Urban Math: OK, It's Like, a Lot

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No one knows how many ads people see each day. But for some writers and scholars, any number seems to do.

How many ad messages does the typical American consumer see and hear on any given day? Depends on who's pretending to do the counting. The New York Times says it's 5,000. The Albany Times Union reports 1,600. Consumer Reports believes it's 3,000. The Minneapolis Star Tribune claims 1,000 or 3,000, depending on who's doing the reporting. Creativity decided to get in touch with some of the writers and authors who'd reported these rubbery `facts.' How did they come up with those numbers? What were their sources?

Let's start with the hallowed newsmachine that is The Washington Post. In a February 1999 article, the paper's Leslie Walker wrote: "The Internet could turn marketing on its head, giving consumers more control over the seemingly random one million advertising messages they are exposed to annually." One million, eh? "I wish I could be more helpful, but for the life of me I can't remember the source for that statistic," Walker admits when contacted. "It wasn't just a number somebody quoted me, for sure, because I never use statistics like that. I know I pulled it from a study, I just can't remember which one."

In an October 19, 1995 column published in The Minneapolis Star Tribune, United Feature Syndicate columnist Harvey Mackay wrote: "Ad people say we're exposed to 1,000 commercial messages a day." OK, Harvey: Which ad people say that? A call for comment was returned by Mackay's representative, Greg Bailey. "He wouldn't remember where he got that information, since it was so long ago," says Bailey. "But he probably got it from a reference book at the library or maybe the Internet."

Interestingly, two months after Mackay's article ran, the same paper reported that "the number of daily advertising messages Americans are exposed to in the 1990's [is] 3,000." When Creativity asked Star Tribune staff writer Dan Freeborn where he found that statistic, he said it came from a book entitled Astounding Averages: 90 Acres of Pizza a Day and More, by Dean Dauphinais and Kathleen Droste. All right! A source!

Not so fast. The book doesn't take credit for the number either. Instead, it cites an article in Consumer Reports entitled `Advertising Everywhere,' published in 1992. Creativity tracked down the article on the Consumer Reports website. It reads: the "average American is now exposed to some 3,000 advertising messages a day." But where did this number originate? Did the Consumers Union conduct the study? Or are the editors there citing someone else as well?

"Unfortunately, we only keep sources for five years, so I cannot provide you with that information," says Jennifer Shecter from CU's Office of Public Information. Despite the shadiness of its origin, Consumer Reports continues to reference the number -- without attribution. In the February 1998 issue, president Rhoda Karpatkin quotes it in her Memo to Members, stating that "The average consumer is barraged with 3,000 commercial messages a day, according to one study." The particulars of that study -- its title, authors, methodology -- remain a mystery.

With source amnesia running rampant in the journalistic community, we sought enlightenment from book authors. David Shenk, who penned Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut (1998), writes that the average consumer is hit with 3,000 messages a day. He says the number came from an academic paper by Eli Noam, a professor at Columbia University. We'll take his word for it, but Creativity couldn't find the paper in the libraries we consulted, and Noam did not return calls and e-mails.

James Twitchell, in his latest book, Twenty Ads that Shook the World (2000), writes in his introduction that "The average young adult today sees some 5,000 ads each day." No source is cited. Pressed for clarification, Twitchell confesses to be somewhat stumped. "Maybe what you're on to here is an urban myth," he concedes.

What about `official' numbers? Are there any? The Federal Communications Commission doesn't have them. Jupiter Communications, a large Internet commerce research firm, doesn't have them. The American Association of Advertising Agencies didn't return our calls. And the U.S. Department of Commerce curtly informed us: "We don't carry that information."

So we are left where we began: inundated with hundreds? thousands? millions? of commercial messages smacking us in the face every day. Perhaps the number really isn't important anyway. As they say, it isn't the quantity that matters, but the quality.

Uh-oh.

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