Avoid any mortgage company whose sales pitch involves misunderstandings of basic physics


Sometimes, I see something that is too boneheaded to go unchallenged and un-poked-fun-at. (That’s a phrase, right?)

It’s related to the post where I talked about the reverse mortgage, and why it’s a terrible idea.

It also has to do with stools. And chairs. And basic physics.

Magnum P.I.

At the time of writing, the current spokesperson for the reverse mortgage at a firm called AAG is Tom Selleck, of Magnum P.I. fame. My mom loves Magnum P.I., and she’s in the target range of this sales pitch, so I’d say this is a reasonably canny choice.

In a recent commercial for the reverse mortgage (linked at the bottom), Mr. Magnum himself mentions that the standard retirement trifecta (my word, not his) of “Pension”, “Social Security” and “Savings” may not be enough for older Americans to enjoy a comfortable retirement.

Yes, you need enough money to get by, to get by.

Yes, you need enough money to get by, to get by.

I get that. Pensions are pretty much a thing of the past for us, Social Security isn’t set up to be a full income replacement tool, and most people’s savings are woefully inadequate to the task.

But that’s where the trouble begins.

Like an analogy

People learn through analogies.

When I talk about having “float” in a checking account, I don’t literally mean it, but instead I mean to explain that just like having enough water in a tank can prevent you from hitting your head when you dive in, you want to have enough money in your account each money to cover your bills and expenses, so your money doesn’t dip too low.

In this commercial, Mr. P.I. likens these three components of retirement to a stool, which he conveniently sits on. “Little wobbly.”

A little wobbly?

Does this look wobbly?

Instead, he suggest that the “reverse mortgage” could be a fourth leg to your retirement plan. To visualize this, he sits on a much more comfortable, plush, four-legged chair. (The commercial itself is called “Home Equity Chair”.)

Ah. Yes. Um. Right.

Let’s go back to geometry class

(Don’t worry, I won’t make you remember the Pythagorean Theorem.)

Do you own a camera stand? What do they call it? They call it a “tripod“. As in, an apparatus with three legs.

Photo courtesy of ancient history

Photo courtesy of ancient history

Why are camera stands tripods? Because unless you’re making an art project or an avant music video, you want the camera to be still so that the picture doesn’t come out blurry.

A tripod doesn’t wobble or move by default. And the reason is pure geometry.

A floor or other flat surface is two-dimensional, that is, any point on its surface can be described by two ordinates (think x and y on your graph paper). And a two-dimension surface exists in our three-dimensional space. Well, it turns out that in order to fully “define” a two-dimensional surface in a three-dimensional space, you need three points (assuming all three aren’t along the same line). Or in more formal speak:

Three non-collinear points are always coplanar.

Three points. Always in some plane.

Three points. Always in some plane.

(The “non-collinear” part just means that you can’t put all three of the points of the tripod in a straight line. You can easily imagine what would happen to your tripod if you lined up all three legs in a row; it would tip right over.)

Because three points are always in a plane, assuming the plane isn’t tilted at an angle that would cause stability issues, a tripod placed on any surface will never be unstable.

(Here’s a “Dummies” page about all this.)

Now all bets are off when we add a fourth point. Four points need not be coplanar. To prove this, think about the last time you went to a diner. The table you were at, did it wobble at all? Have you ever needed to place a shim of some sort under one of the legs to steady it?

The chair I’m sitting in right now is wobbling right now, in fact.

It is possible that four points could result in a steady platform. But it is guaranteed that three (non-collinear) points will result in a steady platform.

Not everyone has a physics degree, but everyone has personal experience with three and four-legged objects.


So why in the world would the marketing experts at this company use an obviously false analogy here?

I love how Tom tries to show that the stool is unstable. It’s a pretty rickety stool I admit, but the legs don’t move off the ground. It looks stable to me.

Contrarily, the four-legged chair looks to be about ten times better constructed than the stool, so is it any wonder that it looks more stable? How about Tom just buy a better stool?

There something wrong with this analogy.

There something wrong with this analogy. Is he in on it?

All I’m saying is: if they can’t even get their primary marketing analogy correct, how are we supposed to have confidence in their primary product?

Here’s the entire commercial, for your facepalming pleasure:

Come on Tom, at least get your geometric properties correct!

Mike Pumphrey

Mike Pumphrey

I'm the founder and author of Unlikely Radical, a site to help people succeed with money, achieve their goals, and live intentionally.

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Mike Pumphrey
Posted on December 8, 2016