Making the Safer Choice?: The Rhetoric of the Marijuana Super Bowl Ads

I started this post a few days ago, and I’m just now posting it. It’s a tiny bit late, since the Super Bowl is over, but I can’t just not post it now that it’s finished.

Of course, normally I don’t pay a lot of attention to sports. And though I’m from Seattle, this post isn’t even about football or the Super Bowl. This post is analyzes the rhetoric of the advertisements surrounding the legalization of the recreational use of marijuana. In other words, I will reveal how these advertisements try to persuade an audience to their point of view.

Let’s take a look.

Here’s one of the advertisements:

Via Marijuana Policy Project

This billboard is actually kind of funny, when we think about it. It tells the audience that the first image is “Beer” and the second image stands for “Football,” but it doesn’t tell us that the third image is a cannabis leaf–we’re already supposed to know that. Instead of the text “Marijuana” or “Cannabis” above the third picture (which would make the billboard pointless, but perhaps even more funny), we have the word “Safer.” So the billboard is obviously making the argument that marijuana is safer than beer or football–or is it beer and football? The word and would link Beer and Football together, but the word or would assume that marijuana is safer than both of them separately. I’m not sure which it is, but perhaps the sign is purposely vague because it’s in the advertisers’ best interest to make it vague. After all, vagueness is persuasive to mass audiences, and when we’re driving down the road and see something like this, we don’t have time to think about what’s going on behind the scenes.

But something even stranger is going on here than just a subtle vagueness: the advertisers are using a football helmet to symbolize Football. But a helmet? Why didn’t they just use a football? Wouldn’t a football be a better symbol for Football since the ball is the same word for the sport? But the advertisers are strategically not choosing a football, and I assume it’s perhaps because they can’t put a hole in a football and have it mean very much to a mass audience: I mean, look at that football helmet–it looks like somebody has taken a drill to it or something.

Unless, of course, what I am calling a hole is really a team logo that merely looks like a hole. Maybe it’s a little lightning bolt? I don’t know. I don’t know what else it is, but if it really is a logo, then the rest of this argument–until the next section heading–is invalid.

But why is that hole even there? I mean, We’ve all seen people lose their helmets once in a while during a hard hit, but a hole that size? As far as I know, football helmets almost never even crack, and if they do it’s only around the edges of the ear-guards. They’re designed to not dent, let alone even crack. If they did, then so much for the head inside.

So, no–there’s more going on here than just a casual helmet sitting between a mug of beer and a cannabis leaf. That helmet is, I think, strategic. I think the advertisers put the hole in the football helmet to make football appear to be more dangerous than it really is. Then the advertisers place a perfectly symmetrical cannabis leaf right next to the holey football helmet. The advertisers’ argument, then, goes like this:

Look at that helmet with a hole in it and then look at this leaf. We’ve made it easy for you: they’re right next to each other. And notice that there’s something wrong with that helmet, but nothing wrong with this leaf. So, compared with football, there’s nothing wrong with marijuana. So marijuana is safer.

But it doesn’t seem to me to be very persuasive. If marijuana is safer than football, then why the need for the hole in the helmet in the first place? Why the need to make football seem like it’s worse than it actually is if marijuana really is safer?

The advertisers are trying to downplay the harmfulness of marijuana by comparing it to football, which football is symobolized by a helmet (not a ball) with a hole in it. Or, put another way, the advertisers are trying to increase the safety appeal of marijuana by comparing it to a football helmet that doesn’t exist–a helmet with an impossibly large hole in it that was put there strategically, a hole that, in reality, could not look as it does in the picture.

Football doesn’t put holes in players’ helmets. The advertisers are lying to us. They have showed us a picture of something that is not true. So to what degree can we then trust them with other information?

Safer and Less Harmful
Let’s move on to another set of advertisements, but some of what we say below will still apply to the advertisement above.

This whole time we’ve been talking about or at least referencing the word safer, but we need a definition. What does it mean for something to be safer? Well, we could start by using these advertisements’ own definition that defines the word in terms of its antithesis. We say that thing A is safer than thing B when thing A is less harmful than thing B. To be safe is to be less harmful. That is the implication of the below advertisements.

Via Marijuana Policy Project

And this one:

Via Marijuana Policy Project

These two are similar. I don’t know much about the issue, but apparently some of the players have been punished for smoking marijuana, and they’re not happy about it. The punishment went public, as it usually does in an age where people are trying to get one another’s attention, and somebody wants to make sure that everybody knows about it. My question here is, how does the use of the words safer and less harmful affect the audience who reads these advertisements? Let’s see if we can figure it out.

The words safer and less harmful imply a hierarchy of what is good. What’s good is up, and what’s bad is down. To be safe or safer is better than to be harmful, so when we have to make a choice between two things and one is safe and one harmful, we will naturally make the safer choice because we understand that it is better for us (if we are in our right mind, of course–for in our right mind we have a natural desire to keep ourselves alive [I guess could open my window right now and jump out of the 5th floor window but I won’t–I’ll make the safer choice to stay alive {when it’s put like that, it sounds pretty ludicrous.}]). At any rate, safe is good. Harmful is bad.

Thus, when we say that something is safer we automatically put the subject in a more positive light. It sounds good because the word safe is a good word, and it makes us feel good to be safe. Not only that, but underlining the word safer will make us feel even better about ourselves because underlining a thing emphasizes it.

Finally, if harmful is bad, then less harmful is good. So less harmful will make us feel good (though maybe not as good) as the word safer.

So, by stating that “Marijuana is less harmful to our bodies than alcohol,” the advertisements already assume that alcohol is “harmful to our bodies,” but the advertisements don’t project alcohol as as harmful and marijuana as not harmful. Instead, marijuana is less harmful. (They don’t say that marijuana is not harmful.) And saying that marijuana is less harmful than something else makes it sound a lot, well–less harmful. And if a thing is less harmful than something else, then it’s a lot better than what it could have been. By saying that marijuana is less harmful than something else–as well as safer than something else–the advertisers persuade marijuana users to feel good about using marijuana.

Then there’s the word the. By making the safer choice, the person that chooses implies that he or she is doing one thing instead of the others, and by doing this thing instead of those things which are not safer, a person will also make himself or herself feel good.

The advertisements claim that “we” (i.e. the players, but also, perhaps, anyone else who uses marijuana for pleasure and has been “punish[ed]”) are “making the safer choice” because it makes us feel good to define the things that we do in positive terms. What we’re doing makes us feel good, for a moment, at least, and it makes us feel doubly good to feel good about feeling good, so of course we’re going to craft the issue in terms that make us feel good. That’s a lot of good feelings.

There’s something we can say about the word punish, too. The word punish is obviously a bad word. I mean, we don’t like getting punished–punishment hurts! Usually that pain is more psychological than physical, and psychological pain can be more painful than physical pain. With this information about the word punish, we could translate the last sentence of the advertisement so that it reads like this: “Why does the league punish us (or do something bad to us) for making the safer (the better, the more good) choice?” And then, by implication, the audience is led to reply, “That’s an injustice!”

In other words, “Making the safer choice” makes us sound good to ourselves. We’re “making” this choice, which means we’re doing it–we’re the ones in charge, here, and our actions are deliberate. We’re not doing things on accident. We recognize that those other things exist, but we choose to do this one. We’re choosing this one instead of the other, and what we’re doing now is not as bad as what we could be doing, so you should be happy with us. In fact, you should be proud of us. Proud of us for making the safer choice.

So apparently some of the players have been punished for smoking marijuana, and they’re not happy about it. They’re not happy and they want to make sure that we know about it. But at the same time, they want to feel good about their actions, but they also want us to feel good about them. It’s perhaps no surprise that these advertisements come at a time when the two teams that played in the Super Bowl both come from states that have recently legalized the recreational use of marijuana.

Let’s end this thing.

I am not here arguing that marijuana is not safer than alcohol or football. But I am questioning the motives of the people behind the claim that marijuana is safer than alcohol or football. And I am saying that by defining recreational marijuana use in terms of its being safer than more harmful things is a rhetorical strategy that tries to get audience members to feel good about the recreational use of marijuana.

What I want to know is why? Why do we try to make ourselves feel good? Not only that, but why do we try to feel good when we do harmful or less harmful things? Where does this drive to feel good come from, and is there a way to find it that is not manipulative, either of ourselves or of other people?

(The above advertisements, by the way, inspired this story that I posted earlier.)

Analysis of and Annotations on an Email I Just Received from The White House

Before we get to the good stuff, let me make one thing clear: I am not agreeing nor disagreeing with what the author below says, and my act of discussing the following email is not meant to promote nor contradict what it says.

All I want to do is reveal what is going in here through language. Both sides (dare I say “all people”?) use strategies such as the ones I’m discussing, so here we go. First the email, then my commentary.

Now it’s time for some commentary. I’m going to talk about what the author(s?) are going to do to their audience through language. Let’s look at the first bit:

The White House, Washington

Hi, all!

This week, we got some big news about the immigration reform bill. It’s a little wonky, but it’s so great that I couldn’t wait to share it with you.

“Hi, all!”
First of all, the logo at the top gives the email an official and professional feel, yet the casual opening—with the brief and friendly “Hi,” “all,” and perhaps especially the exclamation point—invites the audience to feel at ease and get excited about what will follow. Excitement is contagious, as long as it’s not over the top, and I assume here that by expressing excitement the authors want readers to feel excitement. The authors seem sincere in that they really believe what follows, and who wouldn’t be excited after finding out the facts that follow? This excitement is all over the email and is manifest at the end of the first paragraph with, “it’s so great that I couldn’t wait to share it with you.”

“a little wonky”
Honestly, I had to look the word wonky, but the word does add to the casual feel of the email. As citizens, we like things to be on our level, and politics is often so highly technical that we don’t understand it. By using casual speech and word choice to speak on the same level as readers, authors help readers make the assumption that authors and readers really are on the same level socially, intellectually, etc.

Also, “a little wonky” helps address concerns that audience members might already have about the issue. The phrase “a little wonky” is saying, when read in the context of the entire email, “Sure, the bill isn’t perfect—nothing is—but its merits outweigh its defects.” 

Now let’s check out the next paragraph:

The nonpartisan experts who estimate the financial impact of legislation for Congress concluded that because undocumented immigrants will start paying more in taxes for things like education and Social Security, the immigration proposal in the Senate will make the economy fairer for middle class families while cutting the U.S. deficit by almost $1,000,000,000,000 over the next two decades.

“nonpartisan experts”
These are not just “experts,” but “nonpartisan experts.” This is a carefully chosen phrase. We like things to be nonpartisan because we like things to be unbiased. We are more likely to trust the authors when they tell us that they are using “nonpartisan” (read “unbiased”) sources. Is “nonpartisan” equivalent with unbiased, however? I don’t know. I don’t think we have enough information here to answer that question. But it’s easy to think they mean the same thing in this context.

undocumented immigrants”
Note the careful word choice here, too: these are not “illegal” but “undocumented” immigrants. “Illegal” is a negative term, and the authors of this email want to stay positive.

“for things like”
Here we have some simple yet somewhat vague language: “things like” tells us that things are being simplified into terms that we can understand, but there are also things that are unlisted. There is more going on here than we know, but it’s also being translated. If we trust the authors we trust their translation, and if we like the casual and optimistic tone, we may not even question word choices such as this one.

“almost $1,000,000,000,000”
Spelling out the trillion is strategic: to see that many zeros on a page is impressive. It’s not every day that we see a number that big. “1,000,000,000,000” is physically longer (it takes more space on the page) than “a trillion.” Spelling the word out makes the concept seem bigger than if we just had “one trillion.” According to The White House’s Google+ page, the number is closer 897,000,000,000. 

Finally, let’s take a minute to check out the last two paragraphs:

With every passing day, it’s becoming clear that we can’t afford not to act. Now we know exactly how much is at stake, and it’s the kind of news that can help to change the policy conversation in Washington.
So we’ve put together a graphic that explains exactly how this works, and we need your help to share it. If more people get the facts, it’ll be easier to build a nationwide, bipartisan consensus to get this done.

“we know exactly”
This “we” is especially nuanced. Since above we’re told “almost $1,000,000,000,000,”  and since we’re also given simplified examples such as “things like,” as discussed above, can “we” really say that “we know exactly how much is at stake”? This particular “we” does not seem to include readers of the email but only the authors of the email, the “nonpartisan experts”–unless, of course, the readers of the document already trust and have sided with the authors. Then “we” really do “know exactly how much is at stake.” Trust, as Aristotle once said, is the strongest rhetorical appeal. We believe those we trust. Trust is always an issue. Cf. Kenneth Burke’s “Responsibilities of National Greatness” for more commentary and discussions about the identifications concerning the word we.

“the facts”

An ultimate term. See this and also this. The assumption here is that the things which the authors have shown readers in this email are the facts.

“bipartisan consensus”

Also an ultimate term. Most of us are sick of the fighting between parties. We want a “bipartisan consensus,” which is the political ideal. We do strive for agreement, and nothing gets done without it. The assumption here is that if we accept, agree with, and share the information contained in this email, we will begin to be less frustrated with partisan politics. 

Thanks for reading. Again, I’m not arguing for or arguing against the content of this email. I’m just discussing what the authors leave implicit.