Slippery Numbers

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

There are two types of claims: those based on hard numbers and those based on slippery numbers.

Hard numbers are facts that, when evaluated lead to a logical conclusion ... and a hard claim. For example, the US Constitution is 222 years old and, as such, is the oldest written constitution still in use today. Slippery numbers, in contrast, are used to support a claim that someone wants to make, regardless of the hard numbers. For example, George W. Bush was one of the most popular presidents in US history (when compared to presidents with under a 40% approval rating). The claim is technically true ... when based on slippery numbers. But the measurement is clearly manipulated to help make the claim.

Sadly, hard numbers and hard claims are often reserved for scientists and text books. Slippery numbers, however, run rampant in politics and marketing. Here's a real ad that Continental Airlines is currently running as an example. The headline says, "The newest jet fleet. Not just a new paint job." The problem is, their claim is based on slippery numbers. The fine print right beneath the headline says, "Continental Airlines flies the newest jet fleet among global airlines based in the US." (click here to see ad).

They only compare themselves to US-based global airlines. In other words, they only compare the age of their fleet to American Airlines, Delta and United - the only other US based global airlines. Their claim of "newest" is factually correct ... when based on slippery numbers. If you consider the hard numbers and the claim they are attempting to make you'd have to compare them to all airlines flying in the US. The problem is, the truth would not be the version of truth that they like.

As consumers we have to look out for any company that claims to be the best, youngest, fastest, smartest or any other absolute. Odds are, to be the absolute at something, they are using slippery numbers to make their claim. Slice the numbers a different way, and some other company can make virtually the exact same claim.

But as companies, we need to be honest with ourselves about what's more important to us - manipulating numbers simply to appear to have an advantage that we don't really have or to be honest about the things we believe and the way we conduct business. As the old Buddhist saying goes, "how you do anything is how you do everything." Any company willing to trick their consumers in advertising is probably willing to include hidden fees in their price, offer benefits that aren't really there and promise guarantees or protections that are hard to claim when you feel you deserve them.

By the way, Spirit Airlines has the youngest Airbus fleet in the Americas and AirTran flies the youngest all-Boeing fleet ... and I write the most popular blog on the internet*

*comparison made to less popular blogs.