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Best is Average, Better is Best

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When Banzan was walking through a market he overheard a conversation between a butcher and his customer.
"Give me the best piece of meat you have," said the customer.
"Everything in my shop is the best," replied the butcher. "You cannot find here any piece of meat that is not the best."
At these words Banzan became enlightened.
101 Zen Stories

According to US government regulations, certain products are considered commodity items (in technical jargon, parity products), with no noticeable variation in quality from manufacturer to manufacturer. As far as the government is concerned, there is no functional difference between one product and another in a given parity class. Aspirin, toothpaste, toilet paper and a host of other consumer goods fall into this category. Economists call these items homogeneous products.


This presents an issue for the manufacturers, since they have to differentiate their product from competitors to sell their brand. Paradoxically, this allows a manufacturer of any of these items to legitimately and legally claim in advertisements that their product is "the best". The logic behind this is that if all varieties of aspirin on the market are equally good, then they are all the best by definition. The really counterintuitive part is that the makers of these products are not allowed to claim that theirs is "better" without substantial proof that it is somehow an improvement upon the commodity level.

The result is, in American advertising at least, that "better = best" and "best = mediocre".

In German television, this problem is often solved by claiming a product of some category is better than "ordinary" products from the same category, which is basically a way of saying "better than crud".


A similar phenomenon is the extinction of moderate adjectives. No longer are drinks available in small, medium and large; now you have a choice of large, huge, gargantuan and colossal!

Compare Absolute Comparative — when "better" is liberally spread, without saying what it's supposed to be better than. See also, Damned by Faint Praise.


Real Life

  • The purpose of the famous Pepsi Challenge marketing campaign was to show that in blind tests, consumers consistently chose the taste of Pepsi over the taste of Coca Cola. The implication of the results was that the flavor of Pepsi was better than the flavor of Coke.
  • Dwarfed by the search engine behemoth Google, Microsoft's Bing attempted to build a following by doing blind side-by-side comparisons in the defunct "Bing It On" challenge. After conducting a few searches, the user was shown the results to indicate which engine they actually liked, sometimes with surprising results. Despite this, the ubiquity of Google and its products has helped it stay on top while Bing remains at #2.


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