It is estimated that half the world's population has seen a Bond film. The statement has been repeated so many times, most recently by Roger Moore in his book, Bond on Bond, it must be true. But it nevertheless raises three important questions. What is the origin of this statistic, how was it calculated, and does it have any validity now?
Unfortunately, finding answers to these questions is practically impossible, since no author repeating the statistic has provided any sort of reference or basis for its calculation. But we can at least try to pinpoint its earliest use by working our way back through the literature.
In 2012, the statement has appeared in print at least twice. Roger Moore wrote that 'It has been suggested that over half the world's population has seen at least one of the films', while Nigel Cawthorne, author of A Brief Guide to James Bond, wrote, 'It is estimated that half the population of the world has seen at least one Bond movie'. The statements are very similar, though Roger Moore's statement, with its qualification of 'over half' suggests a higher figure.
The statement is, of course, older than 2012. In 2008, the journalist Ben Macintyre wrote in his book, For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond, 'Today, more than half the world's population has seen at least one Bond film'. In the same year, Sinclair MacKay wrote in The Man with the Golden Touch, 'It is estimated that half the population of planet Earth has seen a Bond film'. Six years earlier, in the book, Bond Films (2002), Jim Smith and Stephen Lavington wrote, 'It has been estimated that more than half the population of Earth have [sic] seen at least one James Bond film'.
But we can go further back. Academic and notable Bond scholar James Chapman wrote in his 1999 book, Licence to Thrill: a cultural history of the Bond films, that 'it has variously been estimated that between a quarter and a half of the world's population has seen a Bond film'. Chapman qualified the statement by adding 'either in the cinema or on television or video'. Chapman's wider range (and qualification) gives the statistic a greater margin of error, which no doubt increases the confidence attached to it, but it is a shame that it is one of the few statements in the book not supported by a footnote or reference.
The statement is older still. Sally Hibbin's The Official James Bond Movie Book, published in 1987, includes the statement, 'It is estimated that over half the world's population has seen a Bond movie'. I can't be certain that this is one of the earliest uses of the statement (notably Stephen Jay Rubin does not use it in his 1981 book, The James Bond Films), but it is reasonable to suggest that it had its origin around this time. The year was an important one for Bond fans. It saw the release of The Living Daylights, and marked a milestone in Bond film history, being 25 years since the release of Dr No (1962). At a time of celebration and reflection, the statistic was appropriately awe-inspiring – and unchallengeable.
That said, the basis for the statement might be a little older. Peter Haining's James Bond: a Celebration was also published in 1987. It didn't include the statement in question, but it did provide some figures: 'It is now estimated that James Bond has provided escape and enjoyment for... one-and-a-half billion cinemagoers'. The figure (excluding television and video viewers) seems plausible enough, but in fact it was already four years old. In his 1983 book, James Bond, Belmondo & Cie, Italian journalist Mario Cortesi wrote that since 1962 nearly 1.5 billion people have seen James Bond's adventures in the cinema.
I don't know whether this figure is the basis for the statement that half the world's population has seen a Bond film, but given that in 1983 the world's population was about 4.7 billion, and was some five billion in 1987, it is does not seem a huge stretch to round up 1.5 billion to 2.5 billion in 1987 by adding television and video viewings. In any case, it is clear that when Roger Moore wrote that over half the world's population has seen a Bond film, the statement was already 25 years old. In that time, the world's population has increased to seven billion. Even with the qualification of 'over half', the statistic is surely due for an update. However, to calculate a more accurate figure would be enormously complicated and dependent on so many variables and assumptions, and needless to say, I won't be attempting it here!
As a meme, though, the statement has proved to be very successful. It is long-lasting, it has been replicated many times, and has survived virtually unchanged. It has been successful even without supporting data, and indeed, has probably thrived because of the absence of data.