The Mathematization of Commercials

People have been commercializing mathematics for years. There are numerous examples on Zazzle or ThinkFun or, heck, even Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks. My first experience with this phenomenon occurred in eighth grade, when I learned that Russell Hardy would do your algebra homework for the price of a school lunch. There was demand for this service, so this was a simple market economy.

But recently, a different phenomenon has arisen: the mathematization of commercials.

My first exposure to this phenomenon was a commercial for TireRack.com, which shows a female scientist on her way to a conference, and there is mathematical graffiti all over her window — a derivative, a summation, a triple integral, a logarithmic spiral, presumably a totient function, and a few randomly placed parentheses ostensibly for aesthetic balance only. The narrator says, “Phyllis isn’t thinking about tires. Phyllis is thinking… uh… well, she’s thinking, eh… I’m not really sure, but it’s probably important.”

Similarly, Planet Fitness mathematized their commercial “Upsell” in a humorous way when a smooth-talking salesman makes three offers that could hardly be refused.

Hold on! What did he say?

For you? Bronze package. Triple the price doubles the package.

Or the platinum package — 100% of the fee goes toward 75% of the total cost.

Okay, onyx package. Three percent, divided by 7, minus your budget.

The nonsensicality of the statements is why they’re funny. But the would-be gym member is both confused and slightly fearful, making the look on his face similar to those worn by many high school math students, especially those who are subjected to Saxon textbooks. (Zing!)

But the pièce de résistance of the commercial mathematization movement appears in Chevrolet’s “Equinox Forward Collission Alert” advertisement, in which a number of unsuspecting citizens are presented the following problem:

This is a traditional algebra problem, one that could have been pulled from any number of textbooks currently on the market. I suspect that most high school algebra students would fare better than the engineers, educators, and analysts in the commercial.

What do we make of the fact that none of the participants were able to solve this problem? We could surmise, perhaps, that they’re just plain dumb. Rather, I believe the conclusion to be drawn is that the problem is hardly worth solving. As revealed at the end of the commercial, there is no need to solve the problem, because the Chevy Equinox will solve it for you and, if necessary, alert you when there’s something to worry about.

Spoiler: Car A is traveling 25 mph faster than Car B, and 25 mph = 36⅔ feet per second. That means that Car A would collide with Car B in 170.2 ÷ 36⅔ ≈ 4.64 seconds… unless, of course, the driver of Car A isn’t a complete idiot and isn’t texting his best friend and — instead of driving up the tailpipe of Car B — hits the brakes.

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• 1. Justin  |  November 29, 2015 at 3:36 pm

A lot of math people were upset by this Pizza Hut commercial from a couple years ago.

• 2. Chris Hunter  |  November 29, 2015 at 3:59 pm

• 3. venneblock  |  December 15, 2015 at 10:22 pm

That’s awesome, Chris Hunter! (Sorry it took me so long to get your video posted.)

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