Random PR Thoughts

Canoe Keep a Secret?


Mark Twain famously said, “There are three kinds of lies. Lies, damned lies and statistics.” I know exactly what he meant.

My first job in PR was working for a sole practitioner. His main source of income was an engagement with Grumman Boats and Canoes. Legions of one-time summer campers will remember the famed Grumman canoe, which was made of the same gauge of aluminum as the company’s legendary WWII Hellcat fighter planes – they were virtually indestructible, although the canoes did not usually come under enemy fire like the planes.


We spent a lot of time thinking up new things you could do in a canoe (get your mind out of the gutter, I mean things like harvesting wild rice in Minnesota – for real) and working with outdoor writers to include a canoe (need I say a Grumman canoe?) in their stories whenever possible. This backwoods activity mainly took place in the various watering holes that punctuated the wilderness of Madison Avenue.

One frigid day in January 1982, I got a call from a writer at a national publication asking what seemed a simple enough question: “How many people go canoeing each year in the United States?”

I didn’t have any idea, but I promised to get back to him as soon as I could find out. When I hung up the phone, I asked my boss if he had any idea. He was just back from a three-martini safari with a journo on 47th Street, and was his usual helpful post-luncheon self.

“What kind of a dumbass question is that? How the hell should I know? Go find out!”

I started by asking the client.

“Geez, nobody has ever asked that before.” Sigh. So we began looking at the number of canoes Grumman sold each year, and then estimated the sales of the other major brands of canoe on the market. Then we called a few Grumman dealers who maintained canoe rental operations and got some help there. The National Marine Manufacturers Association (or NMMA, affectionately known in the industry as “Enema”) dug up some not-too-old market data and we added that into the mix. Then we looked at the circulation figures for magazines like Outdoor Life and Sports Afield, on the theory that some percentage of their readers would occasionally paddle a canoe.

By day’s end we had assembled quite a collection of data, none of which answered the question but taken in total provided a foundation of wet sand upon which to build a Wild Ass Guess: Six million Americans went canoeing each year.

I called the reporter and gave him the answer. He thanked me and hung up. I didn’t think about it again until Spring, when the magazine ran a piece on outdoorsy things to do with one’s family, and lo! There it was! “According to the folks at Grumman Canoes, six million Americans take a canoe trip each year.”

Nice hit. Client was happy. My boss yawned and looked at his watch – almost time for a bivouac at Maggie’s Place with an editor from Times-Mirror.

About five years later, I was flipping through an in-flight magazine and came upon an article about the camping and canoeing opportunities in one of those states that end in a vowel. And there it was: “According to industry sources, six million Americans take a canoe trip each year.” It didn’t mention Grumman but by then I had moved on to another agency and they were not my client. I was just intrigued by the durability of a number that had all the soundness of a White House jobs report – well, okay, maybe my number had a little more statistical validity than that.

In the late 90s, I saw an article somewhere about water-based recreation that cited this statistic: “Some seven million Americans canoe each year.” Curious, I called the writer, who told me the source was the PR firm for a canoe manufacturer (not Grumman). It must have been a slow day, because I went to the trouble of digging up the number of the Midwestern PR firm and in due course got to the right person. I asked where the number seven million came from, and he admitted (as a professional courtesy, I guess) that he and his client came up with it by adding one million to the six million they’d found cited in the 1980s. The extra million was to account for the passage of time. It seemed just as reasonable as my approach.

Whenever I hear someone cite a statistic of one kind or another, I think of my experience and I wonder if anybody’s numbers are any more valid than the one I cooked up. And recently, my curiosity led me to Google the latest stats I could find on the number of paddle-powered mariners hitting the water each year.

In about a tenth of a second, I had my answer: according to canoe-monger Coleman, in 2012, 9.8 million Americans took a canoe trip. (See the link below.  As you’ll see, this figure was actually based on genuine — and no doubt pricey — research by a reputable online survey firm.)

This graphic from the report tells the tale:

Screen Shot 2014-06-12 at 2.34.58 PM

The increase, by the way, is nearly perfectly aligned with the population growth in the US from 1982 to 2012. I can’t help thinking that I could have saved the nice people at Coleman a lot of money.



Categories: Random PR Thoughts

9 replies »

  1. Christ, you reminded me of the excellent little book “How to Lie with Statistics,” published in 1954 and again in 1991 by journalist Darrell Huff. I believe it’s still the best-selling text ever on the topic. It’s a fast, fun read and filled with anecdotes like this

    “A few winters ago a dozen investigators independently reported figures on antihistamine pills. Each showed that a considerable percentage of colds cleared up after treatment. A great fuss ensued, at least in the advertisements, and a medical-product boom was on. It was based on an eternally springing hope and also on a curious refusal to look past the statistics to a fact that has been known for a long time. As Henry G. Felsen, a humorist and no medical authority, pointed out quite a while ago, proper treatment will cure a cold in seven days, but left to itself a cold will hang on for a week.

    “So it is with much that you read and hear. Averages and
    relationships and trends and graphs are not always what
    they seem. There may be more in them than meets the eye,
    and there may be a good deal less. The secret language of statistics, so appealing in a fact-minded culture, is employed to sensationalize, inflate, confuse, and oversimplify. Statistical methods and statistical terms are necessary in reporting the mass data of social and economic trends, business conditions, ‘opinion’ polls, the census. But without writers who use the words with honesty and understanding and readers who know what they mean, the result can only be semantic nonsense.”

    Of course, that was then. Nowadays, we survey and poll with computer-driven databases, but are the results any better — really?

  2. It is hard , but possible, to create valid and reliable survey questions and instruments. Sampling is also essential (many computer bases surveys neglect this part). Without these two elements, I tend not to consider statistics of any value, for the reasons stated above. Once I got to grad school and learned how to do this myself, I became a much more sophisticated consumer of statistical data, but also learned the majority of the public do not make distinctions. If I make a SWAG, I state it as such. (If for no other reason, my survey research prof follows my work and will probably out and shame me publicly.) Having stated that, I have created statistics based on data in certain places/years/demos, only to have others use them without qualification. Once you create a stat, it tends to begin a life of its own. All the more reason to make them valid and reliable, so that if someone does backtrack, you can defend your findings.

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