Just how many people have dropped their phone in the toilet? Why one local sewer authority cares

by Bob Sullivan on October 10, 2013

In a bathroom, somewhere (By Bob Sullivan, guilty of using cameraphone in bathroom)

In a bathroom, somewhere (By Bob Sullivan, guilty of using cameraphone in bathroom)

Studies are the engine of the news business these days. One out of three adults say they hate their job.  Nine out of 10 adults say they’ve considered buying a new cell phone lately. Two out of three say they don’t trust the government.  Four out of five like dogs more than cats.  (That one, I believe)

We were all taught in high school that all surveys are not created equal. Some are scientific, with the pool of the polled carefully selected.  Some are poorly designed (Whoops! We forgot some people don’t have land lines!).  And some are, ahem, results-driven.  Companies pay for studies so they can send out press releases saying there’s a problem, and they just happen to be selling the solution. Clever companies do this in a subtle way, by issuing a clever , sexy or smarmy poll that gets attention and creates a halo effect for the sponsor. I always forget: Do iPhone users or Android users have more sex?

Clearly, the strategy works.  Search for “Study” in Google’s news too, and you get 309 MILLION results. (NOTE: That’s just on sites that Google considers news, published in the last few weeks).  Search for “Survey,” and you get 95 million hits, including these: “Survey says parents and happy, but tired.”  ”Survey: Americans know they should walk, but lack time.”

Even is a study is imperfect, it can offer meaningful results.  Or not.

I was in the bathroom at a major league baseball stadium recently and saw this poster. I couldn’t help seeing it, placed strategically as it was above the toilet.  One in five people adult dropping their phones in the toilet, it says. The companion public service message is clear — stop multitasking so much.

The poster is part of a #WaitToTweet campaign run by the local sewer authority. OK, I’ll tell: the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District.  The district clearly has an interest in keeping strange objects out of toilets, but the data here seems dubious at first blush. Cell phones and water don’t get along at all.  In many cases, a phone dropped into a toilet would become, well, crap. Crappy cell phones would be an epidemic! (Well, crappy service IS an epidemic, but phones victimized by time in the toilet are not.)

As I look around the coffee shop I’m in, which right now is home to about 20 people, I can’t imagine that four of them have suffered cell phone failure from flushing.  I thought about asking, but decided against it.

If you visit the sewer district’s WaitToTweet website, you get even more lieu/phone data, including the rather believable data point that 75 percent of us have used our phone in the bathroom. At the bottom of a graphic, the agency gamely cites CNET.com as the source of its dropped-in-the-toilet data.  As you might expect, CNET did not do this research.  It merely reported on a 2011 study commissioned by Plaxo, a service which helps consumers back up data on their phones. And so you see how the 19 percent number might be a bit overstated.

HOWEVER, before we condemn the sewer agency to the sewer, take a look at its rationale for the poster campaign:

“So you ask, “Why does it matter to you guys?” I guess it doesn’t matter directly. Our business really is, well, your business. Specifically, how to keep our Great Lake great. Our #WaitToTweet campaign is all about sharing more about our work and how easy it is to take the sewer system, the toilets you flush every day, and the urban water cycle for granted.”

I take back any sarcasm you may have detected in this story.  Making people give a second thought to No. 2 is a great achievement, indeed.  Bravo to the agency and its clever use of social media to make people think about something we all do take for granted.  Meanwhile, the deeper message — that many people can’t even pee or poop without texting or Tweeting, and that should stop — is a critical public service announcement.  If that takes a little stretching the truth, well, that says as much about us as it says about the sewer system.

And no, I’ve never dropped my cell phone in a toilet. I have had a few close calls, though.

 

 

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