A logical fallacy is “a mistake in reasoning that renders an argument invalid, unsound, weak, or ineffective.”1 In philosophy courses, students are often taught a whole list of fallacies and how to avoid them. However, fallacies are extremely common in pop-culture—news media, commercials, TV shows, movies, and political debates. Below are some common examples.
Ad Hominem – Time Warner Cable
The Ad hominem is “a fallacy in which an argument attacks a person rather than supporting or disproving a conclusion.”2 The man in this commercial begins by saying that DirecTV hates puppies. This has nothing to do with whether or not DirecTV is a good product. It’s just a cheap attack on DirecTV. Of course, it is meant to be humorous, but it illustrates the point. For more examples, we need only watch political debates. Ad hominem is the favorite fallacy of those who have run out of good arguments.
Scare Tactic – DirecTV
A scare tactic is “a fallacy in which an argument’s strength is built on the fear of negative consequences for not agreeing with its conclusion.”3 In this commercial we are warned of all the negative consequences we will reap if we don’t get DirecTV. While waiting for the cable guy, a series of escalating bad consequences happen. Eventually, due to his failure to have DirecTV, the man ends up faking his own death and attending his own funeral. If only he had gotten rid of Cable!
Straw Man – Mac vs. PC
Not long ago, Apple ran a series of commercials comparing Apple products to PCs. The commercials always feature two people. The Mac is a young man dressed in modern clothing. The PC is a middle aged man in a suit. The commercials are funny, but they use a lot of straw man arguments to show that Mac is better than PC. A straw man is “a fallacy in which an argument is misrepresented in a way that makes it easier to refute.”4 In this particular commercial, all the PCs are going off to IT because they are getting error messages. The commercial implies that this never happens with Mac. If you get a PC, you will have errors—not to mention you’ll be old fashioned; if you get a Mac, you’ll be cool and you won’t have to deal with errors.
Red Herring – The Cheshire Cat
A red herring is “a fallacy in which an irrelevant issue is raised in an argument in order to avoid the issue at hand.”5 In this scene from the classic Disney movie, Alice is lost in Wonderland searching for the White Rabbit. As she attempts to find him, she is given directions by the Cheshire Cat. The cat continues to introduce irrelevant issues into the discussion, at one point asking “Can you stand on your head?” Though this isn’t technically an argument, you can see the point. The cat continually distracts Alice from the question at hand.
Perhaps a better example would be this political rally clip.
When Donald Trump is asked about whether or not he will visit with the Pope, he makes fun of the Pope for believing in global warming instead of answering the question. This has nothing to do with the issue at hand, it simply distracts from the question and wastes time. Trump then moves on without ever answering the question.
Inappropriate Appeal to Authority – Sony
An inappropriate appeal to authority is “a fallacy in which an argument is built upon the testimony of an individual who is not an authority on the subject at hand.”6 In this commercial for Sony cameras, Peyton Manning and Justin Timberlake are brought in as witnesses to show that Sony is the best. They ought to know, since people are constantly trying to take pictures of them. However, they are not real authorities on the subject. In order to be considered an authority, they should at least have had a fair amount of the experience using the cameras. Getting your picture taken doesn’t make you an authority. Having celebrities market products is a common form of this fallacy. If Justin Timberlake says so, it must be true!
False Dilemma – According to Jim
A false dilemma is “a fallacy in which a problem is presented as having only two solutions when there is at least one other possibility.”7 In this scene, Jim’s daughter presents him with a classic false dilemma. Since her parents taught her right from wrong, Jim should either trust her to do the right thing or he is a bad parent. In reality, there are other options on the table.
False Cause – Snickers
A false cause is “a fallacy in which a cause-and-effect connection is assumed without sufficient evidence for that connection.”8 In this commercial, the coach starts behaving in nonsensical ways. The reason, we are told, is that he is hungry. The solution is for him to eat a Snickers. People may get a little loopy when they’re hungry, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Snickers is the cure.
Slippery Slope – Taco Bell
A slippery slope is “a fallacy in which a claim is made with insufficient evidence that if a certain action is taken, it would eventually lead to dire consequences.”9 In this Taco Bell commercial, two elderly men reel in shock at the idea of a waffle taco. This, they say, will first lead to loitering, then growing a ponytail. But there is really no evidence that these things have any connection. The slippery slope is often used in connection with the phrase “one thing leads to another.”
Weak Analogy – Lawrence Krauss “Big Think”
A weak analogy is “a fallacy in which a comparison is made between things that aren’t comparable in relevant respects.”10 In this interview, Krauss argues that teaching someone that the earth is six thousand years old is equivalent to teaching them that the distance across the United States is seventeen feet. Krauss says this to make the point that teaching creation is ridiculous. But his analogy doesn’t work. Anyone can walk seventeen feet and prove that they have not traversed the entire United States. But dating the earth is not an exact science; no one can go back in time to see exactly how old the earth is. Krauss is overzealous to prove his point and so uses a weak analogy.
This Article Corresponds To:
- Understanding the Culture, chapter 5.3: “Why We Should Argue, and Argue Well”
- Understanding the Culture curriculum, unit 5, pp. 111–114
Possible Discussion Starters:
- Why is it important to pay attention to the way advertisers convince you to buy their products?
- What other bad arguments are common on television?
- “Critical Thinking” – Summit Staff
- “An Overview of Exegetical Fallacies” – Jerry Wierwille
- “Critical Thinking” – newDemocracy Foundation
- A Rulebook for Arguments – Anthony Weston
- Jeff Myers, Understanding the Culture: A Survey of Social Engagement (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2017), 126.
- Ibid, 127.
- Ibid, 128.
- Ibid, 129.
- Ibid, 130.