Any Printed Number is Believable

Many years ago (19 to be exact) an otherwise unknown research firm put out a report on the average amount of time spent during an American’s life doing various mundane tasks.  It was presented in terms of years, so many years spent watching TV, so many washing dishes, and so on.  The media loved it Lipstick -Riley and widely reported the numbers along with the obvious commentary that we Americans were wasting our lives with trivia and drudgery.

Except that to anybody who thought to do some simple math in their head, the numbers were hilariously implausible. I wish I could find a copy of the report now, but this was in the pre-internet dark ages. My possibly faulty recollection is that they said we spend an average of 6 years in the bathroom.

If you don’t think about it, and want to write about how we spend too much time alone in a tiny room, 6 years sounds just believable enough to use.  But if you do some quick calculations, you realize something is very wrong.  Assume the average life expectancy is 72.  (About right and it makes the math easy.) Then each year of your life is 20 minutes per day.  Two hours a day in the bathroom?  Every day? Average?

I did manage to find two citations of this data in on-line archives, at Time magazine and The New York Times.  The Time article mentions that we spend six months (10 minutes a day) waiting for red lights to change.  Not stuck in traffic, just waiting for red lights.  And only as drivers, not passengers.  The NYT tells us we spend 1 year (20 minutes) looking for misplaced objects, eight months (13 minutes) opening junk mail, two years (40 minutes) trying to return phone calls, and five years (1 hour 40 minutes) waiting in lines.

I don’t know if the report was a hoax or just sloppy research.  But I was reminded of this episode from my youth last weekend when I was preparing to write my recent guest post on Consumerism Commentary.  My new BFF and hero Flexo had graciously invited me to contribute something, so I decided to look carefully at his site to get a feel for what his readers might like to read.

I’m sure I saw his post on how women spend too much on cosmetics when it came out but didn’t read it. Not really my area of interest.  And before I go any further, I should say that, having now read it, I agree with his thesis that cosmetics and beauty treatments are a huge money sink that should be considered carefully in light of how much pleasure and, potentially, career success it brings you.

But Flexo was inspired to write based on numbers, which he quoted and linked to, created by Newsweek, that showed that women spend $449,127 on being beautiful over their lifetimes.

To be fair to everybody involved, neither Flexo nor Newsweek quite said that this number was average.  In the editor’s note on how they got their numbers Newsweek tells us:

Tracking the spending habits of the ‘average’ American woman is no easy feat. In order to arrive at an estimate of what a modern, looks-conscious diva might spend on her appearance during her lifetime, we compiled a list of the most popular beauty procedures based on a reveiw [sic!] of recent beauty industry reports and conversations with experts.

So are the numbers they give for the average woman or for a looks-conscious diva?  I think any reasonable reader would assume Newsweek was trying to construct an average, because, well, otherwise the article would be sort of stupid.

And yet if you take the time to look at the pdf of the detailed breakdown you realize that Newsweek’s diva has a serious problem for which she should seek psychiatric help. Examples that caught my eye are $441 Botox injections every four months for 46 years and a lifetime of bimonthly $41 "Waxing (bikini or Brazilian)" starting at age 13.  This isn’t a list of what the typical woman might spend, it’s a list of the most you could possibly spend before the salon stopped serving you because you were creeping out the staff.

Flexo can be forgiven because (I’m assuming) Botox and waxing are well outside his area of expertise.  The same cannot be said for the mega-blog Jezebel, which subtitles itself "Celebrity, Sex, Fashion for Women", has more traffic than all the PF blogs you’ve ever heard of combined, and returns 200 hits for the search term "Botox".  They also bought into the Newsweek numbers, hook, line, and sinker.

As did Cosmetic Surgery Today, which bills itself as a source of "insider news" about the nip and tuck biz.  You might think that somebody involved in the beauty business would smell a rat.  The Newsweek numbers work out to around $860 billion a year spent on beauty nationwide.  That’s about 6% of GDP. Americans (men included) spent a total of $374 billion on clothing and $412 billion on energy last year. Revlon’s gross revenue was $1.34 billion.

There are several lessons here, most of them clichés. People believe what they want to. Americans are innumerate.  And there’s that one about lies, damned lies, and statistics.

I’ll add another: trust no one and check the math.

[Photo: Riley]

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