How Advertising Uses Logical Fallacies (With Examples)
Are you unhappy? Well, “Open a Coke, Open Happiness.”
Want to be a winner? Use Colgate toothpaste, “This dazzling smile always wins.”
If these two examples of advertising were true, the world would have been a place filled with happy winners. Sadly, we know that it is not. These are typical examples of logical fallacy.
And for years, the advertising industry, politicians, leaders, and religious teachers have been using the common errors of logical fallacies to play with our minds.
Advertising has always used logical fallacies to influence consumers. These mind games have started much before the advent of the social media channels like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.
The arguments of Mark Antony to the Roman Senate were a form of logical fallacy.
“Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral. He was my friend, faithful and just to me: But Brutus says he was ambitious; And Brutus is an honorable man.” - William Shakespeare, ‘Julius Ceasar’
What is a logical fallacy?
A logical fallacy is a common error in reasoning. But it is conveyed in such a bombastic manner that the other person is led to believe it is true. In other words, a logical fallacy is a form of forceful argument using powerful words and high-sounding theories to convey what is not true.
Examples of logical fallacy can be seen in the hundreds of WhatsApp forwards that one gets regularly. Here is one:
“Scientists from the World Health Organization have discovered that keeping two cloves of garlic in your shirt pocket would effectively prevent you from catching the COVID virus. According to Dr. John Schulich, Ph.D., garlic contains several phytochemical compounds, including allicin, ajoene, diallyl polysulfides, vinyldithiins, and S-allylcysteine; as well as enzymes, saponins, and flavonoids. These phytochemicals can kill the COVID-19 virus effectively from even a distance of 2 meters. WHO has immediately advised all the governments to enforce a law that every adult member should carry two garlic cloves on their person. United States, United Kingdom, and South Korea have already passed this law”.
If you notice this, WhatsApp forward uses a lot of scientific and complex terms. Words like “scientists,” “WHO,” ‘Phytochemicals,’ ‘polysulfides,’ etc. There are also names of scientists with high qualifications like Ph.D. Further, there is the approval of authority by talking of involvement of the US, UK governments.
All these make it appear a piece of very credible news. But there is a good chance it is a creative imagination of some weirdo. Or propaganda of someone’s individual belief.
We come across many such examples of logical fallacies in social media and other areas.
And the majority of us might forward such messages to our WhatsApp Groups. This creates a chain of misinformation going viral. Hence, logical fallacy creates an impression that the statement could be true.
Fallacies are common errors in reasoning that will undermine the logic of your argument. They could be either illegitimate arguments or irrelevant points. The logical fallacies often cloud our critical thinking abilities and lead us on a slippery slope.
However, many common fallacies are committed unintentionally, as in an innocent social media forward. But of course, some of them are committed intentionally to manipulate and influence others.
The advertising industry uses these logical fallacies very cleverly to influence our buying decisions.
Types of Logical Fallacies
Some philosophers feel the term ‘Logical Fallacy’ is wrong. Because the word logic means reasoning and thinking in a rational manner. But fallacy means the absence of reasoning and rationality. Both words are contrary and logically opposite.
Hence many people prefer to call it a formal fallacy instead of a logical fallacy. However, a logical fallacy is a more popular term to indicate a problem with the argument.
Logical fallacies are weak arguments that appeal to our emotions and psychology. But logically, they are wrong.
There are two major categories of logical fallacies: formal fallacy and informal fallacy.
A formal fallacy is when there is a fundamental flaw in the structure of your argument. In this kind of fallacy, the argument does not flow in a sequence. It is also called ‘non sequitur,’ which in Latin means “it does not follow.”
An example of a formal fallacy would be the argument on God. “God does not exist. The extent of superstitions is because of the belief in God”.
The existence of God has nothing to do with superstitions. Superstitions are a sociological outcome. But the argument on God takes a different turn. It does not follow the sequence.
An informal fallacy is when the fundamental premise of your argument is wrong. The arguments may be structured correctly and in a sequence, but the argument is invalid because of the wrong premise.
The informal fallacy is an incorrect argument in the natural language. In the formal fallacy, the arguments do not follow in a sequence. But in informal fallacy, the argument points may be in sequence but may not make any meaning.
Many beliefs and superstitions are examples of informal fallacy.
For example, you sneeze, and immediately there is a gust of wind. The informal fallacy logic would conclude that your sneeze caused the gust of wind.
Both the premises are true. Your sneezing is true, and the blowing of the wind is also true. But the conclusion is illogical.
Many sports fans wear a particular during the match of their favorite clubs. They believe that wearing that color helps their club win the game.
The informal fallacies are built over time and become a strong opinion or a viewpoint with the people.
There are several types of logical fallacies falling in either of the above categories. However, there are several overlapping areas between formal and informal fallacies. Without going into the deductive logic or argument of the taxonomy of the common logical fallacies, we will focus on the major types of fallacies commonly used in advertising.
Ad Hominem Fallacy
Ad hominem is Latin for ‘against the man.’ This type of fallacy is used during an argument when, instead of addressing the main points of the opponent, one resorts to accusations and personal attacks.
Let us assume an actress complains to the police about a sexual attack on her. Immediately some of the media will argue about her dressing, her sexual-oriented movies, etc. Instead of focusing on her complaint, the argument is diverted to her character and profession.
The focus is diverted with discussions on irrelevant issues. Ad hominem argument is often used in political campaigns, where the politicians trade personal accusations against each other.
Ad Hominem Fallacy in Advertising
This was evident in the 2016 US Presidential elections when Donald Trump called Hilary Clinton plenty of expletive abuses. “Killary Clinton,” “Crooked Hillary,” “Hilla the Hun,” “Shillary,” “Hitlery,” “Klinton,” “Hildebeest,” “Defender of Child rapists,” “Corporate Whore,” “Mr. President,” “Heil Hillary,” “Wicked Witch of the West Wing,” “Robberty Hillham Clinton,” “Mrs. Carpetbagger.”
The Trump campaign released an ad about Hilary Clinton, claiming, “Don’t let her fail us again.” The film, approved by Donald Trump, shows Hilary Clinton as a weak candidate who failed to protect the United States.
Not to be outdone, the Clinton campaign team released their own version of ad hominem advertisement against Donald Trump. In this clip, Trump is shown as a bully and racial Presidential candidate. “Is this the President we want for our daughters” was the theme of the promotional ad.
In ad hominem fallacy, the person tries to win the argument by attacking the person's personal character rather than focusing on the merits of the main argument.
Argumentum ad populum
If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it” – Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda.
This statement is based on the fallacy argumentum ad populum or appeals to the people.
The argumentum ad populum fallacy concludes that a statement must be true because most people believe it is true. “If many believe so, it is so.” It is also known as the common belief fallacy.
Certain abstract beliefs like religion, political affinity are good examples of argumentum ad populum. The belief that cholesterol is bad for health is another example. Millions of people continue to believe in this despite new research on cholesterol.
How is it used in Advertising?
This concept is used in commercial advertising to emphasize that since many use a particular brand, that brand is good. This fallacy leads to a conviction amongst people that a particular brand is associated with quality and reliability because most people believe it to be true.
For example, in automobiles, Mercedes is believed to be the ultimate in quality and comfort. On the other hand, Toyota markets its cars on mass appeal.
Similarly, an iPhone is considered a superior phone compared to others.
According to research done end of 2020, over 74 million people (about twice the California population) use iPhone globally. Because such a vast number use the iPhone, the widely held belief is that iPhones are the best phones.
This is not necessarily true, because there are many other brands of the phone which are equally good if not better. Because of the argumentum ad populum fallacy, Apple products are priced high and continue to be the market leader.
This fallacy is also called Appeal to Authority or Argumentum ad verecundiam. This is a fallacy when we resort to authoritative sources to support our argument. For instance, quoting authorities or scientific research papers to prove our point of view. This is evident in the WhatsApp forward about COVID we discussed earlier.
Authority Fallacy is a misuse of the authority figure to support our argument. We tend to ignore available facts and believe the authority figure.
Earlier, people believed when the argument that the earth was flat. Every religious leader argued, referring to the authority from the religious texts and philosopher scientists, that the earth is indeed flat.
It took Copernicus enormous effort to convince people that the earth is not flat.
Authority Fallacy in Advertising
Celebrity endorsement of products also falls under Authority Fallacy. There is an interesting study from India about the celebrity endorsement and authority fallacy.
Saurav Ganguli, is a famous test cricketer and was the Chairman of the Cricket Control Board of India. Adani Willmar, manufacturers of rice barn oil, used Saurav Ganguli to promote their Fortune brand of rice barn oil.
The ad focused on how the rice barn oil is heart-healthy, and Saurav Ganguli being a top-class cricketer and a healthy individual, people believed it. The authority fallacy was in full play over here! This is a classic example of how advertising uses logical fallacy.
But in early January 2021, Ganguli suffered a heart attack and was admitted to the hospital! So, all the heart-healthy rice barn oil endorsements fell flat and did not work on Ganguli’s heart. Adani Wilmar had to withdraw the ad hastily.
The next time you see an endorsement by a celebrity, take time to study the product and the authority of the celebrity to endorse the product.
The casual fallacy is the failure of the reason to explain the cause of two unrelated events. The causal fallacy is the false cause or non-causa pro causa ("not the cause for a cause") fallacy, which is when we conclude without reasonable evidence.
For example, “Since your parents named you Hope, they must be very religious.” The fact that your name is Hope does not indicate that your parents are religious. There is no convincing evidence to arrive at this conclusion just based on a name.
This is a casual fallacy.
Another causal fallacy is the post hoc fallacy. Post hoc is short for post hoc ergo propter hoc ("after this, therefore because of this"). This happens when you relate a cause to an incident because the cause came first.
This fallacy happens when you mistake something for the cause just because it came first. The important terms are “post” and “propter” meaning “after” and “because of.” Just because this came before that does not mean this caused that. The post does not prove propter. A lot of superstitions are susceptible to this fallacy.
If someone says, “It rains whenever I wear a red dress.” Because you wore a red dress in the morning and it rained in the afternoon, the argument does not hold good to say that the red dress caused the rain.
Many beliefs are strengthened because of post hoc ergo propter hoc, especially superstitious and religious beliefs.
Advertising uses this logical fallacy effectively in the advertisement for the deodorant Axe.
The casual fallacy is well depicted in this deodorant ad. The ad shows a host of women getting together with a man who has used Axe deodorant.
Another advertisement shows a man who is initially not popular with women. But the moment he uses the deodorant and hordes of women follow him!
Circular Argument fallacy is part of the larger group of fallacies called fallacies of insufficient evidence. These fallacies are when the premises are strong, but the conclusion is weak.
A circular argument is a fallacy that is commonly known as ‘going round and round.’ It is when the same point is repeated and again without adding any additional information.
In this fallacy, the claim is used as a premise and conclusion. A good circular argument example is, “Fake news is fake because it is fake news.”
Circular argument fallacy is also known as Circulus in Demonstrando, in Latin. This form of fallacy is a pragmatic defect or a formal fallacy that follows a valid argument pattern. If in the following example A is true, then B is true. Since B is true, A must be true.
“You must obey the law because it is illegal to break the law” is another example of circular argument fallacy. The following example represents a circular argument.
Politicians often use the circular argument fallacy, especially dictators who cling to power using this fallacy. “Country needs a Powerful Leader to lead the People. I am the most powerful leader.”
The politicians use this fallacy in their political speeches to create emotional appeals to the public about their importance.
The circular argument is also evident in the popular quotes like “Which comes first? Chicken or the Egg?’. Is Event A (chicken) first, or Event B (egg) is first?
If there is no egg, we cannot have a chicken. But how can we get chicken without an egg? The argument goes into an endless loop.
English journalist William Cobbett coined the term red herring in 1807. It means something that misleads or distracts from the current position or topic.
For instance, when an employee approaches the boss for a raise, the boss talks of inflation, high expenses, etc., and avoids addressing the main issue.
Red herring is often it is used in logical fallacies and as a literary device.
As a fallacy, it falls under the class of relevant fallacies. A red herring fallacy is an argument put forward to either mislead or make the point irrelevant. It is a diversionary tactic to lead the argument or discussion on a different track. Besides, this fallacy introduces a secondary argument to divert the issue.
The concept of red herring is quite popular as a literary device. Many mystery novels and movies adapt this technique to hide the real villain or culprit till the end.
The popular fictional detective Sherlock Holmes was always suspicious of an obvious and easily solved crime. He warns his associate, Dr. Watson, that “if a crime is solved quickly, it is a red herring.”
This fallacy in Advertising
There are not many advertisements targeting the red herring fallacy. However, a red herring prospectus is quite common in the stock market. A red herring prospectus is issued as a first document before the public issue.
The prospectus has disclaimers in bold red on the front page, leading to the term red herring prospectus.
Hasty Generalization Fallacy
This is the most common of the logical fallacies. A hasty generalization is an argument or a statement made without sufficient evidence to support it.
- Rich people’s kids are lazy - Blondes are dumb - Jews are very clever - Japanese are extremely industrious
This fallacy is also called the fallacy of insufficient statistics, Secundum quid, or the fallacy of the lonely fact.
Many of the opinions and biases are a result of hasty generalization. Based on insufficient evidence, we tend to form an opinion and stereotype. This leads to an unsound argument without any relation to facts.
Political leaders use this fallacy to create a mass movement or to create a rebellion. Hitler used it effectively, branding the Jews as inferior to the German Aryans. Hasty generalization can occur even in scientific research. When the data is collected from an unrepresentative sample, the conclusion is flawed. And the result of such research or survey is a false conclusion supporting the bias.
Advertising uses this type of logical fallacy to promote a product claiming it is the best.
Fallacies will Always be There with Us.
Logical fallacies are a kind of error in reasoning. Despite this, our language and psyche will find it difficult not to use any fallacy. Some fallacies are inadvertent, while others are deliberate and manipulative.
The first formal study of logical fallacies was by Aristotle in his book De Sophisticis Elenchis (Sophistical Refutations). In this study, he listed thirteen types of fallacies. With the development in the language and a better understanding of reasoning and logic, the number of fallacies has increased. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (https://iep.utm.edu/fallacy/#FalseCause) lists over 231 common fallacies.
We come across thousands of advertisements in a day. With social media advertising catching on, the traditional forms of advertisements are on the wane. The challenge most advertisers have is to catch the attention of the consumer to increase the brand value.
Advertisers have to use logical fallacy to appeal to the sentiments and interests of the consumer. And the consumers will have to use their judgment to separate facts from fallacies before making the purchase decision.