Toilet Paper Algebra

Everyone knows that potato chip bags are half-filled with air. The snack food billionaires will tell you it is to protect the chips from getting crumbled up during transport, but we know it is to give the illusion that their bag has more chips—in other words, THEY ARE SELLING YOU AIR! But at least you can look on the bag and see how many ounces are in the bag—not so with paper towels or toilet paper.

I went into a local store yesterday to purchase some “paper products.” I am a savvy shopper. I am no stranger to the gimmicks that manufacturers use to lure unsuspecting customers to their products. I even applaud and respect some of these tactics, but I was shocked at how toilet paper algebra had infiltrated the hallowed aisles of paper products.

For years we have dealt in a simple commodity—the ROLL. You get a ROLL of toilet paper or a ROLL of paper towels. But what is the definition of a roll? It doesn’t matter anymore, because a regular roll doesn’t exist. There is no such thing as a role without adjectives. The regular roll has been replaced, I can only assume, because it is inferior. In place of the regular roll of paper, now there are LARGE rolls, DOUBLE rolls, GIANT rolls, and my favorite, the MEGA roll.

Some company probably decided to actually give you more paper on a roll and charge a little but extra for it—more value for your dollar is a truly American ideal. But somewhere along the line, some executive in charge of marketing made the decision to devalue the ROLL. A better value would obviously need to be described as the bigger, double, larger, giant, MEGA ROLL!

The first math labeling I happened to see in our local store is 12 (mega rolls) = 34 (single rolls). It has been a while since I took an algebra course, but I remember x = y. The left side of the equation needs to equal the right side of the equation. So it is entirely possible that 12 = 34 . . . if there is a 12 x 2.83333 and 34 x 1 buried in the equation somewhere. These MEGA rolls must be 2.83333 times better than a puny single roll. But wait . . . the next package says 4 (mega rolls) = 10 (single rolls). How come these mega rolls are only 2.5 times better? It’s the same brand, same product . . . hmmm . . .

I shop on and find comfort and solace in the simple and elegant 2:1 ratio and the simple unassuming term “double.” This I can understand; 36 (double rolls) = 72 (regular rolls), 12 = 24, 20 = 40, 4 = 8, etc. This is math I can understand, if not believe. But once again I encounter the MEGA roll.

The Scott brand mega roll is 2.83 or 2.5 times better, but the Charmin package says 9 (mega rolls) = 36 (regular rolls). How can their mega roll be 4 times better than the other guy’s? Where is the standard for MEGA? I’m really getting concerned at this point.

But wait, there is a LARGE roll . . . 12 = 15. Does this mean a large roll is only 1.25 times better than a regular roll? Hardly worth the effort. And then there is the GIANT roll, 8 = 12. You would think that GIANT would imply a better value but the ratio for GIANT is only 1.5 to 1 . . .

Then there is the packaging that just simply says 2 = 5 with no claims to be double, giant, large or mega. I finally just stop trying to do the math and go with the MEGA 6 = 10 package, probably because the guy with the white teeth and flannel shirt on the package looks honest. If he says 6 = 10 then surely 2 + 2 = 4. But I would much rather find a package that just says 4 = 4; that one I would really believe and happily purchase.


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  • Kae Allen

    I too have spent an inordinate amount of time in the toilet paper aisle attempting to figure out the best price per square. I usually do this with my mother-in-law in tow. Luckily for me, she is not a math whiz. She thinks all my mumbling and muttering means I have figured out the magic mathematical equation resulting in the best buy. She has no idea that I have gotten frustrated and just grabbed the nearest package.

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