The High Cost of Small Mistakes: The Most Expensive Typos of All Time

The High Cost of Small Mistakes: The Most Expensive Typos of All Time

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Businesses lose millions of dollars each year as a result of typographical mistakes. In an age of global exposure and instantaneous connectivity, errors in written communications can have a hugely negative impact on consumer perceptions and create a lasting impression of carelessness. They can sabotage a first impression, reduce credibility, compromise brand positioning and diminish reputations. They undermine the clarity of branded messaging, create confusion, suggest poor communication skills and convey a lack of attention to detail. They can result in misleading or factually inaccurate information and cause consumers to question the integrity behind offerings or the abilities of a brand they perceive as uneducated and unprofessional. The possible ways in which a seemingly trivial typing mistake can have an enormous financial impact on a brand is immeasurable. The following examples include many of the most costly and well-publicized typographical mistakes of all time – where one single character, space or punctuation mark in the wrong location has resulted in catastrophic losses or had consequences that were devastating.

Pricing errors are one of the most common forms of typographical mistake in the world of online marketing. One wrong number, missing digit, transposed character or misplaced decimal point – often the result of a computer glitch, careless data processing or problems with exchanging foreign currency – can create deceptive or fraudulent consumer promotions and misunderstandings about brand offerings. A brand must make the choice whether to honor these mistakes or face the inevitable social media backlash from angry customers and charges of false advertising from consumer advocates. A company could even suffer legal penalties in countries where e-commerce regulations require retailers to comply with prices even if the markdown is unintentional. In most cases marketers have no legal obligation to adhere to these prices following the carefully worded conditions and licensing disclaimers that appear on their Internet order forms, yet they risk negative publicity and lasting damage to their reputations if they refuse to process these transactions. On the other hand, some brands will exploit the opportunity for positive public exposure by absorbing short-term losses as a show of commitment to customer service and to encourage consumer loyalty. One notable example took place in 2006 when Alitalia Airlines offered business-class flights from Toronto to Cyprus for $39 instead of the usual $3,900. As many as 2,000 travelers took advantage of the rates before the mistake was corrected. The airline attempted to cancel the ticket purchases in a move that prompted a breakdown in public relations. Alitalia eventually cut its losses and agreed to the price rate reduction as a goodwill gesture to protect its reputation at an estimated cost exceeding $7.2 million.

However, the most costly pricing mistake of all time happened in December 2005 when the Mizuho Securities Co., a division of the second-largest national bank in Japan, attempted to sell shares of a recruiting company on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. Instead of offering single shares for 610,000 yen apiece, a typing error led to the sale of 610,000 shares for 1 yen apiece. In less than one day the company lost nearly $340 million.

Typographical errors can impact an Internet marketing campaign in many ways. Spelling mistakes in an email subject line can cause messages to be mistaken for spam, decrease click-thru rates and convince customers to unsubscribe from mailing lists. In addition, the correct use of spelling and grammar is one of the primary variables a search engine analyzes when categorizing and prioritizing websites, measuring content relevance and ranking organic search results. Poor content quality leads to lower rank positioning, reducing visibility and decreasing traffic flow. Spelling mistakes can also influence search engine optimization when the misspelling of keywords, including titles and item descriptions, prevents potential customers from locating specific products and services. One famous example is an eBay auction from 2007 that listed an unopened 155-year-old bottle of Allsopps’ Arctic Ale, one of the rarest beers in the world. The antique bottle was listed with the description, “Allsop’s arctic ale. Full and corked with a wax seal.” The missing “p” in the name of the brewing company made it difficult for collectors to locate the listing using the eBay keyword search function. The auction received only two unique offers due to the lack of exposure and closed with a winning bid of $304. Eight weeks later, the winning bidder corrected the spelling and relisted the bottle with the updated description, “Museum Quality ALLSOPP’s ARCTIC ALE 1852 SEALED/FULL.” The second auction received a total of 157 offers and closed with a final selling price of more than half a million dollars.

There are countless ways that typographical mistakes can happen during the development and execution of marketing materials. A single spelling mistake could cost thousands of dollars in production expenses, time and wasted resources when a project needs to be corrected or re-created or merchandise has to be withdrawn from distribution. The failure to adhere to an estimated budget or meet a delivery deadline could compromise relationships with vendors and customers. The accuracy of the messaging could also pose a serious legal liability for the brand that administers or publishes the information. In 2009, a government agency in the United Kingdom registered information reporting that a company called Taylor & Son Ltd. was in administration pending liquidation. A simple typing mistake on the register database added an “s” to the word “Son,” confusing the company with a respected 124-year-old Welsh engineering firm that employed more than 250 people. In less than three weeks, the firm of Taylor & Sons lost the majority of its clients, creditors withdrew from their financing agreements and 3,000 of its suppliers canceled their contracts, forcing the company into bankruptcy two months later. The British High Court later ruled that the government registrar was directly responsible for the collapse of the company as a result of the extra “s” and awarded damages approaching $14 million.

One single misplaced character could also lead to litigation in situations where a copy-editing oversight results in a derogatory term or even defamation. In 2010 The Irish Times cited a typing error in a medical publication that came close to libeling a therapist when it listed his occupation as “the rapist.” Another frequently mentioned example occurred in 1988 when Banner Travel Services in Sonoma, California placed an ad in the Pacific Bell Yellow Pages promoting travel arrangements to exotic destinations. A typographical mistake during the production process substituted the “x” for an “r,” so that “exotic travel” became “erotic.” The agency suffered irreversible damage to its professional reputation and lost nearly 80 percent of its customers because of the misprint. The publisher offered to make up for the wrongdoing by refunding the original $230 listing fee. The agency responded by suing the Yellow Pages for gross negligence and was awarded more than $19 million.

In the process of drafting legal language, including contracts and other business documents, the correct use of spelling, grammar and punctuation is absolutely essential to communicate specific concepts with enough precision so that a literal interpretation leaves no room for ambiguity. This is especially important in an age when any exchange of information on any platform or in any format – including internal office documents, emails, instant messages and even social media postings – has the ability to become a legally enforceable contract, play a role in pending litigation or be claimed as evidence in a criminal investigation. A typographical mistake in legal language can overturn a court decision, prejudice a judge, dismiss a complaint, disqualify a confession or even release a prisoner on the basis of a technicality. In one noteworthy example, a man convicted of murder in Florida was sentenced to death when a typographical mistake in the written instructions to the jury during the penalty phase of the trial created confusion over sentencing options and parole eligibility. The sentence was later reversed following 11 years of appeals at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars to taxpayers.

The primary purpose of punctuation, especially in legal language, is to make complicated principles easier to understand. Misplaced punctuation can have serious consequences when it produces unintentional meanings, misunderstandings or multiple interpretations that may not be consistent with the original purposes of the authors. The ambiguity created by inconsistent punctuation has even resulted in recent attempts by historians to rewrite history by challenging the meanings of historic documents in ways that may misconstrue the intentions of the Founding Fathers. One professor made headlines by proposing that a period in the official transcription of the Declaration of Independence was actually inscribed as a comma in the original manuscript – with the implication being that this “typo” has led to centuries of “serious misunderstanding” about the role of government as it relates to the protection of individual liberties. The use of punctuation by the framers of the constitution has also led some scholars to dispute the conventional reading of the Second Amendment by focusing on the inconsistent placement of commas in the original language of the Bill of Rights.

The comma has the most versatility of any punctuation mark and its misuse has the greatest potential to alter or influence the meaning of a sentence. A now classic example of how the misplacement of a single comma can carry expensive consequences in a contract dispute took place in 2006 when Bell Aliant, a telephone company, canceled its agreement with Rogers Communications, the largest cable television provider in Canada, on the grounds that a single comma in their 14-page contract gave both parties the option to cancel the agreement only a year after the deal was negotiated. The termination clause was punctuated as follows:

This agreement shall be effective from the date it is made and shall continue in force for a period of five (5) years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five (5) year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.

Rogers agreed to connect its phone and cable services across 91,000 utility poles controlled by Aliant with the understanding that the contract would continue for a fixed five-year period before Aliant could terminate the arrangement and adjust its access rates and regulations. The Canadian telecommunications commission, citing “the rules of punctuation,” reached the conclusion that, by separating the termination clause from the clause about future renewals, the placement of the second comma “allows for the termination [of the contract] at any time, without cause, upon one year’s written notice.” Federal regulators ordered Rogers to pay an additional 2.13 million Canadian dollars for the use of the poles as a result of the ambiguous punctuation. (The commission would later overturn its decision following 18 months of appeals when a comparison between the French and English language versions of the contract made it clear that the agreement could only be terminated at the expiration of the original five-year term.)

Most expensive typo in congressional history? A wayward comma in the Tariff Act of 1872.

A wayward comma was also responsible for the most expensive typographical mistake in congressional history. The Tariff Act of 1872 included a provision listing goods that were exempt from being charged a foreign import tariff on shipments entering the United States. The provision declared that all “foreign fruit-plants, tropical and semi-tropical for the purpose of propagation or cultivation” would be exempt from the tariff. A clerical error substituted a comma in place of a hyphen when the bill was being duplicated, so that all “foreign fruit, plants” could now be admitted free from duty, with the extra comma separating fruit and plants into individual categories. The United States Treasury was ordered to reimburse the money paid by fruit merchandisers until the next session of Congress could correct the unclear phrasing and restore the tariff. The federal government is estimated to have lost more than $2 million in revenue – nearly 0.70 percent of the national budget – or the equivalent of $40 million when adjusted for inflation.

Typographical mistakes can cost a government a great deal of money, in some cases literally. In 2006, the Bank of Kazakhstan released a series of bank notes with the word “bank” misspelled with the alternative Kazakh form of the letter “k” instead of the usual Cyrillic character. The error in orthography became a contentious cultural and political issue in a nation where the use of the Kazakh language is a matter of national identity. The Russian vocabulary, which uses the Cyrillic alphabet, remains the primary language of communication following decades of Soviet occupation. The controversial currency was eventually withdrawn from circulation and replaced with a new series of bank notes with the spelling corrected. (Images courtesy of The Banknote Book/www.BanknoteBook.com.)

Typographical error on bank notes issued by the Bank of Kazakhstan led them to reissue the currency.

Another embarrassing money mistake happened when the national mint of Chile misspelled the name of its own country on a series of 50-peso denomination coins in 2008. More than 1.5 million coins bearing the name “CHIIE” were released into circulation, and the error somehow remained undetected for nearly a year before the accidental spelling was acknowledged. More inexplicable is how the dies used to create the coins passed through a series of proofing and approval procedures without facility supervisors noticing the unintentional lettering. The managing director of the mint and several other employees were dismissed from their jobs in the wake of the ensuing scandal. These monetary mistakes were more than just expensive oversights during the process of manufacturing coins and currency; they were a source of global humiliation and brought disrepute to the government by fostering the perception of bureaucratic incompetence.

A missing punctuation mark in a guidance equation led to a much greater national embarrassment when the rocket carrying the Mariner 1 space probe exploded shortly after liftoff on July 22, 1962, in what is widely believed to the most expensive typographical mistake of all time. Some reports attributed the rocket failure to a misplaced decimal point, an extra semicolon or a comma that was entered in place of a period in the coded mathematical instructions that guided the steering systems on board the spacecraft. However, NASA investigators traced the cause of the accident to the omission of a single hyphen (or superscripted overbar) in the guidance control software, which transmitted a series of incorrect course correction signals that threw the vehicle off its flight trajectory. The range safety officer had no choice but to order the intentional detonation of the spacecraft less than five minutes after liftoff to prevent the vehicle from crashing into a populated area.

The high-profile failure of the Mariner probe to reach its intended destination underscores the need for periodic proofreading, peer review analysis and rigorous testing for performance problems at all stages of computer coding and programming. The syntax of a programming language requires a highly specific sequence of symbols and characters to process information, specify external machine behavior and direct a computer to execute a set of commands. A simple typing error or misplaced character could preclude the operating system from translating coded language accurately, render an entire application useless, or lead to unpredictable or even disastrous consequences.

There was intense political pressure to hasten the schedule to launch a planetary expedition ahead of the Soviet Union and to establish spaceflight supremacy. The single missing FORTRAN coding symbol was not detected during preflight preparations as a result of the accelerated timetable and was largely responsible for the loss of the first American spacecraft destined to explore another planet. The mission failure was a setback for interplanetary space exploration and dealt a significant blow both to national morale and to the prestige of the space administration at a time when the United States was losing the space race. When calculating the adjusted costs of research, development, training and construction, the total losses connected to the accident are estimated to exceed $620 million. Never in history has so much money or so many resources been squandered over the exclusion of a single punctuation mark.

Could a punctuation typo have contributed to the $620 million loss of a U.S. Spacecraft?

Yet the most costly of all typographical mistakes are not measured in monetary terms; under the worst of circumstances they can cost lives. In March 2009, a fishing boat sank off the coast of New Jersey in an accident that claimed the lives of six fishermen. Investigators concluded that illegible handwriting was the reason behind a clerical error on the radio beacon registration form, where the letter “C” was reproduced as an “O.” Rescue efforts were postponed for nearly two hours before satellite tracking systems responding to the distress signal could establish the identity or pinpoint the location of the sinking vessel. More recently, paramedics in New South Wales were unable to reach an 18-month-old child suffering from cardiac arrest in time to save his life when the emergency services operator manually entered the wrong time of day into the ambulance dispatch computer. And some sources claim that one or more copy mistakes in the navigation tables on board the HMS Association was partly to blame for the wreck of four battleships in the English Channel on October 22, 1707, with the loss of nearly 2,000 men. One of the deadliest tragedies in the history of seafaring led the Royal Navy to develop new methods for calculating longitude with greater accuracy – which in turn accelerated the age of transoceanic exploration and the colonial expansion of European naval powers.

Typographical errors in the navigation tables on board the HMS Association was partly to blame for the wreck of four battleships in the English Channel!

The foregoing examples of typographical misfortunes call attention to the universal importance of proofreading and copy editing at all levels of content creation. In recent years, many businesses have been forced to reorganize their labor forces and restructure their workflow procedures to cope with the lingering economic pressures of the financial crisis. Budgetary shortages and rising production expenses have led to smaller teams of employees spending less time processing higher volumes of information, making typographical mistakes inevitable. In addition, the majority of copywriters are not professional content developers and written subject matter is frequently published or uploaded without bearing scrutiny for spelling or style consistency. Word processing programs offer tools for identifying and correcting typographical mistakes in electronic communications, but they have their limitations and are not an adequate substitute for actual proofreading. It is essential to schedule the necessary time and resources for proofing as part of the project development timetable. This usually means adopting a protocol of in-house quality assurance practices such as a sign-off requirement at each stage of the creative development process or implementing a system of checks and balances between departments. When appropriate, workflow procedures should also involve an approval process where clients are provided with a mockup or electronic proof to verify the accuracy of content and to obtain approval in writing before proceeding with any production work to escape liability.

Brands that adhere to the basics of language mechanics when developing content while following a system of quality control procedures will have the competitive advantage by producing clear, effective messaging that is professional and engaging. Content that is held to a higher standard of quality offers greater value, surpasses audience expectations and is more successful at building brand awareness. It may seem improbable that a spelling mistake in day-to-day business writing could lead to spectacular financial losses, result in mass fatalities, generate unwelcome media attention or alter the course of global affairs, yet history has shown that the destructive potential of a single incorrect character can be staggering. The successful execution of any initiative, no matter its size or complexity, depends upon the integrity of its smaller variables and component parts. A brand that disregards the details by underestimating the importance of proofreading could be a keystroke away from disaster.

Cameron Fennell
cfennell@six-degrees.com

With near superhuman abilities in accurately detecting and correcting issues related to spelling, grammar, punctuation, point size, text style, spacing and formatting, Cameron has been steeped in production design, proofreading and copy editing for more than 15 years. As senior proofreader, Cameron is expert in acquiring and maintaining knowledge of our clients’ ever-changing communication standards and styles to best uphold product integrity.



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