Marketing and the False Dilemma: or, “I don’t know which one to click on!”

by David Kennedy Bird

Here, o most excellent reader, is a quickie lesson in critical thinking. You’re about to learn about false dilemmas, and then you’re going to learn to recognize them when you encounter them in sales scenarios.

If the expression “false dilemma” sounds familiar, it may be that you’ve read one of the recent posts to this blog (“There Are Two Kinds of People in the World“) in which The Good Reader, The Blogger, and Elvis Wu, the Last Philosophy Major, discussed the idea of false dilemmas at some length. If you read that post, then you’re already ahead of the game. If you didn’t, then fear not: here’s a bit of a primer to get you started.

 

When i was in the 6th grade, the following joke was popular among certain of the fellows:

Dude #1:  Are you a [something unpleasant] tied to a tree?

Dude #2:  Um, no. Of course not.

Dude #1:  Aaaugh! Aaaagh! [unpleasant thing] on the loose! [unpleasant thing] on the loose!

Nicely done, Dude #1! Do you see what he did there? He craftily set up the scenario such that only two possible answers were provided: either you were a [something unpleasant] tied to a tree, or you were [same unpleasant thing] at large. And that, my friends, is a classic example of a false dilemma.

A false dilemma is any situation where only two options are presented as the possible answer to a question, and you are expected to select one of the two… despite the fact that there are actually other possibilities that have not been mentioned. Here, let’s look at another one.

Is a grilled cheese sandwich an example of (1) a meat casserole, or (2) a sports utility vehicle?

You see the problem. I have provided you with two answers, but regrettably, the correct answer was not one of them. Yet i seem to be expecting you to choose one of the wrong answers that i gave you.

Let’s look at the issue of the “false dilemma” from another angle. If i were to ask you the following question, you would be correct in choosing precisely one of the two options i set you up with:

“Pardon me. Are you a postal delivery worker, or something else?”

If you are, in fact, a mail carrier, you could select the first option. And if you’re not, you could select the second one. There’s no problem. I have given you a logically satisfying range of options. It is possible for you to give the correct answer, based on the options i’ve presented you with.

But what if i were to ask you the following:

“Hello. Are you a postal delivery worker, or an aquatic crustacean?”

You would be quite within your rights to say, “Excuse me, i’m not either one… perhaps you’re confusing me with YOUR MOM?”

This would be a philosophically sound approach to the situation.

The person setting up a false dilemma will usually be either (1) a sloppy thinker who doesn’t realize that the scenario he’s setting forth is flawed, or (2) a canny manipulator who is very much aware of what he’s doing, and wants to shepherd you into choosing one of the two options: the one that he agrees with.

Which leads us to today’s topic.

 


 

Is it just me, or have online vendors been making increasing use of troubling false dilemmas? They’ll present you with an advertisement of some kind, and then offer you two options to click through, like this:

  • Yes, i want to learn more about this exciting offer!
  • No, i am a moron and should not be allowed to breed!

I have been noticing these kinds of dilemmas with increasing frequency. The other day as i was making a purchase using one of those vast, behemoth-scale online retailers… i won’t identify the company, but its name rhymed with “diazepamazon”…i was met at one point in the checkout process by what i thought was an odd choice (and here i indulge in the liberty of paraphrase):

  • Yes, i would like to be charged an additional fee to enroll in a program that will result in superior customer service, substantial eventual savings (if, that is, i end up spending at least nine grillion dollars a year through this website), and a streamlined checkout experience!
  • No, i am content with the irritating, substandard shopping experience to which i have grown stoically accustomed!

Something just didn’t feel completely right about the choice i was being offered. What i wanted was superior customer service and substantial savings, without being charged an additional fee! But [sigh] they did not offer that as one of the options. So i selected the second one, even though it wasn’t really what i wanted.

Once you train yourself to recognize them, you begin to see false dilemmas everywhere throughout the world of marketing. For instance, you’ve probably seen this sort of thing. A certain whiskey is being advertised, and, although the ad doesn’t come out and say it directly, it is strongly implied that you have two options before you:

Either (1) you are a drinker of Whiskey X, and a favorite among the ladies, or (2) women look at you with pity in their eyes, similar to the way they would look at a fellow who has a yellow discharge draining out of one ear, and they whisper to each other in phrases that sound as if they include the words “welfare recipient” and “venereal disease.”

Never mind that you have never touched their whiskey and, nevertheless, seem to get along perfectly fine with women. The advertisement does not appear to take this possibility into account.

Here’s another one. An advertisement in which two women are pictured, one decked in the athletic gear that is being advertised, and the other wearing some other perfectly reasonable athletic wear. And, just through the photograph and the brilliantly worded text, an implied false dilemma is set forth:

Either (1) you wear our athletic gear, you’re fit, gorgeous, self-possessed, and the cool slogan “Just Go For It” applies to you, or (2) you are 23, already going through menopause, and look as if you are no stranger to snack cakes filled with trans fats and high fructose corn syrup.

Never mind that you wouldn’t be caught dead in the athletic gear being advertised… you tried it on once and found it hot and uncomfortable… yet you just got finished running your third half-marathon and finishing in the top ten percent.

Here are some more examples.

Imagine a laxative company with an advertisement that says, “…so the next time you’re feeling a bit irregular, try StoolExpress… unless, of course, you enjoy feeling bloated and having a painful bowel movement once every five weeks.”

It’s entirely possible… hear me out… that those are not the only two options.

Or this:

“So join the multitudes of homemakers who have discovered that they don’t have to live with perpetually sticky countertops, accompanied by a faint but apparently ineradicable whiff of cat urine. Switch to ultra-absorbent WipeOut paper towels!”

Could it be that there are other solutions to the problem of soiled countertops? Just thinking out loud here.

Or imagine being presented with an online poll set up in the following way:

  • Yes, i support Congressman McDrennahanahan in his fight against the forces of wickedness and injustice!
  • No, i hate my country and feel that the sooner the Bill of Rights can be forcibly ripped out of the Constitution (which, by the way, i also hate), the better.

Maybe… just maybe… it’s possible to love and be committed to one’s country, even if Congressman McDrennahanahan’s agenda does not entirely represent your civic ideal.

 

I hope this little tutorial has been helpful to you, o gentle reader, in your struggle to sift through the messages that we are all bombarded with on a daily basis.

If not, then i’m afraid you’ll just continue to be a witless, gullible weenie who is utterly at the mercy of ad agencies, politicos, and snake oil salesmen.