VitalSTATS

Will Guppies Save Clinton’s Marriage?
(Have we got your attention? - That’s the point)

by Howard Fienberg
October 1998

Journalists are trained to be skeptical of self-interested conclusions. Research on breast implants funded by Dow Corning is mistrusted, just as environmental studies by oil companies may be given short shrift. In the eyes of many journalists, research produced by interested parties taints conclusions.

But corporate self-interest isn’t always so obvious, and journalists can still be taken in when a savvy marketeer makes a lively claim. For example, a sex survey made big news last month. "The French do it most often, the Americans for longest, while the Thais prefer to wait for the honeymoon." This was the Financial Times (September 26) reporting on the latest global survey of sexual behavior, a story that made headlines worldwide, from the Toronto Star to the San Diego Union Tribune. Perhaps most astounding was that Americans were pegged the most unfaithful, at 50%—far ahead of the stereotypically adulterous French at only 36%. Unfortunately, these results have more to do with corporate marketing than serious research.

Data from third annual "Global Sex Survey," as it turns out, were gathered and disseminated by the condom manufacturer Durex. Only 14 countries were surveyed for this "global" survey. An impressive sample size of 10,000 was claimed, but this represents only those with the time and inclination to fill out and return the questionnaire. Moreover, it focused only on the "sexually active" respondents, which to Durex means 16 to 45 year-olds. It shouldn’t take a White House scandal to remind journalists that sex doesn’t stop at age 45.

This is not an isolated event. According to the BBC, $470 million in productivity was lost over a two week period as American workers looked at the Starr report to Congress and President Clinton’s testimony online. But the claim is simply an estimated figure based on the assumption that each employee averaged an hour apiece online. All this in a report provided by a San Diego company which produces software allowing firms to track their staff’s internet usage.

From the animal kingdom, the Wall Street Journal reported that "Guppies Can Save Your Marriage." Pet fish lessen stress, improve family relations, and have a generally relaxing effect. This according to a survey from the American Pet Products Manufacturer’s Association, based on a fishy sample of only 100 people.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune at least put the story in its place—accompanied by a short look at examples of how opinion pollsters "are apparently running out of important survey questions." Their evidence includes a survey from Blistex "showing that the biggest turnoffs to romance are too much flab (31 percent), excessive perfume (24 percent) and (surprise!) chapped lips."


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