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Dumb and Dumber

The scan below was excerpted from the full-page ad that ran on page 75 of the June 25, 2001, edition of Time magazine.

As I read it, VeriSign is, dumbly, bragging on how the 40% savings adds up to a particularly small amount.

If you were willing to spend $192,000 for an ad in Time, wouldn't you try a little harder than this?  If you were a stockholder in VeriSign, would you be satisfied with this amount of dumb?

Well, it gets dumber.

dumb_and_dumber_06_25.gif (5033 bytes)


The scan below was excerpted from the full-page ad that ran on page 67 of the July 2, 2001, edition of Time magazine.

Anyone who happened to be watching noticed that within one week the price rose from "less than a penny a day" to "pennies a day."

That's actually quite a huge change, at least a doubling!

Here's why.

dumb_and_dumber_07_02.gif (4850 bytes)

For this purpose the most charitable definition of "less than a penny a day" is, say, 99% of a cent, but let's be even more charitable and call it an even one cent.  And for this purpose the most charitable definition of "pennies a day" is two cents.

So -- somehow all within a single week -- VeriSign's price for that 40% savings rose from 1 cent a day to 2, which is a 100% increase.  How much larger it really is is not revealed in the ad.

When was the last time you weren't startled when the price of something doubled in a week?

Also, how they managed to maintain that "savings up to 40%" figure while their price doubled is not at all clear.  My best explanation is that the competition doubled their prices and so did VeriSign.


Now that I'm off and running, let's analyze this in more detail, these very few words:

"And save up to 40% (that's just pennies a day)"                

  • VeriSign didn't specifically notify readers of the 100% increase in total daily cost at the 40% savings rate.  They just quietly amended their ad.  I'm not saying they're obliged to reveal a doubling of prices in huge letters at the top of the page, I'm just saying it seems sneaky, considering that it's probably not in their best interest to admit such a stupendous price hike.
  • What does "up to 40%" really mean?  The only thing we know for sure is that the most you can save is 40%.  You might end up saving only 20%, or even 10%.  As a matter of fact, you might end up saving nothing at all.

    As a matter of further fact, you might actually pay more to VeriSign than you would elsewhere.  There's nothing whatsoever in the phrase "up to 40%" that precludes your paying, say, a 40% premium rather than enjoying a 40% discount.

    Lesson: Beware phrases such as "up to X" and "less than Y."  They're probably meaningless (maybe even groundless), and should be relied on only after sufficient research.

    If you rely on a phrase such as "Save up to 40%," here are two questions you might want answered (neither of which, I'll bet, will be answered in the ad):

1.  What is that 40% figure compared to?

In the case of a product such as gasoline it's easy to compare deals.  It's the exact same product whether you buy from gas station A or gas station B across the street, so you just compare the price per gallon -- which is all there is to know about the deal that's being offered -- and you shop where it's cheaper.

But in the case of a service such as a telephone plan, there is such a bewildering number of deals available from such a myriad of companies that it does matter exactly how the advertiser calculated the figure of 40%.

You may be sure the advertiser is going to use the most impressive figure possible without actually lying, and you may be just as sure that he won't want to disclose any shadings of judgment that favored that more impressive number.  You may be sure that advertisers try as hard as they can to fool you, to put on the best possible face, even if that means using a lot of makeup.  I know, because as part of my last two jobs I did it too.  I think we all do it at least to some extent at least some of the time.

2.  Even if the 40% figure was calculated flawlessly and fairly, does it apply to you?

Perhaps it applies only if you buy a dozen Web extensions instead of just one, or twelve months of phone service instead of just one.

Or perhaps the maximum stated savings rate applies only if you accept undesirable conditions, such as "no pets" or "only if you're Caucasian."

I guess what I'm saying is that the figure of 40% in the phrase "save up to 40%" is, for all practical purposes, meaningless (except that it promises you will not save more than 40%).

  • What does "just pennies a day" really mean?

This phrase suffers from the same fundamental flaw as "up to 40%."  No limit is placed on how bad it can be for you the customer, only on how good it can be.

An advertiser using the phrase "just pennies a day" is no doubt really trying to convey the idea that the amount the customer pays is a small one.  The idea of two cents a day for even a whole year just doesn't seem like much, and maybe it isn't for the service provided.  But there's nothing in the phrase that precludes "pennies a day" from meaning not two pennies but rather 5 or 10 or 25 or 50 or more.

The natural cutoff, if there is one, is surely at 99 cents, because once you pass that you pretty much have to be talking about dollars.

Or do you?

Well, let's assume that you do.  That means the phrase "pennies a day" could mean anything from 2 cents to 99.  That's an enormous difference, with the larger price being nearly 50 times bigger than the smaller one.  When was the last time you didn't care about a price variance of 5000%?

I guess what I'm saying is that the phrase "just pennies a day" is, for all practical purposes, meaningless.

So, now how do you regard the sentence in VeriSign's ad that reads,

And save up to 40% (that's just pennies a day)


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