Let’s make up some numbers

The Times reports today that the MPAA has released a study that DVD pirates are costing New York City $903 million a year in lost wages.

Making up numbers is a brilliant marketing technique, especially when the numbers are precise and untestable. Ivory Soap, after all, is 99 and 44/100 % pure.

$903 million is about 9,000 jobs paying $100,000 a year each. That’s a lot of ticket takers, Blockbuster clerks and gaffers. And yet the Times reprints the numbers as true.

Marketers make up numbers all the time. It’s a great way to tell a story with efficiency, and if you do it in the right spirit (meaning that the numbers are as close to true as you can get them) there’s little downside or damage. Except to your reputation when you’re wrong…

Do we need to know how much the Dow moved to a tenth of a point? No, of course not. But when we start delivering numbers with that level of accuracy, people can’t help but believe them.