As a marketer, I can tell you that logical fallacies are used in advertising all the time. You find them in a variety of messages that bombard you daily. As a matter of fact, you’re probably so used to them that you’ve become immune. You might not recognize them—or worse yet, no longer question them.
What are Logical Fallacies?
Logical fallacies are faulty arguments which often mislead people or obscure facts. They are claims that lack evidence and are often irrelevant to the point one is trying to make.
For example, the logical fallacy of the bandwagon is used by McDonald’s (MCD) when displaying over “100 billion” served on their store signs. It implies you should join the bandwagon because all those customers can’t be wrong. You see right through that, don’t you? After all, I’m sure you have never eaten at McDonald’s…right?
Logical fallacies can be quite convincing for those who don’t take the time to think them through. People who are influenced by charisma, or swayed by their own prejudicial thinking and beliefs in stereotypes, easily fall victim to manipulation through logical fallacies.
Not exclusive to advertising, logical fallacies are often studied in philosophy and English class, and by debaters, which means that even if you’re not a marketer, you’ve probably been exposed to logical fallacies at some point.
Another arena that exposes us to logical fallacies is the political one. They’re often used by politicians and press to “spin” their agendas. Fortunately—or perhaps unfortunately—we’re currently in the middle of a political climate that is brimming with all kinds of logical fallacies to use as examples. Donald Trump, his advisors, and his spokespeople are providing us with a steady stream.
For instance, when Trump advisor Roger Stone recently took to Twitter (TWTR) to call Republican political commentator Anna Navarro, “…fat, stupid and f*cking Al Cardneas”, he was using a classic ad hominem, which is an attack on the character of the person rather than of that person’s position.
Indeed, Trump himself managed to convince many people to endorse him for the presidency with the use of logical fallacies. During the campaign, he attacked his opponents with ad hominem attacks such as “Little Marco Rubio”, “Lying Ted Cruz”, “Crazy Bernie” and of course, the famous “Crooked Hilary”.
I asked Ken Sajdak, a retired debate coach from Waukesha, Wisconsin, to help me identify some flagrant examples of logical fallacies in the current politics.
“Trump’s preoccupation with the size of his Presidential victory provides a series of logical fallacies. In a recent news conference, Trump claimed: ‘the biggest electoral college win since Ronald Reagan.’ Despite being factually inaccurate, Trump is guilty of fallacious reasoning—special pleading. As each part of his claim was debunked, Trump moved the goal posts. He ended the exchange with: ‘Well I don’t know, I was given that information. Actually, I’ve seen that information around. But it was a very substantial victory, do you agree with that?’ It is hard to hit a moving target.
“A second example of his victory fixation is his consistent appeal that he would have won the popular vote. Trump seems to dislike the claim that he lacks a popular mandate. He is clearly trying to establish a bandwagon effect. Even though the polls and the election results argue differently, Trump believes he has a popular mandate.
“Factual error after factual error. Logical fallacy after logical fallacy. How can Trump still muster such vocal support?” asks Sajdak.
People aren’t willfully ignorant of politicians and their tendency to spin. For the most part we are smart, educated, reasonable people, aren’t we? We know this happens. So, what makes intelligent people turn gullible in these instances?
Sajdak responds, “The answer may be counterintuitive. Most people don’t study logic. When they look at an argument, they look at what makes sense to them, what is reasonable.
“When Trump claims ‘Mexico is not sending its best,’ he is of course guilty of the fallacy of composition. Most immigrants are hard-working individuals looking for a better life. Why do so many still agree with Trump?”
Sajdak points me to a parable written by novelist, humorist and creator of Dobie Gillis, Max Shulman. Called Love is a Fallacy, it tells the story of a young man who tries to create the perfect wife by teaching her logical thinking. When he proclaims his love to her, she shoots him down with examples of logical fallacies that he is using on her.
Sajdak explains, “With each declaration, his Pygmalion shoots him down by showing the fallacy in his declaration. Finally, he yells, ‘Will you go steady with me?’ Her reply, ‘Yelling must be a fallacy, too.’
“To her, and to most Trump supporters, the logic doesn’t matter…. As we try to show Trump supporters the error of their ways, we overlook their emotional frustrations which color their judgement to make them think that Trump is being reasonable.”
“Or, to put it differently: the first law of debate is the debate takes place in the mind of the judge. The first corollary, sometimes there’s not a lot of room there for an argument.”
More examples of recent logical fallacies used by President Trump and his spokespeople include:
- Slippery Slope – Slipper slope is a logical fallacy that concludes that something will eventually happen in a series. If A happens, then B, C, D and all the rest will follow, leading to Z.
Trump used a slippery slope argument by stating that an executive order to keep terrorists from seven Muslim countries out of the US will be effective in preventing terrorism. Of the countries on the list, no fatal attacks of terrorism have been from immigrants.
- Binary Thinking – Binary, or either/or thinking, oversimplifies an argument by offering only two choices.
Trump’s claim that the press is the enemy is an example of binary thinking. It gives one no other option than to be with or against Trump on the issue.
- Straw Man – The straw man is one of my favorites to call users out on. It takes the opponent’s stance on an issue and twists it into something else, forcing them to defend a position that isn’t necessarily their own. Like building a straw man to attack.
When Trump accused Hilary Clinton of supporting ninth month abortions, he dramatically mischaracterized her position on abortion. While Clinton is a supporter of choice, she has never claimed to support such late-term abortions.
- Appeal to Fear – An appeal to fear, or argumetum in terrorem, is when an argument is based on fear instead of evidence or reason. It is often used to motivate others to act in ways that aren’t typical. Fear is a big motivator for many.
Trump uses it when he makes statements like, “There is a great hatred toward Americans by large segments of the Muslim population. It’s going to get worse and worst. You’re going to have more World Trade Centers.” Not only is he demonizing the enemy, in this case people of the Muslim religion, but he is instilling fear in his supporters when there isn’t evidence to support his claim.
There are many other logical fallacies such as moral equivalences, red herrings, ad populum, begging the question, circular arguments, the genetic fallacy, and appeal to nature, that are used in modern politics. Understanding them helps to recognize them.
Once you begin seeing them, you can break down any argument and decide if it has a sound foundation or not. You’ll not only be less swayed by advertising messages, but you will also effectively engage in debates and reason-based conversations about the issues that are important to you and our country. You will think critically, and considering our current state of affairs, this is something that more Americans should be doing.