In a recent Guardian article, Arwa Mahdawi defines something that she jokingly calls ‘advertistics’. These are statistics based on surveys that are designed to generate results that are useful for advertising a particular product. This might be achieved in different ways, including:
- The question might be asked in a pointed way which steers respondents in a particular direction;
- The sample of individuals surveyed might be creatively chosen so that they are more likely to answer in a particular way;
- An incentive might be offered to respondents who give particular answers;
- Surveys might be ignored and repeated until the desired outcome is achieved;
- The survey and the statistics might just be made up.
But whichever method is used, the results are presented as if they are genuinely representative of the wider population. These are advertistics.
One example referred to in Arwa’s Guardian article is a survey of Americans which concluded that 45% of Americans wear the same underpants for at least 2 consecutive days and that American men are 2.5 times as likely as women to have worn their underwear unchanged for more than a week. But here’s the catch: the survey was carried out by an underwear manufacturer, and the details of their survey design are unavailable. So, it’s impossible to know whether the individuals they sampled were genuinely representative of the wider American population, and therefore whether the 45% advertistic has any basis in reality. Nonetheless, it’s convenient for the underwear company to present it as if it does in order to strengthen their campaign for people to replace their underwear more frequently. By buying more of their products, of course.
Another example: I’m old enough to remember ads produced by the cat-food manufacturer Whiskas that claimed:
8 out of 10 cats prefer Whiskas.
- Nobody asked the cats; and
- Many owners didn’t reply.
So they were forced to change the tag line to:
8 out of 10 owners who expressed a preference said their cat prefers it.
Definitely not as snappy, though scientifically more correct. Yet without further details on exactly how the survey was conducted, doubts remain about the validity of the 8 out of 10 advertistic even with the added caveats.
Finally, remember that things can change in time, and statistics – and advertisitcs – will change accordingly. Arguably the most famous advertistic of all time is the ‘fact’ that Carlsberg is…
Except, shockingly, it no longer is. The latest Carlsberg campaign includes the admission that Carlsberg is
Which to believe? Well, the new campaign comes with evidence supplied by Carlsberg drinkers including the claims that
Carlsberg tastes like stale breadsticks
and that drinking Carlsberg is like…
… drinking the bathwater your nan died in
So, on the strength of evidence, we’re going to have to accept that Carlsberg’s not the best.