24 October 2008

Facts and Go Figure: The Sneaky Art of Justifying Anything

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So there’s this common symbol that’s being used to justify everything from industrial pollution to obscene spending. No, I’m not talking about the letter “W” — that’s become a punchline. I’m referring to the once humble and inoffensive % sign, now exploited as a tool of self-righteous justification. I stumbled across two flagrant examples of % abuse in the past few days alone…

The first was at my friend Patrick Byers’ Responsible Marketing Blog, where he intelligently analyzed the wastefulness of phonebooks, which most people use to keep their kitchen counters from floating away. In response to the criticism, a spokestool from the Yellow Pages Association argued that phonebooks account for less than 0.3% of the waste stream.

Now, that 0.3% is a dinky, almost microscopic number, right? Except we’re talking the USA here: the worldwide leader in garbage production. America’s total non-hazardous waste production in 2006 came to 502,000,000,000 pounds — and that was before the McCain campaign started printing flyers. What’s 0.3% of that? Oh, only 1,506,000,000 pounds, which is arguably one hell of a lot of yellow paper. It’s also close to the estimate provided by phonebook critics Yellowpagesgoesgreen.org:

To produce 500 million books:

  • 19 million trees need to be harvested
  • 1.6 billion pounds of paper are wasted
  • 7.2 million barrels of oil are misspent in their processing (not including the wasted gas used for their delivery to your doorstep)
  • 268,000 cubic yards of landfill are taken up
  • 3.2 billion kilowatt hours of electricity are squandered

Our Yellow Pages Association spokestool claims that those figures “can’t be verified,” but by using a more useful tool — a calculator — we can see that these numbers aren’t far from what the Association is itself claiming.

Then there’s Sarah Palin’s little shopping spree paid for by the Republican National Committee. One commenter on a blog defended the six-figure feeding frenzy as totaling less than 2% of the $84,000,000 McCain is allowed to spend on his campaign. It’s an even smaller % if you throw in the RNC budget. But in this case, the tactic just isn’t working. Most people are only seeing the price tag: $150,000… nearly four times the average American income… spent in one month… during a worldwide economic downturn. That kind of raw steaming reality simply annihilates whatever % is being flaunted by the defense.

That said, the % symbol is still a fun and occasionally effective way to dispel the shock and awe of seemingly big numbers. The $700,000,000,000 Wall Street bailout? Well, that’s only 5% of America’s $13,000,000,000,000 GDP. Tom Cruise’s $70,000,000 in earnings for “War of the Worlds”? That was based on a mere 20% of the film’s profits. Nice trick, huh?

So now that you’re aware of the power of the %, how can you get in on the act? Consider the big scary numbers in your life or business, and compare them to even bigger, scarier numbers that may or may not be related…

  • Example 1: You owe $20,000 in overdue student loans to the sharks at Sallie Mae. When they call to harass you about paying it, just say, “Dude, that’s only 0.0000125% of your $160,000,000,000 student loan portfolio, so give me a break!” (Just make sure you don’t say that to any guy named Guido.)
  • Example 2: You and your spouse jointly make $40,000 per year, and you want to replace your perfectly good iPod with the totally cool new $399 second generation 32GB iPod Touch. Tell your skeptical significant other, “But honey, this second generation 32GB iPod Touch will make me really happy for less than 1% of our annual income!”
  • Example 3: You want to charge a client $60,000 to create an online video for them. You can argue, “Hey, I know that sounds like a lot, but it’s only 85% of the cost of a one-page ad in one issue of Wired magazine, just 30% of the choreography budget for Will Smith’s video ‘Miami,’ and a mere 0.09% of what Tom Cruise made for ‘War of the Worlds.'”

Oops, I think I just gave away one of my sales tactics. Oh, well, that just demonstrates the total transparency you’ll always find here at Cool Rules Pronto, my friends. And I mean that 110%…

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

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