The term bandwagon (band-WAA-gun) refers to a common logical fallacy that suggests that because a belief, action, or trend is already popular, everyone should adopt it. This idea is a powerful persuasive tool that is often used in propaganda and advertising.
The word bandwagon was first used in English in 1849 and applied to a large wagon that carried the band in circus parades and political campaign celebrations. By 1899, in the writings of Theodore Roosevelt, the phrase attained its modern usage.
The term generally has negative connotations; it implies one “jumped on the bandwagon” because of an idea’s popularity rather than its actual merits. The bandwagon fallacy is sometimes called “the appeal to the masses” or “the appeal to common belief” because its sole appeal rests in the idea that the majority of people approve of something.
Bandwagon and Persuasion
Because humans are social animals, subject to peer pressure and the fear of missing (or being left) out, the bandwagon effect is a powerful tool of persuasion. Although its central tenet is a logical fallacy, the idea that “if everyone likes this, maybe I should too” still convinces many people. Of course, this tool’s effectiveness doesn’t negate the fallacy at its core: many massively popular things aren’t actually good. Anyone encountering an instance of the bandwagon effect may want to remember the classic childhood admonition: “Well, if all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you?”
Bandwagon Outside of Literature
The bandwagon effect can be seen in many disparate fields.
In politics, where the term originated, the bandwagon effect is primarily seen in the way that polls can influence voting. According to numerous studies, independent or undecided voters can be inclined to support a candidate who appears to be polling well. The bandwagon effect is also used in campaign slogans, speeches, and messages that indicate the candidate’s platform has mass appeal.
Advertising frequently relies on the bandwagon effect to ensure consumers opt for their product. For instance, Maybelline advertises their Great Lash Mascara as “America’s favorite mascara” and Oral-B toothcare proclaims itself to be “the brand more dentists and hygienists use.”
In economics, the bandwagon effect is called an information cascade. In this situation, people make the same decision sequentially, which influences others to ignore their own personal research and preferences in favor of following the crowd. For instance, everyone has a few unflattering fashion trends they followed just because it was in.
Examples of Bandwagon in Literature
1. George Orwell, Animal Farm
In the first chapter of Orwell’s novel, the animals are taught a song by Major. This song immediately becomes so popular that:
…the whole farm burst out into “Beasts of England” in tremendous unison. The cows lowed it, the dogs whined it, the sheep bleated it, the horses whinnied it, the ducks quacked it.
This appealing song and its popularity helps set the stage for the pigs Snowball, Squealer, and Napoleon to convince the other animals to adhere to their ideas.
2. Morgan Parker, “Ode to Fried Chicken’s Guest Appearance on Scandal”
In this poem from Parker’s third book, Magical Negro, she writes:
Everyone likes it.
That’s not the point…
…Everybody wants a taste
This poem focuses on the racial stereotypes associated with fried chicken, but in this moment, Parker’s discussing both the appeal of the bandwagon effect (“Everyone likes it” / “Everybody wants a taste”) and the fallacy of it (“That’s not the point”).
3. Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye
In the Winter section of Morrison’s first novel, a group of boys torment Pecola Breedlove:
…like a necklace of semiprecious stones they surrounded her. Heady with the smell of their own musk, thrilled by the easy power of a majority, they gaily harassed her…They had extemporized a verse… about matters over which the victim had no control: the color of her skin…That they themselves were black…was irrelevant.
These schoolyard bullies are two different versions of the bandwagon effect. On a micro level, each of them feels emboldened tormenting Pecola because they have “the easy power of the majority.” Then, on a cultural level, they feel comfortable insulting her for her skin color, despite also being black, because of “their contempt for their own blackness.” Morrison describes a tragic cultural component of the bandwagon effect: because American society has popularized the concept of beauty tied only to whiteness, these schoolyard bullies are teaching their classmate to hate herself for an attribute that they themselves possess.
Further Resources on Bandwagon
Propaganda Critic addresses the use of bandwagon on social media sites, focusing on how sock puppets and bots can be used to manipulate voters.
Kimberlee Leonard wrote an interesting article about bandwagon advertising techniques.