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4 Logical Fallacies in Advertising

May 25, 2021

by Kate Russell

Advertisements deploy bandwagon, appeal to authority, false dilemma, and red herring fallacies to entertain and compel consumers. Ads mislead consumers by using fallacies, which present invalid or faulty reasoning to make an argument.

Imagine it’s a typical Sunday evening. Sitting on your couch with a bowl of popcorn in your lap, you’re watching your favorite TV show. The show reaches yet another break, and the network presents another commercial that follows an unlikely chain of events. 

A man opens an exorbitant cable bill and becomes, as the omnipresent narrator describes, down. As a result of feeling down, the man shuts his curtains and stays in bed. 

Subsequently, his job is given to an inexperienced colleague who fails to notice a gorilla escape from a pen behind him. 

The commercial cuts to the initial man picking up the paper outside of this house. He opens the paper to read the headlines and then, the escaped gorilla “body slams” him. To prevent being body slammed by a lowland gorilla, the narrator recommends cancelling cable and signing up for DIRECTV.

You laugh at the commercial’s absurdity as it posits the high cost of cable leaves one at risk of a gorilla’s body slam. Although comedic, the commercial fails to convince you to purchase the TV service. 

The commercial is both funny and unconvincing because it presents a logical fallacy: the slippery slope. As the events in the commercial are improbable, the argument is fallacious.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, fallacies are deceptively bad arguments as well as false but popular beliefs. The former is known as the “argument” conception of fallacy, the latter is the “belief” conception of fallacy. 

Fallacies may be used unintentionally — simply wielded through a lack of sound reasoning. They may also be created to intentionally deceive others.

They can be exceptionally common in advertising. Hundreds of fallacies exist, and many are difficult to spot. This article will discuss the top four logical fallacies in advertising. 

4 Logical Fallacies in Advertising

  1. The bandwagon 
  2. The appeal to authority
  3. The false dilemma 
  4. The red herring

1. The Bandwagon Fallacy

The bandwagon fallacy is common in ad campaigns, relying on an appeal to novelty and popular consensus. 

An ad uses the bandwagon fallacy when it asserts it’s claim is correct simply because it’s what most everyone believes.  The ad expects you to buy into its claim because of a sense of consensus and expects you to not consider the reasons for its claim. 

Maybelline, the multinational cosmetics company, engages the bandwagon fallacy in its ad for concealer.

The company claims its product is the premier concealer in the United States, relying on the title to convince viewers to join the bandwagon. 

The asterix, however, leads to an explanation of a study behind the claim, which reveals the ad is fallacious. The ad fails to provide viewers with evidence that the item’s popular for its high quality. Instead, it relies on popularity to sell the concealer.

 2. The Appeal to Authority Fallacy

Another tactic frequently deployed in advertising is appealing to authority, which can be fallacious.

Ads appeal to authority if they support their claims by a form of authority. 

This fallacy is difficult to identify because most forms of this argument aren’t fallacious. In fact, solid arguments arise from the knowledge and support provided by experts on the subjects of many ads.  

Appealing to authority as a reason to believe a claim is a fallacy when: 

  1. The authority isn’t actually an authority on the particular subject matter
  2. The authority is untrustworthy
  3. There is a lack of consensus among authorities on the subject matter
  4. The person’s argument relies on a quote or statement of the authority taken out of context

Ads use the appeal to authority fallacy when viewers have reason to be suspicious of the authority support or claim.

Sprite, for example, makes a fallacious appeal to authority in their commercial with rapper, Drake.

Rapper Drake drinks a Sprite in fallacious ad.

An icon with tens of millions of followers and innumerable accolades, Drake acts as a cultural authority. Sprite relies upon his cultural influence to support the quality of their products. 

The appeal to authority is fallacious in this commercial because Drake is not an authority figure in the world of beverages. Viewers, therefore, have reason to be suspicious of his praise and support of Sprite. 

3. The False Dilemma Fallacy

Another common fallacy in advertising is the false dilemma, which unfairly places viewers between a rock and a hard place.

The false dilemma fallacy occurs when an ad unfairly presents too few choices and then implies that the viewer must choose one of the few options. 

An ad that offers few options, however, is not necessarily fallacious. It is a fallacy if the choices provided are unfair.

In the late 1990s, MasterCard ran a popular ad campaign that received praise in the marketing and advertising world. The slogan, however, used the false dilemma fallacy.

The financial services used the following slogan: “There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else, there is MasterCard.”

"There are some things money can't buy. For everything else, there's MasterCard."

MasterCard used it across marketing assets, including the last frame of commercials with sentimental appeal.

The ad only presents the viewer with only two options: priceless items or experiences and MasterCard. As an unfair set of choices, MasterCard uses the false dilemma fallacy to appeal to viewers. 

4. The Red Herring Fallacy

A red herring is not only a fish but also a fallacy commonly deployed by companies in ads.

An ad uses the red herring fallacy if it uses a digression that leads viewers to not consider relevant information. If an ad presents irrelevant information that distracts viewers from information relevant to the product, it’s using a red herring fallacy. 

Old Spice, for example, engages this fallacious tactic throughout its commercials. 

During one commercial, the narrator asks questions and moves through a series of  settings. 

The narrator directs his questions to women, asking them how they would like their male partners to smell. He relates the scent of old spice to desirable qualities and abilities such as adventurousness and carpentry.  

After beginning the commercial at a beach, he moves to a lake, a kitchen, a waterfall, and then a hot tub. He ultimately lands on a motorcycle and holds a bottle of Old Spice. 

Shirtless sits on motorcycle while holding Old Spice can.

Although entertaining, the questions and changes in the settings distract the viewer. Rather than providing relevant information about the product, the commercial inundated viewers with irrelevant questions and changes in scenery. 

By deploying the red herring fallacy, Old Spice creates a compelling commercial. However, its fallacious nature distracts the viewer from learning helpful information about the product.

Be Aware of Logical Fallacies in Advertising

Fallacious content runs rampant, permeating daily conversations with friends and media across different mediums. Logical fallacies may be commonplace. However, the faulty reasoning isn’t always easy to spot.

The top four logical fallacies in advertising include:

  1. The bandwagon 
  2. The appeal to authority
  3. The false dilemma 
  4. The red herring

Each fallacy presents a unique weakness that reveals the illogical nature of the claim it attempts to support. 

By understanding common logical fallacies in ads, it’s easier to avoid falling for them and make more informed purchasing decisions. 

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