See yourself entering a gallery, walking down a long empty hallway, surrounded by white walls, white floors, white ceilings, rooms illuminated by bright but diffused lighting, whiteness radiating throughout. You see ahead of you a wall that features one painting, hung two-thirds of the way up the wall, in a plain white frame, highlighted by a backlight, which seems to produce a halo around the whole representation. On the painting is a small, barefooted child—a little Asian girl, loosely holding a toy animal by its ear; from the child’s eyes falls one tear.
Next, see yourself entering another gallery, the walls are steel gray, the floor, cement. The walls above hold industrial lighting suspended from exposed steel crossbeams. You begin to encounter various bits of rubble—some broken concrete, bits of trash, ash, rebar—and pits dug unevenly in the floor; everything seems broken, disrupted. You enter a room with large black and white images of destroyed buildings one-after-another, on easels, hung randomly at angles, hung on the walls, hung on the ceilings. You smell an ashy heat. You hear the blare of sirens. Then, after seeing a large map of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in Japanese, you see, displayed on an easel, the same painting of the Asian child.
What did the painting mean? What did it signify? Did its meaning change from Scenario 1 to Scenario 2? But it was the same picture, in the same frame! How could its meaning change? In each of these scenarios, the difference between the interpretations of the painting’s meaning or significance is in its “Framing”—the framing, not the frame. From this example, you can see how the sequence and experience of events and the proximity to accompanying surroundings will color the interpretation of meaning, because the set-up for the encounter has changed and so has the resulting impact on its significance.
Framing can have a powerful, although not necessarily recognized, influence on the way that we interpret meaning as we navigate our daily lives. This rhetorical principle is around us every day and yet the effect that framing has upon our interpretation of meaning is rarely noticed by most people.
Framing, in a rhetorical sense, is the physical (or other) properties that surround an entity or artifact, which change or influence the meaning or signification of the entities in locational or other correspondence with each other. In other words, the things next to each other affect what the things seem to mean to the audience. “Framing is” according to Jim A. Kuypers in Rhetorical Criticism: Perspectives in Action (182) “the process whereby communicators act—consciously or not—to construct a particular point of view that encourages the facts of a given situation to be viewed in a particular manner, with some facts made more or less noticeable (even ignored) than others. When highlighting some aspect of reality over other aspects, frames act to define problems, diagnose causes, make moral judgements, and suggest remedies. They are located in the communicator, the text, the receiver, and the culture at large.” The frame sets up influences through which meaning is affected by means of the transference of “interpretive cues” from one element to another in its proximity.
Transference of feeling through circumstance or environment happens all the time, both intentionally and unintentionally. Who has not walked outside the door of work and let the type of day—sunny, rainy, cold, hot—influence the way that you feel on your drive home? Emotions about what we see or hear very frequently influence us in subtle or obvious ways, as they are seemingly transferred to us through the circumstances and surroundings that occur around us. But other things can transfer also. Along with a transference of feeling, a corresponding transference of meaning can also occur; such transference might also be subtle or more obvious. In the sunshine example, however, a person generally does not also start thinking that the actual meaning or significance of the day has been changed to reflect the positive feelings of happiness that the sunshine brings, such as “Oh, it is sunny! This must actually mean that today is my day to find a pot of gold!” Such a transference of meaning or significance accompanied with sincere acceptance or belief without any logical or reasonable bases for it would be called wishful thinking at best or even might indicate mental instability, if the changes of significance were made part of the person’s conscious or subconscious mental makeup. However, in addition to being influenced emotionally by the things they see and hear, people often let a more subtle kind of transference of meaning through framing influence their assignment of significance to artifacts and happenstances because of the arrangement of or proximity to other artifacts and happenstances.
Take, for example, a news article about any topic. Depending on the articles before it or after it, or the headlines, pictures, or captions accompanying it, you might believe or understand the article itself framed in a way that does not represent the context of the events, details, narratives, or opinions expressed in the article. The framing might actually lead you to understand a meaning for the article completely opposite of the one from which the author intended in the article. Imagine an article written to honor the career of a particular politician or public figure, but with nearby articles that discuss controversial events that took place under that person’s leadership, framing the original article in a way that undermines the ideas within. Without stating it overtly, you can introduce ideas through framing that are subliminal or subconscious, yet powerful rhetorically. The same can easily be true for articles or “content chunks” found on the Internet or items watched on the television news. In these cases, a visual proximity between entities influences the significance of what the reader finds in the article.
Additionally, is there a particular happening, such as an election, speech, national celebration or holiday, or other such event coming up? Advertisers or other “persuaders” could use anything in the national or cultural consciousness as a frame for crafting subtle influences to their messages, for example, by using public attention to a coming national event to influence our reaction to some other event, artifact, or idea. A perfect example of this might happen if you frame the promotion of a work-out gym during the media buzz of the Olympic Games: people will be thinking about getting fit already, so they will already have an internal, background noise about the value of getting in shape that will be brought into the idea of joining the gym. Another example might be selling boats or luxury vehicles during the time when the stock market is going up or when the end-of-the-month job growth stats are positive. The general consciousness of what is going on—the social or political milieu—influences people’s choices about and beliefs in the significance of any artifact of communication, because what people believe and how they act are easily influenced by what “frames” their experienced circumstances and what they see and hear and read. This is another way to perceive a framing influence.
The possibilities for seeing this kind of influence are endless, actually, once you start looking for it. Ideas, actions, and beliefs can be influenced by placing communicative artifacts in proximity to surrounding referents or within contexts crafted from either our day-to-day lives or other sources, such as those carrying historical or political connotations. This process is a common, fairly simple, but easily overlooked, concept. But, just pick up a newspaper or watch a nightly news broadcast. Look in the grocery store magazine rack or for that matter, the aisles at the store, themselves. Framing works there too. Influence carries over from one proximity to another, and we often let the meaning of one thing impact the next.
In the hand of a marketer, rhetorician, or any person wishing to use persuasion, the tool of framing is powerful.
Going back to our painting again, one can imagine the process of choosing the frame for the painting. One might look through the colors on the canvas and choose one or more that “bring out” something in the image, to color coordinate things so that it will match the surroundings in an eye-pleasing way. People often do something like this when they are trying to pick a good tie: “Wow! Sir, Try this tie! The yellow in the shirt really makes this tie pop!” So, you pick a good tie based on coordinating the color scheme. Similarly, using a story to “pull” something out and “feature” that element through framing might be useful, but also might be manipulative and even abusive. Can you see how that might work? For example, I may have a story about veterans’ rates of depression or suicide. I could present the story as “straight” as I could, in other words, as close to the narrative of the author’s intention or context, or if I want to let the story illustrate something particular, I could pull certain quotes out of the story or find an illustrating picture and caption it in such a way that would make the story serve my purpose, whatever that may be. I have then framed that story to accomplish a rhetorical (persuasive) purpose, rather than an informative one, no matter what the original intention was in the author’s mind.
To a rhetorician, it would be impossible to separate out the fact that every act is a rhetorical one. And, it is true: Every word is spoken to persuade someone of something—why say anything ever if you don’t want to persuade someone of something? Additionally, authorial intention is neither a static concept nor is such understanding as easily attained as might be supposed. However, most people let this entire level of communication and comprehension slip past them without notice. When they do, however, they actually are giving up a portion of their right to weigh things rationally, rather than to just absorb the ideas of the people that are trying to slip something past in the stream of unseen and unexamined influence.
Kuypers, Jim A. Rhetorical Criticism: Perspectives in Action. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2009. Google Books. Web.
Munroe, Randall. “Xkcd: Board Game.” Xkcd: Board Game. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2016. http://xkcd.com/1566/.