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Rhetorical Analysis, or Foot-Ball Dogs and William Jennings Bryan

June 23, 2016

By: Derek McSwain

For student writers, a rhetorical analysis can be one of the most confounding writing assignments. Despite its imposing name, however, the concept behind the rhetorical analysis is really quite simple. In contrast to a review and/or summary, the goal of a rhetorical analysis is not to determine what the text’s argument or message is. Instead, a rhetorical analysis seeks to determine how the argument is made and how the message is communicated to an audience. In this context, a text can encompass virtually any medium, from pamphlets to articles to cartoons and visual arts. Despite this dizzying variety of forms, there are underlying principles which inform any text. A working knowledge of these elements is key to writing a rhetorical analysis. These elements will be demonstrated by highlighting the similarities and differences found in two posters. These posters were published at roughly the same time, but have very different messages.

At the heart of it, a rhetorical analysis is akin to an engineer taking apart a complex machine. What a machine does is fascinating in and of itself. However, to truly understand it, the engineer must know how it works. Much like the cogs in a machine, the writer must be able to see how a variety of parts work; the context, the audience, and the genre of the subject all work together to bring the creator’s message to the world.

The most helpful way to begin an analysis may be to put yourself in the mindset of the one who made the argument. This can be accomplished by asking some very simple questions. What is the intent of the creator? Is it intended to inform readers? Is it meant to persuade them to accept an idea or policy? Are they meant to buy a product?

baileyOnce the intent has been established, it is easier to place the object of study within its proper context. Simply knowing that you are studying, for instance, a poster from the early 1900s, is useful for establishing the genre of the subject. However, the context of the object must be understood as well to conduct a well-rounded analysis. The context is a combination of the factors that influenced the creation of the subject; including the time period, the culture, and the society which produced it. Was the poster a product of societal upheaval? An expression of popular culture? A political advertisement aimed at encouraging voters to choose the presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan can be placed within a different context than a poster from the same period which advertises a circus featuring “marvelous foot-ball dogs.” Additionally, your knowledge of the creator can shed light on their place within the context. Were they an experienced author? An artist? An employee of an advertising firm?

The content of the text is of obvious importance to determining the intended audience the author or creator is trying to reach. Who is the text directed at? A consumer? An undecided voter? The audience is key as it informs how the creator structures his argument. For example, the political poster of William Jennings Bryan appeals to the patriotism of citizens, while the circus poster appeals to a prospective ticket-buyer’s sense of fun and interest in the unusual.

BryanOftentimes, further research may be needed to understand the text. For example, the Bryan poster was made with the assumption that the audience would understand that the phrase “cross of gold” refers to Bryan’s famous speech opposing the gold standard of currency, a hot-button issue at the time. Even the circus poster assumes that the reader would have some familiarity with the name “Barnum & Bailey” and their catchphrase of “The Greatest Show on Earth.” These nuances can be missed by the writer of a rhetorical analysis; therefore, attention to detail is very important when writing the assignment.

For a more concise look at the rhetorical analysis, a writer may wish to consult the handout on the topic, available at the University Writing Center, as well as its website. Additionally, the staff of the Writing Center is available for online and in-person sessions to work on any number of assignments, including the rhetorical analysis. These sessions can be a great help for writers of any skill level and major. Best of luck!



“The Marvelous Foot-Ball Dogs,” Barnum & Bailey’s Circus Poster, 1900. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

“The Issue-1900,” William Jennings Bryan campaign poster, 1900. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons


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