We’re All Above Average, Aren’t We?

What do American drivers, the children of Lake Wobegon, and termites have in common?

They are all above average.

Here’s what a regular reader called LLP pointed out in an e-mail:

There is a TV ad running here in Southern California for a pest control company. It states that “the average termite eats 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” so your million dollar home is at risk.

This got me thinking that the idea of average is on the upper limit — which does not make sense since no termite can exceed the maximum time alloted in a day or a week.

I wonder how many more misleading ads are being foisted on unsuspecting or “unthinking” people who simply listen to such blabber.

One other example, LLP points out, is a new car’s mileage per gallon of gas — “which does not take into consideration driving conditions, driver’s habits or vehicle’s load.”

Other examples of above-average promises?


I love it that every camera that is reviewed on dpreview.com is either "Above Average", "Recommended" or "Highly Recommended".

Mike C.

Actually, if the ad is taken at face value, doesn't that mean that every termite is actually below average? Quick syllogism:
- The average termite eats for 24 hours
- Every individual termite actually eats for less than 24 hours
- Therefore, every termite eats below average.

Seems like these termites are from bizarro-Woebegone.


Oh -- & the Magic 9-ball -- Fakker!

Ten of the possible answers are affirmative, five are negative and five are non-committal.

Ian Blincoe

Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems as though the ad says "the average termite". It seems that this could still be valid because it does not say "a termite eats 24 hours a day on average". The mean value of time that a termite eats does not seem to be the subject here, but rather the mean value termite (whatever that means). It does seem that the word typical would have perhaps been better.

Ryan Phelps

The American educational system has tens of millions of students. I'm willing to bet that the average and the median are pretty close to each other.

Please, feel free to substitute mean, median, mode, average, normal, smart/stupid as you see fit.

I stand by the spirit of my comment.


As Jerry Seinfeld has observed, almost all pain relievers are advertised as "extra strength," but "extra" as compared to what?


One of the best ads I've ever seen is for The Economist. It just has a red background with these words:
"A poster should contain no more than eight words, which is the maximum the average reader can take in at a single glance. This, however, is a poster for Economist readers."


Well, it could be my English skills or my knowledge of termites, which are both far from ideal, but for me, these statements are different:
- the average termite eats 24 hours a day;
- a termite eats in average 24 hours a day.
The first one, as in the ad, doesn't sound that strange. The second one is an above-average promise.

Peter Norvig

In 1987, John Cannell surveyed US state education boards and found that 50 out of 50 reported their students were above average. See http://www.thirdeducationgroup.org/Review/Essays/v2n1.pdf

He concludes that when the states contract for testing services, part of the contract is a conveniently low-scoring control group to compare against.


GoToMeeting used to have an XM commercial that claimed: "[By using GoToMeeting,] you can literally meet with anyone, anywhere, at any time."

I'm thinking they meant "figuratively."


Regarding: "46 percent of high-school seniors who test below the "basic" level in science."

FYI, this statistic is based on the NAEP data. NAEP tests are *not* norm-based, so averages, modes, and medians do not come into play. Rather, "basic" is a level of performance measured by certain criteria (i.e., if you can do X, Y, and Z, then you score "Proficient"). So it's possible (though unlikely) that 100% of students could score basic, advanced, or whatever.

rags to riches

Dear Ryan P;

no thanks to our educational system. I was fortunate- had the best teacher ever- my dad. He taught me how to do the math and the rest is history.

The Big D

Not so. A common mistake of mediam, mode and average. If 100 kids take a test and one scores 100% while 99 score 2%, then indeed, 99% will score below average.

"I would expect 50% to test below average, otherwise it's not average.

- Posted by Ryan Phelps"



You're getting average and median mixed up there. Someone forgetting high school maths? (I can't remember what part of high school maths it is, just that it's high school maths. Calculus? I don't know anymore....)


24/7 is not the same as 24/7/365, right? The average termite probably eats 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, three weeks a year or something like that...


I remember watching the final round of "Family Feud." One of the questions was, "One a scale of 1 to 10, how do Americans rate their sense of humor?" The top answer was (drumroll) 10. I guess we each have a good sense of humor.


I actually think back to Freakanomics, here: it seems to me to be related (at least when it comes to people) to come from the same sort of mindset that fuels the "how is a gangster like a beauty pageant contestant" example. People tend to think of themselves as exceptional (in the "I will be the exception" sense, not necessarily the "I AM SUPER!!" sense, though maybe that too). So, my child is smarter than average, my driving record is better than average, if I went on Be Skinny Fast, I will lose forty pounds in just four weeks while eating chocolate cake, because I'm not typical, I'm ME.

Best example I, anyway, see on a day to day basis: Ask a summer associate at a large American law firm if they think they're going to make equity partner at a large American law firm. Then ask them if they know the odds. They almost always do (the odds are very poor that any one of their incoming "class" of associates as first years will make equity partner at a large firm). They just think they'll be the one who does.



to mm:
in case all termites do eat every minute of every day; then the statement would be correct; but then the advertiser would also be a moron not to say that all termites eat all the times but say that only the average termite does...

btw, i am not sure, can u sue the advertisers for this in the US?


I have an above average number of legs.


Regarding the termite ad: I think the real problem here is that "average" is used where "typical" would be more appropriate. No doubt, "average" was added by some advertising wonk to make the language more scientific sounding.