orator who lived from 384-322 B.C. A student of Plato, he is known for creating his own branch of philosophy known as Aristotelianism which is based on the use of inductive reasoning and deductive logic in order to study nature and natural law. Aristotle also wrote on various subjects including biology, physics, ethics, poetry, politics, linguistics, mathematics, and rhetoric. Aristotle’s rhetorical triangle is based on ethos, pathos, and logos and is considered the basis for understanding the rhetorical situation.
An event -- in rhetoric, the event or occurrence prompting the creation of a text
The urgency of a situation demanding action. In rhetoric, the exigence of a speech or text is the pressing reason or need for the speech or text
The Greek term for end goal/purpose, generally used to discuss the ultimate aim of some act or text
Ethos is a rhetorical appeal that is based on authority or credibility. It can involve the reader evoking their own expertise on a topic or pointing to experts on a topic. Ethos is related to "ethics" and character, in that a speaker or source's reputation determines their credibility. Sometimes ethos-driven appeals can mistakenly rely on false authority; for example, using a celebrity endorsement even though the celebrity has no expertise on the topic. Ethos is one of three types of rhetorical appeals described by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle.
Linear or literal time -- usually in contrast to Kairos.
Time in a less literal sense; timeliness, or time in context with other events and information
To occupy or attract the attention of someone or something.
A receiver or beneficiary.
Taking something for granted; an expected result; to be predisposed towards a certain outcome.
The set of circumstances that frame a particular idea or argument; the background information that is necessary for an audience to know about in order to understand why or how a text was written or produced.