Ethos: The Appeal To Character
In general terms, Ethos refers to how we portray ourselves in an argument: it is the image persuaders present to those they attempt to persuade. Closely related to the word ethics, you might think of ethos as the persuaders' attempts to portray themselves as ethical people: "You should believe my argument because you believe me." or perhaps "...believe in me."
It is important to remember that ethos refers to the "persuader's" character, not the audience's. Sometimes it refers to the author (you should trust my opinion because I have a Phd. in this topic) and, especially in advertizing or other forms of propaganda, it refers to the use of a secondary character, like the use of Tiger Woods to sell Nike clothes or the actors used in any advertisement. The uproar over Tiger Woods' affairs, and the haste with which his sponsors dropped him, shows how much stake we put into ethos.
There are various kinds of ethos:
Authority and Credibility
Authority refers to either power or knowledge (or both). A police officer is an authority because he or she has the power of physical force available to persuade us; society has conferred on this person the legal right to force us through physical force or violence to abide by the law. Authority can also refer to one who has control of knowledge; a professor is someone who knows a lot about some subject, and we therefore allow ourselves to be persuaded by his or her lectures or essays etc. (yes, obviously both types of authority can be abused or can simply be wrong).
Credibility refers to trust. Humans are a remarkably diverse, individualized species, and we all seem to trust different kinds of people, but in very broad terms, people tend to trust people who:
a) Are members of our own group or clan or tribe or community; people who are “like us”
b) Are trusted by people we trust; we trust those who can be “vouched for” by people we trust
c) Are members of common trustworthy or prestigious groups or organizations; we trust people that other people have endorsed as trustworthy
(college degrees, certifications and awards, members of associations or groups, religious or civic affiliations, fraternities and sororities, sports teams etc)
d) Can provide evidence their trustworthiness and ability through previous action
e) Are as smart or smarter than us; we trust people who are educated and can demonstrate evidence of that education; we trust people who can spell and punctuate.
I Can Relate: Ethos and Relationship
Ethos can also be thought of in terms of relationships, both in terms of the persuader's personal or professional relationship to who is being persuaded, and also in terms of the persuader's personal or professional relationship to the topic at hand.
The list above suggests that our own relationship to an argument -- the degree to which we will allow ourselves to be persuaded -- has much to do with our own personal relationship to the persuader, rather than to the facts of the actual topic. For the most part, we very rarely are persuaded to believe much of anything based on personal experience or exposure to facts: we are persuaded because of our relationship to those people who informed us of the idea.
Of course relationships are entirely subjective, ethereal and mutable: some of the people I trust the most are those you trust the least, and vice versa, and some of the people I trust the least today are those I once trusted most, and so on. You'll notice, for example, that the very same reasons that I trust so and so to run the country is often the exact same set of reasons you don't trust him or her to run the country.
We also gauge trust by judging the relationship of the persuader to the topic at hand: when the persuader has too much to gain personally from the persuasive act, when they profit, in some way, from being right, we say they are "biased". In empirical terms, we are, and perhaps should be, willing to believe most those people who are most objective or distanced economically or politically from the topic.
Yet on the other hand, close intimacy with a topic may be a sign of authoritative knowledge: no one knows rape like someone who has committed rape or has been raped; these people can inform us in ways that no one else can, yet both would carry so much obvious personal emotional baggage in relationship to the topic -- rape -- that there judgments would be colored by their subjectivity. Someone who is paid millions of dollars to study the effect of carbon emissions on green house gasses is likely to be great authority on the topic, but we'd want to know who is paying the millions.
Yet even if a climatologist is paid millions by Exxon, we cannot simply dismiss her argument as invalid. Rather, we should be skeptical and cautious.
For all of these reasons, our relationship to the persuader and the persuader's relationship to the topic present us with problems when it comes to really measuring the validity of an argument.
Advertising and Ethos
One of the easiest ways to understand appeals to Ethos is to think of celebrities and sports heroes promoting products: cosmetic companies choose beautiful models to promote their beauty products...but the models probably don't actually use the product and are certainly beautiful regardless of whether or not they do. Tiger Woods' wouldn't golf any differently if he wasn't wearing Nike, but many people buy Nike products because Tiger Woods is seen wearing their togs.
So the control of image is the control of Ethos: The Nike Discourse
Beauty's Only Skin Deep
It's important to realize that for the most part, Ethos is artifice; it is manufactured, constructed; it is surface image and may have either a slanted or entirely fictitious relationship to truth. If I show up one day to teach class in blue jeans and a cowboy shirt, and the next day I show up to teach in slacks and a sport-coat and tie, and the next day I show up in cords, a black turtle neck and tweed, smoking Gitanes, well, under the different clothes, the different images, each day I am still exactly the same person and the ideas I present will not have changed.
But your perception of the ideas I present probably will change. Note, of course, that different people will perceive my different outfits differently, and your willingness to accept my lessons is, in part, determined by how you perceive who I am, based on how I dress.
...regardless of who I "truly" am.
Or the validity of my statements.
Public Relations offices specialize in manufacturing ethos, applying the basic elements of product advertising to manipulate the public's perception of truth, in this case the truth of other people or organizations. But all the image spin in the world doesn't change the factual basis of the original organization one iota.