Let's Take A Closer Look

Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986

It’s impossible to say which of the Seven Dwarfs is the tallest, as they’re always wearing hats. And what’s the point, anyway? None are tall in the absolute sense, so who cares which of seven tiny creatures is the “tallest” of a bunch by a millimeter? Any differences in height among the seven is so minuscule as to be meaningless. Comparing short people to see who is tallest is as useful a task as saying -23 degrees is “warmer” than -24 degrees. I was unable to find any data online to answer my question, but I did come across Dreshare.com, who says Snow White was only 5 feet, 4 inches tall. Her companions appear to be half her height and there is no easily discernible difference between these tiny little guys. Asking which is tallest is pointless.

So what does this have to do with the latest Consumer Reports Automotive Reliability Ratings?

Pointless comparisons are a staple of advertising and promotion. Ford’s reaction to the report was to announce they were pleased to rank high among domestic brands. What Ford didn’t bother to mention was this: Ford’s reliability ranked 23rd of the 28 brands measured.

When did “We’re Not Last!” become something to be proud of?

Unable to claim reliability in any absolute sense didn’t stop the Blue Oval flacks from beating their drums. Ford chose the comparative route by relating themselves to the brands that dominated the bottom half of the rankings. This is the marketing department’s way of avoiding the real issue, which is Ford’s lack of reliability. The honest story is that Ford is only microscopically not as bad as Dodge. But public relations people and publicists never cite real data unless it suits their purposes. This is a fine example of why marketing departments should not be in charge of research departments. Marketers want to make claims; researchers want the facts.

How could Toyota be 22 spots above Mercedes-Benz?

We all know Mercedes-Benz builds more expensive cars. Most of us assume them to use higher-quality components and have greater craftsmanship. The answer is expectations, our premeditated ways of thinking, strong beliefs and own personal biases.

Expectations account for a lot of this apparent cognitive dissonance

Toyota sells a lot of low-priced entry-level cars to young people buying their first new car. Young moderns are gaga about the sound system, gadgets, and that new-car smell, and cheerily rate their car as excellent. Mercedes-Benz buyers are typically older, wealthier, and have bought other cars before. They have very high expectations and are put off by the slightest thing, much like the princess and the pea.

What else did U.S. carmakers say?

GM said it will use the magazine’s 300,000 surveys to “better understand our performance and where we can improve.” Ford said they will review the ratings as they work to improve quality.

What did the internal research departments of GM and Ford find? 

What kinds of research are GM and Ford paying their suppliers for if they don’t know about these problems until an independent organization publishes them? The most common kind of research sold today is the kind that makes executives happy because it tells them what they want to hear rather than what they need to know.

USSR Finishes in Second Place in Track Meet; USA Finishes One Spot Out of Last Place

This was a headline from TASS, the Russian news service from many years ago. Was the headline technically accurate? Yes. Was it deliberately misleading? You bet. Nowhere was it mentioned the USSR and the USA were the only two participants. It’s called propaganda when Russia does it. When companies do it, it’s called marketing and advertising.


Focusing on the teeny-tiny is very important in things that require great precision. Statisticians thrive on micro-differences, but in the world of decision-making, time spent on pointless comparisons is time wasted trying to make something out of nothing.

Want to look at old things in new ways, see the commonplace in more detail and hear complex subject matter explained in simple terms?

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