Reproducing “rhetrickery” in online fertility marketing: harnessing the “rhetoric of the possible”

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Rhetrickery and rhetruth in digital space

target market for these websites are spiritually-inclined women whose belief in a redeeming higher order, through the “power of nature” and “natural products” is evidenced throughout the testimonials. Accordingly, the fertility experts on these sites cast themselves as “spiritual guides” enabling “miracle” pregnancies and babies, conceived and born against all odds. Yet, as this survey shows, one of the many paradoxes of the “reproductive market” (Houston 2004) is how ARTs are not excluded as enablers of reproduction, despite their artifice. The reason for the selection of these websites has to do with their high visibility in a Google keyword search for “fertility marketing”: namely, they appear consistently, and highly ranked, on Google searches for this and related keywords. An analysis of the gender-related aspects of online fertility marketing would be incomplete without also considering how marketers appeal similarly or differently to men who are experiencing infertility.

Thus, we also consider how men’s reproductive maladies (and successes) are articulated through digital media by including two fertility websites that expose male infertility experiences and concerns. One belongs to the renowned urologist and men’s reproductive health specialist, California-based Dr. Paul Turek, while the other belongs to London-based urologist, Dr. Jonathan Ramsay. As in the case of the previous two websites targeting women, these appear to be two of the most popular fertility websites targeting men in the US and UK, the main geographical provenance of this study.

Their target market appears to be middle-class Caucasian men who are susceptible to rational approaches to healing, but also open to the casual humor that Dr Turek, in particular, showcases throughout his website. The polyvocal nature of Dr Turek’s website implicitly suggests a whole community of subfertile “peers” that make male patients feel less isolated and therefore more likely to reach out and seek medical assistance for their condition. Given this representative sampling of the kinds of rhetoric used in digital spaces to market fertility treatments and expertise, we contend that the language employed in our surveyed websites – understood as persuasive “rhetorics of the possible” – exploits gendered stereotypes of the body in ways that ultimately mislead their target markets about ARTs and the “liberatory” potential they offer. Leaning on Aristotle’s formulation that rhetoric is “the art (techne) of finding out the available means of persuasion” (1991), while also assessing some of the strategic elements in such persuasion, we analyse the currently unexplored genre of online fertility narratives in order to reveal how the deceptive rhetoric (Booth 2004) they adopt is enhanced in digital spaces.

The narratives comprise 72 “success stories” featured on, 35 blog entries (which incorporate patient testimonials) on Heidi Brockmyre’s website,80 patient testimonials from Dr Turek’s website, and 30 testimonials from the website of Dr Ramsay. By focusing in particular on online customer narratives that we have identified as women’s “complicitous testimonials” and pathographies or illness stories (Hawkins 1993), we demonstrate that such advertising narratives, particularly when analysed in conjunction with visual imagery that serves to reinforce their essential messages, effectively perpetuate some of the oppressive discourses and practices that have been historically linked to gender inequalities, as recent work by Baer (2016) on feminism’s fourth wave has suggested. Here, we flag two aspects of the digitization of these messages that serve such purposes. One is the differential marketing techniques used for women and men. This enables marketers to focus on women as a more “ideal” target market for fertility treatments and therapies, although both women’s and men’s bodies are implicated in studies on the increasing incidence of infertility around the globe (Hubbard, Janus, and Fulmer 2010, 3).

A second is the compounding of marketing messages, in part through a “multimodal assault” that enables marketers to reach wider audiences than through the medium of print or visual communication alone. Thus, we seek to uncover the unique persuasive rhetorical strategies used in these testimonials and to understand how they operate as marketing tools to transform notions of the gendered body, its pathologies, limitations, and potential to overcome those limitations. There are at least three notable trends in the extant literature on ARTs that shape the ontology we propose here, most of which prioritize an analysis of narratives or discourses. One, typical of early studies of ARTs, contrasts “utopian” constructions of a genderless (or gender-malleable) society with

the (hidden or “unreflected”) perpetuation of gendered stereotypes. A second adopts a Foucauldian analysis of institutional modes of disciplining the body, seeing these modes through the lens of relationships of power. A third characterizes the discourses surrounding ARTs as an index of the current anxiety surrounding reproduction, one that reflects pronatalist biases at a time when Web 2.0 holds out the promise that historic gender inequalities are mitigated or even eliminated by the internet. Ironically, even as many second and third wave feminists viewed the emergence of ARTs as another manifestation of patriarchal control over women’s bodies, others were ambivalent about, or even embracing of, the new technologies, seeing them as a way to free women from the confines
of their bodies and offer them greater reproductive choices (Martin 2010; Thompson 2005). In ManMade Women (1987), Corea and other contributors argued that reproductive technologies pathologise women’s bodies in order to justify bio-intervention. However other ‘80s feminists, essentially agreeing with the premise, do not appear to problematize it.

Corea implicates women’s collusion with male “technodocs” and coercive “experts” who, posing as benevolent guides “helping humankind”, rearrange women’s bodies, “dissect and market eggs, wombs and embryos” (Corea et al. 1987, 166). By contrast, Rothman (1986) praises the new control offered by technology, while Pfeffer and Woollett (1983) elaborate upon the choices made available through ARTs. This tension between the two camps continues to characterize studies of reproductive technologies. As today, a Foucauldian bent influenced early studies of reproductive technologies, with much of the feminist studies literature viewing it in overwhelmingly negative terms (Bordo 1993; Corea 1985; Klein 1987; Menzies 2000). A large proportion of studies that deal with the gendered dimensions of reproductive discourses, while increasingly intersectional in its consideration of dimensions of race and class (Bell 2009; Gupta and Richters 2008; Valerius 1997), views ARTs primarily as an embodiment, representation, or manifestation of gendered relations of dominance and subordination. These authors maintain that women’s bodies are controlled by a medical establishment whose technologies are overwhelmingly developed by affluent white men who reinforce conservative cultural norms, and urge “traditional” choices upon women (Negra 2009; Valerius 1997). The limitations of this analytic model are being revealed by some of the newer literature on gender and the body. Within this landscape are studies that take a more process-oriented view of the
paradoxes inherent within reproductive technologies that echo persistent notions of the “quintessentially feminine” body.

Many of these studies emphasize the commodification of the language of choice, alongside the (perhaps unwitting) complicity of women (e.g. Gaard 2010; Lam 2016). One element of this paradox is revealed by the ways in which ARTs appear to have increased “fertility anxiety” (Ellen 2014; Faircloth and Gurtin 2016, 8; Salecl 2011) – understood as a sentiment experienced by men and women eagerly seeking to become parents – while concurrently driving market momentum, in part by overselling (the need for) fertility treatments (Brian 2014). This anxiety is noted in social science studies that evaluate an increasingly “intensive’ parenting” culture and its
relationships with neo-liberalism, economic crises, career uncertainty and individualization (Faircloth and Gurtin 2016).

Blog empowerment: Heidi Brockmyre

It is also implicated in studies that fault media programing (and marketing) which has, since the 1980s, pushed unattainable ideals of blissful parenting that have shaped not only ideas of motherhood, but also women’s sense of self-worth (Douglas and Michaels 2005, 7). A few studies have sought to demonstrate that men experience no less anxiety than women, particularly over matters of their own infertility or subfertility (Fisher, Baker, and Hammarberg 2010; Schmidt, Christensen, and Holstein 2005). Another, more recent development has come into the conversation on ARTs and, we believe, enables us to contribute a more nuanced understanding than recent studies have offered of some of the processual or strategic aspects of fertility marketing in the digital realm. As IVF has become routine (Franklin 2013), consumers have evolved into “knowledgeable, organized” actors (Becker
2000; Sunde 2012). This shift in awareness implies that the fertility industry must necessarily adjust its communication strategies and move away from monolithic, master narratives (i.e. medical imperatives) and espouse more dialogic, inclusive discourses that enable fluid, open-ended

conversations with consumers (or a semblance of them). Such a postmodern trend in sperm bank marketing, “polyphonic discourse”, is noted in the work of Bokek Cohen’s (2015), but she does not explore the multiple discursive mechanisms and opportunities available in digital spaces. Houston has argued that the relative newness of the “reproductive supermarket” makes it a market “ripe for calculation in the broadest sense”. Its “postmodern … fragmented, multi-layered” characteristics (Houston 2004, 194–195) are, as we will demonstrate, augmented in online environments, which in turn augment the types of rhetorical tools that can be mobilized to interact with and influence consumers. Our stance requires a demonstration of how these tools are marshaled through the digital
medium when viewed through the lens of an intertextual “rhetorics of the possible.” In so doing,we can more readily identify the mechanisms by which discourses of empowerment through choice (which we have characterized as “deceptive” rhetoric) unfold. These mechanisms endow fertility discourses with persuasive force, even for those who do not (ostensibly) subscribe to pronatalist arguments. They are also an integral part of the process of “rhetrickery” and “rhetruth” elaborated in the
work of Barbara Stern, to which we now turn.

Barbara Stern’s elaboration of Wayne C. Booth’s notion of rhetrickery, defined as a spectrum of “dishonest communicative arts producing misunderstanding – along with other harmful results” (Booth 2004, 10), coupled with her own explication of “rhetruth”, a strategy ostensibly aimed at fostering the public good, provide the scaffolding for our analysis of online testimonials as key elements in the construction of the “polyphonic discourses” embedded in the fertility websites under survey. Stern’s contributions to Booth’s work encourage vigilant “readings” of advertisements as strategic “polyvocal” literary texts or “consumption scenarios”. By unmasking their rhetorical anatomy, she unveils the surreptitious ruses in messaging that manipulate via “innovative” uses of “characterization”, plot, and structure to augment persuasive power. These ruses thereby operate to promote “rhetruth” by foisting positive, persuasive, and educational content within an otherwise dubious medium (Stern 2008, 52, 60–63).

Stern’s work remains sensitive to the “network of meanings co-produced by authors, informants and readers” (Stern 1998, 57). However, Stern does not consider how “rhetrickery” and “rhetruth” operate within a digital environment. We build upon her insights by introducing the concept “digirhetrickery”, the use of deceptive rhetoric in digital space, in the analysis of online testimonials by fertility marketers. Because they blur the lines between “organic”, and “manufactured”, “coherent” and “crafted”, and author/speaker/expert/audience, online testimonials provide a window into understanding how language can mask the operations that effectively conspire to make the dubious seem natural or authentic. As far as we are aware, no marketing theorist has addressed the need to update rhetorical analyses to scrutinize online advertising, its unique persuasive abilities, and consumer “voices” and interactions in digital space.

Author: Jennifer Takhar & Kelly Pemberton