Depends on Who You Talk To

What do you really think? About anything. Are your opinions your own, or are you influenced by the popular culture? We all drift in an amniotic fluid of inputs from print media, TV, radio and the Internet. We are surrounded by a relentless white noise of marketing and advertising. How much information is contained in this barrage? How much of it can we trust?

The first human societies had “experts” who everyone went to for advice, information, and wisdom. In different parts of the world, these people were called shamans, priests, village elders, or witchdoctors. Since old people had limited use in a subsistence culture, becoming an information specialist was a good career move. Otherwise, you could be pushed out on an ice floe or left in a cave as jackal bait.

Then the city-state was invented, and information became centralized. Rulers used messengers to deliver their proclamations and town criers to read them out. There was no print media because hardly anybody could read. Casual information was exchanged in the tavern or the marketplace. But moving information around was slow and hazardous. There’s an old nursery rhyme about a horse that loses a nail and so loses a shoe and so loses the rider. As a result, a message is lost and the battle is lost and a war is lost and a king loses his throne. Flaky information flow was the norm over most of human history.

Now we live with instant information. News of every tin-pot dictator, every mid-strength earthquake, every celebrity trip to the laundromat, is right at our fingertips. The only people without Web sites are the homeless. But has this really led to wisdom and democracy? As we drown in media input, we need someone to sort it all out for us. The gatekeepers of the information society are as powerful as ever.

A long time ago, if you wanted to gather information, you did the job right. The Domesday Book was a numbing list of person and everything larger than a jam jar in England 1000 years ago. Our modern census is based on the same idea. The Supreme Court has ruled that every person must be counted in a census, even though the government hasn’t figured out how to keep everyone standing still while they count.

These days, the gathering of information relies on sampling. Instead of asking everyone, you ask every other person or every tenth person. You then assume your sample is typical of the larger population and draw conclusions as if you had really asked everyone.

Scientists use sampling all the time, then they use induction to generalize and draw a broad conclusion. Fragments of certain people’s DNA are being used to figure out how the human genome works, but the knowledge will be quite general because all DNA works the same way. The medical advisory that smoking causes cancer is based on studies of a few thousand smokers. This inference is valid for all 20 million smokers, but it is not deterministic: some smokers will die cancer-free and others will die of cancer that is not caused by smoking. Astronomers know that there are about 50 billion galaxies out there, but not because they have counted them all. With large telescopes, they drill “core samples” and then count galaxies in only a few directions. Then they use the fact that our neighborhood in the universe is not special and calculate the number across the entire sky.

Sampling can be tricky. Let’s say about 10% of all people are left-handed. Out of five randomly selected people in a room, it is unlikely that any would be left-handed. Even with ten people, you might get no lefties. To properly measure the fraction of lefties, you need dozens or maybe a hundred people. A small sample can be unreliable.

The Harris and Gallup polls use only a couple of thousand people to infer the intentions of over 100 million voters. Yet whatever the flaws in the sampling techniques, we can be reassured by the fact that in the end, everyone gets to vote. So our form of government must return people who represent the vibrant, multi-cultural spectrum of American life, right? Or is it a statistical anomaly that most of us are represented in Washington by rich, gray, male, tight-assed lawyers and businessmen?

Sampling also depends on who you talk to. Aliens could drop in a room with five people in it and decide that all humans are right-handed. They might visit Beverly Hills and conclude that everyone has a dye job or a boob job. They might visit Manhattan and deduce that in-your-face pugnaciousness was our defining attribute.

So you should be suitably suspicious when you read that “nine out of ten dentists recommend new Dentagleam with Chromium.” Who are the nine dentists? Name them. Did they have to search the whole country for these 9 stiffs or are they truly representative? How many of them have stock in the Dentagleam parent company? How many of them have kids at Stanford or Harvard on Dentagleam scholarships?

But discussing only the techniques of marketing and advertising is like dwelling on characteristics of the elephant without mentioning the great steaming pile it has left behind.

Does anyone really think that $199.95 is a bargain compared to $200? What use is “3 for the price of 2” when each of them is 50% more than it would have cost individually. Any damn fool can jack the base price up then add a big discount sign. Who do they think they’re kidding? Let’s have some truth in advertising for a change. “It’s overpriced. Deal with it.” Or “If it didn’t wear out so quickly, how could we sell more?” Or “Loads of useless features, but we hope you’re too dumb to notice.”

They have used our sports heroes to sell personal hygiene products and junk food. They have stolen the classic rock songs to sell cross-trainers. They have cloaked their schlock in images of beauty and nobility. We just suck it up, paying top dollar for certain clothes and shoes just to get the little logo. Fashion plate or sandwich board?

The major TV networks — ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox (aka. Larry, Curley, Moe, and Shemp) — control about 30 billion advertising dollars per year. As niche cable companies proliferate, the “Big 4” control a shrinking wedge of the viewing pie. Think of them as balding men fighting over a comb. Still, $30 billion dollars is not exactly chump-change.

This $30 billion is deployed, plus many billions more in costs for developing new shows, based on data from a very modest sample of Nielsen families. These thousand or so households are randomly selected and their viewing habits are tracked for a week. The selection is random but the sampling is carefully designed to mirror the great viewing masses, more Peoria than Pacific Heights.

Networks worry about the methodology as much as they worry about the small sample. Neilsen families used to fill in viewing diaries, but suppose they fibbed about what they watched? They might litter the log with entries like Masterpiece Theater and Agriculture: A 12-Part History, when they were actually glued to Yet More Inane Home Videos and Wrestlemania XXIII. Is it possible that TV ratings make us seem more highbrow than we are?

So the Neilsen Company now delivers a box which sits on top of the TV and automatically records the viewing choice. But wait, say the advertisers! What if the TV is on but they are not watching? The next step is to add a little video camera to the box, which is preprogrammed with digital images of all family members. Clever software can recognize if young Kevin is slouched in front of the tube, or whether Dad is filling his face with Cheetos and Miller Lite. But what if the family so apathetic that the dog controls the remote?

Marketers and pollsters could gather more and more data on larger samples of people. Or they could acknowledge that most people like the same things and go with that flow. They could use their copious data to look for the person who is truly average in their tastes. Someone who could truly represent us all. Imagine elections boiled down to a single voter. Advertisers could concentrate on this single amalgam of all our preferences — Unibuyer. Let Unibuyer make the choices, the rest of us could then live in a thrillingly ad-free world. Just a thought.

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