Advertisements and Logical Fallacies Part 1

Lately I've been thinking about logical fallacies used in advertising and marketing. The argument from authority when someone in a lab coat tells you what to buy, argumentum ad populum which is "appeal to the people" because everyone else is buying this product so you should too.

One of my pet peeves is multigrain labels emblazoned on foods lately. Technically the food has more than one grain in it, but they are touting the product as something healthy when they have still stripped all fiber and goodness out, so the health benefits are still lacking. This is very popular in cereals, and unless you read the label you'd think you were buying something healthy, when really it's just as junky as cocoa puffs.

The "no sugar added" label is another one I find quite vague. There are several different iterations of this one. No sugar added, sugar free, the list goes on. What do they all mean? Again, you have to carefully read the nutrition facts and ingredients to get a better picture of what you'll be buying.

I guess it's basically the idea that advertisers must follow the letter of the law but not the spirit of it. So for something like Airborne (which I've ranted about before), they can make vague claims that basically say nothing to skirt the issue that there is no science behind their product. Then, to make it worse, they strategically make sure it's placed near the pharmacy to appeal to authority. I think in some places they have signs saying that pharmacists recommend Airborne. But really, to make that claim you only have to pay two pharmacists to say what you want to be truthful.

I find it all incredibly frustrating and discouraging. And the only solution is to be aggressively proactive about shopping and watching ads or commercials. Be skeptical!

This is part one of tackling this topic for three reasons.

  • One, I don't think we can do it justice in one post.

  • Two, I really want your feedback. What are your pet peeves in advertising? What examples stand out for you? What logical fallacies do you see in advertising and marketing?

  • And three, I just got the new parts for my computer and have to build my newer, better, faster computer today (with the help of my geek friend, Gary. Thanks Gary!). :P This is my birthday present from my sweetie. Thanks, my love! :D

Ok, I'm off to go fiddle with my new computer parts. Hopefully it all goes well. I look forward to hearing from you about fallacies in advertising! :)


  1. Lobbying ads. Can't stand those things.

    "Wow, we shouldn't be taxing Industry X because they're just going to pass along the costs to me. And that hurts everyone in this recession. Paid for by Industry X."

    Okay, first off...who the hell is this "random concerned citizen" and why on Earth should I find them to be a reputable source for anything? Do people not see that when the health care industry puts out an ad about how bad health care reform is they have their own interests in mind and that "concerned citizen" actors are easy to come by?

    Also, any weight loss ads in which not only did this magical diet managed to make them super cut and also tan with whitened teeth. What fantastic results one gets from popping a simple pill!

  2. In Denmarks food additives are forbidden unless they are actually required. Being required means that there has to be an actual problem with a lack of iron/vitamin A/etc. Even if adding those things might be healthy, it doesn't mean it should be added. This way companies can't confuse the consumer by putting all kinds of needless additives in there that really do nothing but try to make it seem like something is healthier because it has more additives. Besides, like you said, if you stick a few "healthy" additives in something that's fundamentally unhealthy (be it because it doesn't have fibers, because it has too much sugar, or any other reason) then you may very well feed the obesity epidemic because people might think they're eating something healthy when they're not!

  3. If you have to read the ingredients, it's probably bad for you. If it's advertised, it's probably bad for you. Real food does not list ingredients or require advertisement (orange juice from concentrate is not real food--I'll leave cooked cow milk alone for now).

  4. Thanks JT. Yes, lobbying ads are pretty seedy.
    And yes, the weight loss ads are amazing, aren't they? Don't forget they sometimes get a new hair style as well. Those little pills are magical!

  5. Thanks Frans, that's interesting about Denmark.
    Yes, I am sure people buy things from what the front of the box says without ever really thinking about what it might mean or if it really is a good thing or not. To me that is so evil to mislead people like that. It really is imperative that we read labels and understand what terms mean, since companies are allowed to basically lie to people with how they word things.

  6. That seems a bit oversimplified, Stringman. I understand where you're coming from, but I can think of things that might not have complicated labels but probably aren't good for you, or things that have a lot of ingredients that aren't bad for you.

  7. My statement was intentionally oversimplified, Neece. I believe that skepticism toward all processed food and food advertisement is healthy. It took a long time for our bodies to adapt to certain naturally occurring foods. Our attempts to imitate them do not appear to have served us well.

  8. I see what you mean. I wasn't thinking of just processed food, which I would agree is hardly ever nutritious or healthy. Yes, I think simple and more natural is definitely better, not that it's always an affordable option. But I was thinking of something like bread, which in moderation, with good ingredients, is a good food to eat. It has a list of ingredients. But there is a huge difference between a healthy whole grain bread with simple ingredients and plenty of fiber, and wonder bread, for instance. :P

  9. One of my pet peeves in food labeling is when something is promoted as "97% fat free". 3% fat is still a lot of fat.

  10. I beg to differ, especially depending upon what you are referring to. Here, I have a thing of oatmeal, it is 16.6% fat by calories (7.5% by weight). Fat is essential and present in a lot of things in far large quantities than you know. And that's alright, for the most part.

    However, you should be complaining about the uselessness of such a statement. 97% fat free? I don't buy 98% fat free milk, I buy 2% milk. 97% fat free doesn't mean the product has 97% less fat, it means it has 3% fat. Furthermore, such claims are often made by weight, when they should really be made by calories. You should be more peeved that they are lying to you in the first place.

  11. Some fats are good for you. A fat free diet would be very unhealthy. It's a very misleading number. The type and amount would be more helpful, like 2 grams of canola oil. That's actually good for you.

  12. Yes, fat is essential! One thing that is really misleading is the percentage of fat in milk. I am not sure how much fat is in whole milk, I think it's 4%. So reducing the percentage of fat to 2% is almost insignificant.