Sunday, May 28, 2006

Why 63,400,000 is no big deal

Over this weekend I've heard from friends not once, not twice, but three times that the American Idol finale got 63.4 million votes (LA Times article). This is usually followed up with the "more than any votes for President" and of course, the implication that our society is going to hell.

I'm a numbers guy so I'm automatically skeptical of any number thrown at me (since I've been known to throw a few "well-contexted but not always complete picture" numbers myself). I'm not going to go into the reasons why it's silly to try to measure the American Idol votes against the Presidential election. I'm just going to give the AI votes the benefit of the doubt and pretend they were just as legitimate a gesture of voting as a Presidential vote.

In this Wikipedia entry, we see that in the last Presidential election, Dubya received 62 million votes, 1.4 million short of the American Idol number. So it's true, there were more votes for two American Idol contestants than for the winner of the US President race. But let's even things out...

Kerry received 59 million votes and the other candidates got a handful as well. The total votes cast in the 2004 election was 122.3 million... effectively kicking American Idol's butt. Sleep well my friend, our society is safe, for the time-being.

Why do I bother bringing this up? I am always fascinated by our fascination with statistics. In my experience as an analyst, I was constantly asked for numbers. Unfortunately, what I realized shortly into my career was that I wasn't being asked for the real numbers, I was being asked for sound bites (preferably, positive ones). Real numbers are complex and are usually only relevant in the very specific context that generated those numbers. Translation: Not very useful for marketing and management.

In business, real numbers are cherry-picked for sound bites. Kids, never trust numbers.

No comments: