More or Less
To Costco last weekend, where I was a taken a bit aback by this message prominently displayed on the side of a large case of Coke:
50% more than
It has the parsimony and the profundity of haiku: its simplicity, one imagines, can’t be anything other than the skin atop a porridge of cosmic import. On the surface it speaks to a consumerism oblivious of anything other than size. It’s quite possibly 50% more likely to give you a hernia while lifting it into your car, too, but that’s hardly the point.
But here’s the thing: isn’t it, well, a bit obvious that 36 is 50% more than 24? Much as I love Costco (and if there’s anything which captures the American dream better than scoffing an endlessly-refilling soda and a Hebrew National hot dog for a dollar-fifty while your station-wagon-sized trolley waits patiently beside you with your hundred-weight of beef jerky, your vat of mayonnaise, and your gross of toilet paper, I’d like it taken outside and shot), and I do love it, it’s not a place for taking chances with promotion. Costco’s marketing of ibuprofen has a straight-ahead genius to it: it comes in a blue Advil-alike bottle, for people who might normally buy Advil; and it also comes in an orange Motrin IB-alike bottle, for people who might normally buy Motrin IB — this one called, without the tiniest whiff of shame, Ibuprofen IB. This is marketing in a world where email-phishing works, where looking like means being like, and attentions must be captured in the first glance. That the active ingredient is the same in all four is scarcely relevant.
It’s something like conventional wisdom that percentages are tricky for the marginally numerate, since they’re basically fractions, which are as a class tricky. But it seems pretty uncontroversial to say that the ‘50% more than’ comparator is intended to clarify the relationship between the size of the 36-pack and the size of the 24-pack. We’re entirely used to seeing percentages used to clarify relationships where they’d otherwise be obscure: comparing between different units, say, or between irregularly-sized packs of stuff. The baffling corollary of which is that, at some point in the process of designing the packaging for the Coke, it was considered, at least implicitly, that some people would find it easier to understand what ‘50% more than’ means, than to compute the relationship between 36 and 24. I would like to know who these people are, because I think they’d be good candidates for some particularly invasive medical experiments. This isn’t an elitist sneer at the innumerate. I just think the Coca-Cola Company has some weird people in mind if they believe ‘50% more than’ would be useful to someone for whom the second and third entries in the 12-times-table mean nothing.
There’s another interpretation, though, which I think might have some mileage. It’s that ’36-pack’ and ’24-pack’ (and such) have become patterns of language with no structure and semantics. Rather, they’re just tokens, with no meaning other than to label. A 24-pack is a ’24-pack’ in the same way that an Ikea bookshelf is a ‘Billy’ bookshelf. It tells us nothing about the bookshelf except that that’s its name, and, if we’ve seen one before, this one is the same as that one. (‘Hurtigrute. 50% more than Smorgasbord.’) Or perhaps the ontology does carry some minimal meaning, in the same sense of ‘small’, ‘medium’ and ‘large’. We understand the size ordering, but we certainly don’t have enough information to compute the relative sizes. Maybe this drift from semantics to mere labelling is a trend. My local supermarket prominently advertises that ‘At Von’s, a dozen roses is 14 stems’. Well, okay, but maybe it’s worth considering that at some point it’s unnecessarily complicated to label roses with the price per dozen, and then have to clarify that ‘a dozen’ is actually fourteen. (Myself, I blame those bloody bakers for starting this off.) At some point, ‘dozen’ ceases to have any reliable meaning, and we end up going from supermarket to supermarket comparing the nomenclature the way we’d compare local blackjack rules at Vegas casinos, searching out the rare ‘dozen’ that’s actually 16, or the ’36-pack’ that’s actually 60% more than the ’24-pack’.
‘I want a clean cup,’ interrupted the Hatter: ‘let’s all move one place on.’