Amazon’s Fuzzy Math: Stop Encouraging Them

8/30/12Follow @curtwoodward

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.

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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  • beidaren

    Why is SEC allowing this type of misleading statement that is designed to confuse investors? Only investor law suits can stop it.

    • freerange

      That’s a great point. One would think that the regulations wouldn’t allow you to make wild and potentially misleading statements without the facts to back them up. What is it that Amazon is trying to hide and why?

      • http://ashworthpartners.com/blog/ Giovanni Isaksen

        While these statements are wild and potentially misleading I’m sure they are ‘true’ at least in some sense of the word and therefore not complete fabrications. Since our media culture has been busy for at least 50 years breeding critical thinking out of our population who besides math geeks and statistics professors would even figure it out?

  • http://twitter.com/grigs Jason Grigsby, ☁4

    I concur with most of your points, but to this question, “Are the five-star review totals higher than the four- or one-star reviews?”, the answer is easily found by looking at the Kindle Fire reviews page:
    http://www.amazon.com/Kindle-Fire-Amazon-Tablet/product-reviews/B0051VVOB2/ref=dp_top_cm_cr_acr_txt?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=1

    There are 10,871 five star reviews out of 19,869 total reviews.

    • Peter_Meyers

      Put another way: More than 45% of Kindle Fire owners did not find their device 5-star-worthy. That’s worth some chin stroking.

      • http://twitter.com/grigs Jason Grigsby, ☁4

        And 36% of 13″ MacBook Pro users did not find their MacBook to be 5-star worthy:
        http://www.amazon.com/Apple-MacBook-MD101LL-13-3-Inch-VERSION/product-reviews/B0074703CM/ref=dp_top_cm_cr_acr_txt?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=1

        BTW, only 67 people have reviewed the 13″ MacBook Pro.

        There are plenty of suspicious or flat-out wrong data points that Amazon is touting, but the number of reviews and the feedback in the reviews doesn’t appear to be one of them. No need to force the issue when the rest of the arguments remain true.

      • Fanfoot

        Well, if we look at say the iPad 2, about 2/3rds of its reviews are 5 stars, while the rest are not. So, comparably, the iPad is “better reviewed”. Looking at a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.2, it has about a 50% 5-star number. So about the same (ish).

    • curtwoodward

      Thanks for looking that up, Jason! Enlightening.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jgelfond Jensen Gelfond

    And let’s not forget that it’s not so hard for the Fire to be Amazon’s “#1 best-selling product” when you can only buy it at Amazon (but nearly every other product Amazon sells can be purchased at a multitude of retailers).

    • curtwoodward

      Actually, I did see Fires for sale at Best Buy last holiday season. I do not have a good grip on whether they’re still out there.

      • http://www.facebook.com/jgelfond Jensen Gelfond

        ah, you’re right actually, they are now available in other places. I think I need to update my argument :) It used to be that they were just available from Amazon, but now they are indeed more widely available

  • Grawlix

    You forgot one:
    “Amazon remains one of the best investments on the Nasdaq”.

  • http://twitter.com/murphymac MurphyMac

    Thanks for writing this, but I don’t think Amazon will feel a bit of shame. I’m embarrassed for them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/SBMobil Andre Salazar

    At least someone noticed!! Companies that don’t report sales or shipping numbers shouldn’t get any press, period!

  • http://www.facebook.com/colin.e.doyle Colin Emery Doyle
  • http://www.facebook.com/colin.e.doyle Colin Emery Doyle
  • http://www.lfonyat.com/ Luis Fonyat

    I agree the “sold out” message may actually mean “end of product life cycle” for the current Kindle Fire generation and there is a new Kindle generation coming. But we can’t deny it was a successful product life cycle (fuzzy metrics or not). Even more successful it would be if there wasn’t a few weeks lag with out-of-stocks, and the older generation sold with markdowns when the new generation arrived. Another credit we have to give to Amazon, is the synergy between the Amazon Prime and Kindle, giving the customer advantages both in the e-commerce and in the entertainment content, like e-books and movie streaming.

  • synthmeister

    Amazon is selling a device at cost, pushing a loss leader service, selling wares at razor thin margins–but they won’t reveal sales figures on the device nor profit/revenue on the device. Does it surprise anyone that their operating margins are a ridiculous 1%?

    MS and Google can afford that kind of stunt because they have other cash cows, Amazon does not.

  • Andrés

    “Amazon will probably declare that its most recent holiday shopping season was the company’s “best ever.””

    The haven’t done that in about three years, you really should start doing some fact checking instead of hiding yourself behind weasel words like “probably” or “just about every year”

    Isn’t it nice when people do the same thing they criticize in others?