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As a Drunken Man Uses a Lamp-Post
SSar's Beast
I saw an interesting advertisement on the side of a bus when I was walking home yesterday. Mainly interesting for its use of statistics, which continued to perplex me all the rest of the way up the hill. Unfortunately, I cannot find that particular ad on the internet, to link in for discussion purposes. I realise that this is why we all have camera-phones nowadays. Or better Google-fu.

Anyway, the ad was for a new beer in the Steinlager range, "Steinlager Edge", and it concentrated on the concentration of the beer, which has 3.5% alcohol. The text of the ad went something like this:

Steinlager Edge: 3.5%
The chance that you'll keep pace with your mates, and outpace them the next day: 96.5%

The thing that I found curious was that 96.5%. Such an exact number. Obviously, 96.5% is the complement of 3.5% in making a whole, and the neatness of that symmetry appeals even before one can apply logic to find other reasons why it might make sense.

The ad implies that the drinker of Steinlager Edge wants to consume as many drinks, measured by can, as his drinking buddies, but skip ill effects such as hangovers, which might normally result from drinking this quantity. There's a lot about Kiwi drinking culture right there. You can tell that someone would want this, because that is what the ad promises. Or doesn't quite promise. After all, there's only a 96.5% chance.

The number does several things. The magic quantity, 3.5% alcohol, which the beer contains, is reinforced because its opposite is also provided. Every time a reader of the ad does that tiny bit of arithmetic, 100 - 96.5, the number 3.5% is more firmly etched in the brain. It becomes memorable because it's not just provided in the text, but is also an answer to a question implied in the text. Etc.

The number 96.5% also works in mysterious ways. There's a certain predisposition we have when encountering percentages over 90%. "98% fat free!" echoes in our brains, along with "I'm 95% sure." We know what this means. Just this side of reality. Then there's that 0.5% part. Any percentage with a decimal place suggests the kind of scientific precision that made percentages popular. Because before 99% was popular, there had to be experiments in which something happened 99 times and didn't happen once. There is a kind of hypnosis going on when we see a number like 96.5%.

In fact, that context tells us a lot more than the number does. 96.5%? What does that mean? In trying to find a totally literal meaning for this advertisement, all I can devise is that because the addressee is drinking beverages with 3.5% of a performance-decreasing chemical, he is 96.5% likely to have undiminished performance the next day. Does that make sense? Perhaps. But it doesn't work if you look at it too closely. How does it fit in with "keeping pace" in drinking? He/she will drink 3.5% slower? No.

The thing is, the number 96.5%, in advertising context, is interchangeable with 97% and 98% and 99.25%. I am reminded of Watership Down, and how, for rabbits, any number over 5 became "a thousand"/"lots". We do that too. 96.5% means "lots". Also "many". And we can believe "many". In the context of the ad, we can accept:

"You, drinking a slightly less alcoholic drink than your mate, are probably but not certainly going to be able to drink as much as they are (in liquid quantity) and feel better tomorrow".

Can you find fault with that? I hope not. But look at what I had to do to tighten it up. I took the statistics out. And what is it that made the ad memorable, powerful by force of association, familiar? The statistics.

That 96.5% does not have a validity commensurate with its precision. (Ooooh, syllables.) In effect, it means nothing. It's like the square root of minus one. It isn't really there in terms the average person can understand (myself included), but with it, you can accomplish many things. It is - just like the square root of minus one - an imaginary number.

Conclusion: When we look at that 96.5%, in a context we recognise, continuing a noble tradition, we believe it and don't believe it and believe it all over again. We know we aren't meant to take it literally. That's why we understand it. Isn't that weird?