Monday, November 17, 2008

A Tale of Two Agencies

Two city agencies are hawking their wares on the subway these days, the MTA (who, of course, run the subways) and the Board of Education, though the ads are part of a campaign by a non-governmental organization called the Fund for Public Schools. Their work is a study in contrasts.

The MTA's ads are the most honest, staid attempts at selling a product I've ever witnessed. In simple type, their placards usually offer basic tidbits of information that could at best be described as "mildly interesting" (who knew subway cars created energy when they brake?) and at worst, boring. Two, however, caught my eye as particularly strange attempts at selling a product.

The first is the one that begins, proudly, "In 2015, the Second Avenue Subway will relieve congestion on the Lexington Avenue Lines." 2015? That's 7 years IF you trust the city to finish anything on time! I can't think of colder comfort when I'm standing with my hand in someone else's coat on a sardine-can 4 train at rush hour. Incidentally, I've never actually seen one of these specific ads on the 4 itself, which makes me wonder if the ones the MTA put there suffered from defacing.

The second is the one that that kicks off with the doozy: "In 1986, subway fare was $1." Talk about a sales pitch--does the MTA's advertising agency know that most people stop reading after the first line? The whole ad seems to be the work of a sophomore econ major, and reads:

"In 1986, subway fare was $1. Thats $1.89 in 2008 dollars. Today, the 30-day unlimited metrocard brings the fare down to $1.17. Believe it."

I read it like this:

"In 1986, subway fare was $1. (you bastards!) Thats $1.89 in 2008 dollars. (still bastards!) Today, the 30-day unlimited metrocard brings the fare down to $1.17. (how exactly does that math work . . . retrieving cell phone calculator . . . 70 rides a month? What a random number.) Believe it. (Believe what, exactly?)"

Still, you've gotta give the MTA credit for their honesty, and I suppose the space didn't cost them anything.

On the flip side, the "Keep it Going NYC" ads for the school board are a study in how to lie with statistics (and brightly-colored to boot!). They offer the following four facts: graduation rates have risen by 20%, starting teacher salaries have risen by 43%, major school crimes have fallen by 34%, and the BOE has added 66,000 new seats, all since 2002-2003. All great stats, all at least somewhat designed to manipulate your thinking.

The graduation rates fact is the most deliberately tricky. You're meant to think "wow, 20% more kids are graduating," but in fact, the rate, and not the number, has risen 20%. That means if it used to be 50%, it's now 60%. So what's the actual rate? The "Keep it Going" site won't tell you (the page teases you with the question, but only answers "the highest it's ever been!"), but if you go to the BOE site and then open a PDF, you'll find that the answer was 62% in 2007.

The "66,000 new seats" statistic is a close second--this number is a gross stat, which doesn't take into account the number of old seats that are gone (an old high school reopened as four new ones, in the same building, counts as a whole pile of new seats) or mention the fact that auditoriums and gyms count in the "seats" total.

The major school crimes bit is more empty than tricky--without knowing the number of "major school crimes" (which BOE defines as felonies), you won't know anything about the stat. In fact, 1,042 of these were committed last year, or less than one per school.

The starting salaries number is the least "tricky" (by my very own definition, subject to change at any time), but again, it's empty--you'd need to know both the numbers and the pay scales to make any sense of it.

Now, I should mention I'm not bashing the BOE, just their advertising (which wasn't even their work, to be fair). Increased graduation rates, drops in felonies (even at 1-per-school, a felony must be incredibly disruptive), improved schools, and better pay are all, to my mind, very good things. They have a very legitimate reason to be proud, not least because unlike the guys over at MTA, they know how to advertise.

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