When numbers are too factual

Carl Bialik, for The Wall Street Journal, reports on PSAs and the use of scary numbers:

The Ad Council usually avoids statistics in PSAs. “We know from our experience that effective advertising has to have an emotional component and statistics-based campaigns can be very rational,” Conlon said. “We’ve also found that people tend not to believe statistics.”

And sometimes they just don’t care much about them. “When we were developing our underage drinking prevention campaign,” Conlon recalled, “we found that it doesn’t resonate with parents to learn about how many children are drinking underage. It’s too easy for them to say ‘it’s not my child.’ We found that it was much more compelling to include a statistic that was more about the consequences of underage drinking: Those who start drinking before age 15 are six times more likely to have alcohol problems as adults than those who start drinking at age 21 or older.”

The well-known Stalin quote comes to mind.

[The Numbers Guy]


  • This is why the advancement of marketing technology is kind of scary. Say decisions are made based on some portion facts and some portion marketing (being the part that isn’t fact). The facts are by definition a constant, so as advertising improves decisions are made less on the basis of fact.

    Of course, facts can become better known and better communicated… ie better marketed. So this is oversimplifying.

    Hmmm… Mad Men vs. the IPCC…

  • Nathan. Check out the work of rosemary Avery, don Kenkel about ad exposure. They focus on public service announcements for smoking and have done some interesting work using objective exposure to psas.

  • Reminds you of Stalin? I suppose Walt Disney reminds of of Joseph Goebbels. This newsletter ceased being compelling and fun back when the editorship changed hands. Now we have seriously delusional commentary that can only be based on deeply flawed, fourth or fifth-hand accounts of actual history, likely steeped in political advocacy of one stripe or another. Thanks for the good years in my inbox, but my subscription is canceled.

    • What are you delusionally ranting about? The line about Stalin was referring to his famous quote about the way that statistics lack emotional resonance: “One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic.” Nathan even provided a link for you to follow if you didn’t get the rather obvious reference. You’re the one who is politicizing this, not Nathan.

    • Would you like a mirror? Or some windex for your glass bubble? Nathan, keep up the good posts.

  • This explains, I believe, much of the difficulty that has been experience over the recent changes to the Breast Cancer screening guidelines from the US Preventative Health Task Force. Public messages from all levels of government and non-profit organizations have, for the past 15 years at least, been conveying emotionally powerful messages that, in essence, say “Get a mammogram or die” to women aged 40 to 50, even though the evidence was never really strong enough to support such a strong message. Now the government is in the position where it has to say “Well, ok, maybe you weren’t really going to actually die, it was just a good thing to do…”

  • Great post, Nathan…thank you for always challenging our sense of ourselves through reflective, relational, and statistical analysis…Kenny E. Williams