So far, we have discussed heuristics that focus upon persuasive impact of the message. Now it’s time to consider the nature of the audience and how they might perceive and respond to your message. Social judgment theory, constructed by Carolyn Sherif, Muzafer Sherif, and Roger Nebergall in the 1960s, can help you analyze your audience in persuasive writing situations. Social judgment theory states that people filter messages through a set of comparisons to determine their position on a given message. For instance, you hear a message and think of how it compares to other messages that you have internalized from past experiences with the topic. Some messages you accept, some you don’t care about, and others you reject. Social judgment theory states that hot-button issues such as gun control or education are likely to have small areas, or latitudes, of acceptance and noncommittal and large areas of rejection. By contrast, the issue of world poverty, although highly significant on a global scale, is sadly not a hot button issue for many of us.
Most US citizens probably exhibit a larger latitude of acceptance and commitment on this issue because they have not had much experience with it. Charting these latitudes as you create persuasive messages will help you to select the right words and messages to fit your audience’s latitude of acceptance. Imagine for a moment that you are creating an advertising campaign for a state senate candidate who favors raising gasoline taxes in order to repair the state’s aging highways and bridges. Considering social judgment theory and the fact that new taxes are a hot-button issue for most state residents, you will probably encounter a very narrow latitude of acceptance here. You would be making a major mistake to frame your advertising messages in terms of new taxes. Instead, you wisely reason that it is better to build the campaign around messages based upon “new infrastructure investments for safety” or “shared responsibility for our roads.” This theory works nicely as a heuristic to help you determine acceptable persuasive message for audiences.
The Aristotelian artistic proofs, semiotics, and social judgment theory all provide useful heuristic tools to help you analyze your audience and to predict their likely attitudes and behaviors. You must think hard about what the audience expects from your persuasive message, what words and images will hold important meanings for them, and what types of persuasive messages they are likely to accept, reject, or not care about. First, however, you must understand the ethical considerations in using persuasion.