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Just the Facts, Please

May 13, 2015

Has this ever happened to you? You were little (or maybe not so little) and your mother came up to you, frustrated over some ill-advised life decision, sat you down, looked you in the eyes, sighed, and then said, “Listen, I’m not going to tell you how to live your life.” Do you remember how mom then proceeded to immediately tell you exactly how to live your life? If you do have one such memory (or many such) then you have been occultatio’d.

The occultatio is a rhetorical technique in which rhetoricians bring something up to let their audience know they are not going to bring it up. If this sounds familiar, but the notion of occultatio is unfamiliar to you, it might be because the technique goes by a number of other names (paralipsis, apophasis, preterition, antiphrasis, the list goes on and on). But occultatio may also sound familiar to you because you see it all the time, from your parents yes, but also in advertising.

Recently, this tactic seems to be everywhere, but one memorable example comes from a series of television commercials produced by Dodge for their Ram Truck series called “Just the Facts.” Take a moment and watch these ads here, here, and here before reading the rest of this so we’ll have some to talk about.

Now that we’ve seen rhetoric in action, let’s do some basic analysis. Each commercial opens with a familiar scene from modern truck commercials: men, working or driving, doing traditional “manly” things like operating mig welders, carrying ladders, cruising through dusty mountain trails, grinding bits of metal with other bits of metal, etc.

This is accompanied by a voice over, from this guy, who is as close to a living cowboy as you can get without joining the rodeo circuit (in various movies, he’s played the Marlboro Man, Wyatt Earp’s brother, Wild Bill Hickock, and the sarsaparilla guy from the Big Lebowski). Just listen to that voice! It makes me want to find a horse and, well, not ride it because they’re big and scary, but at least lean on a fencepost near a horse and try to look cool.

So Mr. Elliot’s dulcet tones slide across the opening imagery like a tumbleweed across Main Street, and lets the reader know exactly what this commercial is NOT going to do, which includes but is not limited to:

  • No super slow motion footage of trucks splashing through the mud
  • No chest beating monologues about engine size, horsepower or performance
  • No anthemic soundtracks to stir the soul
  • No pictures of trucks pulling boats
  • No photos of men working on ranches
  • No cowboy hats
  • No horses
  • No hay bales

And, true to their word, these particular images are not included. There are no cowboy hats, just cowboy country. There are no men working on ranches, just men working on girders. No anthemic soundtracks, just the sound of grinding metal and prairie wind and tires crunching gravel.

Clever, Ram Trucks, very clever. In using occultatio, Ram is able to do to three things simultaneously. First, they are able to show pictures of the truck, and the men who use the truck, working hard: product placement and prestige-boosting. Second, they poke fun at other truck commercials which do show slow motion splashing over anthemic soundtracks: ethos development. And finally, they are able to evoke those images of cowboys and ranches and anthems and splashing based on the memories viewers have of previous Ram commercials just by mentioning they were not going to mention them. So, in a way, they included cowboys without including cowboys.

You see, you don’t have to go back very far to find a Ram commercial that uses some or all of those tactics they said they were not going to use, such as the well-known “So God Made a Farmer” super bowl commercial which shows no less than 10 cowboy hats, horses, hay bales, ranch work and an anthemic, chest beating monologue. Or perhaps this Ram commercial from 2013, which features every single “no” on the list, including an epic mud puddle splash around the 1:15 mark.

Occultatio, then, is basically the rhetorical equivalent of having your cake and eating it too. Keep it in mind, and the next time someone tries to tell you what they’re not going to tell you, feel free to point out that you are on to their tricks, and you’d prefer just the facts, please.

If you want to know more:

  • For more info on occultatio, and a gamut of other neat rhetorical techniques that make you sound like a super genius (insert: super obnoxious) when you point them out, check out Richard A. Lanham’s A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms. On p. 104, he defines occultatio as “emphasizing something by pointedly seeming to pass over it, as in introducing a guest speaker one says, ‘I will not dwell here on the twenty books and the thirty articles Professor X has written…’” Which is also neat because Professor Xavier gets a nod.
  • There’s another excellent example of the occultatio in a recent McDonald’s commercial for the “artisan grilled chicken sandwich,” where they say something to the tune of no dancing millennials, no bite and smiles, just chicken. I’d link to it but the full commercial doesn’t seem to exist on the interwebs. I recently saw it sandwiched between two other McDonald’s commercials which featured both the “bite and smile” and millennials dancing with cheeseburgers. Who dances with cheeseburgers?
  • Here are some other interesting links to occultatio in its various forms: one over at Silva Rhetoricae, which is just a neat site, and one on Wikipedia, which has a nice list of alternative names for “occultatio.”
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