Taking ADvantage
Words: Further Advertising Tricks of the Trade
Part Two of a Two Part Series


Richard F. Taflinger

This page has been accessed since 29 May 1996.

This is Part Two of a discussion of the power of words and how they are used in advertising. If you have not read Part One, I suggest doing so first.

Got to Part One

Argumentum ad Hominem

This is latin for "argument to the person." In this type of argument you focus on the person or the person's personal life rather than on whatever issues are involved. It's particularly popular in political campaigning in which a person's war recor d, age, religion, hometown or state, or family (or lack thereof) is made the center of the argument rather than the person's stand or ideas about any issue.

It is evading rather than discussing the real issues that might make a difference to the people to whom the issues are important. Stating that "I was born on a farm" has nothing to do with a person's ideas about what to do about farms or trade or anything else. It simply says "I was born on a farm" ("what have you done and where have you lived since?" is a question that could be legitimately asked).

Ad hominem arguments are clearly evasive. However, it should always be borne in mind that some personal information is clearly of importance. Drug addiction, insanity, a criminal record that are or can be directly related to issues are of importance. What needs to be evaluated is the degree to which such personal facets are of importance; if they don't matter, they don't matter.

If they don't matter, when they are brought up they are fallacious.

Argumentum ad Populum

"Argument to the people." This is an appeal to emotion and/or prejudice to convince people to accept what you say, and is particularly popular in political speeches. Basically, it is telling people how wonderful they are and how what they think (no matter what they think) is right and proper, and anyone who thinks otherwise is an idiot and a fool. Since most people prefer to be considered right and proper, rather than an idiot and a fool, they will agree with those who tell them they are right and proper.

Naturally, nobody is right about everything all the time. But if a political candidate tells a crowd, "You people have been telling Washington to stop [whatever], and they don't listen. Yet you know, as I know, that you have a true view of the world; those [left-wing; right-wing; liberal; conservative; pinko; wishy washy; any adjective of your choice] politicians haven't listened to us. When we speak, they should listen!" Note what happens in the above: 1) the people in the crowd are right; 2) t he politician making the speech has included himself in their number; 3) those who disagree are negatively labeled; and 4) there is no evidence given whatsoever -- what the "people" say is right, no matter what they say.

A popular use is in advertising that uses the slogan "Made in America". This is an appeal to the patriotism of Americans (the "people") in an attempt to show that if a product is made anywhere else, it must be inferior. There is no proof given that the product is any better or worse than one made in another country -- only that you should buy it because it was "made in America". Logically, the slogan is saying that it doesn't matter about quality, construction, price or anything else that most people consider important when making a purchase decision -- ignore all those factors and buy only because of origin.

Argumentum ad populum can be dangerous. It can be used to get crowds to lynch blacks, beat up homosexuals, or persecute Jews. As a matter of fact, it was -- Hitler used the argumentum ad populum in building up the attitude in the Germans of the 193 0s that they were the master race and that blacks, homosexuals, Jews, and handicapped people were inferior and should not be allowed to live because they were not like the master race (there goes 14,000,000 people in the death camps).

Argumentum ad Vercundium

The argumentum ad vercundium is an appeal to tradition or authority in support of some contention. "If it was good enough for grandpa, it's good enough for me" is a capsule example of the argument. "As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be" is another.

Once again, no proof is given that the contention is correct, fits the evidence, applies in the situation or under the conditions. Politicians often evoke the spirit of Lincoln, FDR, John F. Kennedy, or even George Washington to support what they say. (In fact, the mentioning of Lincoln, in any connection, at a Republican convention will get cheers and applause; John F. Kennedy does the same with the democrats.) It makes absolutely no difference that Lincoln or Kennedy has no connection with and probably never said anything about what is being discussed; what is important is that they are demigods to listeners.

Let us take a major example. American separatists were fond of quoting George Washington and his advice, "avoid entangling alliances." Wonderful idea. Necessary for a weakling, virtually ignored country like the United States of 1790. Totally practicable -- in 1790. In today's world of the global village, with SSTs, 18 minutes from launch to New York City a radioactive hole, English a global language, and international marketing, financial markets and banking, absolutely impossible. Nonetheless , the authority of George Washington is enough to get people to agree with the idea of separation from the rest of the world.

Advertising often uses the argumentum ad vercundium. Advertising often uses famous actors, sports figures, and even politicians to endorse products and services. They are presented as authorities on the products as though they are experts. In fact they usually have no expertise, knowledge, or even regard for the quality or appropriate use of the product for the consumer -- they simply say they use it. That is enough.

False Cause and Effect

Since I used latin before, I'll use it here: post hoc, ergo propter hoc ("after this, therefore because of this")(go ahead and impress your friends).

Once again, it is a case of using jingoism to replace thinking. "Why did it have to rain today?" "Because you washed your car." There is no examination of inversion layers, isobars, air convection, or humidity -- there is washing a car. This is false cause and effect -- something occurs, and then something else happens; one must cause the other.

Let's look at some examples of using false cause and effect. "Permissive child rearing cause juvenile delinquency" (as a side note for the student to examine, there is no such thing as juvenile delinquency -- I suggest starting with a definition of the terms). Permissive child rearing may indeed cause juvenile delinquency: so might lack of jobs and education, drugs and the easy money it can generate, peer pressure, boredom, and mean spiritedness. Any, all, or a combination of the above can be the cause. Saying only one is false cause and effect.

"Pornography causes sex crimes" is another example. There is no proof that such is the case (in fact, some studies have shown that pornography reduces sex crimes through sublimation of the other factors that may cause them). Such a statement is based on the idea that sex crimes have increased since the loosening of legal restrictions on certain types of pornography. It ignores factors such as increased awareness of sex crimes, increased reporting of sex crimes, increased definitions of sex crimes, changes in gender mix in the work place, the economy, the family, fashion, and interpersonal relationships.

Political campaigns use false cause and effect as a given: "Unemployment (taxes, war, debt, disaffection, etc.) were all up during my opponent's administration." "Employment (less taxes, fewer wars, lower debt, satisfaction, etc.) were up during my administration." Again, other factors, most totally out of the control of either administration, are ignored.

A prime example comes from the anti-nuclear faction. After a period of nuclear tests there was a period of severe weather. Anti-nuclear forces said that the tests caused the severe weather. Meteorologists protested that the weather was a result of a change in the Gulf Stream, one they had predicted long before, and had nothing to do with the testing. It is much like two Neanderthals standing in the mouth of a cave looking at a downfall of rain and having one say, "We never had this kind of weather before they started making bows and arrows." This is not cause and effect -- it is post hoc, ergo propter hoc.

Appeal to Ignorance (argumentum ad ignorantiam)

The appeal to ignorance is basing an argument on the idea that a claim or theory must be correct because no one can prove that the claim or theory is wrong. Note that last word; the argument does not attempt to prove the claim is right, but that it must be because it can't be proven wrong.

Often this argument uses a false or at least unprovable cause-and-effect relationship and defies a challenger to show that the relationship is impossible.

For example, there are companies that claim that wearing copper bracelets will bring about an improvement in those people who suffer from arthritis, and dare medical researchers to prove they don't. The researchers constantly state that such an effect cannot be supported by any medical or scientific evidence, but the promoters of the bracelets say since nobody has proved they don't work, and they have a right to say they do.

An appeal to ignorance is the basis of religious arguments in which believers say there must be a god because nobody can prove there isn't, and nonbelievers say there isn't a god because nobody can prove there is. Both arguments must be considered spurious since they are based on defying the definition of religion, a belief or lack thereof in something that cannot be proven (if belief is not necessary, it is not a religion).

Special Pleading

Special pleading is the giving of only one side of an argument as though it contained all of the evidence. This is not to say that the points made are not true, or at least supported with reasonable evidence. The fault lies in that the position is so biased in one direction or another that it simply cannot be considered valid.

Special pleading is particularly popular in supporting or attacking institutions or systems that are based on opinion rather than demonstrable fact. These include political systems and religions.

For example, there have been many attacks on Christianity, based on Biblical evidence such as Lot offering his virgin daughters to the mob if they would leave him alone (Gen. 19), God sending two bears to tear apart 42 children because they made fun of Elijah's bald head (2 Kings 2), or actions carried out "in the name of Christ" such as the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the destruction of the Amerindian civilizations. Arguments using this type of evidence are quite convincing, and also quite biased in that they ignore evidence on the other side. For example, the caring for people, the fact that the Church maintained and protected, and eventually promulgated the literature, philosophy and science of Rome, Greece and Asia during and after the Dark Ages, that it was one of the driving forces that led to the Western World's Era of Exploration.

Thus any argument that focuses only on the defects or merits of anything is open to the charge of bias and not proving anything. Of course, such focusing on the merits and ignoring the defects of a product is the basis of advertising.

Circular Arguments

A circular argument appears to move from a premise to a conclusion. However, what actually happens is the the main assertion is simply repeated, not supported. A general example is: A is proved by B is proved by C is proved by A. A specific example: "Jones cannot be trusted because she is an unreliable person." The premise is that Jones cannot be trusted; the support is that she is an unreliable person. However, the only support for the idea that she is unreliable is because she can't be trusted, which is supported by her being unreliable, which makes her untrustworthy, which makes her unreliable, which makes her untrustworthy, which makes her unreliable, which makes her untrustworthy, which makes her unreliable, which makes her untrustworthy, etc., etc., ad nauseum.

Sometimes even those who engage in circular arguments are not aware they are. For example, a sociological study was once conducted to see if masculine and feminine traits appeared in young children. The test was to put equal numbers of little boys and girls in a room full of toys and observe which toys each sex played with. As a result of the study it was concluded that the boys showed a preference for masculine toys, and the girls showed a preference for feminine toys, and that therefore feminine and masculine traits did indeed appear in young children.

There was only one problem with the conclusion: the definition of the toys as masculine or feminine. A closer examination of the study showed that the toys that were defined as masculine were those that the boys played with, and those defined as feminine were those the girls played with. From this it is easy to see that boys show masculine traits because they play with the toys they play with (whether they are tanks or dolls), and girls show feminine traits because they play with the toys they pla y with (whether they are tanks or dolls).

The premise is proven only by the premise. Such is not proof. Nonetheless, circular arguments can be quite effective if they are properly worded. For example: "The proposed gun control legislation is a left-wing plot because only Communists would scheme to take guns away from citizens." Such a statement could appear logical until it is examined. When examined it shows there is no proof offered about the legislation, only a statement that Communists are left-wing, and there is no proof of that.

The advantage of circular arguments is that many people don't take the time or effort to examine carefully constructed circular arguments.

"You're Another" (tu quoque)

"You're another" arguments evade the issues involved in the argument by attacking the person rather than the issues. For example, if someone says, "You cheat on your expense account," a you're another response could be, "Who are you to talk? You cheat on your income tax." Notice there is no response to the original charge, just a deflection to something totally beside the point.


A euphemism is using a word to soften what you are actually saying. Euphemisms are particularly used when a need or desire arises to discuss something that is normally considered taboo, in bad taste, or offensive to someone in your audience. Such topics include bodily functions or facilities necessary for them (a "necessary" is a euphemism for a bathroom, which is a euphemism for a room which is used only 5% of the time for bathing), death, sex, money, illness, etc.

Euphemisms in themselves are not fallacious. They only become so when they are used to cover up what you are actually saying. This does not mean you should be vulgar; know to whom you are speaking and don't set out to defy or offend them. Nonetheless, it is possible to mislead an audience through using euphemisms.

The Vietnam War and press conferences about it were fertile grounds for euphemisms. For example, there was the "free fire zone". It sounds like giving away damaged merchandise after a store burned down; it means blow away everything that moves in a certain area.

Another example: "resource control program". This sounds like protecting Bambi in the forest. It actually means remove the forest.

And yet another: "accidental delivery of ordinance equipment". From this you can get the impression that the truck went to the wrong address. In actuality it means, "we just bombed the hell out of our own guys."

From the above examples it should be clear that the use of euphemisms can soften the impact of what is being said to avoid offending the sensibilities of the audience. They can also be used to hide what really is meant. It is the latter case that m akes the use of euphemisms a fallacy.

The word "euphemism" is an interesting case in point. The translation of euphemism from Greek is "to lie". Thus we can see that euphemism is a euphemism for euphemism (you tell a lie to cover up the fact that telling a lie is lying). I suppose it is only poetic justice that we should use that word for what it stands for.


The above are not all of the logical fallacies that are used in advertising, but they should allow you to perceive them when they occur, and recognize them when you use them yourself.

The use of these tricks of the trade is not unusual. If it was, I would have had to work much harder to come up with examples. As it was, I had to do almost no work at all. In fact, being fallacious is much easier than not. All that is required i s a habit or inclination of making statements without supporting them or a lack of concern for or desire to prove points rather than maneuver an audience into accepting them.

This is not to say that fallacies will not appear in the most carefully thought out and constructed ad. If you remember that all ideas are subjective, then some fallacy is bound to appear simply because everyone thinks that something is so axiomatic that it requires no proof. Thus the idea could be expressed using one of the above methods by accident, even if you're trying to avoid such accidents. Nonetheless, do not expect perfection, either from yourself or others. If everything is subjective, perfection is impossible.

However, if you are thinking of deliberately using one or more of fallacies in your work, there are some caveats you should consider.

First, there are ethical considerations. Using fallacies makes you dishonest. After all, deception is deception, lying is lying, even if you call it euphemism. Deliberately using fallacies is lying to the audience, setting out to mislead them, taking advantage of them. Would you like someone doing that to you?

However, for those of us who have no ethics, let's look at some practical considerations. First, to use fallacies you must assume that your audience is too stupid to notice. You are basically saying, "I'm going to lie to you, to deceive you, to take advantage of your gullibility, and you're too dumb to notice." If you think that, you deserve what happens to you. Audiences are not stupid; they are often as well if not better educated and aware than you are. Thus you are insulting them, and insulting your audience is not a good way to get them to agree with you. If they give you the benefit of the doubt, they will consider you a sloppy thinker; at worst they'll turn against you.

Second, you will lose your argument. Deceiving your audience on one point will make anything else you say, no matter how well presented or supported, suspect. The Ronald Reagan administration had a problem when it was revealed that they were putting out a "disinformation" (a euphemism for "lying") program to the American people. For months thereafter no matter what information was given out about what the administration was doing, it was considered another piece of "disinformation" (read "lie"). It took a great deal of public relations, apologies and promises not to do it again to repair the damage, but everyone could still see the patches and was suspicious of the validity of the information.

When nobody believes what you say, how can you convince anybody that what you say is correct? Thus, unless you really work at it, using fallacies is a bad idea, if only because you want to win your arguments.


One final consideration in copywriting that has an effect on the audience that it often has little awareness of is the language root being used in the choice of words. English has two basic roots: Anglo-Saxon and Romance languages. Anglo-Saxon words a re those that entered English from Teutonic and Celtic languages, including Gallic, German, Dutch, and Scandinavian tongues. Such words are generally short and to the point (interestingly enough, virtually all English curse words and obscenities are Anglo-Saxon in source).

Romance language words are those that come from languages based on Latin: French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian. Such words are generally polysyllabic, and seem to indicate a greater intelligence and class.

Romance words contain little or no more information than an Anglo-Saxon counterpart; they just seem to. For example, the Romance "accelerate" doesn't mean much more than the Anglo-Saxon "speed up," nor does "erudite" mean more than "smart." Some examples:

When an writer wants to says something clearly and to the point, rhe will usually use Anglo-Saxon based words. For example, rhe may write "go" rather than "proceed". On the other hand, if the writer wishes to obscure what rhe's saying, rhe will often resort to Romance based words. For example, rhe can say, "We have contended with and circumscribed recent redundancies in the human resources area." What this means is, "We've just fired a bunch of people." The impact is quite different. As in the example at the beginning of the chapter, the Romance "terminate the fetus" has far less impact than the Anglo-Saxon "kill the baby."


A major element of advertising are the words used to attract the reader's attention, describe the product, and persuade the reader to buy. However, the way advertising can use words can often be described as less than ethical. Although it is illegal for advertising to lie, the way it can tell the truth, through the use of connotations, fuzzy rather than concrete words, logical fallacies, and careful choice of language roots, creates illusions, delusions, and the belief that ads are saying one thing when in fact they are saying something totally different, if indeed they are saying anything at all. This is neither good nor bad; it is advertising doing its job, selling products, under extreme restrictions in time, space, and lack of immediacy. However, knowing how advertising uses language makes it possible for the average consumer to make better, more informed, purchase decisions.

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