Sunday, February 17, 2013

Appeal to Celebrity

Other Terms and/or Related Concepts

Appeal to Authority; Celebrity Endorsement


The advocate argues that their argument, position, product, world view, political agenda/candidate, proposed action or cause is correct because a celebrity has endorsed it.


James Canary has a child who was just diagnosed with "Indigo Encephalitis". James is arguing with his friend Laura Kronk about its cause. "I know it's related with the internet WiFi's I put in my house. He was a perfectly normal child when I just had the cable for the internets in my computer, but when he was four years old I got a new one that had the WiFi's and all of a sudden he stopped being able to communicate with me the way he used to."

Laura replies: "That's not proof of anything. Correlation doesn't prove causation".

To which James says: "Well, the actor/model Janie McCarter says the radiation from the WiFi's is dangerous and can cause cancer and other brain related illnesses. And what's more, the government and big tech all know about it and are covering it up!"


An Appeal to Celebrity is much more bizarre than a commonplace Appeal to Authority. This subspecies is worthy of comment because it is increasingly common, and often passes unnoticed by those who should know better.

The short definition of Appeal to Authority is as follows: "The advocate makes an unwarranted appeal to an authoritative person or organization in support of a proposition". Unwarranted in this context means that the appeal is without foundation, and that the supposed "authority" does not really lend any weight to the advocate's proposition (because the authority of the authority on this particular matter is not convincing, or because the advocate is falsely claiming that the authority would agree with the advocate's position).

An appeal to a celebrity's authority takes this fallacy to its absurd extreme.

The most commonplace example is using a celebrity to endorse a product or service through advertising. This tends to be harmless or risible. Harmless examples are clearly advertisements - George Clooney selling coffee. Risible examples are when companies, say, appoint a celebrity as a "creative director".

More insidious is the use of celebrities to argue for a cause. Consider the commonplace case. The celebrity is appearing on a chat show, or a news and current affairs program. The celebrity is perhaps an actor, a model, a sportsperson or reality television "star". Whatever the claim to fame, the celebrity is not known for deep thinking. And yet the interviewer inevitably asks the celebrity about his or her profound thoughts on some deep and complex issue – multilateral defence treaties, bilateral trade agreements, reform of the United Nations, health funding, dry land salinity etc. And the celebrity is eager to pontificate at length on any of these, and presumably the more impressionable viewers will be swayed by the celebrity's half-baked opinions, just because the celebrity is a celebrity.

Just once wouldn’t it be nice to see a journalist-interviewer practice real journalism and say: "Sorry to interrupt you there Sean, but you're talking about politics now, and we're not interested; after all, you're only an actor".

The danger here goes the other way too. As enjoyable as it is to beat up on celebrities, especially when they are hypocritical egomaniacs, one must not dismiss the message a priori just because it's a celebrity giving it. There's always a small chance they might be right...