Amazon’s Fuzzy Math: Stop Encouraging Them

Amazon is ramping up its marketing push for a big product announcement right after Labor Day weekend, which will surely be a new Kindle Fire tablet and perhaps additional e-ink Kindle readers. And since we’re talking about Amazon, that means it’s time for another round of handcrafted statistics meant to convey huge sales numbers.

Unfortunately, most of us in the press and the consumer world can’t resist repeating this schlock. But we shouldn’t do it.

Today’s example is Amazon’s announcement that the Kindle Fire is “sold out.” That bit of linguistic spin isn’t so bad, although Jim Dalrymple at The Loop points out the obvious hilarity of portraying the planned end of a production run as some sort of rush on hot concert tickets.

But there’s plenty of obfuscation to go around. Some of this is repeated B.S., but it’s still infuriating in its faux-scientific presentation—and remember, all of these examples are packed into one paragraph in the Amazon press release:

—Amazon says the Kindle Fire is “the most successful product launch in the history of Amazon.com.” At the risk of flogging the obvious, this statement is 100 percent meaningless. “Successful” is not a metric. Nobody knows the actual time period meant by “product launch.” Does this mean the Kindle Fire sold the most units of any product ever? That it exceeded projections in its first month? That Amazon sold out of its Kindle Fires faster than expected? Does anyone at Amazon even know what this means?

Nobody knows. I’m going to go ahead and declare this the most successful empty statistic in the history of human communication.

—Amazon says the Kindle Fire has earned “over 10,000 5-star customer reviews.” This is a raw number on a scale, but it’s presented without any sense of proportion. Are the five-star review totals higher than the four- or one-star reviews? Is 10,000-plus a greater number of five-star reviews than the reviews for other comparable products? Is 10,000 even a meaningful figure when compared to the total number of Fire owners?

Oh, right, we can’t say. Kindle Fire sales numbers themselves aren’t released.

—Of course, there was this old chestnut: Kindle Fire is “the #1 best-selling product across the millions of items available on Amazon since its introduction 48 weeks ago.” This is perhaps the most intellectually dangerous statement that Amazon has circulated, because it prompts people to think the Kindle Fire has sold more units than any other product available on the site.

That might be true. But this sentence doesn’t say that—not even close. What does “best-selling” even mean? Does that convey how quickly the inventory sold? How many units were sold for each marketing dollar spent? Impossible to say, so it shouldn’t be repeated.

At this point, I’m so starved for something even resembling an actual measurement that I almost welcome the claim that “in just nine months, Kindle Fire has captured 22% of tablet sales in the U.S.” I guess you could use that to extract a rough measurement of sales, provided you found some analyst numbers on the estimates for domestic tablet sales in the last three quarters. But as The Loop points out, it’s still not meaningful because of the lack of a real-number basis.

There’s more. Two days ago, Amazon told us that “its catalog of over 180,000 exclusive Kindle books have been purchased, downloaded, or borrowed from the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library more than 100 million times.” Great?

And earlier this week, the company declared that “it now ships more items with Prime Free Two-Day Shipping than with Free Super Saver Shipping.” Todd Bishop at GeekWire rightly called this bit of nonsense “an amazingly vague milestone.”

Calling bull on Amazon is the right approach. But honestly, at some point we should all link arms and decide to just stop shoveling the company’s weird brand of number-crunching into people’s news feeds altogether, because maybe it would stop them.

Amazon is doing this because it works. Someone in marketing realized long ago that most segments of the media are suckers for superlatives and vague, large-sounding numbers. This is mostly an unintentional sin—news people are usually too harried and busy to double-check these assertions—but it’s a sin nonetheless.

Remember that fact when winter rolls around. As it does just about every year, Amazon will probably declare that its most recent holiday shopping season was the company’s “best ever.” That nugget of nothingness will show up in everyone’s year-end retail report. But fact-checking shouldn’t take a holiday.

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