That’s How Much?

From traffic fines to the number of tissues in a box – how do they come up with these numbers? We expect nice round numbers – multiples of five or ten, a dozen (or two or three). Yet logic doesn’t appear to play a part in some of these calculations. Sure, there are uneven numbers that do make sense on a certain level – 16.9 ounce (oz) beverage bottles translate to 500 milliliters (ml). In these cases, the unique value reveals a nice, round, logical number lurking in the background. (However, I do have two different products claiming to be 250 ml, yet one is 8.5 oz and the other 8.4 oz.) Yet, there are plenty of items that still defy the…um…evens.

Let’s take tissues in a pop-up box. Years ago there used to be 100 tissues in the box. As time passed, the number continued to shrink to a current quantity of 56. Not 60, not 55, but 56; however, the size of the box hasn’t changed at all. At some point they are going to have to shrink the box – we’ve nearly reached the 50% capacity point as it is. You can only fluff extra air among the tissues to disguise that empty space for so long. Smaller boxes must have a side benefit of preventing yet another, at least temporary, drop in quantity.

From reports I’ve read in magazines like Consumer Reports, these companies have not only been reducing quantity, but size of tissues. If you were to open a box of tissues stored flat, you would likely find they are not only a good inch shorter, if not more, than their predecessors but also than the box itself.

Toilet paper rolls have been shrinking as well. There is extra space at the ends of the white, spring-loaded holder. Of course, they’ve been trying to make you think you’re getting more by creating double and triple sized rolls, but I suspect that our current double rolls were once single rolls at some point in the not so distant past (or will be in the not so distant future).

Halloween candy used to come in one pound bags. It has been shrinking over the years from 16 ounces to 14, 12, and now to values like 10.6 or 11.4. New truffle bags have stickers that say 20% more, yet they are the same 5.1 oz size as some of their counterparts on the shelf – you don’t have to be psychic to foresee a quantity reduction in the near future.

Three different boxes of tea bags have 16, 18, and 20 bags. What appears to be a half-gallon of ice cream is now only 1.8 quarts. The box of dryer sheets contains 246 items. Why not 245 or 250? How do they come up with these numbers? Instead of 500 and 1000 pieces, will puzzles one day become 493 and 987 pieces?

Since people tend to look unfavorably on price increases; manufacturers reduce the quantity/size to maintain their profits. That seems like the most logical explanation for these constantly changing weights and measures.

However, it isn’t solely consumer goods where you find strange values. Have you noticed the dollar amounts associated with traffic fines? They print some plainly on the warning signs alongside the road. In Washington State, the fine for not wearing a seat belt is \$124 (1). Again, why not a nice, round number such as \$125? It’s not as if the municipalities couldn’t use that extra dollar, especially in this economy. Maybe it has to do with the way they divide the fines – 57% to the state and 43% to the jurisdiction.

Check these numbers from Oregon State (2) – Class A basic traffic fine – \$472, Class B – \$287, Class C – \$190 (ok, they’re not all entirely peculiar), and Class D – \$142. In the Republic of Ireland, the fine for talking on a cell phone while driving was a nice round 2,000 Euros. Now that’s a number certain to catch your attention.

Maybe all of these strange values are the universe’s way of checking to see if we are paying attention? If everything was nice and neat we might not notice them at all. Can you honestly say that you would pay the same amount of attention to a traffic sign that said the fine was \$142 versus one that said \$150?

You might want to start paying more attention to those unique numbers all around you – if for no other reason than to provide some entertaining conversation with your friends, family, or even that stranger you find yourself standing next to on the subway.