Visual rhetoric is a branch of rhetorical studies concerned with the persuasive use of images, whether on their own or in the company of words.
Visual rhetoric is grounded in an expanded notion of rhetoric that involves "not only the study of literature and speech, but of culture, art, and even science" (Kenney and Scott in Persuasive Imagery, 2003).
Examples and Observations
"Words and how they're gathered on a page have a visual aspect of their own, but they may also interact with nondiscursive images such as drawings, paintings, photographs, or moving pictures. Most advertisements, for instance, use some combination of text and visuals to promote a product for service… While visual rhetoric is not entirely new, the subject of visual rhetoric is becoming increasingly important, especially since we are constantly inundated with images and also since images can serve as rhetorical proofs." (Sharon Crowley and Debra Hawhee, Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students. Pearson, 2004
"Not every visual object is visual rhetoric. What turns a visual object into a communicative artifact--a symbol that communicates and can be studied as rhetoric--is the presence of three characteristics… The image must be symbolic, involve human intervention, and be presented to an audience for the purpose of communicating with that audience." (Kenneth Louis Smith, Handbook of Visual Communication. Routledge, 2005)
A Public Kiss
"Students of visual rhetoric may wish to consider how doing certain deeds expresses or conveys varied meanings from the perspectives of diverse participants or onlookers. For example, something as apparently simple as a public kiss can be a greeting between friends, an expression of affection or love, a featured symbolic act during a marriage ceremony, a taken-for-granted display of privileged status, or an act of public resistance and protest defying discrimination and social injustice. Our interpretation of the meaning of the kiss will depend on who performs the kiss; its ritual, institutional, or cultural circumstances; and the participants' and onlookers' perspectives." (Lester C. Olson, Cara A. Finnegan, and Diane S. Hope, Visual Rhetoric: A Reader in Communication and American Culture. Sage, 2008)
The Grocery Store
"The grocery store--banal as it may be--is a crucial place for understanding everyday, visual rhetoric in a postmodern world." (Greg Dickinson, "Placing Visual Rhetoric." Defining Visual Rhetorics, ed. by Charles A. Hill and Marguerite H. Helmers. Lawrence Erlbaum, 2004)
Visual Rhetoric in Politics
"It is easy to dismiss images in politics and public discourse as mere spectacle, opportunities for entertainment rather than engagement, because visual images transfix us so readily. The question of whether a presidential candidate wears an American flag pin (sending a visual message of patriotic devotion) can triumph over real discussion of issues in today's public sphere. Similarly, politicians are at least as likely to employ managed photo opportunities to create an impression as they are to speak from the bully pulpit with facts, figures, and rational arguments. In heightening the value of the verbal over the visual, sometimes we forget that not all verbal messages are rational, as politicians and advocates also speak strategically with code terms, buzz words, and glittering generalities." (Janis L. Edwards, "Visual Rhetoric." 21st Century Communication: A Reference Handbook, ed. by William F. Eadie. Sage, 2009)
"In 2007, conservative critics assailed then candidate Barack Obama for his decision not to wear an American flag pin. They sought to frame his choice as evidence of his presumed disloyalty and lack of patriotism. Even after Obama explained his position, the criticism persisted from those who lectured him on the importance of the flag as a symbol." (Yohuru Williams, "When Microaggressions Become Macro Confessions." Huffington Post, June 29, 2015)
Visual Rhetoric in Advertising
"Advertising constitutes a dominant genre of visual rhetoric… Like verbal rhetoric, visual rhetoric depends on strategies of identification; advertising's rhetoric is dominated by appeals to gender as the primary marker of consumer identity." (Diane Hope, "Gendered Environments," in Defining Visual Rhetorics, ed. by C. A. Hill and M. H. Helmers, 2004)