Pop vs Soda for USAWe all see a lot of graphics pretending to portray reality but we need to be cautious consumers of these images. They can bypass some of our analytic, linguistic centers and go right to our emotional brain, often leaving incorrect or incoherent impressions. The chart to the left is an excellent example of a graphic that overstates its case and obscures data.

I am a perennial proponent of graphically presenting financial data, so it was no surprise when a client emailed this graphic to the members of one of my CEO executive coaching groups. It purports to show where in the United States people prefer the words soda, Coke, or pop as a generic term for soft drink. “Soft drink,” of course, is a phrase only a bureaucrat would use in conversation, being a term better reserved for print. I grew-up in the center of “sodaville,” so I have often wondered as I traveled what the norms and borders are.

This graphic is more useful as an example of bad information presentation than as a guide to what to say in an out-of-town restaurant.

Notice that significant portions of the country are 50% or below in usage of the depicted term. Why then are then are these counties given a color very similar to the shade indicating the dominant term? The majority might use some other term for soft drinks, but then the map wouldn’t make it so easy for the viewer to draw (possibly wrong) regional conclusions. Also, why the odd choice of intervals: 30-50 (20% range), 50-80 (30%), and 80-100 (20%)? Suggests some cherry picking of data to make the map seem even more regionally coherent. The underlying data hardly merits such a powerful representation, since it is from a self-selected group of people who visited an obscure web page and bothered to respond, that is, people with nothing better to do. It is not random, scientific, or representative. Look at some of the responses in the “Other” category, for example: “headlice,” “Fizzy Giggle,” and “Kristina is HOT!!!”

A picture is worth a 10,000 words but may convey subtly inaccurate ideas. Stop, look, and think.