Freakonomics, a new book by University of Chicago professor Steven D. Levitt and writer Stephen J. Dubner, demonstrates a discipline so useful that in a few years, new-business consultants will demand that ad agencies have full-time freakonomists on staff, or, anticipating that, "account planners" will do a name change, as they did from "researchers" a generation ago.
The book's cover art is a Granny Smith apple sliced to reveal an orange inside. A subhead invites you to read how "a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything."
Until this book, America's two greatest debunkers through data were Bill James, baseball analyst now part-timing with the Red Sox, and Dr. Thomas Sowell, prolific historian and economist. They hold up beloved clichés and bits of precious wisdom to see if the real world ratifies them or exposes them as frauds or sloppy thinking.
James takes, for example, the spewing of a baseball announcer ("Yes, Reggie Jackson is having a big day. But you know Reggie always hits his best when the crowds turn out and something is on the line") and looks up Reggie's stats and stadium attendance on his playing days. Painstaking work, but nose-thumbingly rewarding when he discovers Reggie had his best average, slugging percentage and on-base percentage by far when the crowds were sparse and the games only mattered to those with a dime on the outcome.
Sowell once investigated a social scientist's notion that turn-of-the-20th-century Manhattan tenement owners were rent gougers who squeezed every converted lira and zloty from the huddled masses newly arrived from Italy and Eastern Europe. He found there was a difference between charging high rents and collecting high rents. The moldy rent rolls he combed through revealed that paying tenants were exploited; the exploiters, though, were the deadbeats who skipped out before the rent was due each month, passing on the collective cost of living to their fellow countrymen yearning to breathe free.
Levitt is as respectful of empirical data as Sowell and James are, but he makes bigger leaps of reason. For example, he looks at the reduced crime rate of the 1990s, lists the possible causes, skewers the weaker ones, gives credence to the stronger ones and finds his freakonometric conclusion in that the clearest cause was the legalization of abortion. Levitt shows that the states that legalized abortion earlier experienced the drop in crime before those that waited until Roe v. Wade in 1973. Levitt and Dubner are not judgmental, as freakonomics is a science, not a code of morality. It seems to them that unwanted children tend more to become wanted men, so to speak, than children nurtured by parents who desire them. Levitt does allow that abortion is an inefficient means of crime reduction (in terms of the proportion of fetus deaths to prevented homicides) but effective nevertheless.
Apparently guns don't kill, swimming pools do. Freakonomics sees greater danger in sending a child to play at a house that has a pool than to a house where the parents might leave a Magnum lying around on the settee. Freakonomics considers the similarities between sumo wrestlers and schoolteachers; investigates the importance of a child's name in future success (though it doesn't reflect on Steven vs. Stephen, as in Levitt and Dubner); observes the curious phenomenon of rich drug dealers who still live with their moms; and draws an analogy of sorts between Ku Klux Klan members and real-estate agents.
The advertising business still awaits analysis by a trained freakonomist. What's an advertising agency worth? To an advertiser? To an acquirer? To society? Pieces of cake for the freakonomist, even as answers often elude, respectively, advertisers, investment bankers, sociologists.
How do Miami and Atlanta post-graduate portfolio schools stack up against Brooklyn's Midwood, Madison, Lincoln and Lafayette; Queens's Martin Van Buren and Andrew Jackson; or Manhattan's Stuyvesant and Art & Design?
Are award-show panels' judgments better or worse predictors of a campaign's success than, let's say, focus groups? Do the Effies award effectiveness or the ability of the briefs to convince speed-reading judges of comparative efficacy?
Precisely how much should Neil Simon have gotten for rewriting his script for Sweet Charity to give a role to Gran Centenario tequila? Should he now enter it in the Clios as a live infomercial?
None of these topics approaches the most useful potential contribution of freakonomics to the ad business. Levitt and company could address the problem of the ages—"I know half of my advertising is wasted; I just don't know which half"—in less time than it took to screen this year's Cannes entries while sipping Domaine Ott Rosé 2003 and knocking off a few plateaux fruit de mers (supersize, s'il vous plait) on the Croisette.