10 fallacies in advertising: definitions and examples

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 10 July 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

An effective advertisement increases the visibility of a business and promotes the interest of the customers and clients they target. They serve to persuade viewers that the given brand is superior to similar goods or services offered in the same industry. Marketing strategies employ logical fallacies to promote the brand they represent, and understanding these common fallacies used in marketing may help consumers make informed decisions about their purchases. In this article, we discuss common fallacies in advertising, define their intended purposes and provide examples of how advertising uses each logical fallacy.

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What are fallacies in advertising?

A fallacy is a flaw used in logical argumentation, but fallacies in advertising are techniques that evoke a particular emotional response from viewers. Marketing professionals utilise advertising fallacies to persuade potential customers to purchase their brand or product. While claims they make may not be entirely untrue, they may contain logical distortions, inaccuracies or contradictions. Some fallacies may be more subtle than others, and they can be powerful persuasive devices when effectively applied in marketing.

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10 advertising fallacies

Using logical fallacies in advertising is an easy means to quickly connect with the intended audience. Advertisements do not require definitive logic to state how their product or service offers value, so long as they can appeal to potential customers. Fallacies can instil positive feelings in the viewer and in doing so can change the perception of a product, service, organisation or even a competitor. These tips and tricks can offer all of this quickly and discretely to the eyes of an untrained audience. Examine these common fallacies in advertising to better understand how they work in marketing:

1. Ad hominem

An ad hominem argument attempts to discredit a competitor directly as opposed to the quality of the goods or service they offer. The Latin phrase 'ad hominem' translates to 'against the person', meaning that a person is in some way unworthy or lacking in authority to make valid claims. Advertisers use this logical fallacy in marketing to invalidate a business or brand, and by extension, infer that their goods or services are unreliable or untrustworthy.

Example: A local business makes the claim that because their competitor is a large chain, they do not care about the individuals who patronise the establishment. Even if the chain uses the same distributor as the local business, the claim makes the larger organisation seem uncaring and distant. The marketing ad hominem argument ultimately suggests that products will be unoriginal and customer service will be dispassionate, without saying anything about the goods or services directly.

2. Appeal to emotion

An appeal-to-emotion argument seeks to elicit a particular feeling in the viewer and bypass any logical resistance the viewer has to the advertiser's offer. Marketers typically use this strategy to relate to viewers. Hard data, such as reports and charts, can bore an audience, but a story that evokes emotion engages potential customers. Here are some of the most common feelings advertisements may attempt to elicit:

  • anger

  • fear

  • grief

  • affection

  • contentment

  • excitement

  • pity

  • pride

  • sympathy

Example: An organisation wants to advertise its new security system. The marketing team creates a commercial that attempts to illicit emotions associated with safety and comfort with their services, insinuating that feeling secure is priceless.

3. False dilemma

A false dilemma inaccurately limits the number of choices available to a customer, often insinuating that the potential customer won't find a better offer anywhere else. Advertisers may present a false dilemma as an 'either-or' statement to restrict the viewer's options as much as possible. This argument allows them to explain why their product or service is better than a single hypothetical option.

Example: A company selling cleaning products displays how their product cleans better than a single generic option to insinuate that the viewer can only choose between their cleaner or an inferior one.

Related: 8 different types of advertising (digital and traditional)

4. Appeal to popularity

An appeal to popularity claims that a statement must be true if the majority of people agree with it. Also known as 'argumentum ad populum', this translates to 'argument of the people'. In advertising, this appeal suggests that because most people believe something is true, the customer should also believe it to be true. The reverse of this fallacy argues that an individual should avoid an action taken by the majority of people as it results in a loss of originality.

Example: An advertiser for a distillery creates a commercial that begins with a gathering of bored and tired people, but it becomes lively and exciting when someone brings the distillery's brand of alcohol. A fun party ensues, showing how all the people there love the brand of liquor, which means that you would love it too. The reversal of the fallacy might show one individual leaving the 'boring' setting to enjoy that brand of liquor by themselves, showing that the brand is unique and fun.

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5. Scare tactic

A scare tactic evokes fear to compel the viewers to act, offering a specific product or service as a safeguard against the fear. It is a logical fallacy because it assumes that there is a danger or risk to the customer with no evidence that danger legitimately exists. This tactic may outline threats to the viewer's safety or security and then show how a brand can protect against the hypothetical threat.

Example: An insurance company shows footage of a natural disaster or the fallout of that disaster and its effects on the people who lived through it. This suggests that a similar disaster could happen to anyone, and their insurance could help survivors of natural disasters recover faster from the damage to their property.

6. False cause

A false cause fallacy suggests that correlation equates to causation. Two events that happen simultaneously are not necessarily related to one another, but the false cause seeks to imply that they are. Advertisers may use this fallacy to argue that their product creates a positive outcome for a customer when it's actually the situation or context in which the customer uses the product that creates the positive outcome.

Example: A wellness company states that using their essential oil blends in your bath reduces stress and increases wellness. While some may find those essential oils to be soothing, the atmosphere associated with taking a bath is often considered relaxing by itself. The oils may not inherently cause stress reduction and increased wellness, even if the situation evokes those emotions while using the oils.

7. Hasty generalisation

A hasty generalisation is a logical fallacy resulting from an insufficient amount of evidence or data. It may follow an individual's confirmation bias, wherein they refuse to consider counterarguments or evidence that does not support their claim. This fallacy may present itself in marketing as a superficial example and a definitive claim.

Example: A beauty magazine features a picture of a model's clear and smooth face next to a product that claims to correct skin blemishes.

8. Red herring

A red herring fallacy presents an irrelevant piece of information that distracts the viewer from the key point of an issue. A marketing campaign may use this fallacy to highlight a part of their business that has nothing to do with the product or service they offer. They may use it against a competitor by highlighting a negative aspect of their business that does not hinder their ability to serve their customers.

Example: A restaurant shows pictures of their recent renovations of the outside of their building. While it may look more appealing from the outside, these renovations will not change the quality of food or the dining experience.

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9. Appeal to tradition

An appeal to tradition focuses on the assumption that because something was true in the past, it also applies to the present. In advertising, this fallacy targets the viewer's sense of nostalgia and tradition. It prompts the audience to consider how familiar the product or service is or to continue what past generations have done.

Example: A business prominently displays the year of their organisation's establishment and uses a slogan similar to 'tried and true'. This can suggest that their business must be of higher quality if they have been open for so long.

10. Slippery slope

A slippery slope fallacy argues that if the outcome of a sequence of events is bad or negative, the original event and idea for its inception was also bad. Marketing strategies may use this fallacy to invalidate a competitor's event or product. They may also use it as part of a scare tactic to convince a customer that their product or service may prevent an ominous slippery slope.

Example: A commercial for a device that helps correct someone's posture portrays a sequence of adverse events. It begins with a woman rubbing her sore neck that resulted from her poor posture, and by rubbing her neck, she accidentally spills a glass of juice on the floor. Then, before she can clean up the spill, her daughter runs through the puddle, slips and falls. Although it's highly unlikely that the customer may experience this exact sequence of events, the advertisement promotes its product to prevent the woman's sore neck and the subsequent events.

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