Random Thoughts – Randosity!

The Million Dollar Money Drop: $800k loss analyzed

Posted in botch, business by commorancy on January 6, 2015

Fox aired a game show entitled The Million Dollar Money Drop in late 2010. This show’s gimmick had contestants placing money piles (starting with $1 million dollars in $20 wrapped bill piles) on answers. If you answered correctly, the money stayed on the table and you got to answer more questions with that money. If the money fell, you lost that money. After a number of rounds, you might get to keep some or all of the money depending on how many answers you got right. The show ran for 1 season for a total of 12 episodes before being cancelled.

In 2010, a couple is seen placing $800,000 on an answer only to lose it all based on an incorrect answer. Let’s explore.

The Controversial Question

Category: Inventions
The answers:

  1. Macintosh Computer
  2. Sony Walkman
  3. Post-It Notes

The question: Which of these sold in stores first?

While this may seem like this question has a definitive answer, it doesn’t. In fact, it is in every sense of the word a trick question and should have never appeared on this show. Let’s understand why.

Point of View

While a predecessor to Post-It Notes may have been on sale during a limited test market run in 1977 as Press ‘n Peel offered by 3M (performing dismally), the product officially branded Post-It Notes didn’t go on sale nationwide in the US until 1980. But, the trick to these answers doesn’t stop here. Sony also introduced the product brand named Sony Walkman in the US in 1980. However, the Sony Walkman was on sale in Japan in 1979. But, since the question wasn’t explicit on where those stores were, the correct answer is still that there is no correct answer because of too much ambiguity based on the person’s point of view.

If you take the answer literally by looking only at the brand names, then Post-It Notes and Sony Walkman both went on sale in the US during the same year: 1980. Why is the US piece important? Let’s understand that this show was geared towards a US audience. This means that neither the contestants nor most of the audience would be aware of sell dates of products in other countries. So, the ‘first sold in stores’ would have to be taken implicitly to mean ‘in the US’. Taking only US sales of these explicit brand names into consideration, the answer would be a draw. They were both sold in stores the same year in the US.

If the question had asked more explicitly about worldwide sales, then the correct answer to the question would be Sony Walkman (still going by the product’s literal name) because of the sales in Japan in 1979.

Category Inventions

Because this category is explicitly discussing inventions, you have to ask if this question covers all incarnations of the invention branded or not? Which means that if you aren’t literally using the brand names and are covering all incarnations and names of the product before it was finally sold as these names (i.e., covering the entire invention history), then 3M’s product is the winning answer as Post-It Notes because they were introduced and sold in test markets as early as 1977. However, that also means that early Sony cassette players may also be considered Walkmans even if not branded explicitly with that name. Again, this adds even more ambiguity to this answer.

The Million Dollar Money Drop

Let’s bring this back around to the show. Why would a show ever put such a trick question on a show? Some people blame the show’s research department for (im)properly researching the answers. Personally, I don’t think this is true. I believe the question was properly researched and was used intentionally for one reason: To thin out the contestant’s money. Because this question was a trick, the answer that had the most money would have been the wrong answer. In fact, any answer with the most money would have been the wrong answer. The show could have justified that wrong answer by taking any of the above ambiguous points of view to justify dropping the money.

The point to the questions on shows like this is not to give you a chance to keep the money, but to take it away. These shows are in business to be, first and foremost, a TV show… to be entertainment. They want to give away the least amount of money possible. They do this by asking questions without simple answers.

Answer Controversy
 

Infamous clip from the show.

 

In this particular case, the show went way overboard with this question. But, their ultimate goal was achieved by taking away $800,000 from the contestants. That was entirely intentional by the producers. The point is to take away as much money as possible from the contestants.

Unfortunately, the controversy surrounding this entire issue left the show in a tough position. Because so many people believe that the 1977 date is the ‘correct’ date for the 3M product, they also believe the couple lost the money on the ‘correct’ answer. They didn’t. This was a trick question that had no correct answer. They didn’t lose the money either because it wasn’t theirs to begin with. The show gives you the money as part of the show to ‘gamble’ with and that’s exactly what the contestants did. They gambled on that answer and lost. The contestants couldn’t have walked away with that money at that time. They had to answer the question. If they had walked away, they would forfeit the game and the show. Were that to happen, the show would likely have never aired.

If the couple had actually realized the controversy surrounding this question at the time of the show (which was evident in their own bickering), they could have hedged and placed 50% on one answer and 50% on the other. This would have at least kept 50% for further questions. The show was going to pull the drop on whichever answer had the highest amount of money. It just happened to be Post-It Notes. But, if they had placed all or most of their money on Sony Walkman, it would have dropped as the wrong answer. If they had put 50% on the two answers, the show couldn’t drop both. So, they would have at least kept $440,000 to continue playing.

If anything, what this says is that in the age of the Internet search, Game Shows would be wise not to use such ambiguous questions and answers. As soon as people walk away from a game show, they’re going to Internet search for the right answer immediately. If the contestant had had a phone on stage, I’m sure he would have looked it up right then and there.

Note that this show offered for these contestants a second chance to ‘try again’ because of this issue. Though, I’m sure that after this public humiliation, why would they want to do it again? After all, this YouTube video is likely to be around forever. I’m also certain that the controversy around this entire issue is what caused the cancelation of this game show. Fox just wanted to distance itself as far away from this as possible. The best way to do that was get rid of the show, and that’s exactly what Fox did.

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