Facts Alone Can’t Sell: Lessons from the Intel Pentium Integer Bug Disaster

Facts Alone Can’t Change Minds

In my previous article, I discussed Aristotle’s framework for persuasion and argumentation: to persuade people on a particular point of view, it is necessary to appeal to ethos (credibility,) pathos (emotion,) and logos (logic and reason.) Some people are swayed by logic, others by appeals to emotion, and yet others defer to those who seem to possess authority, expertise, and credibility.

In this article, I give a case study of the “Intel Pentium Integer Bug Disaster” to illustrate that facts (logos) alone sometimes don’t have the power to change minds. Many people are adept at those elements of persuasion that Aristotle characterized as logos: i.e., they are proficient at making their case logically and rationally to their audience. But they may not recognize the need for the pathos aspects of persuasion and may struggle to emotionally connect with their audiences.

Mathematical Errors by the Pentium chip

Intel Pentium Chip Intel endured one of the most painful episodes in its history soon after it launched the Pentium processor. It was ridiculed by customers and the media for a flaw in the Pentium chip. Intel’s handling of the crisis was even worse than the bug itself. The Pentium flaw and its aftermath eventually led Intel to undertake large-scale product replacements that resulted in a $475 million write-off on its balance sheet.

In June 1994, about a year after Intel launched the Pentium microprocessor with much fanfare and a massive advertising campaign, some Internet newsgroups started discussing a flaw in the Pentium’s floating point unit. This error caused occasional mathematical errors in the chip’s advanced number-crunching component.

Intel knew about the problem. Internal investigators had established that the error “caused a rounding error in division once every nine billion times … an average spreadsheet user would run into the problem only once every 27,000 years of spreadsheet use.” Consequently, Intel’s executives concluded that the error was insignificant and didn’t pay much attention.

Much to Intel’s astonishment, some trade publications caught wind of the online discussions. In November 1994, CNN aired a nasty report about the Pentium flaw. Other media outlets pounced on Intel; The New York Times published an article titled “Flaw Undermines Accuracy of Pentium Chips.” As a direct result of all the negative publicity, Intel’s customers were up in arms and flooded Intel’s customer service lines with customer complaints. By then, Intel (through IBM, Compaq, HP, Dell, Gateway, and other computer OEMs) had shipped two million Pentium chips.

Intel Decided Stuck to Its Guns and Refused to Replace All Pentium Chips

Former Intel CEO Andy Grove Throughout this crisis, Intel’s leadership underestimated the scale of customer reaction because they believed that facts were in their favor. Intel’s illustrious CEO Andy Grove decided to set the record straight and issued a memo in which he acknowledged the Pentium fault, but declared that it affected only “users of the Pentium processor who are engaged in heavy-duty scientific/floating-point calculations.”

Back then, microprocessors were not yet a commodity product and consumers had paid a premium to buy computers with Pentium chips instead of those with the discounted previous-generation 486 processors. Justifiably, Intel’s customers were enraged and started demanding that Intel send them replacement chips.

In response, Intel decided to stick to its guns, because management believed in the persuasive ability of their facts. Intel’s leadership declared that they would not replace the chips unless consumers would individually call and establish that their chips would be used for advanced math calculations. At the company’s toll-free customer service line, customers had to endure a protracted interview process for Intel to deem them worthy of receiving a corrected chip. Customers who couldn’t convince Intel that they may encounter the bug in their daily computer-use didn’t make the cut.

In December 1994, all hell broke loose for Intel when IBM stopped shipments of all Pentium-based computers. Grove later recalled, “The phones started ringing furiously from all quarters. The call volume to our hotline skyrocketed. Our other customers wanted to know what was going on. And their tone, which had been quite constructive the week before, became confused and anxious. We were back on the defensive again in a major way.”

Ignoring Customer Sentiment (Pathos) Aggravated the Intel Pentium Crisis

Eventually, Intel caved in. Grove reflected, “After a number of days of struggling against the tide of public opinion, of dealing with the phone calls and the abusive editorials, it became clear that we had to make a major change.” Intel reversed its policy, established a huge customer service operation, and announced that it would replace the Pentium chip for any customer who wanted it replaced. The crisis came to pass only after Intel replaced hundreds of thousands of Pentium chips at a cost of $475 million.

The Intel Pentium Bug is a textbook example of how not to handle a delicate situation and hurt a product’s image. A good deal of this mismanagement could be attributed to an engineering-driven corporate culture within Intel, shaped in part by Grove’s attitude that facts alone could—and should—sell. He believed in the no-nonsense way of doing business: all through the crisis, Intel stuck with the facts, refused to bow before pressure, and told customers to get on with the flawed Pentium processor.

Amazingly, the Pentium Crisis Did Not Affect Intel’s Brand

Intel Inside Marketing Campaign Fortunately, Intel not only survived the Pentium crisis, but its brand recognition increased and Intel even appeared on Fortune magazine’s list of most admired companies. In the two years prior to the Pentium launch, Intel had embarked on an aggressive marketing campaign to build up the Intel brand. The “Intel Inside” slogan was plastered on billboards in all major markets and TV commercials repeatedly blared the renowned “Intel Inside” jingle.

Another upshot of this crisis was that the attention Intel and Pentium received brought microprocessor chips bang into the public consciousness. With the August 1995-release of Microsoft’s Windows 95, the “Wintel” partnership between Microsoft and Intel ushered a wave of consumer demand that brought inexpensive personal computing to the masses around the world.

Lessons from the Intel Pentium Disaster: Just Being a Truth Teller May Not Be Enough

'Only the Paranoid Survive' by Andrew S. Grove (ISBN 0385483821) It is fallacious to assume that logic, reason, and facts are all potent and that rationality will triumph over irrationality. During the Pentium crisis, Intel had assumed that an honest appraisal of facts of the Pentium bug would have the strength to change customer’s minds. However, sticking to facts alone backfired.

Following Aristotle’s ethos-pathos-logos framework, Intel had logos right: Intel’s assessment that the Pentium errors would not affect most people’s use of their computers was accurate. As the CEO of Intel, Grove had ethos right: his engineers were the prevalent authorities on microprocessor technology and Intel was the dominant producer of computer chips. But Intel got pathos wrong: by just presenting facts (logos) with authority (ethos) and ignoring customer sentiment (pathos), Intel’s arrogant stance was not only ineffective but also aggravated the whole Pentium crisis.

Idea for Impact: During Argumentation, Ignore Pathos At Your Own Peril

When persuading others of your ideas, don’t assume that logos alone has the power to change their minds. Don’t arm yourself with just bulletproof facts, scientific evidence, logic, and rationality and expect logos to sway others to your point of view. Recent research suggests that emotion plays a significant role even in situations where logic seems to be the dominant driver of decision-making.

Decision-making isn’t just logical, it’s emotional too. Remember, “When the heart pulls, the head tends to follow.”