I can remember the exact moment when my distrust of commercials began. I was 10 years old and was obsessed with a new toy on the market called the “Magic Copier.” I thought it was genius. I could make copies of all of my very important drawings just like the Xerox machine that adults used. My bubble was burst, however, when my parents bought me a Magic Copier and it turned out that the “Copy” button on the machine did absolutely nothing and the entire toy was just an elaborate use of carbon paper. I was destroyed. I became highly skeptical of all commercials after that.
Fast forward 20+ years and my distrust of commercials was reinforced again. This evening, I listened to this new commercial about 5 Hour Energy shots. For what it’s worth, I am actually a fan of this product, and use it quite often. However, I ended up rewinding and replaying this commercial 3 times just to confirm my suspicions about the way they were spinning statistics. To the passive listener, it sounds like 5 Hour Energy conducted a survey of physicians and 73% recommend the use of their product.
That is far from the truth, even though the statistic that they draw attention to is 73%. But let’s get into the fine print.
In reality, the study found that 73% of the primary care physicians said they would recommend a low calorie energy supplement to their healthy patients who already use energy supplements. This is akin to the old Trident claim that 4 out of 5 dentists would recommend sugar free gum to those patients who already chew gum. No kidding…if your patient is already chewing gum, of course you would want them to chew the healthier option.
The commercial wants viewers to take a leap in logic by connecting these 2 statements:
1) 5 Hour Energy is a low calorie energy supplement, and
2) Doctors recommend a low calorie energy supplement to healthy patients who already take supplements, therefore…
…doctors must recommend 5 Hour Energy.
In reality, all this statistic really says is that if you are healthy and are already taking supplements, doctors suggest you choose a low calorie option.
Now, when we get deeper into the fine print the truth really comes out. Of the 73% of doctors surveyed, only 47% would specifically recommend 5 Hour Energy for their patients who use energy supplements. Do the math- that means that of all the physicians surveyed, only about 1/3 recommended 5 Hour Energy for healthy patients who already use energy supplements.
It takes an active listener and a critical thinker to evaluate statistics and spin like this. There are plenty of other reasons to question the claims in this commercial, but the persuasion tactics used here are universal. Notice the visual appeal of the commercial. There is a professionally dressed person who speaks like a knowledgeable authority. There is a giant stack of papers which reinforces the scientific study story. And then there is a huge focus on the words “Over 73%.” It is so easy to get lost in the spin here unless you look deeper, read the fine print, and evaluate the claims.
What other problems do you see with the information presented in this commercial? What other examples of spin using statistics have you seen recently?
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Editor’s Note: Breanne Harris is the Solutions Architect for Pearson TalentLens. She works with customers to design selection and development plans that incorporate critical thinking assessments and training. She has a Master’s degree in Organizational Psychology and has experience in recruiting, training, and HR consulting. Connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter for more of her thoughts.