Thursday, January 22, 2009

Fallacy ID

Fallacy ID
by Jadell Forman

During our elementary and middle school years, my brother and I had a ritual. After school, we sat on the couch in the den and watched cartoons. Most of the time, we were quiet viewers of Scooby Doo or Tom and Jerry.

That changed when my brother became an advertisement watchdog.

He began barking criticism when the toothpaste commercial told us that dentists prefer one brand over another. "How many dentists?!" he might demand of the voiceover dude, and then say to me. "See, they don't tell you how many. Maybe it's just two dentists who got paid to say that." And then a car commercial would come on and tell us about gas mileage, and he'd find something wrong in the sales pitch. He toasted the cereal companies for insinuating that if we ate their cereal we'd turn into Olympic athletes.

I presume he learned to recognize fallacies from his teachers. I learned it from him. By his example, I began not merely watching ads but evaluating the messages presented to me, often noting faulty logic in persuasive messages.

These days advertising is big business. In his new book, Branding Faith (2008), Phil Cooke reveals how advertisers target us: by mimicking religion.

There's a new school of thought within the branding and marketing community that has connected successful branding with religious belief. The sense of belonging, the feeling of community, the collective rituals, the shared belief system all point to branding becoming a type of religious experience. (p. 65)

Sense of belonging, feeling of community, shared belief system. As Christians, we have that as a true gift through Christ. However, this powerful gift can be — and is — counterfeited as a marketing tool.

Often that counterfeit rests upon an overemotional and underlogical thinking, especially since we want to feel that we belong. There's nothing wrong with wanting to belong; God gave us the gift of Christian community. Nor is there anything wrong with emotions; God calls us to love him with our whole heart.

There is something wrong with imbalance, though, as God calls us to also worship him with the entirety of our mind.

Whether selling a product or a message, marketers who rely heavily upon emotions can control the thoughts of people who rely heavily on emotions. Likewise, they can play upon our God-given desire for community if we're not grounded within the real deal. For those who, in an effort to be more balanced, want to brush up on their analytical thinking skills, below you'll find information for identifying emotion-based fallacies.

Emotional Appeals

Emotion within a message is inappropriate when it's an imbalanced appeal to pity, fear, majority, authority and tradition.

Inappropriate Appeal to Pity. Being moved with compassion is Christ-like. However, if we feel sorry to the point of disregarding rational thought, we might do more harm than good.

This puppy needs a home. You should buy him.

Inappropriate Appeal to Fear. Sometimes concern is legitimate; many times fear is overemphasized to an irrational and degree. That fear can betray lack of faith.

If you don't ask your doctor about this medication, you'll die.

If you don't wear this brand of clothes, you're friends will reject you.

Inappropriate Appeal of Majority. If a majority of people believe something, does that make it an absolute truth?

The majority of people in our poll believed X; therefore, X is right.

The majority of people buy this kind of phone; therefore this is the better phone.

Inappropriate Appeal to Authority. Sometimes promoters associate their cause with respected people (with or without their consent) in order to sway you to join the cause.

Mother Teresa believed X; therefore, so should you.

Cute movie star believes Y; therefore, so should you.

Inappropriate Appeal to Tradition. Sure, some things don't change. God is the same yesterday, today and forever. But many things don't fall into the same category as God.

We've always done it this way. That's why we shouldn't change now.

"Feel Good" Appeals

When arguers substitute back pats for logic, beware.

Inappropriate Appeal to Flattery. A salesman or speaker might compliment you for the sake of weakening your logic.

You're a brilliant group of people who will surely recognize the logic of my words.

You're a confident person who knows what you want. Here's the car you want.

Inappropriate Snob Appeal. Another way to weaken your thinking skills is to get you to think that you're better than others who don't think the way the persuader is going to tell you to think.

Because you and I are enlightened, we see things the same way ... you'll see things my way.

Why do I buy this product? Because I'm worth it.

Inappropriate Appeal to "Plain Folks." A persuader presents herself as being like you in an effort to get you to think like her.

Like you, I'm just a regular Christian trying to figure out this stuff. Let me save you some time and tell you how to think and what to believe.

Inappropriate Appeal to Humor. A joke is OK when it's more than simply a trick to get you to relax and be spoon fed a message.

Have you heard the one about the scientist and the theologian?

Compelling Mannerisms

The inappropriate use of compelling mannerisms isn't used as often in advertising as it is in religion. For his part, Cooke markets ministries. In Branding Faith, he writes that "people ultimately want a relationship with a person — not a program ..." (p. 95). Accordingly, his company fosters a kind of relationship between ministers and their audience. That's fine to an extent. But it's detrimental if we desire intimacy with a stranger at the expense of real relationships with people in our families and faith communities.

Like music, marketing is a tool that some ministries choose to use and some choose to not use. Arguments can be made for each position. Either way, ministers will be held accountable for proper use of the tools. On the receiving end, each person considering the message will be held accountable, not for what is said to them, but for how they interpret what is said to them.

Bombast. Car salesman, pledge-a-thon hosts, and some preachers shout. Will you acquiesce your logic to their bombastic message?

I don't have much if any logic to make my claim. So, I'm going to attempt to intimidate you into believing what I say. (Shouting:) Everyone of you should believe me!

Anger. When anger arises within a sales pitch or a religious message, it might be a fallacy.

(Shouting and red in the face with anger) How dare you believe anything but what I'm telling you!

Assurance. If a speaker appears to be totally confident in what she says, does that necessarily mean her words are logical? Of course not.

I'm sure on this point. You can trust me. You should believe me because I'm so sure and nodding my head.

Sincerity. Many of the preachers we hear are sincere. Unfortunately, some are sincerely wrong, teaching principles that aren't biblical yet expecting us to accept their message based on their sincerity.

Do you see my tears? Because I'm sincere enough to be crying about my message, you should believe what I'm saying.

Those are some examples of fallacies that are based upon our God-given emotions and desire for community. In Acts, we find a constructive example of how to balance our emotions and logic within community when considering what we hear. "Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true" (Acts 17:11).

So, in addition to becoming watchdogs, we'd do well to become Bereans.


Copyright 2009 Jadell Forman. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
Jadell Forman is a Communications staff writer at Oral Roberts University.

The complete text of this article is available at

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