Do the maths
How statistically likely is the pi na colada song? We investigate
You’ll know the song. That loping 70s riff, familiar from childhood, a parent’s mixtape or the Magic FM playlist. The singer’s bright, breezy delivery. And then the irresistible hook: “If you like pina coladas, and getting caught in the rain. If you’re not into yoga, and you have half a brain… ”
I rediscovered Escape (The Pina Colada Song) in 2014 while watching Guardians Of The Galaxy. I was even more enraptured by the soundtrack than the film. And this particular track – a US No 1 on its release in 1979 (although it recharted in 1980, making it the only pop song to hold the top spot in different decades) – soon wormed its way into my psyche, partly because it was so catchy, partly because it was so annoying.
If, like me, you’re the sort of person who sings along to a song despite having only the vaguest grasp of the lyrics (“Na-na-na PINA COLADA!”), it’s possible the intricate plotline of Rupert Holmes’s hit has passed you by. So let me summarise: Holmes sings of being bored with his girlfriend, and reading the lonely hearts ads in bed as she sleeps next to him (we can leave aside the callousness of that until later). One ad catches his eye: a mystery woman is looking for a man who likes pina coladas, getting caught in the rain, who isn’t in to yoga, and “has half a brain”. She also, getting specific, wants someone who “likes making love at midnight, in the dunes of the cape”. Any man matching these requirements, she says, should write to her “and escape”.
Our protagonist, deciding this description fits him perfectly, places a personal ad in response, suggesting they meet at a bar at noon. Despite this unusual time for a first date, she walks in – and, what do you know, it’s “his own lovely lady”. Rather than breaking into a flurry of mutual recrimination, they laugh at the coincidence and talk about all the interests they never knew they shared – including an affair, presumably.
This story first maddened and then intrigued me. I am a data journalist and found it hard to get past the sheer unlikeliness of this sequence of events. Not only does Holmes’s protagonist happen to see his girlfriend’s secret ad in a local paper, but he’s the first to see it and arrange a meeting (we can assume, because she’s still available). And when they uncover each other’s infidelity, they just laugh it off. I wondered, what were the chances?
I’ve spent the past decade as an investigative reporter, digging through the numbers behind everything from offshore financial records to the intelligence agency documents leaked by Edward Snowden. What if I applied my statistical skills to this question? OK, whether or not the pina colada couple would have answered each other’s ads – and then reconciled – might not be the most pressing issue on the planet, but as soon as the idea occurred, I found it hard to let go.
My search for answers began with trying to work out how many people might be eligible for the song’s “lovely lady”. This was made slightly challenging by Holmes’s decision not to mention where the song is set at any point in the lyrics. Given the absence of information to the contrary, I opted for Holmes’s hometown of Northwich, a small town in Cheshire dating back to Roman times. A pedant might note that Holmes moved to a suburb of New York as a child, but the song title – Escape – had always evoked smalltown England, at least to me. I grew up a few dozen miles from Northwich. I knew exactly why, living there, the lure of pina coladas and a fumble on a far-flung beach would be irresistible. Plus, the UK has much better archival data.
First, I needed to know how many people might have seen the personal ad and how many might match it. My starting point was the UK Census – a nationwide effort, every 10 years, in which every citizen is legally obliged to give the government information about themselves: their age, location and other demographic data.
Escape was released in 1979, only two years before the 1981 national census, according to which 17,098 people lived in the township of Northwich. After eliminating women and children – we can assume our mystery ad was seeking a man – the census had the figures I needed. About 21% of the population at the time were 15 and under, and about 18% were pensioners, leaving 10,430 working age adults. Of those, slightly less than half would be men: while more male babies are born than female, the male population in 1981 was still affected by the second world war and women live longer than men. My count of men targeted by the advert dropped to 4,902.
There was more I could do to thin out this crowd. While a bisexual man could still suit our pina colada-loving lady, a gay man sadly would not. There is little to support the commonly thrown-around figure that about one in 10 of the population is gay. Formal studies come up with much lower figures, of about 3%, though these are likely to be underestimates – far higher rates are found among younger adults who have grown up with less stigma. We were talking about 1981, though, so I excluded 3% of men, taking us to 4,755 candidates.
To be able to read a personal ad in a newspaper, you need to be a reader of that newspaper. As Holmes inconsiderately doesn’t name the newspaper – it’s almost as if he were deliberately making this difficult – I needed to do some detective work.
Personal ads make more sense in a local newspaper than a national one; who wants to travel 200 miles to bond over a common hatred of yoga? So I needed to know how many local newspapers were sold when the song came out – a figure which, usefully, is collected and published online by the World Advertising Research Centre. The internet might be killing journalism, but it does come in handy sometimes.
About 2.5 billion local and regional →
daily newspapers were sold in the UK each year at the time of the song’s release, or about eight million newspapers a day. Newspaper advertising research tends to assume about 2.5 people read each copy, meaning 20 million people a day would look at a paper. Given the UK population at the time was 56.3 million that is 36.1%, suggesting that of our 4,755 potentially eligible men, 1,689 would have seen the advert.
Hang on a minute, you may say. How the hell do we know which ones liked pina coladas? Let alone getting caught in the rain, and the feel of the ocean? Sadly, there is no historical research about Northwich that addresses these questions – leaving me with only one recourse: a rigorous scientific poll of today’s British public, in the hope that tastes haven’t shifted too radically in the past 39 years.
Miraculously, I was able to persuade the polling company YouGov to put these questions to the public in a way that would generate serious answers. This is robust data, explains YouGov political researcher Chris Curtis: “Unlike the ‘polls’ you see on Twitter, when conducting research we ensure we are interviewing a representative sample of the British public. This means we ask the correct number of old, young, middle class, working class [people].”
He discovered that women are more likely than men to enjoy pina coladas ( by 44% to 34%). These are low figures for an iconic cocktail: the sweet pineapple, rum and coconut drink is also the signature cocktail of Puerto Rico, with its own national day. But, sadly, the polls don’t lie.
Our poll had to be split into five different questions, reworded from the original personal ad, with answers presented in random orders – mainly to make sure people gave a genuine response to each, rather than piecing together the lyrics of the song. Some things needed a tweak. “While it may seem obvious to many, it was important we specified that by asking about having ‘half a brain’ we were not talking literally and instead referring to intelligence,” says Curtis.
After that, we just had to see how many men in our sample matched each aspect of the song. Not only did 34% of men like pina coladas, but also 27% liked getting caught in the rain. We got a much better hit rate for not being into yoga – 81% of our sample aren’t interested – while 80% think they’re intelligent (the nearest we could get to “have half a brain”). “Making love at midnight in the dunes of the cape” is rather too specific to poll, but the research did establish that 34% of men say they like making love on a beach (a figure regarded sceptically by those who have done this).
Assuming that each of these questions was independent from the others – for example, liking rain makes you no more likely to be into pina coladas – we calculated that exactly 2% of men (one in 50) would match the personal ad in Holmes’s song. This gave us the answer to how many men living in Northwich and reading the paper would see the ad and be interested: 34. So I had my answer: our song’s protagonist was moderately, but not spectacularly, lucky to be the first person to respond to his girlfriend’s ad. I knew the actual chances.
But this still didn’t feel like the end of my journey. What about that improbable happy ending? Instead of being shocked and hurt by their mutual attempts at infidelity, the pair simply laugh about it. What were the chances of that?
Funnily enough, there is no study that covers this exact scenario – but there is research into something close. The American academic Dr Nancy Kalish, based at California State University in Sacramento, has spent decades examining why some divorced couples end up not only reconciling, but remarrying each other.
What percentage of divorced couples get back together? The answer is 6%, or about one in 17 – not many, but perhaps more than you’d expect. Surprisingly, these couples had a strong chance of staying together for good; at 72%, well above the average. It seems there’s a case of second-time-lucky, or an element of forgiveness makes you stronger, which might bode well for the characters in our song.
So, roughly speaking, I had my answers. If we take all the statistics together, the chances of Holmes’s story happening as described are one in 567. This is relatively unlikely – about the same chance as being born with an extra finger or two – but in a country with millions of people, stranger things happen every day.
My investigation, I was forced to conclude, had roundly vindicated Holmes’s songwriting. But it kickstarted a habit – fact-checking pop music, and learning about the world as I did. For instance: a 1980s study taught me that when undergraduate researchers asked a stranger “Voulezvous coucher avec moi, c’est soir?” three-quarters of men said yes (almost no women did). Can you cry a river? Not really: the average volume of a human tear is not great, and it would take billions flowing every second to match the flow of the Thames.
And, in answer to Beyoncé’s question, “Who run the world?” I learned that, last year, out of a total of 193 United Nations countries, only 15 had a female leader.
Taking music far more seriously – and way more literally – than anyone ever should do taught me that even the flimsiest pop song can be a route to learning something deep about the world. Just don’t ask me what love’s got to do, got to do with it.
James Ball’s Should I Stay Or Should I Go? And 87 Other Serious Answers To Questions In Songs is published by Boxtree at £9.99