By the Numbers

What’s with marketers and their use of numbers, anyway?


Idly eyeing the checkout-stand magazines on offer, my scan stops at Time: ‘100 Ideas that Changed the World’. Interesting. Ennobling even: I feel smarter just standing here. But what’s this to its left? Forget the world-changing ideas: Cosmo is offering ’50 Ways to Seduce a Man’.  A head-to-head confrontation, as it were.

Is it just me, or are the magazine checkout-stand wars heating up? For decades, they’ve been promoting their content with pictures of damsels and desserts, both delectable. Now it appears that these appeals to the primal urges of sex and food are no longer enough: magazines seem to find it necessary to entice shoppers with numerical specifications of their content. The marketing logic is clear enough, if somewhat dubious: Boss, we can’t sell ‘Ideas that Changed the World’ but we can sell 100 of them.

As magazines have turned to numbers as the next Big Idea in the marketing wars, they have complicated my own budget struggles: the retail equivalent of collateral damage. With limited time and money to spend on magazines, I used to just choose an interesting subject. Oh, for the good old days, when life was simple! Nowadays, involuntarily obligated by the precision of what’s on offer, I feel pressured to try to calculate complex trade-offs.  Which is a better value: 37 tips to declutter my ‘space’, 126 great new looks for the winter season, or 12 sure-fire paths to financial independence? Will I get more bang for my buck from 44 new chocolate desserts or from 17 old-fashioned chicken dinners? Pretty soon my head hurts, but there is ‘help’ here, too, of a sort: I can read about 8 new approaches to chronic pain, or 15 easy ways to fit meditation into my day. Now my head really hurts.

What is the presumed attraction of numbers in this application, anyway? Is it that we rate our chances higher of finding a ‘new look’ that works for us if there are 126 of them to choose from? Are women’s magazines differentially affected by this numericalism, or are general-interest and men’s magazines equally under attack? Do odd or even numbers predominate, and why?

Delving deeper, do magazines use numbers only when they rely on drive-by shopping? I note that my Smithsonian magazine, available only through subscription, has nary a number on its covers. ‘How the potato changed the world’, trumpets a recent edition, not ’15 ways the potato changed the world’.  And why are some topics more suited than others to round numbers: 100 world-changing ideas, say, versus 37 decluttering tips? I admit that the class of ‘world-changing ideas’ doesn’t seem suited to a number like ’37’ and that the notion of ‘100 decluttering tips’ somehow lacks credibility, but I can’t quite explain why.

We could continue. We shall not. Let it suffice to say that there is, undoubtedly, a Research Career here somewhere, in marketing or psychology or both. But we don’t need research to explain why magazines throw numbers around with no respect for what the average person’s working memory can hold. Just as we know intuitively that 7 deadly sins, virtues, continents, seas, chakras, wonders of the world, and habits of highly successful people cannot be a coincidence, so too do we know that those 37 decluttering tips are not meant to be remembered. If we did, how would the magazine save us from ourselves again next year with a similar article on the same subject?

But all that is theory. Right here, right now, I have a practical dilemma: Time or Cosmo? As it turns out, I take neither, wasting what is likely a well researched effort by both to provoke a reflexive transfer of their magazine from checkout-stand rack to checker-outer’s shopping cart. Time, somehow, does not inspire me with confidence in their subject expertise. Cosmo passes that test, but my purely transient purchase impulse is swamped by a wave of even purer puzzlement. As a professional editor, reasonably conversant with finding more than one way to say almost anything, I would not have guessed that there were even 5 truly distinct ways to say, Do you want to have sex?, much less 50.  

Back at work the next day, I conduct my own research, conferring with female colleagues. My sample size is large enough, I’m sure, to produce valid results 49 times out of, say, 50. Covering a wide range of ages, likely centering on 50, these impeccable sources concur that the primary means of seducing a man is just this: Just Ask. But they allow that there is one other approach: Just Show Up, and let the man do the asking, whether directly or indirectly. Of course this method is open for attribution: the guy might reasonably think he’s doing the seducing. But it can also be seen as the love-wars’ equivalent of the much touted martial technique: Using an opponent’s strength against him. Wait a minute, somebody call Time: I think we might be up to 101.

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4 Responses to By the Numbers

  1. MC says:

    Ha Ha! I love it! “Just Ask. Just Show Up.” That surprisingly does sum it up in two very short statements.
    You’ve always been great at distilling hundreds of pages of writing into a concise and clear proposal topping out at about 10 or 15 pages. Perhaps you do have a career at Cosmo – just think of the paper and printing costs they’ll save.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      MC – I can see the query letter now… Dear Cosmo: Want to make more money? Call me. Regards, Isabel And you’d think that an article titled, “The 2 sure-fire ways to seduce a man” would have some traction. I’m always amazed (only in others’ writing, natch) how excess words obscure the point. What do they say? Something about ‘Less is more’…

  2. steven says:

    I admit that the class of ‘world-changing ideas’ doesn’t seem suited to a number like ‘37’ and that the notion of ‘100 decluttering tips’ somehow lacks credibility, but I can’t quite explain why.

    There is folklore (and maybe there are real studies backing it up; here’s a nonreal study) that numbers that end in 7 are perceived as more random, arbitrary, unstructured. 37 in particular is said to be a popular choice of “random” number between 1 and 50.

    For tips, we imagine that they simply wrote down everything they had, so the number of entries in the list will be “random” (especially since tips are miscellaneous, not elements of an orderly body of knowledge). For lists of the top whatever (world-changing ideas, sexiest people in the world, etc), we imagine a deliberate decision to fix the list at some size, so a round number is expected.

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