Moving the Goalposts

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
No, not literally.

"Every time we get a yard ahead, Ryan goes and moves the goal line down to the other side of the field!"


Characters A and B make a deal. However, Character A has much more power than Character B, usually because Character B is really desperate for whatever Character A is offering, and will do whatever it takes to get it. Character A ends up abusing this power badly, reneging on the initial agreement and making a seemingly endless series of demands without ever keeping his end of the bargain. This is Moving the Goalposts.

Take this for example: Jim wants in to an exclusive club, but he needs a recommendation from an established member to be considered. Jim's neighbor, Harry, is a member held in high esteem within the club. If Harry recommends Jim, he's is almost guaranteed to be allowed in. So, Jim goes off to ask his neighbor for a favor. Harry agrees to do it... if Jim can get him a date for the company Christmas party next week. Jim enlists his sister for the job. Harry says the girl's very nice, but it would make an even better impression on the company bigwigs if they showed up in a limo. Jim books a limo at his own expense. Harry thanks Jim for the car... but then mentions that he really, really needs an expensive present to give to his boss... Should Jim protest, Harry will threaten to take his offer Off the Table altogether—usually after Jim has already spent time and/or money in keeping his end of the bargain.

Harry has no intention of fulfilling his end of the agreement. There are usually two possibilities for why this is so: either Harry doesn't want Jim to get what he wants (e.g. he really doesn't want Jim in his club) and is devising a really elaborate method of putting him off, or he's opportunistic and greedy, realizing that he has a personal servant as long as he can keep Jim hanging with the vague promise that he'll meet his request.

This set up can end in a number of ways. Sometimes, just to add insult to injury, Harry will manipulate Jim until he gets bored or has everything he needs, then tells Jim sorry, but the club's not accepting new members. Sometimes this will result in a Freak-Out and some well deserved retribution. Alternatively, Harry will develop a conscience (or a third party will hammer one into him) and finally give Jim the introduction he needs. A third option is that Jim will decide Celebrity Is Overrated and no reward is worth endless, humiliating and unappreciated labor. In Fairy Tales, the king setting Impossible Tasks may eventually decide it's not worth it, but usually one of the tasks backfires on him. Badly.

There's also a Blackmail version of this trope, where the powerful party keeps his word—more or less—but makes it clear that he could change his mind at any time. Murder mysteries that involve the death of a blackmailer usually cite this as a motive: the blackmailer made an initial demand that was met, but soon realized that they had their victim trapped, and kept making additional demands until the victim decided the only way to get free was to kill their tormentor. Military/political agreements where one force is stronger than the other often have this connotation to them: a one-off favor might be used to bully the weaker country or politician into supporting the stronger, whether they like it or not. Indeed, it can be a problem with any Leonine Contract.

The effect on the viewer depends on whose side they're on. If they like the weaker partner of the deal, it can be hugely frustrating to see them strung along like this (expect to be yelling What an Idiot! fairly loudly). If their sympathies lie with the more powerful half though, it can be used as slapstick humor. If the roles are usually reversed (Jim is Harry's boss, for example) it can be used to give a bossy or overbearing character their comeuppance.

On the odd occasion, Harry might have genuinely good intentions. Maybe Jim wants Harry to introduce him to Harry's pretty coworker, who Harry knows is a Manipulative Bitch and a Gold Digger, so he tries to deter Jim from the girl without saying outright that she's bad news because he knows Jim wouldn't believe him.

There also exists a situation that looks like this, but isn't: the proposed item fulfills the stated requirements, but not the unstated ones. For example, offering a reward for the head of a Gunslinger, but forgetting to add "unattached to his body". Or asking for a polite courtier, and getting one who delights in stealth insults and backhanded compliments.

"Moving the goal posts" is one of the more insidious forms of invisible or unrecognized child abuse: studies have shown that children with parents who keep moving the goalposts often suffer from serious trust issues for the rest of their lives.

"Moving the goal posts" can also be used to describe a debate 'tactic' (read: fallacy). In this scenario, essentially Harry will make a point or demand evidence to counter his argument. Jim provides evidence or a counter argument to Harry's original argument. Harry then dismisses the evidence and/or demands further evidence on grounds which were not introduced or required in the original point and which may only be tangentially linked to Harry's original point, if indeed they are linked at all. For example, Harry claims that there's no product that easily kills fleas on cats. Jim directs him to a product which does so, only for Harry to then dismiss Jim's point by claiming that the product in question doesn't kill fleas on cats and on dogs. Essentially, Harry is attempting to wriggle out of having to acknowledge Jim's evidence or concede the point (usually because he otherwise has no rebuttal) by changing the terms of the debate and/or the subject entirely without anyone noticing.

As a debate tactic, a common variation is "Motte and Bailey doctrine": one uses a desirable, but only lightly defensible position, when hard pressed retreats from it into very defensible, but undesired position, then returns after the "siege" ends. This can be facilitated by switching a lax definition (equivocation). It's so pervasive exactly because outside mathematics solid definitions are uncommon, and on already shaky ground it doesn't even take a premeditated dishonesty, succumbing to Confirmation Bias can be enough.

Provocative enticement (such as clickbait and its grandpa Super Dickery) often involves similar tricks, but in this case the whole point is to lure the other side into a place much less attractive if presented as it is, and seemingly easy to contest or otherwise low on effort-to-gratification baits are valuable only as means to the end.

Compare Taking Advantage of Generosity. Can overlap with Social Darwinism.

Compare and contrast There Will Be Cake. I Lied is the even more shameless version. Certain character types, like the Bad Boss who always has one last task for their employees to do before they get a "favor" that they had earned anyway, are particularly prone to this trope. See also Win Your Freedom, Obvious Rule Patch, and No True Scotsman.

Sadly, not only Truth in Television but a common tactic employed by those running a 419 Scam or Spanish Prisoner one.

Examples of Moving the Goalposts include:


  • One Outback Steakhouse commercial played with this - the proprietor was offering a free steak to whoever could hit a bullseye on a dartboard. Cue a dozen darts all in that spot. "Wait, did I say bullseye? I meant a triple 20." The last line of the commercial: "Wait, did I say blindfolded?"

Anime and Manga

  • In One Piece, this is more or less Nami's backstory. Arlong forced her to amass a very large sum of money to buy back her village's freedom. When she finally does (a process that takes her several years), he gets a corrupt Marine buddy of his to confiscate it before she can officially pay him back, and tells her to start from scratch. Fortunately for Nami, Luffy and his crew decide to beat the everloving tar out of Arlong and his men.
  • In Ranma ½, a village hosts a race: whoever arrives first wins an all-expenses-paid trip to a spring resort of their choosing (including the Cursed Springs that gave the main character his curse and also has the cure). However, the village doesn't actually have the money to pay for the trip, so they place increasingly dangerous obstacles on the course to dissuade everyone from finishing, finally resorting, when everything else fails, to Moving the Goalposts; literally in this case, as two villagers lift the goal and carry it away from the approaching racers.
  • The villains in Kaiji like doing this. Congratulations, you just won a ticket worth several million yen! Now you just need to go cash it in at the adjacent building (which means walking a long, narrow steel beam, suspended hundreds of meters above ground and rigged with traps.)
  • More than one Asshole Victim in Detective Conan was killed by the person they were subjecting to this. The most infamous case is the Complete Monster mystery writer Daisuke Torakura.

Fairy Tales


  • The Empire Strikes Back. Vader makes a "deal" with Lando that, if Lando turns Han over to The Empire, then the Empire will leave Cloud City alone. Vader then turns Han over to Boba Fett and tells Lando that Leia and Chewie will have to remain prisoners on Cloud City. Then Vader decides that he's taking Leia and Chewie with him and threatens to leave a garrison if Lando keeps complaining. It's also suggested that Vader is going to leave a garrison anyway. When Lando calls him on it, Vader threatens him:

Vader: I am altering the deal. Pray I do not alter it any further.
Lando's response is to evacuate Cloud City, helping Luke, Leia, and Chewie escape.

    • Luke himself had to put up with this from his Parental Substitutes; he'd apparently been promised to go to the Academy "next year" for several years.
  • The Disney version of Cinderella: the Wicked Stepmother promises Cinderella to let her go to the ball... if she can find a dress, and if she finishes her chores on time. Naturally, she and the stepsisters pile on the chores so that she can never be done on time, let alone find a dress. When she does come down with a dress (courtesy of her animal friends), the stepmother lets the sisters rip it to shreds.
  • Subverted in Office Space: Joanna's annoying boss attempts this, guilting her about wearing the "bare minimum" number of pieces of flair. She never takes the bait, and eventually after a particularly long and insistent chat about this walks out.
  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail: The Nights Who Say "Ni!" like to do this to King Arthur and his knights. Or at least, they tried.
  • In Down Periscope, the main characters take part in a military exercise using submarines, but keep getting tighter restrictions placed on them. It reaches the point that Failure Is the Only Option if they follow the guidelines, so they go pirate and simply ignore the rules to sink their target (though the restrictions aren't authorized by the right higher ups, but by the antagonist).
    • In fact, the "right higher ups" encourage ignoring the rules: the idea was to see whether a mechanically-obsolete invader (Captain Dodge in a WWII-era diesel boat) could successfully pull off a strike, right past the state-of-the-art defenders (Rear Admiral Graham, in a Los Angeles class nuclear attack sub. The right higher ups are rather amused by the defender being so helpless that he needs to add "and I have to know when and where the attacker will be coming from in order to catch him"-like a real invader would make it so easy!).

Dodge: I think I'm going to get my ass kicked, sir.
Winslow: Dammit, don't think like that. Don't go by the book. Think like a pirate. I need a man with a tattoo on his dick! Now do I have the right man?
Dodge: By some strange coincidence, you do, sir.

    • It's explicitly lampshaded in a post-climax conversation between the antagonistic Rear Admiral Graham and Vice Admiral Winslow (the "Right higher up") who pointed out each complaint of Graham's as the fact that he had been illegally changing the rules of the game from the beginning, and that Dodge had in fact performed to the letter of the law as it had been originally written.
  • Similarly to the above is the movie The Pentagon Wars, also staring Kelsey Grammer, in this case featuring a fictionalized version of events about the development of the Bradley fighting vehicle. In this case, the lack of armor for the vehicle was largely ignored to allow it to be developed anyway.
  • This is implied to have already happened in the lead-up to Gunny Highway taking over the command of Recon Platoon in the movie Heartbreak Ridge. Specifically, rather than traditional "war games", Recon has been reduced to instigating a very blatant and unsuccessful ambush of the more "elite unit" and be faux-slaughtered horribly. Highway, who has already had several tours of duty (it was his off-duty antics that got him in trouble) knew that the enemy would never be so considerate as to only set up an ambush at a previously agreed upon time and place; so he moved the goalposts back and Recon proceeded to annihilate the unprepared "elites".


  • Tamora Pierce's Protector of the Small series features the first girl to legitimately train as a page. The trainer, Lord Wyldon, doesn't approve of female knights and puts her on probation. If she can't keep up with the boys, she will be dismissed. The girl, Kel, excels at her training... but rather than lift the probation, Wyldon keeps setting her more and more difficult tasks, sometime literally moving the goalposts (or at least the archery target/jousting target) in an attempt to dissuade her, while not demanding the same standard of his male trainees. He ends up conceding defeat in the end though, only because Kel is that good. (At one point he shouts at her for screwing up at jousting, something she normally excelled at - why was she suddenly waving her lance all over the damn place? "I'm terribly sorry, sir, I forgot to ask for a weighted one at the armory. This one's too light.")
    • Wyldon gets to justify himself later on, though. Among his reasons are a desire to see Kel given her shield on her own merits, with absolutely no possibility of accusations of trickery.
    • In Squire he admits that even though she passed every test and worked uncomplaining through everything he threw at her, even though she kept going when he thinks most of the boys she was training besides would have quit, he almost didn't let her pass her first, probationary period. His honor made him let her pass, but it was a close thing, and by that point the thought of how close it was shames him.
  • This is the method used by the N.I.C.E. in C.S. Lewis' That Hideous Strength to recruit Mark Studdock and others. Mark desperately wants to be in "the inner circle" and the various evil members of the N.I.C.E. use the promise of a sure position or moving up in the N.I.C.E. to manipulate Mark into more and more compromising acts.
  • This is one of the main plot points of Catch-22. There are a certain number of missions each pilot has to fly before they can go home, but Colonel Cathcart keeps raising the number of missions before anybody does.
  • A major part of the colony world of Harmony And Reason in the Rats Bats and Vats novels. All 'Vats', or cloned citizens, are charged for the cost of being cloned, raised, and trained by the government. This charge is put to absurdly high compound interest, plus additional charges for mandatory 'luxuries' like training camps owned by Shareholders. If a Vat lives very frugally and has a very successful career, he might theoretically buy himself out of debt and purchase a single share in the colony before dying of old age (a Vat who owes money to the Colony cannot purchase shares). Why? Because only Shareholders can vote, and they don't want the Vats getting enfranchised.
  • This tended to be done literally in football games in the Discworld novels before the events of Unseen Academicals
  • In Echoes of Honor, a version similar to the Down Periscope example happened. An admiral who didn't care for a new technical development managed to get himself put on charge of the evaluation board, and started putting more and more restrictions on how the weapons could be used in an effort to get a test battle in which the new LACs would be decisively defeated, and use this to justify scrapping the project. The captain in charge of the final stage of the project retaliated by sending memos to the admirals superiors mentioning her concerns about the test parameters, which would presumably lead to the higher-ups looking at the results of all the tests, rather than just the one where the LACs failed, and realizing that they lost because the admiral stacked the deck. This counter was never actually needed, as an attack on the base where the tests were conducted forced the LACs into actual combat early, in a battle where they decisively defeated the invading fleet.
  • The Battle School in Ender's Game uses this principle. Ender is virtually unbeatable in his war exercises so the administration of the school start stacking the odds against him. Ender's opponents are given such benefits as head-starts to strategically place their troops, partial immunity to Ender's weapons, and eventually are allowed to attack him with vastly superior numbers. Ender starts using technically-legal but unconventional strategies to win, which the administration always makes illegal after every victory. Ender eventually gets so pissed off at the blatant cheating that he starts outright breaking the rules of combat himself, which it turns out was exactly what the administration wanted.

Live Action TV

  • Inverted in one episode of Touched By an Angel, when a woman, joined by Monica, has difficulty completing an obstacle course designed for men, specifically that rope n' wall thing. She trains hard to overcome the difference, then the chauvinist Drill Sarge tells her that she doesn't have to complete the same course as the men, being allowed to skip said wall. Monica finishes, and the woman falls behind. Just before she crosses the line, she stops and asks the Sarge whether command actually sent that order, instead of it just being the Sarge's requirement. Then she goes back, climbs the wall, and makes it across the line just in time.
  • This seemed to be what was going on in Kung Fu. Whenever Caine would complete a task, it seemed his master would come up with something else he had to do (snatch the pebble from my hand, walk on rice paper without tearing it, etc.).
    • Unlike many other examples on this page, I doubt that Caine's master was trying to be spiteful or mean to him. Rather, I believe he was encouraging Caine to push the boundaries of his own mind and body, and overcome his prior limitations, so that he would be capable and receptive to the greater mysteries of the martial arts. Admittedly, it certainly must have seemed cruel or unfair to young Caine at times during his early training, though.
  • The original Battlestar Galactica from the 1970s. After betraying the 13 Colonies to the Cylons, Baltar is brought before the Imperious Leader.

Imperious Leader: Welcome, Baltar. I have grave news. A handful of Colonials prevail, but we will soon find them.
Baltar: What of our bargain? My colony was to be spared!
Imperious Leader: I now alter the bargain.
Baltar: How can you change one side of a bargain?
Imperious Leader: When there is no other side.

  • The "blackmail" variant was used on The Office, when Phyllis made increasing demands of Angela to keep her silence about the latter's affair.
  • In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode, "In the Pale Moonlight", when the character Tolar protests that he has fulfilled his obligations to Sisko and Garak: "We had an agreement." Sisko responds with the words, "I'm making a new agreement." - Thus implying that their previous arrangements are invalid.
  • In Stargate SG-1, the computer does this to Teal'c during a virtual reality battle scenario, and the characters even refer to it by name. Every time he completes the scenario, it adds an additional element to keep him from winning. It does eventually hit a wall, but it took a while.
    • It's worse than that; Teal'c was moving the goalposts himself. The scenario was designed to program itself around an individual's own beliefs and experiences; at this point in the story, Teal'c was convinced of the righteousness of fighting the Guoa'uld, but still firmly believed that it was a fight that was impossible to win, hence every "victory" quickly becoming a surprising defeat.
  • Burn Notice had a very small-scale one: Sam is trying to get a list of companies from the head of a local Better Business Bureau type group. The contact keeps saying he will have it soon - at every (expensive) lunch meeting they have. Probably by the next meeting. Eventually Sam claims to be CIA, and frightens the contact into turning over the list.
  • On Malcolm in the Middle, Francis comes up with a pair of Monster Truck rally tickets, and keeps making deals with his brothers for them only to renege. When he eventually ditches all of them to take a girl, they respond by framing him for kidnapping.
  • The English comedy series End Of Part One did this—although the goalposts weren't moved very far.

Norman Straightman: Sir, I really do need a loan.
Bank Manager: ...Get on your knees.
Norman: ... (does so) Please?
Bank Manager: (smiling) No.



  • In the folk song "Soldier, Soldier, Will You Marry Me?", the soldier keeps coming up with things he lacks that would be necessary for a proper wedding (clean shoes, a good coat, and so on), which the young lady supplies for him. In the end, having obtained a complete new outfit at the young lady's expense, he admits to one more obstacle that she can't overcome -- he has a wife already.

Mythology and Religion

  • In The Bible, this is how Jacob ended up with two wives. Laban had two daughters, and Jacob fell in love with the younger one, Rachel. The father agreed to let Jacob marry her if he worked on Laban's land for seven years. Jacob obliged. At the end of his agreement, Laban snuck the elder daughter, Leah, into bed with Jacob in the dark of night, and in the morning claimed that he couldn't possibly let the younger daughter marry before the elder. He gave Rachel to Jacob shortly after in exchange for another seven years' labor (Bet the daughters were really grateful to dear old dad for this set-up), so Jacob continued working. He ended up walking off with almost half of Laban's possessions at the end of twenty years.
    • It's worth noting that Laban was Jacob's uncle. Yes, the man was enough of a greedy Jerkass to swindle his own nephew out of seven years of labor. As for the twenty years bit, after Jacob had worked for 14 years for his wives, he stayed with Laban as a contractor for six years, wherein Jacob would not be paid any cash, but they would divide the flock between them according to certain features on the sheep (whatever sheep had a certain feature would go to Jacob). Again, Laban tried to swindle Jacob by interfering with his ability to breed sheep that would bear the features that would go to him as his payment. This ends up backfiring.
  • In some tellings, the reason Hercules had Twelve Labors is because the king invalidated two labors (cleaning the Augean Stables and slaying the hydra) for technicalities. In the case of the hydra, he had Iolaus help him by burning the neck-stumps, so Hercules hadn't performed the labor alone. In the case of the stables, it was disqualified either because he was paid for the job, or because he did it by redirecting a river and therefore "the river did the work".

Newspaper Comics

  • In the comic strip Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz, Lucy does this very literally - she repeatedly fools Charlie Brown by snatching away the football he is about to kick. This captures the feeling of this trope in a single instant, distilled down to its essence.

Tabletop Games

  • A variant of this is used by loonie fans (or shills, it's often hard to tell) so often that it got its own name: "Oberoni Fallacy". It's an argument that boils down to a variation of "X can be fixed, therefore it's not broken", i.e. it redefines a criterion under the table fast enough that the whole becomes self-contradictory.

Video Games

  • In the Animal Crossing series of video games, your character moves into a new town full of animals. The local shopkeeper, Tom Nook, sets you up with a place to live... and then gives you a bill that you cannot possibly afford. Even after your stint as his personal assistant, it will still take you some time to pay off the debt. Once you do, he offers to renovate your house, and ends up doing so whether you agree or not. And sticks you with that bill as well. It takes many iterations of this pattern before he is content to let you not be in his debt.
  • In the video game The Misadventures of Tron Bonne you start out with a million in debt that you have to pay off. When you raise that money, the loan shark takes it and insists that you now owe Interest that comes to 2 million MORE. When you finally pay that off, he says that you owe interest on your interest. When the main character refuses to comply, he kidnaps her and forces you to just invade and destroy everything.
    • The ending shows Teisel claiming that it was all part of his plan to get the entire stash of the Big Bad. On one hand, tricking someone you know will try this trope is believable. On the other hand... the Bonnes coming up with that? Really?
  • In Sword of Vermillion a greedy king makes you go through three progressively larger and harder dungeons in order to get a ring you need. In the end, the hero gets fed up and forces the king at swordpoint to hand the ring over. And it turns out the ring is a fake.
  • In Steal Princess you need to pay debt to the kingdom (the main character's a thief), when the first (relatively cheap) payment is done, the king moves the goalpost up because he says that he's compensating for the expensive things that were stolen. This repeats several times.
  • Doom 3 was like this: Whenever you reach whichever location you were previously ordered to go, your squadmates have already gone ahead and your commander would radio you to go someplace else, making it feel as if you were accomplishing literally nothing in the game. Or rather, nothing beyond killing a lot of zombies and stuff, which is the real point anyway.
  • Both New Super Mario Bros. titles work this way. In the old days, you were simply in the wrong castle, but this time around every single fortress/castle is the one containing the princess, but you'll watch her get swept away to the next one seventeen times in a row, Mario.
    • Unless you use a cannon, in which case the bad guys graciously move the princess ahead for you.
    • Didn't Hotel Mario do the same thing? Dare me to find her, indeed...
  • Samurai Warriors Katana. Tachibana Ginchiyo in Savior Story's last stage. First, she tells you to get to the top of an inclined plane without taking any damage. You will fail this part repeatedly because the game doesn't adequately explain how to strafe, the specific control scheme is ONLY used in that area, and you can't attack. When you reach the top, she sends 30-ish enemies at you and expects you to defeat them without any attacks landing successfully on you (you can block attacks and deflect arrows as usual). Fail here, and you have to do the first part again. Only thing saving it from being That One Level is that once you deal with the enemies, Tachibane concedes that you're actually strong and doesn't make you fight her.
  • You're working to bring ale to The Snake in one mission in Stronghold. The quota is low first, but it's likely that as soon your industry begins to run, he makes an excuse to demand more. He mercifully stops after a while, allowing you to complete the mission. If you know this is coming (one of the level hints points out that the Snake isn't trustworthy, but that's it), you can stockpile a large amount of hops before you start brewing ale. If you subsequently make enough brewers, you can complete his task before he moves the goalposts, but it's tough.
  • In King's Quest IV, the Big Bad captures Rosella and sets her to a task to earn her freedom. Upon completing that task, she is given a second one, followed by a third.
  • In Ultima VII: Serpent Isle, you need to free a captain so that you can sail to the next town. The guards want you to pay his fine: 100 Monetari. If you try to pay the fine, they up the fine to some amount slightly larger than the amount of Monetari you have on hand, and will continue to do this if you come back with more. The only way to free the man is to track down a cache of gold bars. This can make the game Unwinnable or cause a Game Breaker depending on what you do with the gold bars. If you convert the bullion into Monetari, the guards will just up the fine again. If you offer to pay in bullion, the guards will take all of your bullion and free the captain. If you drop all but one of the bars, you can free the captain, reclaim the rest of the bullion, and have more than enough money for the rest of the game.
  • Blast Corps. Save the world from the missile carrier! Now save this random shuttle! Now go the moon! Now get all the gold medals! Now go to more planets! Now do it faster! Now go for Platinum! You Can Stop Now.
  • A literal example happens in Sonic Generations. In Crisis City act 1, the player sees the goal post at the end of an indoor (or as close to it as it's possible to get in that level) segment. When they approach, the fire tornado that they've seen a few times throughout the level rips the sign away from the building, and deposits it at the end of the next section.
  • In the remake of Final Fantasy VII, Madame M demands Cloud and Aerith win the Corneo Colosseum tournament before she lets them attend Don Corneo's audition. Normally, this would mean winning three matches, which are themselves unfairly stacked against the two heroes. After they do win, Don himself demands a fourth match, because he realizes Cloud and Aerith are making him a fortune by participating. In Madame M's defense, she seems even angrier than Cloud and Aerith are about this.

Western Animation

  • In the Futurama episode "A Clockwork Origin," Dr. Banjo insists that Prof. Farnsworth provide a "missing link" between humans and prehistoric apes. With each link the professor provides, Dr. Banjo demands a link between that link and the prehistoric ape. This continues for a long time until the professor can no longer provide a link.
  • In the SpongeBob SquarePants episode "I'm Your Biggest Fanatic" SpongeBob is trying to get into the Jellyfishers' Club, but their leader Kevin keeps stringing him along with increasingly difficult tasks, at which SpongeBob succeeds with ease. When they finally come up with something sufficiently impossible, it winds up in Kevin being Hoist by His Own Petard as the fake "queen jellyfish" he creates attracts a real king jellyfish, and SpongeBob saves the day, revealing Kevin as a complete loser.
  • Robot Chicken had a sketch playing with the famous moment from The Empire Strikes Back mentioned above. In the sketch, Vader keeps adding ridiculous elements to the deal ("Furthermore I wish you to wear this dress and bonnet!" "Here is a unicycle, you are to ride it wherever you go" "Also you are to wear these clown shoes and refer to yourself as 'Mary'") whenever Lando mutters under his breath. It only stops when Lando figures out what's happening and says, "This deal... is very fair and I'm happy to be a part of it."
  • In the Transformers Prime episode "Crisscross", Airachnid kidnaps Jack's mother and says she'll let her go if Jack finds her within a time limit. Jack does so, but at the last second Airachnid changes the challenge from "find her" to "rescue her"; since Jack didn't save her from where he found her, Airachnid takes that as her excuse to kill them both.
  • In an episode of Arthur, Buster wants to be friends with a couple of skateboarding older kids. The skateboarders promise to let him hang out with them if he performs a humiliating dare. He does, but then they tell him he must perform another dare if he wants to be "initiated." After a series of ever-more humiliating dares, Arthur manages to convince Buster that they're just stringing him along for entertainment value.

Real Life

  • Corporations in the 19th century would set up "Company Towns" with "Company Stores" where the employees could get ridiculously easy credit. Of course, this had hideous interest, plus the rent and inflated prices all put the employees in a state of perpetual debt. Since the debt was to their employer, in effect they were just handing in their wage packets and couldn't save anything. This inevitably led to riots, conspiracies, mass murders, and the formation of labor unions. Google the Molly Maguires.
    • Referenced in the song "Sixteen Tons," about the trials and tribulations of a coal miner: "You load sixteen tons, and what do you get? / Another day older and deeper in debt / St. Peter, don't you call me, 'cause I can't go / I owe my soul to the Company Store."
    • Feudalism worked on a similar basis, as did indentured servitude and the system of sharecropping used to keep American blacks in servitude in the South between the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement.
      • This wasn't restricted to blacks. There were many poor whites, especially through the first half of the 20th Century, who were sharecroppers.
    • That was also the main reason why Bolsheviks easily got support of factory workers in large cities, greatly aiding them during Russian Revolution.
    • And how some sweatshops work today.
    • As do sex slavery rings. In theory, the foreign prostitutes only have to pay back the money the pimps invested on their transport and they'll get their papers back to move as they wish. They even get 50% or more of the money they collect "performing." But then they just have to pay the food, shelter and "protection" with that same money, and the original debt always has interests...
      • Many brothels also charge the sex-slave prostitutes for birth control pills, and shots to prevent STDs. Oftentimes, the prostitutes are forced to take these pills and shots, so they'll have to pay off more money even if they didn't want the drugs in the first place.
    • The World Bank and IMF operate like this to a extent too; giving loans for projects designed to improve less developed nations at exorbitant rates, and practicing what is known as "Structural Adjustment", which cuts out things like building roads, schools, and other public services so they can make a profit. As this actually by and large makes things actually much worse for the people of less developed nations, they came under heavy fire for this towards the end of the 20th century, and heavily revised their methods.
  • 419 scams work this way, with the perpetrators asking for bank fees, bribes for officials, money for "taxes," and so forth, with the promise of millions of dollars to come, until the victim either wises up or is cleaned out—literally, in many cases.
    • Then there are "scambaiters," who like to invert this trope by pretending to be unsuspecting victims and making the scammers do time-wasting and embarrassing things, hopefully distracting them from actual victims.
  • Until 2009, the revolving credit laws in the U.S. allowed an even worse abuse: The credit card companies were free to raise the interest rate on existing balances at any time, for just about any reason. You could get a credit card with a 4.9% interest rate, buy a $1,000 item with it, make two months' worth of minimum payments to reduce your balance to $980—and then credit card company could raise the interest rate to 19.9% on the entire remaining $980 balance. Not even variable interest rate mortgages have that kind of abusive power (their interest rates have to be tied to government-controlled indices).
    • Creditors encourage you to pay off the minimum amount when you first get a credit card. This is to help show creditors that you are capable of handling a little bit on creeping bill fees before getting neck deep. YMMV on if there is any truth to this statement, or if it's Schmuck Bait.
      • It's Schmuck Bait. What is good advice is to regularly make small purchases on your card and pay them off in full every month. Not using your card at all is actually harmful to your credit rating (no, I don't understand that either).
      • If you don't use your card, the credit card companies don't make any money off you. Credit card companies don't want clients who run up tens of thousands of dollars of debt that they might never pay off, but they also don't want clients who only run up a little debt at a time and pay it off immediately either, because they just make pennies off people like that. The ideal customer carries a few hundred dollars of debt at a time and misses payments now and then through forgetfulness so they can be dinged with late fees. So, basically, not using your card is bad for your credit rating because credit card companies practice punch-clock villainy.
      • It's also worth noting that unless you regularly use any credit extended to you, you don't build up a 'risk score'. If you've only ever had one line of credit, and rarely/never used it, you'll still struggle to get, for example, a mortgage, because lenders won't know where you sit on the sliding scale of risk, and therefore will err on the side of caution and not lend you anything worth having.
      • Another possible explination is that an individual who doesn't have/use a credit card is unwilling to take on a debt, either because they can't or won't pay it off.
  • This was something that happens regularly in the US Army for enlisted promotions. The promotion lists are based on cut-off scores - if you have more points than the cut-off score, you're eligible for promotion. This is a constantly-moving line and when the Army doesn't need any more of a particular rank in a particular field, they set the score to be higher than the number of points obtainable in that rank/field.
    • For example, if you've gotten every point possible, say 798 points, the Army may set the cut-off to 799, knowing good and well that this means no one will be promoted.
    • The Army also inverts the trope in a frequently frustrating way. With the promotion point cut-off set high the only way to get the promotion is to work hard across a number of areas to earn points. However, just after after earning enough points to reach the high cut-off score, the Army suddenly decides it needs a lot of promotions in your field. Sure, you're going to get promoted, but so are all the lazy-asses who sat around while you busted your hump.
    • In one case in the early 1990s, a senior enlisted promotion board met and needed to eliminate some of the otherwise qualified candidates for promotions. After going through the records of every candidate, the board determined that all of them were more or less equal. The promotion board then decided to eliminate any candidate who had a mustache in his official photo. Surely, no one in the Army was aware that a promotion may hinge on the presence or absence of facial hair.
    • This is also the case for all military recruitment. The standards needed to join the military change depending on how badly they need recruits.
  • This is also a known tactic of many parents to get their children motivated without actually having to cough up a reward when the goal is achieved.
    • In a stand-up routine, Christopher Titus says that his father was like this with any achievement he brought home growing up. If he got an A on a test his dad would point out that it's not an A+. When he graduated high school, Dad noted that he wasn't valedictorian. When he got a decent job his father said that if he were a real man he'd go into business for himself. Finally he tells his dad that he owns his own entertainment company, has his own television show, and makes more money in a week than his dad makes in a year. His father is briefly speechless...and then says that there's no way he could have done it without all the "excellent" motivation he got.
  • This sort of behavior is the distinguishing mark of an Unpleasable Fanbase: Match their original demands and you'll be met with even more extravagant ones (which some will claim to have been stated all along).
  • This happens in the trucking industry, including garbage collection. The company decides that in order to justify paying you a certain amount of money, you have to collect a certain amount of garbage per week (which on paper sounds fair enough). If you start approaching that limit however, they then determine that you're capable of collecting more and raise the amount of trash they expect you to collect. Which means you go from collecting, say, 98% of your total amount to closer to 90% (while still collecting the same weight). And since you're now only collecting 90% of what they say you can collect, they're cutting your pay since obviously you must be slacking off.
    • Which means that even if you work overtime, they can still say you're not giving it your best.
    • Sales organizations in most American companies tend to work the same way. When a new salesman is hired, he's given a weekly/monthly/quarterly sales quota to fill, and a certain percentage commission of all sales he makes. If he does well, though, it "must" be because the product is good enough to sell itself—so his quota is raised and his commission percentage is reduced. This continues until the salesman quits the company out of frustration and goes to work for a new company with a new set of promises, at which point the trend starts all over again.
    • Sometimes departmental funding works like this in some companies; if they come in significantly under budget by whatever their deadline is, they have to find ways to fritter that extra money away, or else the impressive feat they managed this interval will become the new budget for next interval, regardless of whether or not dumb luck happened to come into last interval's providence at all.
      • This is pointed out in Freeman's Mind when he explains capitalism by talking about the giant 'nutcracker'. It's almost like he's using Freeman to make a point to the audience. "If we don't spend a billion dollars this year then we don't get a billion dollars next year. If we don't get billion dollars next year, then we have to hire lobbyists to get our billion dollars the year after that and no wants that because we would be competing with other lobbyists. That's how capitalism works. It's just easy to build a giant 'nutcracker' and write it off."
      • Also tends to be an explanation for government funded tasks. For road maintenance teams for instance, they may work on a road that didn't really need fixing. The idea is, they had extra money in their budget and they have to spend it. If they don't, then they get less to work with, and spending more in the government is always a bad idea.
  • Tends to show up in Super Slave Markets that sell extended warranties and/or computer services. If you or your store do well a particular week/month/etc, your goal will be adjusted upward, the demand becoming increasingly harder to reach every time it goes up. And of course, when you inevitably can't reach it, there's a stern talking to about how much you "failed to meet expectations."
  • Conspiracy Theorists are absurdly fond of this. When pressed, they will claim that they don't have to prove their theories correct, they only have to poke holes in the official story. (See the point above.) For example, they will insist that the NIST simulation of the 9/11 World Trade center collapse is incorrect because it doesn't show exactly what happened. Nevermind that the rest of their reasoning holds up, or that simulating the millions or billions of pieces of debris would probably be impossible even on a Cray.
  • Famous anecdote from philosophy: When Plato gave Socrates' definition of man as "featherless bipeds" and was much praised for the definition, Diogenes plucked a chicken and brought it into Plato's Academy, saying, "Behold! I've brought you a man." After this incident, "with broad flat nails" was added to Plato's definition.
  • The scientific method, more precisely the ideas of fallibilism championed by Karl Popper et. al., can be summarized as doing this to yourself For Science!! What, your theory predicts all the observed phenomena including that were never even recognized before as accurately as can yet be measured? So? What about this phenomenon...
  • Moving the Goalposts is also a common (if unsavory) debating tactic, particularly in online forums. For instance, in a debate over the evolution of the Bombardier beetle, person A might say "It is impossible for the bombardier beetle's 'flamethrower' defense to have evolved by a series of small steps." Person B then proposes a series of possible small steps that could produce such a defense mechanism. Person A then responds that they can't prove this was the actual series of steps that the bombardier beetle's ancestors went through. The original goal was to prove that some series of steps was hypothetically possible, but person A has shifted the goalposts to now require evidence that these steps actually happened.
    • This is occasionally a tactic some Creationists use when arguing against Evolution. If you say Evolution exists, they will deny animals changing. Show them that it does, they redefine Evolution as Micro and Macro, saying the former doesn't count and the latter doesn't exist, nor are the two linked. Link the two, and they say it could happen to anything from lizards to birds, but not apes to humans. And so on.
    • A very common form of this is people claiming a theory is outright wrong, but then when asked for proof of its wrongness or an alternate theory, claiming that as skeptics the burden of proof isn't on them. For example, a creationist might claim there's no scientific proof for evolution, therefore one shouldn't believe in it, but then offer no scientific proof for their creationism. Deist philosopher Peter Murphy has a pretty good explanation of this along with a critique of its use by hard atheists.
      • However, if two people hold two different standards of proof, one might refute his opponent's theory by his opponent's standard, but be unable to prove his own theory by the same standard of proof, simply because his own theory uses a different standard of proof (he may not even believe that his opponent's standard of proof can prove anything, in which case he probably won't even try to come up with a proof of his own theory under that standard of proof). Showing that someone else is wrong doesn't necessarily mean showing that you are right.
    • In discussions about evolution, Creationists often complain about gaps in the fossil record by claiming that there are no 'transitional fossils'. When provided with lists of transitional fossils they then will change their argument, saying that there are no "intermediate fossils" between the provided transitionals, thus making new, artificial "gaps" in the fossil record by which they can continue to complain about the lack of transitionals.
    • Similarly, some climate change skeptics consider the phrase "climate change" itself to be an example of this trope. The alarmists realized fear of "global warming" was unsustainable, so they switched to the more vague "climate change" which allows them to blame pretty much every undesirable weather pattern on the theory.
      • Actually, the reason for the change isn't that the globe isn't warming, it is. But the results mean that some places in the globe will actually get colder, as the "global warming" is the average of everywhere, and the warming in one place might cause another place to cool down (although the combined total still equals greater warming). So when ignorant people laughed at "global warming" because they just went through a massive snow storm, it was decided to change the name to try to make them understand.
  • Nearly every EULA and consumer agreement out there includes the phrase, "has the right to alter the terms of the contract" somewhere. This is not usually an issue with most customers until they notice the universal price hike a few months down the road.
  • While the Down Periscope example above was a comedic movie, attempting to fudge the results of a wargame, exercise, or test of a new piece of equipment when it doesn't come out the way someone wants has a long and inglorious tradition in many militaries. Possibly the most notorious example in recent years was the 2002 Millennium Challenge wargame when Lt. Gen Paul van Riper publicly accused the organizers of cheating to ensure a US victory when his unconventional tactics, playing the technologically inferior enemy force, sank the US fleet (which were arbitrarily refloated to restart the exercise and had the rules changed so they were untouchable), prevented communication interception by using couriers instead of radio or telephone (which had the rules changed so he wasn't allowed to do it), and forced the opposition into using tactics which made them mincemeat for American weapons and tactics.
    • However, he also abused the rules set up for the game to win, including doing things that are simply impossible in real life, such as launching cruise missiles from boats that weighed less than them. This is by and large why the wargame was thrown out, as both sides had bent the rules so much that the challenge had virtually no basis in reality anymore.
  • This also happens in weapon testing to allow projects to succeed. Most recently this happened with the V-22 Osprey. When the aircraft failed to be able to auto rotate[1] as the wings would get in the way , this requirement was dropped. Note that the above requirement is worse for the V-22 than a conventional helicopter because if one engine loses power and the cross link fails, the aircraft will immediately roll over and crash. Other important features were dropped or decided to no longer be important as weight requirements grew and the designers realized that rotors and propellers as different for a reason and designing a hybrid doesn't work as effectively. These important features include armor and NBC(Nuclear, Biological, Chemical) protection, for an aircraft that is expected to be an assault transport. Relating to the above it is also incapable of carrying weapons as those exceed the already tight weight requirements.
    • A fictionalized version of this with the Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle was depicted in the film The Pentagon Wars which was a satirical view on this issue. This was largely about the lack of armor on the early models of the Bradley. Note that this largely doesn't apply to later versions of the vehicle as more armor was indeed added later though the complaint about trading infantry for mounted weapons systems has merit.
  • This is the issue with taxes. If the government makes a surplus, it could be a sign that they're taxing too much and thus, the citizens won't be too happy. If the government has a deficit, it means they're taxing too little... and the citizens won't be too happy when they pay higher taxes.
  • Every single Flame War over "Game balance", be it in RPG or computer games. If the term is used as a goal, this holy grail is Weasel Words. Whenever "balance" is hotly contested, try to demand the exact desired picture - chances are, if and when you'll get specifications, participants will disagree on it even previously they were on one side. Set the parameters to the requested, and even those who demanded the change will not be happy with this - everything will need to undergo the next nerf/gimp. Ironically, the only big exception happens if the result is Munchkin-friendly: then only Munchkins will be satisfied.
  • "Is This Feminist?" blog mocks this phenomenon. The answer to this question is Foregone Conclusion: every single entry will end in "PROBLEMATIC."
  1. this allows a helicopter to crash land as the air flows through the rotor blades and causes them to spin, slowing its descent