(Do not cite this paper for any use outside this course; it is not yet
ABSTRACT: This paper
proposes the use of Gilbert’s theory from Philosophy of Multi-Modal
Argumentation as a method for determining the difficult practical
Marketing question of whether an advertisement is ethical. The paper
draws on both academic fields, extending Gilbert’s work by providing
examples of how we may examine his four different modes of argument
(logical, emotional, visceral, kisceral) as they appear in actual
advertisements in order to determine whether an ad one is contemplating
placing can be considered ethical.
Argumentation, Emotion, Ethics, Logic, Marketing, Multi-Modal
BIOGRAPHY: M Louise Ripley is an Associate Professor of Marketing,
Women’s Studies, and Environmental Studies at the Faculty of Liberal and
Professional Studies of
York University, Toronto, Ontario. She conducts research in the areas of
ethics in advertising, women’s issues in management, and the effect of
business on the environment.
This paper draws on work presented by the
author at three recent sessions of the Emerging Issues in Business and
Technology conference held by Western Illinois University each
Note: the ads referred to are reproduced in miniature at
the end of this article.
For the Ethics of an Ad: An Application of Multi-Modal Argumentation
M Louise Ripley, M.B.A., Ph.D.
of Administrative Studies, Atkinson Faculty
Canada, M3J 1P3
As presented at the Ontario
Society for the Study of Argumentation
McMaster University, May 2005
ABSTRACT: In addition to
functions traditionally ascribed to the socio-linguistic practice of
arguing for a thesis, we can add: determining whether an advertisement
is ethical. Ads regularly use fallacy and exaggeration, but when an ad
uses argumentation that is based in unfair, damaging, dangerous fallacy,
we may question its ethics. This paper uses Gilbert's model of
Multi-Modal Argumentation to decide whether the arguments underlying an
advertisement make it an ethical one.
WORDS: advertising, argumentation, emotion, ethics, Gilbert, kisceral,
logic, multi-modal , visceral
that the word “fallacious” is used here less formally than in its formal
use in argument theory)
Scholars of Consumer Behaviour
estimate that we are exposed to more than 1500 advertisements (ads) in a
day (Armstrong, Kotler, and Cunningham 2004, 222). A major problem
facing advertisers is determining whether an ad can be considered
ethical. Ethics is a relativist issue: what may seem appropriate to the
standards of conduct and judgment of one group may offend another, but
given the huge presence of advertising in our every day lives, given the
post-Enron concern with more ethical performance in business, and given
the argument that advertising not only reflects what is prevalent but
has a defining influence on what prevails in our society (Holbrook,
1987; Pollay, 1986), the ethics of the way in which advertising of
products is done must be considered.
Morris Engel (2000) points out that if we are to succeed in
analyzing the bombardment by the Mass Media of appeals to purchase
particular products, we must know something about logic in order to
better judge those appeals. We will examine specific ads first in the
logical mode of argumentation, considering structures of formal logic,
the issue of false premises, and some fallacies from the study of
informal logic. We then will use Gilbert’s (1994) model of Multi-Modal
Argumentation to consider emotional, physical, or intuitive arguments
made by the same ad which may cause it to be unethical even though it
may meet the stringent requirements of logical argumentation. This paper
argues for the existence and importance of emotional, physical, and
intuitive arguments as well as logical ones, but I make the assumption,
with Carozza (2002) as support, that an argument or component of an
argument may be visual as well as verbal. The
ads referred to are all reproduced in miniature in the Appendix.
Traditionally in Western society, we tend to think of the
term argument as synonymous with logic. We hear this
expressed in a variety of ways:
“I’m not going to argue with you if you can’t be
“We can’t have this argument if you’re going to get emotional on
“ ‘What you feel’ is not a good argument; give me a good reason
why I should do it.”
“If all you can say is that you’ve got a hunch, there’s no point
Logic, however, is not the only form of argument, nor is it the only
basis on which to examine the ethics of an ad. Michael Gilbert
(1994) maintains that while argumentation
traditionally is associated with logic and reasoning (Balthorp 1979,
O’Keefe 1982, Willard 1983 and 1989, van Eemeren and Grootendorst 1989),
we also must consider three other modes of argumentation:
related to the realm of feelings.”
Visceral “stems from the area of the physical”
Kisceral “covers the intuitive and non-sensory arenas.”
(Gilbert, 1994, 159)
important to note that Gilbert uses the term
logical “to indicate not merely a respect for orderliness of
presentation, but also a subscription to a certain set of beliefs about
evidence and sources of information” (Gilbert 1994:159).
One of the problems addressed by Gilbert’s model of
Multi-Modal Argumentation is the too-frequent perception that logical
means right and emotional means wrong. Any of the
four modes of argumentation may be right for any particular use.
What may be wrong is the use of any of the four modes of
argumentation to unfairly or improperly make a covert argument for the
purchase of a product. Thus an ad may meet all the requirements for a
valid logical argument but still be questionable or even unethical when
we examine its emotional, physical, or intuitive argument in addition to
its logical one. When an ad does this, we may label it fallacious.
A non-fallacious argument in this context is one which makes
valid use of the chosen mode of argumentation, which makes no blatantly
false claims, and which argues mainly from specific attributes of the
product rather than from insinuated extraneous effects to be obtained by
purchasing it. It is fairly easy to establish what makes a
non-fallacious ad in the logical mode: the logic would be presented in
way that is proper according to the standards of formal logic; the
presentation would be orderly and correctly use available evidence. The
more difficult task is to define what valid means in the case of
an emotional, physical, or intuitive mode of argumentation. For the
purpose of this paper, and recognizing that years of research may be
needed to establish finally, if at all, the correct answer, I state that
a valid, or non-fallacious emotional ad would target feelings
appropriate to the product advertised; a valid visceral ad would
emphasize physical reactions that the purchaser might genuinely be
expected to experience with the ad or the product, and a valid ad in
kisceral mode would require intuitive connections that are not
outrageous leaps of faith to make the link between benefits implied by
the ad and those actually attainable with the product.
This paper examines a series of
print ads which use these four modes of argumentation in non-fallacious
and then in fallacious ways, and finally in ways that the author
believes make the ad unethical. The ads we will examine could each be
placed in more than one of the four categories, and in truth, most ads
contain all four components to at least some degree. The point of this
paper is not to prove categorically that one ad belongs in one mode of
evaluation, but rather to utilize Gilbert’s theory of Multi-Modal
Argumentation to illustrate ways in which an advertiser or agency might
decide whether most consumers viewing the ad will deem it ethical, other
than through analysis only of the logical argument made by the ad.
Logical Non-Fallacious Ad:
A business-to-business ad for
Duo-Pro containment piping shows white pipe-fittings against a blue
background in the top third of the ad, with small bulleted paragraphs of
print filling the lower two thirds of the page. Although the main thrust
of the ad is logical, it also contains an appeal in each of the other
modes of argumentation. The first paragraph, which claims that the
piping is made for people “who care enough about quality, safety and
reliability to invest in the industry’s premium¼piping
system,” evokes a hint of the greeting card company slogan and may
summon some emotional feeling in the reader for the care with which this
product was manufactured. The ad also contains a physical element, as
will any ad that contains any kind of visual element. We see the actual
pipes; we may consider how they might feel in our hand, sensing the
smoothness of the joints and the density of the material, and thus
experience a physical argument for their quality. The blue background
reminds us intuitively of water, and thus makes a kisceral argument for
the importance of the pipes that carry it. The
major mode of argumentation in the Duo-Pro ad, however, is logical,
appealing to our reasoning processes. Following classic syllogism
structure, the argument is:
All M are P.
All S are M.
Therefore All S are P.
All pipes that meet safety
standards (M) are things that are worth buying (P).
All Duo-Pro pipes (S) are
pipes that meet (and exceed) safety standards (M).
Therefore, all Duo-Pro pipes (S)
are things that are worth buying (P).
The syllogism is First Figure,
AAA Mood. I try always to find a syllogism in this form to represent the
argument of the ad in order to give the greatest benefit of doubt to the
The ad is non-fallacious in a number of ways. The industry and
company standards referred to are documented and may be checked by a
potential buyer. The logic is clearly presented in an orderly fashion,
and it is sound and speaks directly to the attributes of the product. We
can accept both premises of the syllogism, and by the laws of logic, we
therefore must accept the conclusion that Duo-Pro pipes are worth
Emotional Non-Fallacious Ad:
Mount Sinai Medical Centre
Emotion is a staple good in
advertising, partly because an appeal to our emotion will often break
down or override logical counter-arguments we might make. Almost all ads
will contain at least some emotional appeal, but the ad for the Mount
Sinai Medical Centre in New York City has emotion as its primary
argument. The ad shows a black-and-white photograph of an ordinary woman
holding a copy of the New York Times as she smiles out at us; the
subtitle says, “Yesterday She Was Blind.” The copy goes on to tell us
that, using laser surgery, the doctors at Mount Sinai Medical Centre
were able to restore her sight.
The ad contains some
appeal to logic; almost every ad will in some manner. The copy tells the
woman’s story and links the recovery of her sight directly to the
medical centre’s 135 years of experience. The picture of her holding the
newspaper makes a physical argument as we see what she can now see, and
we find the intuitive mode of argumentation in the leap from the
headline that if she was blind yesterday, she can see today. Again we
see all four modes of argumentation, and although we might accuse the ad
of the fallacy of hasty generalization in assuming that if the hospital
could cure one woman it can cure all, nevertheless the major mode of
argumentation here is the non-fallacious use of emotion. There are no
“laws” of emotional, physical, or intuitive argumentation as there are
for logic, but we may note that the emotion appealed to in this ad is
appropriate to the story, and the ad does not distort facts to increase
Visceral Non-Fallacious Ad: Birds
Eye Frozen Vegetables
Any ad that contains a picture or illustration will automatically
contain a visceral or physical argument; even an ad that contains only
print may make a visual and therefore visceral argument in its choice of
font, colour, and size of print. In the ad for Birds Eye International
Recipes Bavarian Style, the picture is the major argument in the ad. We
experience a visceral reaction to an image of fresh crisp moist green
beans and the almost luminous yellow “intriguing little German-style
noodles.” The ad uses some logical reasoning in its suggestion that, “We
could have just given you the tenderest, tastiest, greenest green beans
and stopped there.¼Instead
we added spaetzle¼”
The ad also uses emotion in describing this food as “the most
unforgettable serving of beans that ever sat on the side of your plate,”
but the main mode of argumentation is physical. The ad is essentially
non-fallacious. There is some puffery in the “unforgettable serving of
beans” but the ad stresses actual attributes of the product, and the
physical picture is a good representation of what you would expect to
find in the package. Purchasing the product provides proof that the
picture does indeed fairly represent the finished product.
Kisceral Non-Fallacious Ad:
Ads that focus on a kisceral mode
of argumentation ask us to make a leap of faith and connection. In a
dramatic business-to-business ad, Westvaco argues to convince its
packaging customers that it is the right partner to present their
client’s food to the end user. The small amount of copy below the ad
makes the argument that Westvaco “people work hand in hand with yours
throughout the development cycle.”
The ad makes logical arguments, with a bit of emotion
in the concept of someone working with you hand-in-hand or the
revisiting of childhood circuses, but what makes the ad work is the link
between the partnership of the trapeze artists and the partnership
offered by Westvaco. In the ad, two male trapeze artists, dressed alike
in leopard skin tights and white boots perform against the black ceiling
of a circus tent, one catching the other by the wrists as he falls into
space. But we experience more here than just the physical tension of the
picture; we make that intuitive leap from the partnership integral to
this life-or-death circus act to the partnership with a packaging
company that will ensure success of a food product.
The ad is non-fallacious because not only is
the picture directly connected to the concept of partnership, but in the
survival of a product in today’s competitive markets, packaging can
indeed be a life-or-death decision.
Logical Fallacious Ad: Chrysler
1987 ad for the US$17,000 Chrysler LeBaron convertible compares it to
the US$106,000 Mercedes 500SL as if the only difference between them
were the US$89,000 in price. The main mode of argumentation is logical:
All things that are otherwise identical to a
higher-priced item are a better buy.
Chrysler is identical to the higher priced Mercedes.
Therefore Chrysler is the better buy.
The ad consists almost entirely of written copy with only a small colour
picture of the two cars side by side at the top of the page, where
indeed they look extremely similar. The headline reads, “Think of it as
a Mercedes with a [US]$89,000 rebate,” and the copy only mentions one
other difference: “a five [instead of three] pointed star.”
The argument, however, is fallacious. While most people
would probably accept the first premise, the second premise is patently
false and the conclusion therefore is not validly derived from the
premises. It is probably not unethical because we expect and accept a
certain amount of puffery in ads and few people would be fooled into
believing that a Chrysler is identical to a Mercedes.
Emotional Fallacious Ad: Pepsi
Pepsi provides an example of an
ad constructed of pure emotion, with hardly a word on the page. We see
four little Asian girls in school uniforms sitting on the ground in what
looks like it might be Thailand, a few schoolbooks, four bottles of
Pepsi, and in the background across a muddy street, a Pepsi stand in
front of some shops. The only English words in the ad are “Every Body
Need (sic) a Friend,” printed on a tote sack that bears a picture of a
white Anglo-looking boy.
This ad’s emotional
jerk on our heartstrings makes a connection between schoolgirl
friendships, youth, exotic locales, and the sugared cola that competes
with Coke for the world’s largest distribution system. The ad makes no
reference to any actual attributes of the drink – quality, taste,
freshness, purity – only to its apparent ability to help one make
friends. It may not be unethical, but it is certainly fallacious given
its reliance solely on the suggestion of promised benefits unrelated to
product attributes. Nothing is presented to argue that drinking Pepsi
will make you friends.
Visceral Fallacious Ad: Tabu
ad for Tabu perfume presents a full-page colour picture of a female
artist clad in soft linens, paint brush still in her hand as she is
embraced by the handsome long-haired male model she is in the act of
recreating on her canvas. The only words on the page are, “Blame it on
Tabu.” The visceral sexual image promises that if a woman wears this
fragrance, she too can be seduced.
The ad is fallacious mainly because it relies for effect not
upon actual qualities of the product but upon the physical reaction of
lust and longing created by the picture. The ad commits the fallacy of
False Cause, suggesting that because this one woman wearing Tabu
entranced a handsome man, any woman wearing Tabu will be able to do the
Kisceral Fallacious Ad: French Wine
ad for French wines consists of a full-page picture of a man and woman
dressed in disheveled evening clothes kissing in the kitchen, a
partially consumed bottle of red wine beside them. The copy, “Wild
things happen in the oui hours…Say yes to wines from France,”
makes the leap of intuition that drinking alcoholic beverages will lead
to the answer “yes” when the kissing starts.
We may find nothing wrong with a couple’s
sharing a glass of wine and then spending romantic time together, but
what makes the appeal fallacious is again the ad’s failure to deal with
actual product attributes and its effort to sell the product on the
basis of suggestion of possible effects, committing possibly the fallacy
of False Cause.
The preceding four ads were labelled fallacious because each was based
on a fallacy, an untrue premise, benefits promised that are not directly
related to product attributes, or an unfair use of logical, emotional,
physical, or intuitive appeal. The use of fallacy or a questionable
appeal in ads is not automatically unethical, and indeed the charm of
many ads lies in their exaggeration or twisting of the truth. Some ads,
however, push this too far. At some point we decide whether an ad is
truly unfair, damaging, or dangerous, and we consider labeling it
unethical. In the standards of conduct and moral system of the
writer, these four preceding ads did not cross the line from fallacious
to unethical, but not everyone agrees with this classification. In
presentations in workshops and classrooms, the following comments have
Chrysler: “Advertising of any automobile that
pollutes our environment is unethical.”
Pepsi: “The proliferation of American products in the developing world
Tabu: “Using images of sexual domination of women to sell products is
French Wine: “Stereotyping of the French as overly interested in sex is
One cannot disregard these statements, nor can one pretend to make final
and absolute decisions on the ethics of any ad. Ethics does not test,
sample, or evaluate per se (Hegel, 1977, 279); it accepts or
rejects as a relativist proposition. What I propose here is a method for
determining an ad’s ethical acceptability to those who may be exposed to
it, through examining modes of argumentation and the tendency to
deceive, but the final decision will depend on who is making the
judgment, for the benefit of which viewers, and under what
circumstances. In the following section, I have applied a judgment of
unethical to four ads.
Logical Unethically Fallacious Ad: Ryka Running Shoes
ad for Ryka running shoes shows a woman with a tear running down her
face. The copy reads, “Sometimes the only way to work it out, is to work
it out.” We also see two pictures of running shoes, one of a woman
exercising, and in the centre, a pink rose. The copy continues, “When
you buy a pair, Ryka will commit seven percent of its profits to the
Ryka ROSE Foundation (Regaining One’s Self-Esteem) to fund
community-action programmes to end violence against women.” The
surface-level syllogism is:
All firms that donate to a worthy cause are firms
that deserve your business.
Ryka is a firm that donates to a worthy cause.
Therefore Ryka is a firm that deserves your business.
This argument is First
Figure, AAA Mood, with premises that most people could accept, so the
syllogism is valid, but the argument is still fallacious because the
benefits touted have little to do with the attributes of the product
itself, a running shoe. This alone does not make the ad unethical; there
is, however, a more subtle and dangerous covert syllogism:
All cases of pain
in the world can be solved by buying a product.
Violence against women is a case of pain.
Therefore violence against women can be solved by buying
a product (preferably ours).
More and more advertisers are
employing this covert argument in their ads in our increasingly
consumption-based society, and to use the purchase of consumer goods to
compensate for evils experienced in the world is a questionable
practice. It is admirable that Ryka donates a percentage of its profits
to a good cause, and it is laudable to support the struggle to end
violence against women, but the fact that this firm uses an important
social issue to create an ad that preys upon women’s worries about
violence for the purpose of selling a consumer good in my mind makes it
an unethical ad.
Emotional Unethically Fallacious
Ad: Jordache Clothing
In an ad for Jordache clothing at
the May company, we see only a full-page black-and-white picture of a
man shaking his finger in a scolding manner at a woman who is grasping
his coat, thrusting her body toward him. Her long hair flows down her
back, her eyes are cast down, and her mouth gapes in what could not
possibly be labelled a smile. The stance of the chastising male is
unmistakably threatening, the evoked emotion is frightening, and it is
being used to sell women’s clothing. Giving the advertiser the benefit
of a great deal of doubt, one might construct the following First
Figure, AAA Mood syllogism for a logical argument in this ad:
All dresses that are
pretty are good for attracting men.
Jordache dresses are pretty.
Therefore Jordache dresses are good for attracting men.
Examining the ad’s argument in
the logical mode, we see that we can accept the premises as true, making
the syllogism valid, which, if we were to examine only the logical mode
of argument, would force us to say that the ad is non-fallacious.
Considering the argument in the emotional mode, however, we find
emotions appealed to and expressed which will be offensive to anyone
concerned about relations between men and women. I therefore label this
ad not only fallacious, but unethical.
Visceral Unethically Fallacious
Ad: Capri Cigarettes
Cigarette ads are perhaps the best example of the misuse of the physical
argument with ethically questionable fallacious methods. In an ad for
Capri cigarettes, we see an elegant blond-haired woman sitting at a
sunny table, a light shawl draped around her shoulders, the gorgeous
blue of the sea extending beyond her balcony, flowers blooming on the
ledge, a picture of beauty. She is smoking a cigarette and the copy
reads, “She’s gone to Capri and she’s not coming back.” The other half
(not shown) of this two-page ad extends the view of the sea and the
patio and includes the United States Surgeon General’s warning about the
health hazards of smoking. Trying to find a valid syllogism in First
Figure, AAA Mode, we can construct this one:
All things associated
with Capri are things that will make you beautiful.
Capri cigarettes are things that are associated with
Therefore Capri cigarettes are things that will make you
Taking each premise separately,
we can judge that they are both true, if we ignore the equivocation and
take “Capri” with a separate meaning in each sentence. In the first
premise, Capri refers to the beautiful isle of Capri in the
Mediterranean Sea, and anyone can probably imagine that a visit there
would indeed make one beautiful. “Capri” in the second premise refers to
Capri cigarettes, and we must accept the truth of that almost
tautological statement. If we accept each premise as true and recognize
the syllogism as First Figure, Mood AAA, we would have to say that the
argument is non-fallacious.
Even ignoring the
equivocation, however, we must examine the visceral or physical argument
made by this ad. There is nothing in the use of the cigarette product
itself that brings fresh sea air or beauty to the user, and thus the ad
promotes benefits that not only are unrelated to the product, but are
actually anathema to its use. Instead of showing cigarette smoke which
would cloud the view of fresh sea air, and a wrinkled face and stained
teeth on the smoker, the physical arguments presented in the ad are of
the beauty of the sea and the beauty of the smoker. I therefore label
this ad unethically fallacious for its attempt to sell an addictive drug
with physical images of the very things it will destroy. This tendency
to use images of physical beauty appears often in cigarette ads, from
the rugged Marlboro cowboy to the spring green scenes of Kool.
Kisceral Unethically Fallacious
Ad: The National Rifle Association
The wedding ring and smiling face of balding bespectacled uniformed
Police Sergeant Richard Beckman in a picture that covers more than half
the page of this ad for the National Rifle Association suggests to the
viewer a family man, a pillar of his community. In the copy at the
bottom of the page, he invites us to make the intuitive leap from police
weapons training to the private ownership of guns as endorsed by the
NRA. The story tells how Officer Beckman managed, through his NRA
training, to save the lives of his partner and a seventeen-year-old boy
who was tending the store when an armed ex-con took him hostage. The
last paragraph of the officer’s statement concludes, “I also believe in
the National Rifle Association because I believe every law-abiding
American citizen has a right to own a firearm. Armed citizens deter
crime.” Trying to fit a First Figure, AAA Mood syllogism, we can
All things that produce well-trained police officers are
things that are worthwhile.
The National Rifle Association is a thing that produces
well-trained police officers.
Therefore the National Rifle Association is a worthwhile
The first premise can generally
be labelled true. To give the benefit of doubt to the advertiser, the
second premise also might be taken as true: if the NRA provides
additional expertise in crime-fighting activities, it is perhaps a
worthwhile thing for police officers. Even if we were to accept the
syllogism as valid in examining the ad in the logical mode, however, the
overall effect of the ad is to bamboozle the reader with intuitive leaps
of faith and connection that simply are not justified. The intuitive
overall effect of this ad is to argue that if the Police think it is a
good thing, the NRA must be a good thing. Even if we believe Officer
Beckman’s unlikely contention that he learned to shoot with the National
Rifle Association rather than in his police training, here he is
promoting not the training of police officers but the ownership of guns
by private citizens.
The ultimate decision
about the ethics of this ad does not depend upon which side of the
firearms issue one supports, and this is one of the advantages of the
Gilbert model – it enables ethical decision-making in areas which
otherwise tend to be black-and-white issues with many people. The
intuitive argument of the ad does not hold up under examination, and I
therefore label this an unethical ad.
To a large extent, what makes an ad ethical depends
on how it presents its argument. Advertisers may use logical, emotional,
physical, or intuitive reasoning, and most ads employ a combination of
all of these modes. We accept that ads will use some fallacy in making
their argument; we expect some exaggeration; we laugh warmly when it is
done openly and in fun. But when an ad uses argumentation that is based
in unfair, damaging, dangerous fallacy, we may question the ethics of
that ad. Gilbert’s model of Multi-Modal Argumentation provides a method
for examining more than just the formal logic involved in the argument
presented by an ad, and thereby provides a better chance of identifying
unethical elements in an ad. Future research should examine how we
determine the validity of an emotional, physical, or intuitive argument.
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APPENDIX: THE ADS