Logical Fallacies in Advertising

You know when you hear a bad argument and you think “that doesn’t make any sense!”? Logical fallacies are one way to categorize and define these poor arguments.

Poor arguments happen. By knowing and understanding fallacies, it’s easier to spot poor arguments when they are used by others and by ourselves. They help us to examine our own reasoning and allow us to explore logically why we feel the way we do about certain issues. When arguing with someone else, it helps to keep the arguments relevant and the discussion on topic.

Poor arguments can be made ignorantly (i.e., the person making the argument doesn’t recognize that their argument is poor) and intentionally (“well, technically what I said was true, even if the implication was false”). Michelle Bachman and Glenn Beck Some people have built entire careers out of making fallacious arguments.

These are some of my favorite fallacies, and examples of them:

Ad hominem – “Michelle Bachman has crazy eyes, therefore anything she says is a lie.” To automatically dismiss all of MBs arguments just because she has crazy eyes  is lazy. We have to listen to her speak, consider her statements and then decide if (once again) she’s making batsh*t crazy invalid claims.

Slippery slope – “If we let gay people get married, next there will be men marrying horses!”

Generalization – “Enron was a large, corrupt company, therefore all large companies are corrupt.”

Straw man – Misrepresentation of your opponent’s statement. When the Hubby says “That girl has nice eyes” and I say “Oh, so you think my eyes are ugly.” – that’s a straw man.

Because arguments are intended to influence the way we think about things, the decisions we make and our actions, you can find examples of fallacious arguments in politics, in courtrooms, in schools, and especially in marketing and advertising. Here are some examples that I’ve encountered in the last few weeks:

This is an implied False Dichotomy. False Dichotomy says that you only have two options. In this case you can use a filthy, disgusting cloth towel OR you can use “Kleenex Hand Towels – a clean, fresh towel every time!” There are other options though…like changing out your reusable cloth towel before it looks like the microbe farm shown in the picture. 

This is an Appeal to Tradition, the idea being that because something is old or we’ve been doing it forever it must be accurate or based on evidence.  Something being ancient doesn’t automatically make it better. Other cereals use granola and almonds too, not because they’re ancient, but because they have nutritional value and are tasty. The Appeal to Tradition is often used to market alternative therapies e.g., “Acupuncture has been used for centuries!”

If an argument makes you go “WTF???”, then you may be dealing with a Non Sequitur, in which “the conclusion does not follow from its premise”…i.e. the statement makes no sense. In this case, giving up implies failure…how is not shopping giving up or a failure? One does not have anything to do with the other.

Not all consequences of logical fallacies are equal. The three examples above are fairly innocuous and all I did was snort when I saw them (actually I squee’ed because I’m proud of myself when I recognize logical fallacies in everyday situations). The only thing at stake was a decision to buy or not buy paper towels or cereal; I’d probably never complain to a company about the situations above. However, some fallacious arguments are the stuff of nightmares and need to be addressed. The statement “My daughter developed autism immediately after getting her MMR vaccine, therefore vaccines cause autism.” is a dangerous fallacious statement (correlation not causation – the two events are related in time, but there is no evidence that one could cause the other) that can lead to unhealthy choices and have serious consequences for individuals and groups of people.

Because arguments are as wide and varied as the humans who make them, the list of fallacies is constantly growing and evolving. There are a bunch of websites that can help us understand the types of fallacies and how and when they might be used (search “fallacies” when you’ve got a couple hours or so to invest).

It’s really easy to make fallacious arguments; avoiding them and recognizing them when they do occur is challenging and requires constant vigilance. I may be making some in this very article, and I’m sure that I could find examples of poor arguments in other blog posts that I’ve written. Making a fallacious argument isn’t the end of the world. But if you are caught making a poor argument, you owe it to yourself and the person with whom you are engaging to say “yeah, you’re right” rather than “nuh uh, you stupid poopy head!”*

*See what I did there? An ad hominem example AND I’ve left myself an out if you find mistakes in my article. Cover My Ass WIN! As an aside, it was really difficult for me to write an article on logical fallacies; it made me paranoid about every sentence in the damn thing. It was like being asked to spellcheck a paper for someone and worrying that I might write “You’re spelling and gramer is bad.”

Logical Fallacies in Advertising
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63 thoughts on “Logical Fallacies in Advertising

  1. 2

    LOL – you’ll get it. Sometimes WP can be a beyotch about picture placement, especially if you’ve unknowingly introduced some HTML junk in the background or if you’re using an unsuported image type. I had some problems with videos, which took me a while to get figured out. I’d suggest the FAQs on wordpress.com for guidance.

  2. 5

    I think it’d be worth pointing out the way that some of these fallacies, or the labels, are misused. “Ad hominem,” in particular, gets dragged out to try to dismiss all the claims of an opponent who happens to attach insults or personal criticism to their arguments. Ad hominem, basically, refers to the use of an insult as a premise, and insults attached to conclusions don’t qualify – “he’s an idiot, don’t listen to him” is an ad hominem attack, whereas “his argument has the following flaws…[list of flaws]…and he’d have to be an idiot to advance it in light of that” is not.

    There’s also an unfortunate and amusing misconception that the use of a fallacy falsifies the conclusion of an argument. It doesn’t; it simply means that the argument fails to support the conclusion. There are perfectly good reasons to dismiss almost any claim that Michelle Bachman is likely to make, and the fact that someone’s couched it in terms of “crazy eyes” doesn’t make her suddenly credible. You’d think this would be obvious, but I’ve encountered some people who find it very confusing.

    1. 5.1

      Excellent thoughts, thanks for the input! Regarding the point you make about ad hominem attacks…there’s something in there about dismissing someone because they have made a derogatory statement. “Biodork once said Michelle Bachmann has crazy eyes and that she’s made some of the stupidest statements ever uttered by a politician. Therefore you can’t trust what Biodork says about MB.” And just because someone is biased doesn’t automatically mean that what they are saying is inaccurate.

  3. 6

    At least we can all agree that Bachmann is psychotic, ie. she has “a severe mental disorder in which thought and emotions are so impaired that contact is lost with external reality.” Or maybe she just plays one on TV.

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