Marketing with Logical Fallacies
A look at some of the logically fallacious statements used to sell many of today's most popular products.
I don't want to shock anyone, but here's a piece of frightful news: Sometimes products are marketed using fallacious logic. That's different from lying about your product; marketing with logical fallacies is a way to make your product sound great by appealing to our natural tendencies to be susceptible to fallacious logic. Tell us something about your product that sounds persuasive — regardless of whether it's actually a real merit or not — and we get all impressed. Today we're going to look at the practice of spotting logical fallacies in the marketing of products, and we might even try doing a little of it ourselves.
Today on Skeptoid I'm going to do something we've never done before: I'm going to give you a homework assignment. Luckily for you, however, you don't actually have to do it. You merely have to listen to me do it for you, right here. First we're going to run down a list of just a few common fallacies popular among marketers, and then we're going to see if we can sell our own product using all of them. Sound like fun? Then let's get started!
The first fallacy we're going to use is:
The Appeal to Nature
Perhaps the most common of all fallacious marketing techniques is the appeal to nature. The claim that a product is "all natural" is fundamental to about half the stuff in the supermarket; and it's the core philosophy behind the organic produce market segment. Claim that a product is somehow even more natural than natural, and you've got customers. Because if it's natural, it has not been tainted by evil humans doing such things as refining, purifying, or otherwise improving it.
In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission actually makes a distinction between products labeled "natural" versus those labeled "all natural" or "100% natural". To them, a product can be labeled "natural" if it contains at least 70% natural or naturally-derived substances. They go on to define that in great detail, but you get the idea, I won't bore you all by repeating it here. However, if your packaging or marketing claims "all natural" or "100% natural", then it must be 100%. As the FTC stated in a 2016 ruling, "We do not have evidence that consumers necessarily interpret 'natural' to mean 'all natural' or no synthetic ingredients."
But hey, just get the word natural on your packaging however you can. Because, apparently to most people, having human knowledge or expertise applied to improving the safety or quality of a product is immoral, corrupt, and poisonous. Let the hemlock, botulism, asbestos, poison sumac, and box jellyfish neurotoxin stay just as nature created them.
The Appeal to Antiquity
This is an oldie (literally) and a goodie. If something was used by the ancients, believed by the ancients, trusted by the ancients, it must automatically be good or true or useful. Who among us has not seen a product being pitched as having come down from ancient Chinese wisdom?
The appeal to antiquity is all about the false notion that if something has survived the test of time, it must therefore be good. It also hearkens back to the equally false idea that long ago, products and ideas had not yet been contaminated by the purported evils of modern Western society. The belief that things long ago were more pure or less corrupt will always be a popular and compelling driver of consumer behavior.
It need not even come down from the ancients. Something from Grandma can be just as effective. Folk wisdom is so widely trusted simply because it's old.
The Chemical Fallacy
The number of times you've seen "chemical free" listed on product packaging should be evidence enough for you how common this ploy is. Of course, nothing is chemical free, as everything is made of chemicals — even water and air — but it's such an effective scare word that people are terrified of the very building blocks of matter and actively seek out products claiming to contain none of it.
The fallacy part comes in just by association with the word chemical itself. There is nothing at all bad or unexpected about chemicals, but since the majority of people have a very poor level of basic science literacy, they don't know that; and many assume that anything containing chemicals must be inherently poisonous.
So that's one super effective way to market your product with a fallacy: Assert that it's chemical free.
An anecdote — for the uninitiated — is similar to evidence, except that it can't be tested or directly studied. If you tell me you saw Bigfoot out on the south ridge, that's great, but I can't take that report and put it under the microscope or test its DNA. It's an anecdote. When it comes to marketing products, anecdotes have long been one of the industry staples. One of the most familiar is a celebrity endorsement.
Taylor Swift endorses Diet Coke, among other products. Does that mean it's measurably better than any other diet soda? No; but then we note that hey, Taylor Swift owns the universe of pop music, so she's probably no dummy, and it's not like she needs the money, so Diet Coke is probably pretty good. There is nothing about her endorsement that we can test empirically to see if the product is actually better, so it's an anecdote. A compelling one to many, if we judge by the economists who work for Coca-Cola. They pay her for the endorsement because it works.
Endorsements don't even need to be from celebrities. In fact, many potential customers identify more with people like themselves. Thus it's equally common that we read product endorsements from everyday customers who say the product worked great for them.
Intellectually, we know these are typically fake (made up by an ad agency) or paid or both. Emotionally, they still connect with us. Anecdotes are compelling; and even as skeptics, we need to recognize and admit that, if we are to effectively inoculate ourselves against them.
Proof by Victimization
A very special type of personal anecdote is one that comes from a presumptive victim. A person who lost a loved one, or who suffered health consequences, or had some other heartstring-pulling horror story associated with not using your product. When a person presents as a victim, particularly when the impacts they suffered were profound, we tend to listen very carefully and give their words much more weight than we normally might.
Think of the anti-smoking television commercial that actor Yul Brynner recorded just before his death from lung cancer, and that aired a few days afterward. Think how much more effective that was than if a young, healthy Yul Brynner had said the same thing without having any lung cancer himself. Logically there shouldn't be any difference; but because one version is given by a victim and the other is not, the victim version is far more impactful.
There is ample scientific evidence connecting Yul Brynner's death with his smoking habit, but the technique is frequently applied to just as much effect when the victimization is completely false. It still grips the viewer's attention. A person could record a commercial from their deathbed in the intensive care unit claiming their death was from a lifetime of eating genetically engineered crops, and viewers would be shocked and horrified. This is used to great effect in class action lawsuits in courtrooms all around the world.
The Red Herring
A red herring is a piece of irrelevant information. It has nothing really to do with the product or claim, but it causes a useful distraction. In marketing, red herrings are usually things you say about your product that are probably true of all similar products, like "contains no plutonium." But just by saying that, you cause people to infer that competing products must actually have plutonium in them; and they get all alarmed and demand only your specific plutonium-free brand.
You may have seen GMO-free salt for sale in some stores that cater to fans of the organic trend. Salt is an inorganic mineral; it has no genes that can be modified, so of course all salt is GMO-free. Declaring it to be so is a red herring. But few people have a meaningful understanding of genetic engineering or even the meaning of the organic marketing label, so it's a successful ploy.
So those are six good fallacies, six intellectually offensive yet effective ways to sell a product. That means it's now time to actually do our homework project, and use these techniques to sell our very own product. I'm betting we can use all six of them. What do you think? Let's get started and see.
Selling Our Product
You may be wondering what product we're going to sell. Well, you're listening to it! We're going to pitch the Skeptoid podcast to the world, using only fallacious marketing! And we're going to do it all in a single sentence.
First, the Appeal to Nature. Skeptoid is an electronic product with no physical version, therefore we can say that it consists purely of natural elements like electrons.
Second, the Appeal to Antiquity. I could go two ways with this: I could say that those electrons are all as old as the universe itself, but I think instead I'll talk about the show's content and say that many of the urban legends and historical beliefs we talk about are very old, some thousands of years.
The Chemical Fallacy might seem like a tough one, given that there is no physical product. But hey, that dovetails perfectly with people's chemophobia. Skeptoid is delivered without any chemical contaminants.
Fourth, Anecdotal Evidence. Skeptoid's testimonials page overfloweth with anecdotes about how awesome it is. But there's no need to give real anecdotes in marketing; we can just make one up. I'm going to say that it is objectively the #1 podcast in the world, which doesn't mean anything because it's completely undefined.
Fifth, Proof by Victimization. This presents endless opportunities, because belief in the various pseudosciences Skeptoid debunks has caused tremendous victimization and suffering in the world. I'm going to go with a puppy, because we've certainly covered a number of dog-related shows on Skeptoid. We'll show a picture of a terribly mistreated puppy, and use that imply that this is what Skeptoid fights against.
Finally the Red Herring. Here we just make up any random thing, and say that Skeptoid doesn't do it, even though it's probably something that no podcasts do. What should this be? I might have just the thing.
So putting those all together, here is my take on the new marketing promo for Skeptoid. Keep in mind that the Proof by Victimization angle is covered by the episode's cover art, which is that tormented puppy:
Boom. Now if that doesn't take us to the top of the iTunes charts, I don't know what will.
My hope and prayer in bringing you this episode is that you will now be even better inoculated against such marketing techniques when you see any of them in use. I don't think they'll ever go away, so we — as skeptics — have to do our part to keep our swords bright, and our skills sharp.
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