Tony's Reviews > Worst Ideas Ever: A Celebration of Embarrassment

Worst Ideas Ever by Daniel B. Kline
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did not like it
bookshelves: 2014, non-fiction, reviewed

This feels more like a series of poorly-written blog posts hastily cobbled together than a professionally published book. It fails on multiple levels. At the most basic, there appears to have been no copy-editing: the book is full of poor sentence structure, bad grammar, etc. On top of that there seems to have been no research — many of the accounts are full of factual errors that even five minutes on Wikipedia would uncovered.

But most disappointing is the complete absence of any attempt to understand how or why these ideas were thought to be good in the first place. Rather than trying to find any interesting lessons as to why bad ideas very often look like good ones, the authors simply fall back on ridiculing caricatures of them instead.

The “New Coke” disaster takes pride of place:

It's fun to imagine the meeting where someone stood up in front of a roomful of Coke executives and said, “Eureka! I’ve got it. Why don’t we get rid of our beloved product that outsells our rivals by huge amounts and completely change it?” Any version of that meeting you can dream up ends in people laughing and suggesting that the person making the suggestion has had too much to drink. Instead, somebody must have said, “Good thinking, Pepsi would never expect that we would take our most popular product off the market. This strategy will really keep them guessing” or something of that ilk.

The reality, of course, is not only much more subtle, but also much more interesting. Contrary to the authors' claims that Coke was “widely outpacing rival Pepsi in sales”, Coke had actually started to lose the cola wars, having seen its market share decline from 60% to less than 25% — and even that was mostly only propped up by its well established position in restaurants and vending machines. Pepsi had been hitting them hard with its Pepsi Challenge, showing that in blind taste tests, people preferred the sweeter taste.

Coke's new CEO had to turn things around, and all the signs pointed towards changing the formula as their best option (not least because it had already been successfully changed several times in the past).

And, initially, it was a success, with sales rising, and most customers saying they preferred the new version.

But a well orchestrated campaign forced them to reintroduce the “original” formula quite quickly. This was initially in parallel, mainly to placate the outspoken critics, but then it came to dominate again — not only over New Coke, but also over Pepsi.

There are lots of fascinating things that could be expanded on in this: reliance on faulty sampling (the Pepsi Challenge was largely successful because people prefer sweeter drinks in smaller doses — when it came to drinking a full can or bottle, however, the preference was much less clear cut); overlooking the power of a vocal minority (even in a pre-Twitter age); how to know when you're clinging on to yesterday's success rather than moving boldly into the future; etc; etc; etc.

Instead, the authors of this book prefer to simply take the drunks-in-the-bar “New Coke!? How could anyone have ever been so stupid?!” approach. The whole book is hindsight bias writ large, and reading it will actively make you more stupid.
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Reading Progress

February 15, 2014 – Started Reading
February 15, 2014 – Finished Reading
February 17, 2014 – Shelved
February 17, 2014 – Shelved as: 2014
February 17, 2014 – Shelved as: non-fiction
September 9, 2014 – Shelved as: reviewed

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