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Continuing The Discussion: Further Ruminations On Marketing, Mixers & Morality

How do we go about persuading someone via methods that don’t involve lying or sophistry? A discussion invoking both marketing and philosophy.

As noted in my previous article (here), I’m a marketer. My job is to move customers through a journey that results in a purchase of our product and/or the continual use of our products or services.

I’m also a philosopher, curious about how the world of logic, ethics and human psychology come to bear on the decisions that marketers make as they design marketing campaigns in order to achieve the best results in driving customer demand. We discussed important distinctions between sophistry, lying, opinions, fact-based claims and how we go about persuading others to act. (Sidenote: anyone interested can take the author’s current “The Philosophy Of (Live) Sound Survey” here.)

In this second part of the discussion, there are a few more aspects of the process that deserve a little closer look. According to “Advertising is Immoral,” a recent Peter Gildenhuys article in Philosophy Now, “when we lie to people, we try to get them to believe what they should not believe, and when we act as sophists, we try to persuade them by what should not persuade them.”

Given this distinction, how do we go about persuading someone via methods that don’t involve lying or sophistry? One common form of persuasion is called a syllogism. It sounds a bit fancy, but we encounter this sort of technique all the time. A simple classic form of a syllogism is stated as such:

All men are mortal. (Major premise)
Socrates is a man. (Minor premise)
Therefore, Socrates is mortal. (Conclusion)

We can substitute different premises within the same form of argument using terms more familiar to us all:

All mixers that operate at 384 kHz are better sounding than mixers that operate at 48 kHz.
The XYZ-123 operates at 384 kHz.
Therefore, the XYZ-123 sounds better than a mixer that operates at 48 kHz.

Are you convinced that this conclusion is true? If we assume that the major and minor premises are true, it would seem impossible for this conclusion to be false. Of course, we could deny the initial major premise. What do we mean by “sounds better”? Are all other factors the same in this claim (bit rate, preamp specs, etc.)? Shouldn’t we look more holistically at what contributes to “sounding better”? Are we talking about human hearing or are we concerned with which mixer a bat should buy?

We could also push on the second minor premise a bit. Does the XYZ-123 in fact operate at 384 kHz. Does it operate at 384 kHz right now or is that some promised upgraded future state? If we measured the internal processing at every point in the signal chain today would this hold true? And so on.

Valid Argument

What we can’t really deny with this particular form of the argument is that the conclusion will follow if the two premises are true as stated. This form of an argument is what philosophers call a valid argument. There are ways in which we could structure the argument to appear to be valid and actually commit various fallacies in the process, though. How about this form?

All audio engineers can mix.
Bob can combine eggs, water and flour.
Therefore Bob is an audio engineer.

A few issues here. Bob might be an audio engineer but being able to “mix” ingredients in the kitchen is not what we mean by “mix” in this case, so we’ve committed the fallacy of equivocation. There are a number of other fallacies which can arise in this way, but let’s stay focused on clear-cut and valid arguments like the 384 kHz example. How can an awareness of the moving parts and pieces of this most basic argument help consumers to make better informed buying decisions and keep audio marketers out of the “morally illegitimate” marketing penalty box?

First, it’s helpful to be able to spot the main argument of an advertisement even in cases where it isn’t clearly spelled out. This is actually a fun exercise and I invite you to flip through any recent issue of Live Sound International to see if you can spot what sort of argument is being deployed in each ad.

Just what does the conclusion of the ad in question seem to be? Is the ad relying on questionable premises in order to drive home its conclusion? Are some of the claims appealing to “most experts say” or “cool engineer X says” rather than a more direct empirically verifiable claim along the way? If so, the ad isn’t “bad” or somehow unethical, but it helps to set aside evidence like opinions from those of facts and treat them accordingly.

Does the meaning of a term shift (as in the fallacy of equivocation) as the argument moves forward? If so, these instances of “fuzzy” premises might give you reason to doubt the claim of their conclusion.

From an industry standpoint it might also be a good idea to work toward a standard terminology and definition with common specifications. If an ad leans on frequency response or maximum SPL or dispersion to stand up its overall argument, how should we go about determining the truth value of these premises?

An even trickier case arises when manufacturer A uses one methodology for SPL calculation and manufacturer B uses a different methodology. If two companies essentially make the same argument (same premises and conclusion), but the methods in which they are using to put forth the content within a premise vary (like SPL), who has the stronger argument?

Sounds like surveying an industry group comprised of all the leaders within pro audio could help, right? We haven’t gotten into the psychological aspect of advertising at all here, but we can thank folks like Edward Bernays (Freud’s nephew) for demonstrating why this approach could possibly go awry. “If you can influence the leaders, either with or without their conscious cooperation, you automatically influence the group which they sway,” he said.

To this point, Bernays enlisted the mostly unwitting assistance of physicians to support the claim that bigger breakfasts are better than a light breakfast. Bernays then had this finding published in newspapers with headlines like “4,500 physicians urge bigger breakfast” and as a result of these actions, the sale of his client’s product – bacon – went up.

Sorting It Out

Perhaps the answer is much more simple. Training. Education. Awareness. A more informed and educated group of pro audio customers should be able to better spot incomplete or misleading premises within arguments made by advertisers.

At the very least, training on the basics of audio reproduction should lead to a more complete and well-rounded view around what elements go into calculating different specifications and how those specifications come to bear upon audio quality and performance. I think there are many subtleties within this space and the vast majority of companies and marketers really do have their customers’ best interests in mind.

But remember that we are also tasked at the end of the day with informing and (possibly) persuading you. Persuading has many forms and is in no way “bad” within itself. It is my sincere hope that with a little bit of practice you can better spot any leaps in logic or psychological devices that “muddy the waters” within advertisements you encounter. I also think that we should focus more as an industry on better informing our customer base.

Lastly, it does seem like a careful and rigorous discussion by industry leaders to tighten up a standard process and meaning for common audio specifications could help us all move ahead in a mutually supportive manner. What do you think?

Go here to read part 1 of this discussion.

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