Tip #744: The Power of Counterarguments

“In contests of persuasion, counterarguments are typically more powerful than arguments.” Robert Cialdini

According to Cialdini, the superiority of counterarguments “emerges especially when a counterclaim does more than refute a rival’s claim by showing it to be mistaken or misdirected in the particular instance, but does so instead by showing the rival communicator to be an untrustworthy source of information, generally.

Issuing a counterargument demonstrating that an opponent’s argument is not to be believed because its maker is misinformed on the topic will usually succeed on that singular issue. But  a counterargument that undermines an opponent’s argument by showing him or her to be dishonest in the matter will normally win that battle plus future battles with the opponent.”

He offers a sequence for structuring a mystery-story-based case for the potency of counterarguments, using the American tobacco industry as an example.

  1. Pose the Mystery.

After a three-year decline of 10% in tobacco consumption in the US during the late 1960’s, Big Tobacco did something surprising that ended the decline and boosted consumption while slashing advertising expenditures by a third.

  1. Deepen the Mystery.

On July 29, 1969, representatives from the major American tobacco industries strongly advocated a proposal to ban their own ads from television and radio. As a result, tobacco advertising has been absent from the airwaves in the US since 1971.

  1. Home in on the Proper Explanation by Considering (and Offering Evidence Against) Alternative Explanations.

It wasn’t that the tobacco industry officials suddenly became concerned with forgoing profits to improve the well-being of their fellow citizens. No, they simply shifted their marketing to print ads, sports sponsorships, promotional giveaways and movie products. For example, Brown & Williamson, a tobacco company, paid for product placements in 22 films in just a four-year period!

  1. Provide a Clue to the Proper Explanation.

Why did Big Tobacco support the ban on broadcast ads? Because in 1967 the US Federal Communications Commission  had ruled that its fairness doctrine applied to tobacco advertising.  The fairness doctrine required that equal advertising time be granted (solely) on radio and television to all sides of important and controversial topics. If one side purchased broadcast time on these media, the opposing side must be given free time to counterargue.

  1. Resolve the Mystery.

For the first time, anti-tobacco forces such as the American Cancer Society could afford to air counterarguments to the tobacco company messages, ads that disputed the truthfulness of the images of healthy, attractive characters in the  tobacco ads. And during the three years that they ran, those anti-tobacco spots slashed tobacco consumption in the US by nearly 10%.

So, the tobacco industry worked politically to ban their own ads, but only on the air where the fairness doctrine applied. This way, the anti-tobacco forces no longer got free airtime to make their counterarguments. The result? The year after banning tobacco commercials on air, the tobacco companies witnessed a significant jump in sales, coupled with a significant drop in advertising expenditures.

  1. Draw the Implications for the Phenomenon Under Study.

The tobacco industry learned that one of the best ways to enhance audience acceptance of one’s message is to reduce the availability of strong counterarguments to it- because counterarguments are typically more powerful than arguments.

Cialdini points out that at this stage in the sequence, the teaching point about the superior impact and necessary availability of counterarguments is an explanation. As such, it produces more than recognition of basic facts or answers to specific questions.

”It produces an understanding of how certain psychological processes associated with the prepotency of counterarguments brought about both of those otherwise baffling events.”

 “Owing to its intrigue-fueled form, it carries a bonus. It’s part of a presentational approach constituted to attract audiences to the fine points of the information because to resolve any mystery or detective story properly, observers have to be aware of all the relevant details.”

It’s a great presentation sequence for an historical event. Can you see using this in other ways?

May your learning be sweet.


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