Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Comic 870: False Advertising

mathematically annoying

[Comic title: "Advertising"; alt text: "I remember the exact moment in my childhood when I realized, while reading a flyer, that nobody would ever spend money solely to tell me they wanted to give me something for nothing. It's a much more vivid memory than the (related) parental Santa talk."]

You'd better be fucking happy, Randy. You've finally produced a comic with so many blatant flaws I'm writing an actual goddamn review of it. Are you content now? Are you at ease, now that you have a few days where you can attempt to replicate what Megan's milk must taste like without being pestered about how creepy it is? Fuck you, Randy. Fuck you.

Let's start with the first panel, shall we? This one is annoying for the same reason 169 was annoying. Most notably: nobody actually uses that phrase. He's combined "up to 15% off all items!" and "save 15% or more!" into one utterly retarded phrase. Randy, you see, is a disingenuous fuck. He desperately wants to seem like someone who is smart, so he creates situations in which people do things which bother him, because he is smart and they are not.

The second panel is what really pisses me off, though. It's dumb on so very many levels. First, this isn't a mathematical complaint. Randy is trying to leverage game theory here to prove some trait about human behavior. This is about as stupid as it sounds. The biggest problem, apart from the fact that game theory is not, in fact, a hard-coded law of human behavior, is that the game Randy has constructed is flawed. It seems to assume that the only form of expected value possible is monetary.

The basic assertion he's making is that people don't pay money for advertising unless they expect to recoup that money somehow. He feels that this is somehow disingenuous of advertisers to call it "free." And he thinks he has proven this mathematically. This is phenomenally stupid, given that Randy is a webcartoonist. While perhaps he is ignorant of this fact by virtue of spending about 95 percent of his brainpower imagining what Megan's nipples look like, webcartoonists are (a) offering a free service (b) pretty keen on buying advertising for that free service. Most of them, no doubt, are hoping to make money off their webcomic eventually, but I imagine a large sum of them are just interested in getting viewers. They are buying advertising because they expect that it will net them more readers--even if these readers do not make them any money whatsoever. I know I've considered buying advertising for my personal projects, which have no advertising and which will almost certainly not make me any money. I would only do this because I like having readers, not out of any desire to have money.

I'm not going to list all the various and sundry things that people spend money on advertising that are free. There's lots, though. This second panel is just another disingenuous attempt at Randy to pass off his incredibly poor understanding of human nature as some piercing insight into how the world works, or some savage denunciation of the treachery of the advertising industry. "How dare you claim that the things you aren't charging any money for are free, when you expect to recoup your losses through other means!"

The last panel--well, I wasted all my rage on the second panel, so it's hard to get that annoyed at it. I mean, sure, Randy's statement is incorrect: while there is a sale on, the more you spend at that time will save you more in the future, provided you were going to purchase those items anyway and provided you don't alter your rate of consumption because of buying in bulk. But he is right in suggesting that the principle is misleading, though, again, it's not because of any sort of mathematical property. It's just because sales are meant to exploit various bits of human psychology that mean you'll buy things you otherwise wouldn't. But if I'm saving $20 on an item that I just purchased, if I buy six of them I just saved $120 on those items. The more I spend on them, the more I save, as a flat rate. (Percentage-wise, of course, it remains the same, and as it applies to the money I personally have, the more I spend the less I'm able to put into savings, but that's not what "save" means here.)

And of course he has to point out that the slope is negative. Good one, Randy! COULDN'T SPOT THAT ON MY OWN.

I feel a momentary twinge of pity for Randy when I read the alt-text. Maybe he just remembers it because of one of those weird quirks of memory, but he makes it sound like he remembers it because it was a life-altering experience. "That's the moment I became a cynic," he seems to be saying. (Though he's probably the sort of dick that uses the word "realist" instead, the useless fuck.) "That's the moment I came to understand the world."

I can understand a child finding that an interesting revelation. I'm sure I thought that companies gave away free things just because they were really cool, and not because they thought it would improve customer loyalty or make money. But to look back on that moment as something profound is kind of sad.


  1. Your Panel 2 rant is spot-on. What I actually came here to complain about was the fact that every Geico commercial says they could save you "up to 15% or more on car insurance," but a quick Googling seems to indicate that they actually don't use the "up to." Probably because they know it's retarded.

    Nothing to see here.

  2. i love you rob this was really interesting and insightful please go back to doing these wonderful analyses

    you just completely nailed it

  3. Damn you Rob!


  4. Bravo, Rob! Your mathematical and rhetorical talent is not wasted! I know you like to give the impression that you don't give a fuck about your fans, but… this is irrevocable proof that you do!

    Don't worry, we love you back. Especially when you're angry.

  5. (Also, Jesse, Geico did use to use that… also there's the more obscure end of the scale:


  6. Hell, it removes HTML. Here, then:

  7. "Up to X or more" is used. Google harder, people.

    The expected value is monetary because that's what everything is converted into.

    Randy is employing the fallacy of equivocation in the third panel.

    That is all.

  8. For anyone who actually talks with real people using words... panel one's hypothetical advertisement really isn't that big an issue. These hypothetical salesfolk are obviously telling you, "we've calculated that you'll save somewhere between 0 - 15 % off," and add the "or more" simply because in today's society it's necessary as an "And if you save even more on our products, don't demand we give it to you for free or some shit like that because we're actually giving you a BETTER deal than advertised, you literalist cunt!"

    I remember that the local grocery store had to give someone the product for free [up to $10] if it was improperly priced. Some guy came up and told the cashier that the bananas were listed too expensive; they rang up at half the price. So he demanded she give them for free because they were "mis-priced" when she asked him to pay less than its actual price. THESE PEOPLE EXIST.

  9. They should just say 'up to 100% off' at all times and cover their bases.

  10. It's also horrendously ugly, with the "art" serving no purpose.

  11. Meh.

    Rob, you're still a shit writer.

    At least you're trying now, though.

  12. what could possibly give you the impression that i'm trying?

  13. It's twice as long as normal.

    inb4 that's what she said.

  14. That's what he said.

  15. Damn your eyes, 12:21.

  16. @11:52 PM

    'Meh' invalidates your entire post on account of you being an utterly worthless person.

  17. I have to say:

    I have seen "up to [X] or more" and I do hate it. Maybe his comic could have just been panel 1.

    I do think your story about a person insisting on a discount because he was charged less than the list price is interesting in a horrific way, but I had never connected that with the "up to [X] or more" phrasing, and frankly I still think that's a stretch. I think it's just as likely that nobody proofread it closely, or they're copying the phrasing from something else that said it like that.

    And even if it is to ward off the most incredibly asinine people in the universe, I still hate it. Much as I shake my head at some of the excerpts at

    Rest of your rant is accurate.

  18. I'm pretty sure Geico uses "up to 15% or more." At least, that's what Google tells me. Pretty sure it's probably like what the evil carrion fowl Ravenzomg said, though. I.e., it's not that the advertisers are dumb or deliberately misleading, it's that some of their customers are dumb as shit.

  19. I thought I remembered "up to 15% or more" from Geico but can find NOTHING proving it.

    Although I get the oddest feeling that validating that panel wouldn't make this comic better...?

    Nah who am I kidding this is the height of funny~

  20. Charles Augustus FortescueMarch 10, 2011 at 7:05 AM

    It oughtn't to be too hard to understand. They believe that they can save you 15% or more. It's the "up to" that is added as a caveat to cover them in case they are mistaken.

    Randle is correct that, in purely mathematical terms, the phrase is meaningless; but it takes up a lot less space and sounds better than "You should be able to save at least 15%, but it's possible we haven't considered every possible set of circumstances so you might not".

    As ever with language, strict logic takes second place to getting the meaning across. If people understand it, it isn't really wrong.

  21. OH yeah. I'm new here so Im trawling through the archives and I wanted to make a note that comic 636 is the one I think I've seen of a relationship comic where the guy is the observant one. Just making a note don't mind me.

  22. Well, just when I decided to remove xkcd sucks from my feed list, Rob decides to stop making this the second coming of 4chan. I'll be.

    This comic is just annoyingly bad. It's a jumble of walls(or maybe floors) of text with illustrations that are actually horrid. And well, for once Rob's text actually said all I had to say.

    Why do I have the impression that this spike in text quality will drop suddenly by tomorrow?

  23. Sudan Trade Union Federation? No, I think I'll pass, cuddlefish.

  24. 11:52 thinks being an asshole equates to being badass. Easy to criticize when cowering behind a mask of anonymity, isn't it?

  25. In reference to the last point, maybe he was simply not all that surprised or affected by the Santa talk.

    I know I got told about Santa pretty offhandedly and basically responded, "Yeah, I know." So maybe I just think of "The Santa talk" being pretty unremarkable.

  26. Megan's Milk ButtonMarch 10, 2011 at 9:57 AM

    In panel 3, shouldn't those axes be reversed? "Amount you save" is a function of "amount you spend". You'd think a self-proclaimed math worshiper would know that.

  27. I'm pretty happy with anyone who's denigrating XKCD. I'm so tired of people coming up to me and being all like 'nerds are so cool and so I pretend that XKCD is funnny because of ... that.' Or whatever makes them like the damn thing.

    Honestly Rob, you could write a bunch of curses about XKCD/Randall on here and it would be cathartic to me, at least.

  28. You're right Mr. Milk Button! The amount you spend is the independent variable here so it should go on the x axis. Switching them around won't make it any less stupid though.

    For some reason staring at this comic gives me a headache (not because of its stupidity) but because of how its laid out. I have a headache now :(

  29. "nobody actually uses that phrase. He's combined 'up to 15% off all items!' and 'save 15% or more!'"
    I suggest you learn to use Google. I did a search for:
    +"up to" +% +"or more"
    and got 738,000,000 results (which is of course no more true than your statement. Just say a lot starting with these:
    Medical Discount Center - Save up to 50% or more on Medical Care
    Apr 9, 2007 ... Save up to 50% or more on Medical Care. Affordable individual and family health plan. Includes free dental, vision, prescription drug, ... - Cached
    SALE Homes - Up to 40% or more off their original price -- ZipRealty
    Price Reduction. Any, 40% or more, 25% or more, 10% or more. Start searching for a great deal on SALE Homes! Contact Us · FAQs; Feedback & Suggestions ... - Cached
    Save up to $1000 a year or more on commuting from TransitChek
    Save up to $1000 a year or more on commuting costs with the TransitChek commuter benefit program. - Cached - Similar
    Up to $3500 or more with the New Jersey State Grants & Loans ...
    Firstech Environmental handles all aspects of NJ State Grants and Loans in New Jersey for (UST) underground storage tank removal. - Cached

  30. Oh and p.s.
    If xkcd sucks, then what do you think of someone who sucks at sucking a sucker?

  31. we call them rhb


  32. @ Megan Milk Button

    In strictly mathematical terms, it doesn't matter which variable is a function of the other. If the function y=f(x) is strictly monotonic (which is the case here), there f is invertible and there is a function x=g(y).

  33. more like strictly MORONIC amirite

  34. @rhb

    None of your examples show that we are in actuality inundated in advertisements with that kind of wording, just that they exist and that you were able to disprove an absolutist statement. Bravo?

    738,000,000 results

    Sounds like a lot of false positives ...

    We invite you to sign up to get your own Patriot Action Home Page and then .... Your generous contribution of any amount $1, $10, $20, $50, $100 or more ...

    yep ...

    Let's see what your own Oracle of Pascal (... you see this is funny because Delphi is a programming language based off of Pascal which was ... you know what ... never mind) has to say on this

    Google is just pulling search results out of their collective hive-mind ass you say? If only he would of figured that out 300 or so comics ago ...

    suggest you learn to use Google.

    Try searching this: +"up to" +"or more"

    Now try searching this:" +"up to" +% +"or more"

    Notice a difference? Yeah, me neither.

    Rocks and glass houses and all that ...

  35. xkcsucks is being talked about here:

    as always, languagehat provides engaging and intelligent commentary.

  36. @Ravenz: Most grocery stores have a policy that if something is mis-priced they will either give it to you free (up to 10 dollars in value) or 10 dollars off. At a Safeway around here, I went through the register and something came up wrong. An old lady behind me piped up and said "He gets those free right?" Cashier replied "Only if he asks for it." I'd never have known otherwise.

    There are policies put in place here that can save you money, why WOULDN'T you try to use them? I don't know if it's just a store policy, or law, or what. But if all you need to do is ask for it, they are hoping that your ignorance of policy, or your unwillingness to appear rude/embarrass yourself is going to stop you from doing it. Better to look the fool by asking for free stuff than to play the fool by paying money you didn't have to.

  37. GEICO's ad say "up to 15% or more", according to Wikipedia:

  38. It's the law in some states.

    In my state if something has a mislabeled price, they are credited the price difference plus 5 times the price difference up to $5.

    So $120.00 and they charge you $120.50, the give you back $0.50 + Max(5($0.50), $5) = $3.00 AFTER you pay them the $120.50.

    Priced $120.00 but charged $130.00 you get $15.00 back.

  39. "5 times the price difference up to $5" is Min(5(price difference), $5) surely

  40. Nice job on this one. This comic annoyed me bad enough to want to make my own xkcd blog. BTW I do not read xkcd, but I can't fucking spend 2 minutes on facebook without some jerk posting some terrible and lame xkcd comic. Your blog is doing more for people like me than you can imagine.

  41. I'm probably not the first to point this out, but in panel three the slope shouldn't be negative, unless Randall is trying to be really meta by proving himself wrong in his own comic.

  42. Shouldn't the graph be a flat line, as flat as the discount? What fucking message is that graph trying to convey? The more I spend, the less I save, what sort of imbecility is this?

  43. @Anon 631: Randall is trying to communicate that given a fixed endowment with no income, every dollar spent reduces your "savings" [ie: remaining endowment] by exactly that much.

    Buuuuut, as anyone who has ever drawn a salary knows, "income" is pretty cool.

    For da trolls: I'd even say your savings can increase... exponentially as you spend! ....

  44. I don't understand your beef with 169. I've heard that joke told "seriously" several times.

  45. Good review/rant.

  46. I think I know my own life, Ned.

  47. apparently not in this case.

  48. Hey, at least today Randy admits he's an asshole.

  49. I think 169 was meant as a dis to jokes like that in general. Like that one where someone asks if you know what something means, and then says, "Can you spell it?" Then you spell the word and they're like, "Ha! It's 'I-T'!"

    I've heard that one at least twice, so I can appreciate 169.

  50. Dull and sad, all of you. It's a fucking comic.

  51. Megan's Milk ButtonMarch 11, 2011 at 1:18 PM

    @Professor Nombars

    It may not matter from a strictly mathematical standpoint, but not having your independent variable on the x-axis is, as Randall would say, mathematically annoying.

  52. I thought that was the joke: He wants to make highschool math and advertising retarded

  53. Hah! So I wanted to see it with my own eyes and googled up and sure enough, all the first page was crap like "Save up to $1000 a year or more" except one result:

    Waow, I should start my own webcomic about this stuff!

  54. I just can't believe you are doing all this seriously.

    You are complaining that a web site you stumbled upon a while ago is not any more up to your standard. As if you were now entitled by right to read an excellent joke every 3 days. If you don't like it any more, don't read it. If you think it has become a waste of time, don't waste an order of magnitude more time complaining that it is a waste of time. Just remove xkcd from your bookmarks. You will live happier and longer.

    I just love it. I agree with some but not all of your complaints. It doesn't really matter.

    (and no, I have no idea whether Randall's rate is actually one joke every 3 days).

    Florian Fischer