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One, Two, Three, Many

When I was very little, my mother periodically drove by a McDonald's that, under its golden arches, proudly proclaimed, "Over X Million Served."  Every so often, the figure would rise.  I never actually saw anyone on a tall ladder changing the numbers, but the statistic was a source of fascination nonetheless.  How many zeros in a million?  Was that only hamburgers, or cheeseburgers too?  What would they look like piled up?  Did the number include that franchise only, or the whole chain?  If we went in and ordered a lot of hamburgers, could we get the numbers to change?  And how did McDonald's keep track? 

At some point, the millions became billions, and then the sign changed.  It read simply, "Billions and Billions Served."  I stopped paying attention.

Fabulous photo of a cultural phenomenon

Source:  Elena777 on Flickr

Industries fighting counterfeiting clearly understand the power of large numbers.  The problem is that illegal goods are somewhat harder to track than McDonald's hamburgers.  Do counterfeit sales add up to $600 billion per year, or is the number closer to $200 billion (exclusive of domestic manufactures and downloads)?  Last year Felix Salmon, who also writes for Conde Nast Portfolio, made an effort to track the source of the most widely quoted counterfeit figures.  His conclusion?  "All counterfeiting statistics are bullshit."  On Friday the Wall Street Journal's Numbers Guy, Carl Bialik, raised similar questions about piracy's "fuzzy figures" and the difficulties inherent in generating hard numbers. 

Nobody seems to deny that there is massive global trade in counterfeit goods.  Nor is there any question that back alley sales represent lost tax revenues, in addition to other complaints.  Quantifying the fake trade, however, is an elusive task. 

Why, then, the insistence upon numbers?  Perhaps it's just because journalists and lawmakers always ask for them.  Of course, from an efficiency standpoint, it make sense to understand the scope of the problem before committing resources to legal enforcement.  But more importantly, advertisers have known for year that numbers are both attractive and persuasive.  Just ask Mr. Heinz and his 57 Varieties

So, how big is the counterfeit trade?  Let's just say, billions and billions sold.