If you read a lot about mobile marketing, you’ve probably heard the sensational statistic that more people in the world own a cell phone than own a toothbrush.  I, for one, found this statement a little suspect, kind of gross, and very depressing. So, I started digging to figure out whether this stat is true or false. Read on for Mythbusters, 60 Second Marketer Style.

The Mobile Marketing Association of Asia, where this information originally came from, stated that out of the 6 billion people on the planet, 4.8 billion have a mobile phone while only 4.2 billion own a toothbrush.

So, the first step to proving or disproving the stat was to find out whether the number of people who own a mobile phone was correct. So, I ran a standard Google search for “number of mobile phones worldwide.”

This number was fairly easy to find, though different sites often reported the numbers differently. However, after perusing several different sites, I settled on a fairly regularly cited stat of 4.6 billion subscriptions. (Check out Chartsbin, for more on this number as well as a cool interactive infographic.)

It’s important to note that the 4.6 billion figure measures penetration by the number of subscriptions, not the number of people with cell phones.

While this may seem a small difference, it really isn’t.

According to BusinessWeek, over 20 countries have mobile phone penetration rates over 100%, with the UAE’s penetration reaching as high as 233%. And according to Chartsbin, the number of countries with over 100% penetration is nearly 60. This indicates that many people who were counted in the MMA’s stat were actually double counted because they have multiple subscriptions. If the penetration rate in these countries is lowered to 100, the number of people that have cellphones drops to around 4.2 billion.

To play it safe, we’ve settled on a figure of 4.0 billion mobile users just to make our estimates even more conservative.

Next, I moved on to trying to figure out how many toothbrushes there are in the world to see if the MMA quoted 4.2 billion was correct or not. Now, you’re probably thinking “how hard could it be to find out how many people own toothbrushes?”

Let me tell you, it’s hard.

The first Google search I entered — “How Many People in the World Own a Toothbrush” — returned pages upon pages of sites that were all quoting the MMA’s stat that “more people in the world own a mobile phone than own a toothbrush.”  It was unhelpful at best, infuriating at worst.

Depending on what syntax I used, I got some marginally helpful facts. For instance, according to environmental website, GreenLivingIdeas.com, each year 50 million pounds of plastic in US landfills can be attributed to discarded toothbrushes. Then, after discovering the average toothbrush weighs 62 grams, I calculated that the US goes through roughly 366 million toothbrushes a year.  However, when considering this only accounted for number of toothbrushes discarded, and only in the US, I hit a dead end.


But not to be discouraged, I continued my search.

And finally, after much clever Googling, I found a stat that said Colgate has 34% global market share in manual toothbrushes. Now, if only I could find how many toothbrushes Colgate sells, I could figure out how many toothbrushes are sold throughout the globe! (Again, this would probably include some duplication of people as, hopefully, people replace their toothbrushes, but hey, it was a start.)

Unfortunately, my Google luck had run out, and I could not find how many toothbrushes Colgate sells globally. I couldn’t even find a sales number. However, with nearly three hours already sunk into this project, I was not going to abandon it. Instead, I made contact with Colgate to see if they would let me in on what appeared to be a state secret.

I called Colgate’s media inquiries line, and after much holding and transferring, I was able to leave a message for someone in the toothbrush brand division.

It’s worth pointing out here, that everyone I spoke to at Colgate was exceedingly helpful, and all seemed to want to help me get to the bottom of this.

However, as I was waiting for the Colgate employee to return my call, I saw a stat from Oral-B that claimed that the “brushing market” is a $5 billion a year market globally. Aha! Another solid lead. Now all I needed to find out what the average cost of a toothbrush, and divide $5 billion by that number to figure out how many toothbrushes are sold annually.

Unfortunately, the average cost of a toothbrush is also a difficult number to find.

However, I took to Amazon and averaged the cost of the top 20 toothbrushes, for an average US cost of $3. Then, to extrapolate what these costs might be in other countries, I looked at the cost of living for 83 countries published in the Mercer Global Cost of Living report.

And here’s where things got exceptionally nerdy. Since the cost of living is expressed in terms of an index, with the base cost of living being the United States, I multiplied the index of each country by $3, the average cost of a toothbrush here. This returned an average cost of a toothbrush to be around $2, which would indicate only 2.5 billion people have toothbrushes.

However, this number was skewed because it did not take population into account.

So then, I looked up the population for each of the 83 countries, and divided each country’s population by the total world population to figure out what percentage of the population their country accounted for. Then, using this number, I calculated the weighted average of the cost of a toothbrush. This returned the slightly more satisfying cost of $1.55 per toothbrush worldwide.

It’s important to note here, that many African countries are left out of the cost of living data as the data is not collected there. This probably allowed the average cost of a toothbrush to be slightly higher than it would be if these countries were included.

However, if we use the $1.55 average cost, and Oral-B’s reported market size of $5 billion a year, we find that approximately 3.22 billion toothbrushes were sold last year. Which is, alas, lower than the number of mobile phone owners, which we calculated to be 4.0 billion.

But this number must be taken with a grain of salt. Because most African countries were taken out the mix, which account for nearly 15% of the worlds population, the $1.55 average cost of a toothbrush could actually be closer to $1, which would significantly change the number of toothbrushes sold per year.

So, again, to provide the most accurate numbers possible, we’ve gone conservative and estimated the number of toothbrushes sold last year to be 3.5 billion.

Additionally, it is quite likely that there is not 100% mobile penetration in any country, given the fact that there are children, who all probably do not have phones. Therefore, even when you lower the penetration rate of those 60 countries who reported rates over 100%, it is still probably too high, and indicates that even the countries with rates under 100% are probably overstated as well.

The bottom line:

I’m a data junkie, so I love investigating this kind of stuff. That said, it’s really difficult to pin down exact numbers on any of the data we collected, so at some point, you simply have to put a stake in the ground and make some assumptions.

Based on the research we’ve conducted, we feel that there are almost certainly more mobile phone subscriptions than there are toothbrushes on the planet. And, if you make some additional assumptions based on our research, in all likelihood, more people own a mobile phone on the planet than own a toothbrush.

And there you have it.

Nicole Hall is an account manager at BKV Digital and Direct Response and is a contributing writer for the 60 Second Marketer.

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