Dear Dr. Boli: I bought some organic whole flax seeds at the grocery store yesterday, because the last time I bought flax seeds they were made of aluminum, and they were too crunchy. So I got the package home, and I noticed it said this on the back:
Each of our Simply Nature products is free from over 125 artificial ingredients and preservatives.
I can’t stop thinking about this. I thought I understood math, but this just blows everything I thought I knew out the window. How do they count the ingredients that aren’t there? This has been driving me nutso. I’m thinking of throwing away the bag, because every time I look at it my brain spins in loops. Please help me, or call Western Psych and tell them it’s an emergency. —Sincerely, A Woman Who Wonders Why She Needed Flax Seeds in the First Place.
Dear Madam: You have no need to worry. The fundamental laws of mathematics are still operative, but so are the fundamental laws of marketing. You will note that the marketers have employed one of the most useful terms in marketing, namely the word over.
The word over has many uses. One of the most common is to say, “Here comes a number.” But another common use is to protect the consumer from numbers too large for her comprehension.
Marketers are keen students of psychology. They know that the human imagination is limited when it comes to quantities and magnitudes. Numbers in the dozens strike us as large. But we cannot imagine very large numbers. Thousand, million, billion—those are all the same to the human imaginative faculty, and they are all meaningless. It is not known exactly where the line is between large and meaninglessly huge, but current marketing research indicates that it is probably somewhere a little below 150.
Now, obviously, there are many more than 125 potential artificial ingredients—that is, substances that can be produced by chemists in a laboratory and added to food products without immediately killing the consumers thereof. But 125 hits your imagination as a large number, whereas an actual count of currently available artificial ingredients would simply wash over you as an incomprehensible parade of digits. Therefore, by saying “over 125,” the marketer engages your imagination and allows it to picture a large number of ingredients that are not present in your flax seeds.
We hope this explanation obviates the need for a call to the Western Psychiatric Institute.