Saturday, December 20, 2014

Tell them to buy an ad next time

Somebody at the county fair must have seen the Wichita Eagle coming:

Maybe it’s our meat-and-potatoes, no-frills M.O.

Maybe it’s our common-sense, git-r-done attitude.

Maybe our work ethic is so good that we can get things done faster than anyone else.

Whatever it is, Kansas, we’re No. 1.

At least when it comes to making a holiday meal fast, according to a survey by Del Monte.

It's official: When Christmas comes early for some happy public relations department, 'tis the season for Survey Grinch to kick the story back with a few questions:

(a) What do you think is true about your story?
(b) Given any answer other than "nothing" to (a), what do you think is interesting about it?

The fruit and vegetable company asked 2,500 Americans how long it takes them to prep for a holiday meal. Kansans who answered the survey spent the least amount of time – an average of 3.6 hours, according to a news release.

Aw, how did you know? A survey story!* Meaning our next questions are pretty simple: Who are we asking, and what are we asking them? If your answer is "don't know" or "didn't ask," your story is incompletely reported and not ready to run, but let's be charitable -- hey, it's almost the solstice! -- and assume it's some actually random (specifically, not self-selected or convenience) sample of Americans, compared by state, offering some kind of estimate of how long it takes them to prepare a holiday meal.

It'd be nice to know if the question was "how long," as opposed to "how many hours" or "how many minutes," and it'd be nice to know whether the sample -- if it was a sample -- was proportional by state.** Let's close our eyes and guess it's 50 per state, so on a nice, simple question like presidential performance or candidate preference, our margin of sampling error at 95% confidence would be -- in the back there? Very good. Plus or minus 13.9 percentage points. That gives you an idea of how likely the sample is to resemble the population without having to get into the variance around the answer itself.

Rounding out the top five fastest states were:
▪ Iowa, 3.7 hours
▪ Delaware, 3.8 hours
▪ North Dakota, 3.9 hours
▪ New Mexico, 4 hours

In other words, when you ask people to guess how long it take them to prepare some unspecified kind of holiday meal, guesses in this part of the scale differ by about six minutes per step. Stop press!

The five slowest states were all Southern. Is that a surprise?

No, that's a "stereotype." But it seems to work just as well for getting Del Monte some free promotional space at the other end of the distribution, where Mississippi is deemed the "most dedicated." (Just making the Top 10 appears to have been enough in Salt Lake City.)

Back to the real issue: On a front page with four stories, why is a free ad for Del Monte one of them? That's the fun -- or Grinch -- part:
  • Can't we just lighten up and have some holiday fun? Dunno. Could you find a way to do it that doesn't make the paper look clueless?
  • Oh, come on. It gives people something to talk about. Readers love to read about themselves! Great. Show me the data demonstrating that readers like to read made-up stuff about themselves as long as it's provided by large corporations.
  • But it has a public health message: "Jan McMahon, a Sedgwick County Extension Service agent, said however long you take to make your meal, don’t leave it out for more than two hours, or you’ll risk getting sick." Great. Write a story about food safety. For that matter, write a story saying it's OK to make stuff in advance and freeze it. Why do you need a bogus survey story promoting Del Monte to do either?
ead more here:"
 Read more here:
Really. People will judge you by what you fall for. It's OK to walk Del Monte down the hall to the ad department; the exercise will do you good.

* It appears to be called the Del Monte Holiday Meal Census, which would be a very different creature from a sample, but I can't find any mention of it at the Del Monte website.
** Though a properly drawn sample of 50 would predict California as accurately as it would Utah.

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