When context changes

The need for a dynamic notion of context in multimodal argumentation

In: International Review of Pragmatics
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  • 1 University of Bremen
  • | 2 Università della Svizzera italianaItalyLugano
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This paper highlights the notion of dynamic context as an indispensable pragmatic aspect of multimodal argumentation and exemplifies a context-based approach to multimodal arguments with an analysis of the Mophie 2015 Super Bowl commercial. Whereas in dynamic semantics and verbal discourse analysis the notion of dynamic context and its context change potential are significant patterns for the analysis, argumentation theorists have not yet fully included these patterns in their discussions. The paper argues that multimodal argumentative genres such as commercials and movie trailers often work with a dynamically changing interpretation, which, at the end, reveals their persuasive patterns and final claims. It demonstrates that it is absolutely necessary for a detailed analysis of the argumentation in these multimodal genres to include the contextual influence and dynamic change potential. The paper thus emphasizes the need for an inclusion of the notion of dynamic context in methods and frameworks dealing with the complexity of multimodal argumentation.


This paper highlights the notion of dynamic context as an indispensable pragmatic aspect of multimodal argumentation and exemplifies a context-based approach to multimodal arguments with an analysis of the Mophie 2015 Super Bowl commercial. Whereas in dynamic semantics and verbal discourse analysis the notion of dynamic context and its context change potential are significant patterns for the analysis, argumentation theorists have not yet fully included these patterns in their discussions. The paper argues that multimodal argumentative genres such as commercials and movie trailers often work with a dynamically changing interpretation, which, at the end, reveals their persuasive patterns and final claims. It demonstrates that it is absolutely necessary for a detailed analysis of the argumentation in these multimodal genres to include the contextual influence and dynamic change potential. The paper thus emphasizes the need for an inclusion of the notion of dynamic context in methods and frameworks dealing with the complexity of multimodal argumentation.

1 Introduction

This paper is a detailed analysis of a one minute long marketing spot that aired during the 2015’s Super Bowl live broadcast as a specific type of the multimodal argumentative genre of advertisement spots, which consists of various semiotic resources (such as moving images, sound, music, and verbal written language) and provides reasons for buying a particular product, thus being an argumentative interaction itself (Ripley, 2008; Kjeldsen, 2012). By elucidating the specific discursive structure of this spot and its dynamic unfolding as a very typical way of providing a final claim in advertisements with a dynamically changing interpretation, the analysis will outline an important feature for the study of multimodal argumentation which has not yet been taken into consideration sufficiently: the notion of dynamic context and the so-called context change potential—that is the evolving knowledge and information sources revealed during the interpretation—of multimodal texts as indispensable pragmatic concepts for the argumentative analysis of multimodal discourse.

Multimodal artifacts such as advertisement spots, for example, often work with a dynamically unfolding information structure which reveals its information only little by little and with clear reference to the similarly and dynamically changing context that has to be interpreted by participants in order to reconstruct the argumentation. As will become particularly visible in the example analysis in section 2, these artifacts can often only be fully understood and interpreted when specific types of information are revealed and allow logical inferences to the conclusion of an argument, for example. It is true that the dynamic construction is not specific for the multimodal nature of communication. In many forms of communication the reconstruction of a narrative or story involves a dynamic construction of hypotheses about the meaning and interpretation of the information provided as the narrative or story evolves. Also in political speeches the meaning of the elements of the speech can only be given their final meaning after the whole speech is presented. Indeed, the notion of dynamic context and its context change potential are significant patterns in dynamic semantics and verbal discourse analysis. Yet, argumentation theory—and especially argumentation theory dealing with multimodal communication—has not fully included these concepts in its discussions.

A disambiguation is needed here. The notion of context as the social and cultural background of the discourse plays an extremely important role in argumentation studies (cf. Bitzer, 1968; Rigotti and Rocci 2006; Van Eemeren, 2010, 2011; Kjeldsen, 2012; McCabe, 2015), as it does in multimodal analysis, given that it directly influences the realization of a certain meaning potential of the multimodal artifact. As a social background for any kind of discourse, context is often generally defined in terms of social variables such as age, gender, or ethnicity or, rather informally, as social, political, cultural, or geographic environments or backgrounds (Van Dijk, 2008). A more specific notion is the concept of the ‘context of a text’ in which certain conditions influence the semantics and pragmatics, thus the basic meaning construction of this text, by delivering constraints and consequences for the interpretation of the artifact. Context can thus be understood as an information state which is a precondition for the unfolding interpretation (Nouwen et al., 2016).

This concept of context is also widespread in rhetoric and argumentation theory where Bitzer (1968), for instance, already defined the rhetorical situation as “a natural context of persons, events, objects, relations” with “constraints that influence the rhetor and can be brought to bear upon the audience” (Bitzer, 1968: 5–6). In more recent works, Rigotti and Rocci (2006) and Van Eemeren (2011), for example, develop more sophisticated approaches to the definition of the particular communication context and elaborate, among other details, on active and dynamic aspects. Rigotti and Rocci (2006: 162; emphasis in original) underline that “the context gives the contextualised its meaning, in the sense that it allows us to assign the contextualised the actual function it has in relation to the immediately relevant surrounding totality”. The authors also pay attention to developments in linguistics and dynamic semantics in the 1980s and 1990s that take the dynamic aspects of context and meaning construction into consideration by including a constitutive relationship between context and speech acts involved in an argumentation, for example, and by taking into account “the nature of the change effected by the speech act in context” (Rigotti and Rocci, 2006: 169). They first mention the notion of a dynamically changing context, which will play a significant role in this paper, as part of the constitutive dimension of context which “emerges both in terms of context dependence of the speech-act from the context and in terms of its context change potential” (Rigotti and Rocci, 2006: 166; emphasis in original). This context change potential then has to be understood “mainly as the update of the set of mutual commitments of the participants” (Rigotti and Rocci, 2006: 169) in a communicative situation, which, in Rigotti and Rocci’s model, constitute the interaction field with an “actual” social reality. We will explain the notion of context change potential and its relevance for multimodal argumentation theory in further detail below.

By distinguishing between various types of context such as the micro-, meso- and marco-context, for example, Van Eemeren (2011: 142) furthermore aims at “giving contextualization its rightful place in the study of argumentation”. He particularly focuses on macro-context in relation to the institutionalized communicative environments and activity types in which the respective context plays a role. His work generally demonstrates and stresses the still existing need for a more developed notion of context in argumentation theory, which, in this paper, will be particularly expanded to the realm of multimodal argumentation. Besides the understanding of context as a constraining, restricting and, at the same time, supportive aspect of meaning construction in general, the paper will elucidate in further detail the notion of the dynamic context, which has only partly been described by argumentation scholars (see above) and which needs further specification and elaboration, in order to argue for its significance for the analysis of multimodal argumentation.

Interestingly, while Van Eemeren (2011: 144–146) takes into consideration the dynamic aspect of a changing context and its interpretation by the participants, he does not go into further detail about the relationship between context and background information or the dynamic interplay of these two sources, which, in the following, will be analyzed as all being part of the dynamic context change potential of multimodal argumentative discourse.

The paper will thus emphasize the need to take the dynamically changing context of information into consideration by providing both an example and a detailed analysis of the multimodal genre ‘advertisement spot’ (see section 2). The Mophie Super Bowl spot from 2015 features such a dynamically changing context in terms of information which is necessary for the final claim to be made by the spot, but which is only revealed slowly and during the unfolding of the spot. For the analysis and reconstruction of the spot’s discursive and argumentative structure, this paper follows a cognitive-semiotic, discourse analytical paradigm which orientates towards contemporary theories of discourse semantics and multimodal analysis and explicitly incorporates the notion of dynamic context into their methodology. This cognitive semiotic paradigm sees argumentation as a cognitive category and as a result of text interpretation. It thus follows similar accounts to the analysis of multimodal discourse and their argumentative structure (cf. Van den Hoven, 2012, 2015; Van den Hoven and Yang, 2013). The details of the paradigm will be given in section 3 of this paper.1 Section 4 then finally discusses and summarizes how the notion of dynamic context may contribute to the cognitive semiotic account of multimodal argumentation.

2 Mophie’s Super Bowl spot and its dynamically changing context

The example advertisement spot to be analyzed in the following is entitled “All Powerless” and was produced by Mophie, a technology company based in California, USA, and the advertising agency Deutsch LA. The spot was first shown during the fourth quarter of the 2014 season’s Super Bowl final game in February 2015, accompanied by a tweet by @mophie, presenting a link to a video of the spot online with the hashtag #StayPowerful.2 Figure 1 shows several screenshots from the spot’s scenes.


Figure 1

Screenshots from the Mophie spot “All Powerless”

Citation: International Review of Pragmatics 10, 2 (2018) ; 10.1163/18773109-01002003

In the first sequence of shots lasting over the first 47 seconds (see the first two rows of shots in Figure 1), the spot tells the story about a world which has basically turned upside down and which experiences a number of end of world scenarios. Tsunamis, hurricanes and blizzards threaten the cities; trees burst into flames; objects lose their gravity and hit the roof or float around freely; and dogs take their owners for a walk. This sequence is followed by a scene (of about 7 seconds; see the third row of shots in Figure 1) in a completely different setting in which a character in white clothes, sitting in a room that is completely tiled in white and surrounded by clouds, looks at a phone’s screen which shows only the low battery symbol. While the character sighs and groans, a verbal text insert reads: “When your phone dies, God knows what can happen”. The scene is then cut to a close-up of a Mophie phone and its battery lights on the phone’s back; a voice-over says: “With over a 100 % more battery power. Mophie. Stay Powerful”. The spot ends with a white text insert on a black background showing the company’s logo and the hashtag #StayPowerful.

The following analysis will examine the spot with regard to both its basic meaning-making and argumentative design (see section 2.1) as well as to its dynamically unfolding, complex discourse structure which reveals its final claim (see section 2.2).

2.1 Basic meaning-making in the Mophie spot

The process of making meaning out of the audio-visual interplay of the semiotic resources when watching the spot brings about three different units of meaning that can be inferred from the audio-visual information, following the overall threefold structure of the spot:

eπ1 = end of world scenario (see shots in the first two rows of Figure 1)
eπ2 = God knows what can happen when phone dies (see shots in the third row of Figure 1)3
eπ3 = Mophie phone is powerful (see shots in the fourth row of Figure 1).

These units are called eventualities and labeled with eπn in order to describe the semantic content of the respective unit. This follows recently developed frameworks for the analysis of multimodal discourse and in particular (audio-)visual artifacts that focus on the process of meaning construction on the basis of the recipients’ inference process (Wildfeuer, 2014; Bateman and Wildfeuer, 2014). Multimodal interpretation is always an active process of relational meaning making and inferring the semantic content of the artifact in terms of assumptions and hypotheses, which the recipient makes according to concrete cues within the text. The descriptions above are thus the result of reasoning abductively4 about the spot’s content and the narrative events, characters and circumstances shown in the various shots. Since most of the content is realized and represented audio-visually, it is in many cases not as explicit as verbal content often is and has to be inferred by the recipient on the basis of his/her knowledge about the world, the specific context and other information sources.

Eventuality eπ1 = end of world scenario, for example, results from scenes that show events which do not reflect reality but rather contrast with circumstances and situations in our daily life (see the screenshots in the first two rows in Figure 1). Eventuality eπ2 is the result of combining the propositional content from the verbal text insert with the visual representation of the character in the white room surrounded by clouds (see the screenshots in the third row in Figure 1). One can thus conclude that the character represented visually in the scene is God who sighs about his phone’s low battery. This representation might differ from one’s individual visual concept of God; the identification here operates cross-modally on the basis of the logical inference about the interplay of verbal and visual content, identifying the character shown visually with the verbal indication “God”. Eventuality eπ3 is, similarly, the result of inferences about the quality of the Mophie phone expressed by the voice-over on the auditory level, stating that this phone, which is shown on the visual level, has 100 % more battery power.

In particular this last sequence of the shot makes it possible to infer the final claim of the advertisement and thus its stated aim: “Buy this product” (Kjeldsen, 2012: 243) by providing reasons why it is worth purchasing it—namely because of its 100 % more battery power, as stated in the voice track at the end of the spot. The spot thus features the typical proposition, which is “shared by all commercial advertising” and which makes it reasonable to “consider it an argument” (Kjeldsen, 2012: 242). Interestingly, while Kjeldsen underlines that knowledge about this final claim normally provides the starting point for discovering premises in the advertisement, in this case the final claim is only revealed at the very end of the spot and then also provides reasons for inferring further necessary information for the understanding of the whole spot. Every recipient of the spot will, of course, know that spots and commercials in the specific context of the Super Bowl are supposed to be advertisements with such a claim, but if the Mophie spot is watched online on YouTube, for example, or via a link found on Twitter, this contextualization is not necessarily guaranteed. Furthermore, at the beginning of the spot, there are no concrete cues or explicit hints to the promotional genre that can provide the basis for such an interpretation; instead, the beginning can also be described as typically filmic, featuring a close-up shot in slow-motion, accompanied by music and followed by several other shots with a rather cinematic style—not providing any concrete basis for the advertising genre.5

The interpretation of the spot as an argument for buying the advertised product is thus only revealed by the material itself at the very end of the spot. Eventuality eπ3 is then the causal basis for the spot’s final claim to buy the product, because it gives a specific reason for buying it. The resulting argumentation Aπ1 including an argument and a standpoint can thus be formulated as Aπ1 = Buy this phone because it is powerful, where “because it is powerful” is the argument from which the audience should infer the standpoint “Buy this phone”. The advertisement does not only offer this argument on the basis of the description of the product’s qualities, but also provides reasons for these qualities. These reasons become clear during the reception and interpretation of the spot and, in particular, when analyzing its dynamically unfolding structure which constructs the argumentation. To analytically reconstruct this argumentative structure, the overall coherence and structure of the various meaningful eventualities outlined above have to be taken into consideration. This is the topic of the following section.

2.2 The argumentative structure in the Mophie spot

The argumentative structure of the Mophie spot unfolds on the basis of the changing context of situation for every sequence and its interpretation by the recipient who is connecting new information to what is already known. This dynamic process of meaning construction can be demonstrated by analyzing discourse relations holding between the different eventualities in this spot and by bringing these entities together in a meaningful combination. Discourse (or coherence) relations are connections drawn by the recipients who interpret these as “coherent continuation moves” (Hobbs, 1979: 68). Very typical examples of these moves are, for instance, relations such as Explanation or Cause-Effect, Contrast or Narration, i.e. basic logical relations that describe general circumstances in our world. They can be logically inferred on the basis of the semantic information given in the eventualities and the corresponding world and context knowledge needed to conclude spatio-temporal, causal or text-structuring circumstances within the discourse. These relationships are thus not made explicit by the text, but they are results of reasoning abductively and logically about the coherence of the eventualities. Approaches to the analysis of different genres and text types have outlined distinct sets of discourse relations for verbal discourse (Asher and Lascarides, 2003) as well as for visual narrative (Bateman and Wildfeuer, 2014) and filmic discourse (Wildfeuer, 2014). These sets not only contain detailed descriptions of the relations but also clearly-defined conditions that must be fulfilled in order to infer a specific relation.6 Due to similarities in films and advertisements as audio-visual discourses, the set for film discourse relations (as defined in Wildfeuer, 2014) can also be used for the case of the example under examination. It is assumed that the analysis of these relations in the Mophie spot will then give more information about the argumentative structure of the advertisement and about the conclusion of the final claim.

At first sight, the three different parts of the spot can clearly be differentiated on the basis of their audio-visual design which creates a certain contrast between the three sequences and thus results in the overall threefold structure as outlined in section 2.1. The contrast is also due to the drastic change of context for every sequence which situates the respective narrative in a totally different setting with different characters and circumstances. The characters of the first setting, the end of world scenario, for example, do not play a role in the second setting and, likewise, God as the main character of the second setting does not play an explicit role in the first setting. The two eventualities thus do not share a certain context or follow each other in a spatio-temporal sequence. Similarly, the last sequence undergoes a complete change of context which has nothing to do with the stories told in the two settings before. Rather, it features a typical product presentation without a clear narrative or diegetic character.

It is, however, possible to infer further and more specific relationships between the three eventualities, which will be elucidated in further detail in the following and with the help of Figure 2. It becomes clear, for example, that God’s phone and its low battery status shown in the second sequence cause the end of world scenario presented in the first sequence and are thereby to be interpreted as an Explanation for what has happened. This specific interpretation becomes possible on the basis of certain implications and inferences drawn from the information available in the various sequences and during the dynamically unfolding discourse: It is, for example, necessary to hypothesize: (1) that circumstances and events in the world depicted are regulated or monitored by God, and (2) that this monitoring may be performed with the help of a mobile phone. These hypotheses are by no means made explicit in the advertisement spot and are based on certain general assumptions about the world in general and the existing belief in God as a supreme being, and the creator and sustainer of the universe. They can be seen as part of the general world knowledge and thus of the broad context of the sequence, coming into play in the interpretation of the multimodal discourse, although the individual recipient might have a different understanding or thinking of God or no belief in him at all. The rather typical representation of God as living in the white sky or in heaven, surrounded by clouds, might initiate these hypotheses in that this representation is interpreted as showing God exactly in this supreme position of monitoring the world. Similarly, the use of mobile phones to organize and monitor certain events and circumstances is today no longer an abstract but reasonable idea which might affect not only people’s but also God’s life and habits. It is thus the specific context of the second sequence and its constraints in creating meaning about the situation depicted which, likewise, influence the interpretation of the first sequence. Only by relating the two parts of the spot to each other and by inferring the causal relation between them, does the sequence become logical and coherent.

Furthermore, the contrast between the second sequence and the third sequence also activates the inference of a Contrast-relation between a good phone (the Mophie product as represented in the last sequence) and a bad phone with low battery power, which, presumably, God uses in the second sequence. It is again not explicit whether God actually uses a Mophie phone or a completely different product, but the logical conclusion that it is his phone that causes the end of world scenario shown in the first sequence leads to the conclusion that his phone is less powerful than the one shown in the last sequence.


Figure 2

Argumentative structure of the Mophie spot

Citation: International Review of Pragmatics 10, 2 (2018) ; 10.1163/18773109-01002003

In combination, the causal and the contrasting relation add an important conclusion to the final claim as expressed in argumentation Aπ1, given in section 2.1, in that they add another reason why the recipient should buy the Mophie product: not only because it is powerful, but also because it prevents the end of world scenario, which other less powerful phones might cause due to their low battery status. This conclusion is again a result of the inference process of relating the different sequences together and finding ‘unspoken’ or ‘unexpressed premises’ (Gerritsen, 2001; Kjeldsen, 2012: 241). Two argumentation lines can be reconstructed as follows:

Aπ1 = Buy this phone because it is powerful
Aπ2 = Buy this phone because it prevents end of the world scenarios

Both argumentation lines result from the recipient’s interpretation. The argumentation structure of these two lines, as represented in Figure 2, is a coordinative type of structure (Van Eemeren, Grootendorst and Snoeck Henkemans, 2002: 70), where the premises cooperate in parallel to support the main claim or standpoint.

Yet, for the argument 1.1c (“it prevents end of world scenarios”), it is obvious that the advertised product would of course not prevent these scenarios in a real world environment, but that this specific connection is clearly constructed for the advertisement spot. This argument can be substituted (Van Eemeren and Grootendorst, 2004: 100–118) by the conditional ‘If you do not have a Mophie phone / if your phone dies, end of the world scenarios may happen / you do not know what problems you may encounter’. This argumentative structure employs both a causal argumentation scheme and a pragmatic argumentation scheme (Van Eemeren and Grootendorst, 2004; Rigotti, 2008): the absence of the advertised product causes an undesirable scenario and, at the same time, the positive characteristic of the advertised product (being powerful) leads the viewer to infer that it is a good instrument to achieve the need of staying powerful.

As a summary, Figure 2 gives an overview of the premises and conclusions to be drawn from the advertisement spot in order to formulate its final claim. As the analysis has shown, this argumentative structure is strongly connected to and only reconstructible on the basis of the changes in the respective contextual information available. The particular context change potential which is used in this spot to mark significant functions of the product and to explain its benefits constrains the interpretation and guides the recipient towards the respective inferences. It thus plays an important role for the overall argumentation of this spot. This is the case not only in this specific advertisement but also in a more general argumentative configuration in several text types, such as comic strips and movie trailers which often reveal their persuasive and rhetorical goal only at the end. For a detailed analysis of these multimodal argumentative texts, it is absolutely necessary to include the contextual influence and dynamic change potential in the analysis. The following section will elaborate on this need with regard to the results of the preceding example analysis.

3 The need for a dynamic approach to context in multimodal argumentation

On the basis of both the multimodal and the argumentative structure examined previously, the reconstruction of the spot’s argumentation results in Figure 2 above. This representation corresponds to what Van den Hoven (2014: 160) calls the “mental representation of a discourse world, its (merged) mimetics and diegetics, as well as the relations the audience represents between this world and its perceived reality”, which is always a result of the interpretation of the text, and in particular its structure, and thus a cognitive category. Outlining the various representations of the semantic content in terms of eventualities as well as the corresponding implications and discourse relations holding between these representations has shown how several cognitive steps of the inference process are necessary to come to a conclusion about the advertisement spot’s discourse structure and thus the argumentation in question. The representation also includes the argumentative reconstruction following the method proposed in Pragma-Dialectics (Van Eemeren, Grootendorst and Snoeck Henkemans, 2002; Van Eemeren and Grootendorst, 2004).

Similar to Kjeldsen’s (2012: 243) notion of the “enthymematic process in which the visuals […] function as cues that evoke intended meanings, premises and lines of reasoning”, the respective context change in this and other multimodal artifacts can then be understood as cue for the interpretation which influences the inference process and guides the recipient towards certain interpretations. This inference process in terms of abductive reasoning (see above) shows indeed strong parallels to the notion of enthymematic reasoning, as has been outlined elsewhere already (see Wildfeuer and Pollaroli, 2017). In multimodal artifacts, these enthymemes, i.e. rhetorical syllogisms for which the audience has to fulfill the task of ‘filling in the blanks’ of an argument with contextual information (cf. Bitzer, 1959; Finnegan, 2001), play a significant role, since much content and thus also the argumentation is often not as explicit as it is in verbal discourse. The reconstruction of both the semantic content and its argumentative structure thus often needs more contextual and background information, especially in cases where this information is only revealed little by little, in the dynamic unfolding of the discourse. It is therefore a necessary prerequisite for every argumentation analysis in general and multimodal argumentation in particular to first and foremost think about the basic meaning making patterns and cognitive inference processes involved in this meaning construction, which then, in a second step, make possible the highly enthymematic reconstruction of the argumentative structure. For this, the cognitive semiotic perspective as pursued by Van den Hoven (2015) needs to be broadened with a particular understanding of the notion of context and its dynamic update within the unfolding discourse.

This understanding is today mainly manifested and further developed within the realm of discourse semantics in the specific branch of dynamic semantics (Nouwen et al., 2016). As a theory of verbal discourse, this branch emphasizes the fact that information in discourse grows in time and that further information sources come into play, when the discourse unfolds, which then update the meaning of an utterance or discourse segment. The notion of meaning here is “dynamic in that it changes continuously during the interpretation” (Roberts, 2004: 204) and on the basis of the respective context—which is exactly the case in the example analysed above. Every piece of information in the discourse is thus seen as influencing the existing level of information and its context by adding new information from which an updated context results. Not only the notion of meaning is dynamic in this understanding but also that of interpretation, which is always seen as a mental process of constructing the content, story or structure from the updated context. As Roberts (2004: 214) puts it: “The interpretation of such a structure is its context change potential, a function from contexts (the potential contexts of utterance) to contexts (the updated contexts resulting from their utterance)”.

For the advertisement in question, it is, for example, particularly important that the viewer draws certain implications and interpretations from the respective context of the sequences in order to be able to infer discourse relations between these sequences. In fact, the respective semantic information from the context effectively constrains the inference of these relations in that it approves only those relations whose previously defined conditions are fulfilled.7 It is, for example, not possible to infer a spatio-temporal Narration-relation between the first and the second sequence of the spot, since the identification of this relation requires a temporal overlap between the two sequences, which is not made clear by the information available in the spot. Instead, the causal relation of explaining the end of world scenario by referring to the phone’s low battery status is more plausible here, since the discourse context itself provides an explanation by showing the phone and furthermore by adding the specific verbal insert that points to this fact.

This understanding of context and context change follows the abstract semantic notion of context which has been shortly outlined already in the introduction to this paper. The meaning of the discourse unit, which is, in this case, an audio-visual sequence, is here regarded as the information this unit conveys about the world. The context of this discourse unit can then be characterized “in terms of information structured in conventionally given ways and […] interact[ing] with the information contributed by the utterance itself [or the discourse unit] to efficiently convey the intended meaning” (Roberts, 2004: 198). The advertisement’s intended meaning of providing reasons for buying the product is thus clearly dependent on the recipient’s inference process of interpreting the context. If the Explanation-relation is not inferred, the second claim, as described in the analysis above, does not become clear and coherence between the filmic sequences at the beginning of the spot, and the product presentation at the end cannot be constructed.

The analysis above has tried to further specify the role of these contextual information sources for the reconstruction of the argumentation. However, a much more detailed description and formalization is necessary to fully integrate the notion of dynamic context into a theory of multimodal argumentation. The challenge here is to find ways of describing the various information sources and inference steps at work in every artifact and its dynamic interpretation by the recipients—particularly with regard to their multimodal nature and the difficulties of reconstructing both the often not so explicit content and the structures. Whereas general theories of context are indeed available in the realm of discourse studies or cognitive approaches (e.g., Van Dijk, 2008), and while they could easily be applied to argumentation theory, the question of the propositionality of multimodal arguments, for example, is still a highly-discussed issue in the relatively new strand of multimodal argumentation (Groarke, 2002; Birdsell and Groarke, 2007; Roque, 2015). If it is really the case that multimodal arguments cannot be fully described in terms of propositions, how can contextual information be adequately described as playing an important role in argumentation, in general, or in multimodal argumentation, more specifically?

These questions clearly demonstrate the need for a more adequate characterization of the notion of (dynamic) context, which is, following Roberts (2004: 217), not only “at the heart of a fully adequate, integrated theory of pragmatics”, but should also be at the heart of every theory of multimodal argumentation, in particular.

4 Conclusion: Towards a notion of dynamic context in the theory of multimodal argumentation

This paper has shown how a precise analysis of multimodal argumentation in the Mophie Super Bowl advertisement reveals significant aspects of context and context change as indispensable attributes for its argumentative structure. The analysis has demonstrated that these aspects cannot be ignored in the examination of the argumentation for a full understanding of both the spot’s content and its argumentation, but instead ask for an adequate description which provides insights into their functional role for the overall argumentation.

Although the notion of context which has been dealt with in argumentation theory is indeed sophisticated in terms of a general theory, more specific notions of the dynamicity and its importance for non-verbal artifacts are lacking. While Van Eemeren and Houtlosser (2009: 12), for example, emphasize that “the context in which the argumentative discourse takes place should be duly taken into account”, more significant reference is made within the more specific realm of multimodal argumentation, in which several researchers underline the need for understanding the “important ancillary concept of context” (Blair, 1996: 39) or the way context is interpreted and combined with the visual (see Birdsell and Groarke, 1996: 9). Similarly, Kjeldsen (2012) underlines the need for contextual decoding in the analysis of advertisements, for instance, but does not offer a comprehensive understanding or systematic description of the respective context in question. As the example analysis in this paper has shown, however, there are the specific aspects of the context’s dynamicity and its change potential, in particular, which have not been taken into further consideration when looking at this ancillary concept. While Rigotti and Rocci (2006) at least include the notion of context change within their general theory of communication context, a more precise approach to its description with direct reference to the reconstruction of the argumentation is necessary to cover interpretation steps such as those needed in the example analysis in section 2, for example.

It is therefore an important task to broaden the various theories and methods by accounting for dynamic context as a significant aspect of multimodal argumentation. To this direction, one should particularly focus on the specific knowledge and information sources provided by the context and its influence on the interpretation process, as exemplarily shown in the analysis in this paper. In particular with regard to the increasing number of dynamic multimodal artifacts such as advertisement spots, movie trailers or other audio-visual documents with a rhetorical and persuasive function, it is important to approach the complex process of interpreting these artifacts with comprehensive methods and frameworks that do justice to the complex nature of multimodal arguments and their contextual embedding. This paper is a first attempt to follow this direction; further, and in particular, more empirical work is surely necessary to strengthen the theoretical considerations provided.


A detailed presentation of this methodology can be found in Wildfeuer (2014; 2018) and Wildfeuer and Pollaroli (2017).


A high-quality video of the spot can be accessed on YouTube: [last accessed: 17 January 2018]. The tweet is no longer available online, but Mophie’s Twitter account can be found at and the company is still using the hashtag #StayPowerful.


The general figurative meaning of the expression ‘God knows what can happen’ meaning that ‘one does not know what can happen’ is evoked in the mind of the viewer but the visual components of the commercial reactivate the literal meaning that ‘God has knowledge about what can happen’.


Abduction goes back to the semiotic theory of Charles Sanders Peirce who distinguishes three classes of arguments which serve for ascertaining truth: deduction, induction and abduction, whereby the latter “is the process of forming an explanatory hypothesis. It is the only logical operation which introduces any new idea” (Peirce et al., 1979: 5.171).


The question whether the particularly filmic style of the advertisement spot is based on the specific genre of Super Bowl advertisements or whether it is a more general aspect of contemporary TV spots would definitely be worth a more detailed observation here and our thanks go to Assimakis Tseronis for a comment on this in a previous version of the paper. Known as a ‘unique phenomenon’ (Tomkovick et al., 2001; Yelkur et al., 2004), Superbowl advertisements have received significantly more attention than other advertisement spots—something which, at the same time, has prompted advertisers to spend large sums for the production of these spots. This might have resulted in spots with aesthetically higher quality and cinematic presentation, one could hypothesize. Another influencing aspect could also be the fact that many advertisement spots have been and are used to launch and market new Hollywood movies (Yelkur et al., 2004), which would also make it reasonable to adjust the quality of the advertisement spots to the quality of these film marketing spots and trailers.


Formal accounts of these relations list so-called default axioms and meaning postulates for their interpretation and provide a formal, logic-based description for each relation (Hobbs, 1990; Asher and Lascarides, 2003; Wildfeuer, 2014).


These definitions (see footnote 6) include, for example, conditions for the linear sequence of relations in the discourse or the fact that both eventualities share a similar topic or have a similar structure (Asher and Lascarides, 2003; Wildfeuer, 2014).


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