Fifth Column: Drowning by Numbers (Issue 2)

“To understand God’s thoughts we must study statistics, for these are the measure of his purpose.” We might forgive Florence Nightingale for saying that. After all, she was witness to the horrors of the Crimean War and used to sniff ether for a large part of the day. I suspect Benjamin Disraeli’s famous quote to be nearer the mark: There are three kinds of lies; lies, damned lies and statistics.

Rarely in our lives can we have been subjected to such a statistical onslaught than at present. Statistics are everywhere: from telling us how many misplaced passes the latest superstar footballer has made, to the number of service return winners our British number 3 (186 in the world) has hit from the baseline.

They tell us how we’ve voted before the votes have been counted and how much the latest blockbuster has made in the first week. They can even tell us how many of us read which newspapers and which television programmes we’re watching. However, the area with the greatest rise in statistical usage (84% higher in the last 12 months, so I’m told) must be television advertising. And this brings me to my point.

Oh! There is one, I hear you yawn. Well, yes there is. What on Earth makes advertisers think we’ll rush out immediately and buy their product just because they’ve stuck a percentage in there?  I’ll tell you: a smattering of scientific naivety and a huge dollop of gullibility. They believe we’ll fall for anything that looks like it’s been tested and approved by a bloke wearing a white coat and glasses.

Hence, we’re bombarded by adverts telling us that a mascara can lift our eyelashes by 67%, or our children can be 12% more alert in the mornings if they eat a certain cereal. Use this regeneration cream and you’ll look 15 years younger, use that shampoo and conditioner and your hair will be 85% shinier. It’s all b*****ks. At best it’s misleading and at worst it’s a cynical manipulation of a necessarily ignorant viewing public.

Let’s take these examples, though there are many, many more.  If my eyelashes were lifted 67% higher, I wouldn’t be able to close my eyelids. I don’t get much sleep now, but with eyelids
on my forehead it would be impossible.  I don’t have young children, but I suspect having them 12% more alert would make early mornings even more unbearable. I might be tempted to buy a cereal that could make them 12% more unconscious.

Mogadon balls, for example.  You’d get a lot more peace and quiet and, mums, you’d get a lot more housework done in a far shorter time. You’d catch Trisha AND Jeremy Kyle. Looking 15 years younger might be a Godsend for a 40- year-old, but what happens if that cream falls into the hands of someone in their 20’s?  They’d have to go back to school and go through puberty all over again. It doesn’t even work on the skin. It just fills in the cracks to make it look smoother and smudges when you try to wash it off (so I’ve been told). You may as well use Polyfilla. At least it’s permanent, doesn’t shrink and you can paint over it when it’s dry!

Then there’s your hair. If it’s dazzling radiance you’re after, try taping a light bulb to your head.  “Head and Shoulders, Jen?” “No, Mazda 40 watt, Trace!”  There are two final, but important points to consider when looking at statistics in advertising: firstly, the missing comparator and secondly, the validity and accuracy of the measuring devices. It’s fine saying something’s 12% more alert or 85% shinier (actually it isn’t, but for the sake of argument let’s say it is), but 12% more alert than what? 85% shinier than what? 67% higher than what? If advertisers are going to use comparative expressions, they need to tell us the item or state to which they’re comparing their product.

Otherwise, their percentages are meaningless. Finally, the measuring devices. Who decides that a child is 12% more alert and how can they measure that anyway? Apparently, the children’s mothers were asked how much more alert their child was after eating the cereal.  Very scientific! How did they settle on 12%? Perhaps their eyelids were 2 millimetres higher than usual, but surely, that could have been due to the 67% lash lift!  The final word should go to Vic Reeves who was attributed as saying: “72% of statistics are made up on the spot.” I suspect that there’s more than a grain of truth in that!

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