Tiger Woods is on the cereal box, promoting Wheaties as part of a balanced breakfast. Cher is endorsing a new line of cosmetics, and La Toya Jackson says that the Psychic Friends Network changed her life. The lead singer of R.E.M appears on a public service announcement and encourages fans to support the "Motor Voter Bill." The actor who played the bartender on Cheers is an outspoken environmentalist.
"This is the classic misuse of the Testimonial Device that comes to the minds of most of us when we hear the term. We recall it indulgently and tell ourselves how much more sophisticated we are than our grandparents or even our parents.
With our next breath, we begin a sentence, 'The Times said,' 'John L. Lewis said...,' 'Herbert Hoover said...', 'The President said...', 'My doctor said...,' 'Our minister said...' Some of these Testimonials may merely give greater emphasis to a legitimate and accurate idea, a fair use of the device; others, however, may represent the sugar-coating of a distortion, a falsehood, a misunderstood notion, an anti-social suggestion..." (Institute for Propaganda Analysis, 1938)
There is nothing wrong with citing a qualified source, and the testimonial technique can be used to construct a fair, well-balanced argument. However, it is often used in ways that are unfair and misleading.
The most common misuse of the testimonial involves citing individuals who are not qualified to make judgements about a particular issue. In 1992, Barbara Streisand supported Bill Clinton, and Arnold Schwarzenegger threw his weight behind George Bush. Both are popular performers, but there is no reason to think that they know what is best for this country.
Unfair testimonials are usually obvious, and most of us have probably seen through this rhetorical trick at some time or another. However, this probably happened when the testimonial was provided by a celebrity that we did not respect. When the testimony is provided by an admired celebrity, we are much less likely to be critical.
According to the Institute for Propaganda Analysis, we should ask ourselves the following questions when we encounter this device.
You may have noticed the presence of the testimonial technique in the previous paragraph, which began by citing the Insitute for Propaganda Analysis. In this case, the technique is justified. Or is it?
- Who or what is quoted in the testimonial?
- Why should we regard this person (or organization or publication) as having expert knowledge or trustworthy information on the subject in question?
- What does the idea amount to on its own merits, without the benefit of the Testimonial?