Partial Claims and Half-Truths Help

Updated on Sep 28, 2011

Introduction to Partial Claims and Half-Truths

"Do not put your faith in what statistics say until you have carefully considered what they do not say."

—William Whyte Watt, American author (unknown)

Lesson Summary

Every day, we're bombarded with partial claims and half-truths aimed at getting us to buy a product or support a cause. This lesson will show you how to recognize incomplete claims and hidden agendas.

You're relaxing on your sofa watching your favorite television show when it's time for a commercial break. Suddenly, a handsome announcer comes on the screen and tells you that new Stain-Ex laundry detergent outperforms the leading brand and costs less! Sounds like a great product. But should you run out and buy it?

Well, besides the fact that you're probably quite comfortable on your couch, the answer is no—at least not yet. Not until you investigate further.

Incomplete Claims

Why shouldn't you go out and buy Stain-Ex? After all, it "outperforms the leading brand" and "costs less!" So what's the problem?

The problem is that while the announcer's claims sound like facts, they're really quite misleading—and meant to be. Maybe Stain-Ex did "outperform" the leading brand (which brand is that?)—but in what category? Stain removing? Whitening? Brightening? Sudsing? Rinsing? Fragrance? The ad doesn't say. The claim sounds good, but because it is incomplete, you don't know exactly what it's claiming. And until youdetermine what it's claiming, it's difficult to accept it even as a tentative truth.

The commercial also claims that Stain-Ex "costs less." Because the first claim compares Stain-Ex to the leading brand, it's easy to assume that Stain-Ex costs less than the leading brand. But is that what the ad really says? If you aren't listening carefully, it's easy to hear what you want to hear, or rather, what the makers of Stain-Ex want you to hear. The commercial simply says that Stain-Ex "costs less." It never says less than what. To assume it costs less than the leading brand is to fall right into the ad's trap. This tactic is good for the makers of Stain-Ex, but not so good for you or the leading brand.

Flip through just about any popular magazine and you'll find page after page of advertisements that make this kind of incomplete claim. These ads mayuse vague words or phrases, leave out essential information, or compare incomparable items. For example, you might see an ad claiming that new Crispy Potato Chips have one-third the fat per serving of Munch Chips. Sounds good, right? But what important informationhas been left out? What do you need to know to determine whether this is a fair comparison?

What the ad leaves out is the serving size. Without that information, how do you know it's a fair comparison? Maybe a serving of Crispy Chips is two ounces, whereas a serving of Munch Chips is six ounces, in which case Crispy Chips is just as fattening as Munch Chips. To be on the safe side, beware of any comparison that is incomplete or vague.


Have you ever written an ad for something? It might have been for your family's garage sale or your old apartment. It could have been for your handmade beaded necklaces or your used car that you hoped to sell. When you wrote those ads, what words did you use to describe the item? Most likely you used words that were complimentary—and sometimes not exactly honest. When you read ads, keep an eye out for those statements that might be an exaggeration.

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