As a business strategist and marketer, I have worked with lots of brands and advertising agencies to develop or prove claims - the messages that companies say about their products to get people to buy them. You have heard many of them and even remember some - three out of four dentists surveyed, the best, fastest, newest, whitest, sexiest, latest and greatest. My personal favorites are the ones that try to impress you with language that might sound good, but is 100 percent meaningless. For instance, "Nothing works better" - which is basically a fancy way to say that this product works exactly the same way, no better or worse, than any other product in the category.
And no matter the quality or veracity of the data, we are besieged by lists, rankings, best of - anything to make one brand or company look better than another. Some of them seem quite useful and important, with large data samples, collected in a controlled way, with lots of meaningful criteria.
Take the recent US News & World Report on Best Hospitals in the US. According to the publication:
We sifted through data for nearly 5,000 hospitals and results from surveys of more than 9,500 physicians to rank the best centers in 16 adult specialties from cancer to urology. Death rates, patient safety and hospital reputation were a few of the many factors we considered. Only 144 hospitals were nationally ranked in a specialty. The Honor Roll features 17 Best Hospitals that scored near the top in at least six specialties.
These guys are really experienced at rankings. I believe that if I went to one of the recommended hospitals that I would get great care. Others, while not up to the same statistical rigor, help us make non-life threatening, but expensive decisions - think cars, household appliances, athletic clothing. (Side note: Did you know that not only does Good Housekeeping evaluate refrigerators, but the best French-door refrigerators? How was I supposed to know that I needed or wanted a refrigerator with French doors?)
Look further and you can find the best eye serum, best white sandals, best iPod docking stations, best lunchboxes, best hot sauces, best date movie, best BPA water bottles - if you can think of it, you can get a ranking for it. The challenge is knowing how to separate the meaningful from the meaningless. Just because you can measure something doesn't make the measurement useful.
I have seen a few recently that leave me wondering who was in charge in the office that day. I mean, does it help a school or community that their high school ranks 1,947th in the nation in an annual ranking of "America's Most Challenging High Schools"? What does that even mean? How am I supposed to make a decision about whether this is good or bad? Should I move into that district? Or should I tell people who live there to put their houses up for sale?
And the other day, while I was walking through an airport, I saw my favorite comparison ad ever. The bright billboard proudly announced a university that is number one in the U.S. and number five in the world for universities under 50 years old. Now I get it. The school is trying to position itself as an up-and-comer, without the prestigious history of the nation's oldest universities, but one to consider just the same. I didn't even know that I was supposed to think about this when my children look for colleges.
And just in case anyone is looking for an anchor for their Olympic relay team, I run the fastest mile of any redhead in my family. I will leave you to ponder how significant that comparison set is. Buyers beware or you might wind up with the tallest mountain in Kansas!