4 From Soap Ads to Military Speeches: Kairos at Work in Rhetoric
I am dedicating this book chapter to my parents. Without them, my Wake Forest education would not be possible whatsoever. They have equipped me with the means to continue learning and growing, and are only a source of encouragement in my life. And yes, without their financial support, I would not be able to take this class or learn from my Wake Forest professors in the ways that I have. Yet, their emotional support and reassurance are huge factors in my capability to research, write, and persevere through each semester. Mom, Dad, a million thank yous would never be enough, but thank you. It is because of you both that I am able to succeed in this class.
Keywords: Urgency, Time, Argument, Moment, Context
Aristotle’s rhetorical appeals, such as ethos, pathos, logos, Kairos, and Chronos are commonly known, but often considered as simply “those Greek terms” that apply to writing and speeches. However, these terms and concepts hold considerable importance; the rhetorical appeals can be applied to (and are evident in) many aspects of our lives. Kairos in particular holds value because it is a necessary component in much of rhetoric, yet it has a wide variety of applications and uses. An understanding of Kairos can elevate nearly any argument, but it is crucial if there is an exact right time to say or do a particular thing.
Defined in simple terms by John Smith in his chapter of Rhetoric and Kairos: Essays in History, Theory, and Praxis, Kairos is the “right or opportune time to do something” (Smith 47). Kairos was a dominant component of classical Greek literature and rhetoric— most famously in Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Aristotle emphasized the individuality of each rhetorical situation, as well as the importance of understanding the distinctions between each particular case (Kinneavy and Eskin). This model has continued into contemporary rhetorical theory as well. According to Robert Leston, author of “Unhinged: Kairos and the Invention of the Untimely,” “For many contemporary and classical theorists, Kairos is that moment where the rhetor intervenes in the shifting circumstances that make up our professional and personal lives, what rhetoricians often call the ‘rhetorical situation’” (Leston). But why does an understanding of Kairos actually matter? Kairos is an imperative rhetorical element because it contextualizes an argument in a way that other rhetorical appeals cannot do on their own. Without Kairos, an audience’s perception of a piece of rhetoric may fall flat; what the audience thinks about a particular issue, how they may respond, and what they are bringing to the table should shape the way they are addressed. This power makes Kairos vital; it is always necessary and ever-changing, as each piece of rhetoric will address a different audience, with different emotions, opinions, and needs, depending on the situation at hand. Kairos requires discernment and foresight that other appeals do not, because people are often more easily persuaded at particular moments in time than others.
Rhetoric functions especially well when it views reality as something that shifts and changes with time. Because we are in perpetual flux along with our environments, relationships, and situations we find ourselves in, our rhetoric needs to reflect this fact. Kairos is inventive: in the spur of one moment, a speaker converts “potential energy” into something appropriate for that particular situation. Kairos is qualitative; it marks an instant when time comes to a critical point (Leston). It is at such critical points that a piece of writing can be a catalyst for change or incite a shift in its audience’s way of thinking or acting. Even in everyday conversation, there are crucial moments where it is more appropriate to ask a question or make a point. Successful uses of Kairos often create a sense of impending doom with references to current crises and then present a potential opportunity to “resolve” this doom in a timely manner (Pantelides). Kairos functions as a summation of elements of other rhetorical appeals. In order to understand the “right time” for something, one must understand the emotional state and the capacity for logic and reason of their audience, as well as their own understood credibility and morality.
One quintessential example of a speech that plays upon its audience’s potential energy is Winston Churchill’s “We Shall Fight on the Beaches,” delivered to the British nation at a decisive moment during World War II. Churchill already had established ethos due to his position as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. In combination with Kairos, his leadership role only strengthened the influence of his empowering words. However, Kairos was fundamental to this speech; Churchill’s deep understanding of these afflictive circumstances completely shaped his argument to encourage the British nation. In this speech, Churchill says, “Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or fall into the grip of the Gestapo… we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be…” (Churchill). While addressing the nation honestly about the grave situation at hand, Churchill capitalizes on this moment to inspire the people to come to terms with their reality, not give up hope, and fight on. Churchill’s speech exemplifies all that Kairos requires; he had to understand what people needed to hear, given their emotional state, in order to receive his message at this stressful time.
Another example of Kairos at play in public discourse is through a Dawn Soap commercial that aired in 2010, after the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. Dawn used Kairos to shape their advertisements based on a current critical situation, as well as an assumption of their audience’s emotions surrounding the oil spill. People watching paid more attention to the campaign because it was portraying their product concerning a relevant, current moment. With 210 million gallons of oil spilled, this marked the largest oil spill in history, and one of the greatest environmental disasters in the world. However, Dawn capitalized on the moment of this tragic disaster to create an effective advertisement. Their messaging included phrases like, “Dawn soap is tough on grease and oil, but gentle,” and included clips of sea otters and ducklings, covered in grease from the oil spill, enjoying Dawn bubble baths (Paskevicius). Because Dawn responded to the situation in a timely manner, they were able to prove that they care about the environment while also creating a greater appeal for their products. These advertisements would not have held nearly as much weight without the widespread news of the oil spill. Dawn had to assume the general public’s understanding of the dire situation, and then act accordingly.
Kairos is also unique because of its ability to create a sense of urgency. It is applied in public discourse through any infomercial with a call to “ACT NOW!” The goal of these advertisements is to make listeners feel as though this is the exact right time to do, say, or buy something. For example, a commercial that explains a deal that “ends tonight” creates the potential for a missed opportunity. By connecting readers and listeners to a specific deadline, companies are employing Kairos to make their rhetoric more effective (Pantelides). Plenty of advertisements employ other rhetorical appeals, such as ethos, established through a celebrity endorsement, or pathos, established through an emotional testimony. However, the message or goal can become all the more compelling when Kairos is used as well; the rhetorical appeals work exceedingly well in conjunction with one another. Even if a product is presented by a celebrity, this alone is not as strong of a message if the audience does not feel an urgency, or that they must act before the moment passes. When a consumer feels that a product or deal is only available for a certain amount of time, they are more likely to make a purchase, and this sense of “limit” is uniquely created by Kairos.
Kairos can be a difficult concept to grasp because it represents the fleeting nature of the “exact right time.” Its “slippery” quality makes an understanding of it that much more important. Writers must be able to recognize the kairotic moment, and then attempt to move their audience by creating appeals for one specific context. Kairos is what makes a text unique, and when understood fully, writing can seem perfectly timed and applicable, making it all the more effective. When an audience feels a sense of urgency and immediacy, they are much more likely to take action. Thus, if a writer or speaker’s goal is to cause their audience to act upon their message, this pressing sentiment of urgency is essential (Pantelides).
Aristotle surely could not envision what public discourse would look like over two thousand years later, or how many applications Kairos would have. However, as critical readers and thinkers today, we can understand the true importance of tailoring one’s argument to one specific time. Along with a sense of urgency, Kairos brings any piece of writing or speech to a new, exciting level of capability to cause an audience to respond. Through my personal research and meditation on these concepts, I have now realized I want to keep the idea of “timeliness” at the forefront of my mind whenever I am writing. Especially if my goal is to incite action or inspire change, I must employ Kairos, along with a deep understanding of where my audience is coming from, to create a specific, definitive piece of rhetoric.
Kinneavy, James L., and Catherine R. Eskin. “Kairos in Aristotle’s Rhetoric.” Written Communication, vol. 17, no. 3, July 2000, p. 432. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1177/0741088300017003005.
Leston, Robert. “Unhinged: Kairos and the Invention of the Untimely.” Atlantic Journal of Communication, vol. 21, no. 1, Routledge, Jan. 2013, pp. 29–50, doi:10.1080/15456870.2013.743325.
Pantelides, Kate. “Kairos.” Writing Commons, https://writingcommons.org/article/kairos-2/. Accessed 16 Mar. 2021.
Paskevicius, Julija. “Kairos in Dawn Soap Commercial – Shut Up and Go.” Sites at Penn State, 12 Sept. 2019, https://sites.psu.edu/julijap/2019/09/12/kairos-in-dawn-soap-commercial/.
Sipiora, Phillip, and James S. Baumlin. Rhetoric and Kairos: Essays in History, Theory, and Praxis. SUNY Press, 2002.
“We Shall Fight on the Beaches.” International Churchill Society, 4 June 1940,