Lies, damn lies and marketing statistics

Have you seen those adverts, typically for cosmetics, with incredible claims about how many people agree that the product is the best ever? These stats seem de rigueur these days: “98% of women agreed that this deodorant worked better than their regular brand”, “Over 73% of people agreed that this loo roll made them more attractive to the opposite sex”, “86% of men said that this shampoo made them feel more satisfied with their otherwise miserable lives” etc. They’re invariably paired with small print revealing that the survey consisted of a sample of about 37 people, suggesting that the stats are about as representative of the whole population as a straw poll in the local pub.

L’Oreal seem to relish these stats, using them on virtually every advert. This one bases its claims on the agreement of 75% of 60 women

 That simply means they don’t disagree with the claims, hardly a glowing endorsement.

But despite the poor validity of these statistics, there is a well established theory behind using such figures. We are social animals, programmed to follow the masses and gain approval from copying what other people are doing. Thus the logic is that if an advert can persuade us that everyone is using a product, we’ll quickly follow suit.

This has been demonstrated in a number of surprising situations. The book “The Power of Yes” byNoah Goldstein, Professor Robert B. Cialdini & Steve Martin illustrates the example of a doctors’ waiting room which swapped the regular sign e.g ‘389 people missed their appointments in July’ to an inverted version highlighting the number of people who did attend their appointments. The number of people who didn’t turn up dropped dramatically. This is part of the concept of framing. Instead of giving people ‘permission’ to miss their doctor’s appointment with the former message, the new message puts absentees into a minority, implying a general disapproval of their behaviour. The beauty product commercials frame their messages around stats suggesting that most of the target market is already using the product, with the clear intention of using peer pressure to increase sales.

Framing can be applied to all manner of business scenarios. Francesca Gino provides a wonderful example from Teddy Roosevelt’s 1912 election campaign in her book Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan. “Right before the brochures with Roosevelt’s photograph were about to be distributed, the campaign manager realized something important: three million campaign brochures had been printed using a photograph of Roosevelt without the permission of the photo’s copyright owner.” If this had been me, the air would have been blue. Not so the cunning campaign manager. “[He] prepared a telegram to send to the photographer. Rather than telling him about the error, however, he framed the message to make it more appealing to the photographer. The telegraph stated, “We are planning to distribute millions of pamphlets with Roosevelt’s picture on the cover. It will be great publicity for the studio whose photograph we use. How much will you pay us to use yours? Respond immediately.” The excited photographer quickly replied with an offer to pay $250.” This wonderful example only worked because the frame of reference the studio had was entirely in the hands of the campaign manager, and he used it perfectly to his advantage. The contrast with the current crop of commercials is that the frame of reference of the viewer is much more open and really doesn’t stand up to any scrutiny. People are much savvier about their purchases: concerned about the nature of the manufacturing process, the ethics of production and the ingredients used, and advertisers need to treat them as such.

Good adverts frame their products and we don’t even notice. Whether it’s the everyman in the beer advert or the empty streets in a car advert, we look beyond the fiction and buy into the vision. Advertisers can and should use numbers to back up their claims, but they need to get better at using meaningful stats. And we, we consumers need to start calling them out when they make ridiculous claims.


1 Comment

  1. My favourite part of these cosmetic ads with stats is their quantifying of completely subjective qualities. The seven signs of aging, three steps to flawless hair, microdermabrasion that targets five ways to a younger, better you. It’s as if Science Guys were sat in the lab saying ‘no, this only covers four signs of aging, we’ve another three to get through. Scrap it.’

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