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Source: pp 243-244, With Good Reason, An Introduction to Informal Fallacies (2000 6 ed) by York U. Prof. S. Morris Engel

Just as we should guard against being taken in by an appeal to the authority of a single expert, or of the many, we must also be able to recognize appeals to the authority of the select few. Sometimes called snob appeal, this form of the fallacy of appeal to authority exploits our feeling that we are aristocrats at heart. that we belong not to the mass but to the select few. The use of glamorous personalities to advertise products trades on snob appeal, as do advertisements such as the following:

[I omit the examples from real-life advertisements; please message me if I should post them.]

The authority appealed to in such arguments is that of presage or exclusivity. These qualities would not be irrelevant if the object of these ads was to prove that [1.] the products in question were prestigious [End of 1.], but such is not the case. Instead, the real object of such
advertisements is [2.] to tempt us to believe that purchasing those items will automatically bestow on us the glamor and prestige dangled before us [End of 2.]. If it were only so simple!

Please help me to understand the differences and distinctions between 1 and 2.

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  • It’s simply saying that by showing products in the hands of the elite like celebrities, one may infer that such products are prestigious, because prestigious people possess them. They are valuable, high-quality, expensive, top of the line, exclusive. However, the author of this passage says that the point of the ad is not to relay the fact that these products are possessed by the elite - a mere factual observation that the objects appear to be favored by the rich. Instead, the advertisement wants to make you think that by purchasing them, you too would become prestigious. That’s the difference
    – Julius H.
    Jan 20 at 6:51

1 Answer 1

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Let's simply assume that, whatever else it may entail, "prestige" is a form of value or power.

Some products may in fact bestow power. A gun lends its owner a real physical (and often compensatory) power; a private jet gives it owner a real, measurable capacity to do what others cannot and, being very expensive, can only be owned by those with plenty of money, an indication of further exceptional privileges and physical capacities. Nothing illusory about it.

A shampoo cooed over lasciviously by a celebrity, on the other hand, could be bought by almost anyone and is unlikely to impart unusual powers via one's hair. The appeal to authority is here appeal to "aura." To buy the product is to act on the belief in a superstitious transfer of qualities. By vague magical association, one expects that using the same shampoo will transfer that celebrity's aura of sexiness, for example, or some other characteristic that is not, quite obviously, derived from shampoo. So the "fallacy" is to believe in the transfer of human qualities through inanimate objects, something like Marx's commodity fetishism.

However, it is not at all clear to me that a kind of transfer of "aura" cannot to some degree take place in a universal commodity culture. If you own what celebrity (x) owns or travel to the remote place celebrity (Y) travelled, others may, however faintly, associate you with celebrity (x), for better or worse. You do now have something in common with these celebrities. And since "celebrity" itself may be a kind of communicative power and value, perhaps you are faintly channeling it, assuming highly impressionable acquaintances. In an information society of complex, maximal feedback the author's classical "fallacy" of fetishism may not be as fallacious as it once was.

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