Archive for the 'Research' Category

Living the dream

She may be a VIP, but he knows it's still a ridiculous hat

One more thing for Londoners to be proud of: we have Europe’s largest urban shopping centre! In his review of Westfield Stratford City Jonathan Glancey points out the over-use of “VIP” as a way of describing what’s inside – and, when VIP isn’t enough, Vue Cinemas reaches for “luxury VIP” to describe its facility.

There was a time when VIP had meaning – today’s picture is from the 1963 melodrama “the VIPs”, which was an peek into the privileged lifestyle of the rich and famous. In the film the VIPs are stuck in their special bit of London Airport. There’s fog. They argue. No one visits a Vue cinema. I don’t recommend it, but it’s fun to spot Orson Welles and David Frost in the cast.

VIP-creep is classic word hysteria: once your competitor claims VIP facilities, you counter-claim with your own VIP thingy. In nightclubs it often means a bit that’s up a step. In the area around Stratford City (I speak as a former resident), it generally means “not broken yet”.

In press releases, it’s about three times as common as it was a decade ago. It usually refers to something more expensive than other things. Economics dictates that the gap between VIP and non-VIP will eventually cease to exist: someone with a service that’s marginally better than basic – but worse than the worst thing described as VIP – can choose to use VIP to describe their product. They grab some of the tiny amount of residual glamour. This becomes the worst thing described as VIP, and so on.

The growth of “luxury VIP” is an idiotic attempt to reinvigorate the idea of commercial privilege. Between 2000 and 2009 it appeared four times a year in press releases. In 2010, it showed up 42 times. So far this year, 34 times.

Based on the things described on the internet as “Luxury VIP”, I’m looking forward to the remake of the 1963 film: the Luxury VIPs would star Justin Bieber, Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton and feature a cameo from Peaches Geldof. They are stuck at Heathrow, so they visit the multiplex, use a portable toilet, and hire a minibus. This is living the dream.

Worst practice

Package of measures

At the weekend I enjoyed reading a review of the latest set of political diaries published by Chris Mullin, former member of parliament and lifelong plain speaker. In the latest volume, which covers the birth of New Labour and the 1997 election, he criticises the Gordon Brown – at that point a pushy shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer on the way up the political ladder. In the diary Mullin complains that Brown is spending every weekend trying to get on the TV news, “but having got there he has nothing to say beyond calling for a package of measures.”

The package of measures (PoM) promises so much – until you ask yourself what the person calling for it actually wants, and you realise you’re not sure.

(In one way, perhaps, Brown’s desire for packages of measures was satisfied in the ten years after 1997. An average of 2,685 laws was passed each year, more than in any other period. While Brown was prime minister, 33 criminal offences were created a month, including “Carrying grain on a ship without a copy of the International Grain Code on board “, and not nominating a keyholder for your burglar alarm.)

I checked to see whether Brown continued to be a prolific package-caller in government. Yes:

In the years 1994-1997, Mullin is spot-on. Brown called for (or announced) many more packages than Tony Blair while they were in opposition. After 1997, while Blair was prime minister, Brown showed PoM leadership in most years. Succeeding Blair in the top job, plus a financial meltdown, seems to have inspired a frenzy of late career measure-package-announcing in Brown, if PoMs can come in frenzies.

PoMs are hard to argue against unless you’re a complete contrarian, because they are sold as an outcome, not component by component – a “package of measures to…”, followed by a generally admirable suggestion. They’re the political equivalent of a Talk Normal business jargon favourite, Best Practice (BP). Calling for companies to adopt BP is a no-brainer, in that you don’t need a brain to do it. Claiming you follow BP is an impressive-sounding, though often empty, way to speak well of yourself.

BP-recommending has been on the rise since 1994, at least in the UK (it’s not nearly so popular in the US; I don’t know why). The red best-fit line shows that, since 1994, the rise in claims to use/provide/know/sell BP averages 34 per cent per year:

If you’ve been responsible for this BP inflation, I bring bad news. McKinsey has discovered that companies that adopt it often do worse than those who think for themselves. The optimal response to companies who chunter vacantly about BP might be the same as for a politician who calls for a meaningless package of measures on the weekend news. Switch off.

Softening the impact

HS2: I'm just saying, it could happen

Reading my copy of Private Eye this week, I was interested in a letter (page 13) from Robin Stummer, who was complaining about the government’s feasibility study into HS2, the new high-speed rail line between London and Birmingham – and especially the use of the weasel phrase “physical impact” to describe what will happen to 300 or so listed buildings, conservation areas and woodlands along the route. Here’s an example from the report, which warns us that building HS2 will include:

Adverse physical impacts on two Scheduled Monuments, 14 Grade II listed buildings and 3 Grade II* Registered parks and gardens within the physical impact corridor.

Imagine a man with a clipboard and a peaked hat saying it. I like trains, but I like them less when I read documents like this.

I quote newfound talknormalist Optymystic, commenting to an article about Talk Normal:

Impacts is used as a substitute for causes, influences, bears upon, determines, affects, all of which provide precise ways of expressing the sense clearly, by contrast with which “impacts” is vague.

He could have included stronger words such as decreases or destroys, but he makes a good point: it’s part of a flattening of the language that seems to be assisting in the flattening of listed buildings. You can’t tell what an adverse physical impact is, because it could be anything from having a train tootling by just outside your moat to having one whizzing up your Grade II listed hallway – maybe that’s what they mean by an impact corridor.

“Impact” is a technocratic weasel word that avoids having to explain what the result of the impact is, which is precisely what we need to know. It’s also a successful weasel word, twice as popular as it was 10 years ago:

“Impacts” usually means something bad: rule of thumb from Factiva is that there are two admitted negative impacts in the press for every one described as positive; with the majority left unqualified so that we have to work out for ourselves what people are carefully trying not to tell us.

I’m guessing that the unqualified uses of the word are, in the main, bad news avoided to make sure we don’t get too upset. After all, impact is not an efficient word when used to deliver happiness: no one tells you that you’ve won the lottery by announcing that it will “impact your ability to pay the rent”. But, if I’m working for you and I tell you that creating silly pictures of trains for Talk Normal will “impact my ability to meet your deadline”, then take it from me: I’m going to be late.

Week 39: sell joy, buy gloom

Seeing as the Western economies are all going to hell in a handcart by the end of 2011, I thought I’d take a look and see how much residual optimism is left.

To do this, I constructed the TN Joy Index, by taking the numbers of articles that mention the word “joy”, and dividing them by the number that mentioned the word “gloom”. In this case, I’m showing the results from news sources in the US (omitting sport, where both emotions are cheapened commodities, and obituaries, which might skew the data). I figured the US is the bellwether economy for joy. It is still the world’s largest manufacturer and exporter of optimism, though not all of it is of the highest quality these days. for example, only the US could have produced the following three books, demonstrating how competitive the market in misplaced optimism used to be:

They'll be correct, just not yet

For would-be students of the TN Joy Index, I present three results. The first is that newspapers are still, on balance, happy places. Not one of my results contained a month where there were more articles mentioning gloom than joy. I wouldn’t go so far as to recommend a newspaper to cheer yourself up at the moment, unless your personal Joy Index is low indeed. If that is the case, buy the official Talk Normal book instead. That’ll make at least one of us happy.

The second result is that, despite a lack of concrete reasons to be cheerful, the US has been steadily recovering the joy it abruptly lost in 2007 and 2008. In 2011 joy has been up to almost pre-crash levels of exuberance. I suspect that joy is more in evidence among high earners. Still, if you’re unemployed or in foreclosure, look at this and you might be encouraged:

Not for long though. The Weekly TN Joy Index is plunging like an overworked plumber. In week 32*, beginning 8 August, we reached historically low levels of joyfulness, with only 1.62 joys for every gloom. For comparison: in the week that Lehman Brothers collapsed in the US, the index was at 1.97. In the week after 9/11, it was at 2.24.

The short-term market for optimism seems to have collapsed, but I refuse to be downhearted. I may write a book called “Joy at 100,000!!!” predicting a time when gloom is all but forgotten and a sub-2 index seems unthinkable. It’s about as likely to happen in the near future as the Dow at 40,000 – but, when the market turns, there will be money in unrealistic optimism once again. I want my cut.

* TN TruFact: Since 15 June 1988, there has been an International Standard for week numbering, to give management consultants something to report on when they visit wall chart manufacturers. It is defined in ISO-8601 and, according to Epoch Converter, “The first week of the year is the week that contains that year’s first Thursday.” If that doesn’t restore your faith in the ability of developed economies to create jobs out of thin air, nothing will.

The buck does not stop here

No one likes a blame culture. Especially when you’re the one taking the blame.

While News International flip-flops its way through the phone hacking palaver – offering various explanations of exactly what it was doing, who did it, and whether the evidence has been successfully deleted – one of the few things that most people agreed was adroit was Rupert’s personal apology (see right). We remember it because it has the word sorry at the top. You can argue that he is only sorry that they got caught, but you can’t dismiss the power of the apology.

Of course, it’s one thing to ask your advertising agency to write “sorry” on a piece of paper, it’s quite another to say it out loud. That’s why James Murdoch used a beautiful weasel phrase to describe the closure of the News of the World and any illegal phone hacking. Having got his sorrys out of the way at 3:30, phone hacking and its consequences quickly became a matter of great regret, so that he can get into the technical stuff instead:

Elsewhere in the scandal, Yates of the Yard went further. His impersonal regret was extreme:

Antitalknormalists use the Matter of Regret (MoR) when they are nominally in charge and bad things happen. They want to look concerned, just like ordinary people, while subtly emphasising their lack of individual responsibility. They want to stay on the outside, sadly shaking their regretful heads and tutting ritualistically, going along with the crowd.  This is especially the case when the crowd wants that head on a plate.

Transforming your apology or blame into a generic MoR means you keep a career-maintaining distance from the problem. It skips over who’s to blame and why it happened.

In the UK the MoR is also such a dull phrase as to be handily unreportable in most cases, because it provides no insight beyond the obvious: it’s like saying that something made you unhappy because it is sad. It has been quoted in stories in the UK papers more than 10 times in a month only twice – probably because if that’s the best quote in a story, it’s probably not much of a story. It was most popular in September 2010, when it was a matter of regret for the boss of Waterstones that demonstrators stopped Tony Blair doing a business-boosting book signing tour in his shops. That’s until July 2011 when, as we have seen, many of the people involved in phone hacking news stories were fond of using the phrase. Go figure.

MoRs imply a devolved responsibility that everyone can share but no one takes, and so they transform apology into a generic blanket of mild sadness. MoRs sit in the News International tactical toolbox alongside matters of profit and matters of political influence, ready to be used when they really want to say “don’t blame us”.

Making a crisis out of a drama

Richard M. Nixon said "Life is one crisis after another". Sort of depends whether you help to cover up a break-in at Democratic National HQ while you're president of the United States, but you see his point. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The first four words of the 2011 US debt ceiling crisis don’t imply immediate peril – its parent, the global financial crisis, has a much more virile name. But, as we found out last weekend, debt ceiling negotiations really can cause a crisis.

We like a good crisis; and they’re easier to live with if they’re just a problem dressed up in a dramatic news story. In the last week alone, a quick Googling reveals that Everton, the world’s biggest wave farm, the entire Isle of Wight, a lot of bees, the Hindley Residents’ Association, middle class marriages and The Poetry Society are also in crisis. As far as I know these are not all the same crisis, though if I was a proper blogger I’d at least find some way that they’re all linked to the World Trade Center Building 7 conspiracy crisis (I’m not providing a hyperlink to that one).

Also in the news this weekend the tiger population, Argentine football, the island of Cyprus, Spanish and Italian bonds, and fuel users in Norfolk are also at what we must now call crisis point, which means they should join the crisis queue in the next week. It’s not a great time if you’re a poetry-loving, Everton-supporting, middle-class married bee about to go on holiday to Cyprus, but at least the break means you won’t be worried sick about the Isle of Wight for a few days. You have enough on your nectar-laden plate, my stripy be-stinged friend.

I was always told not to make a drama out of a crisis, and the overwhelming number of non-crisis crises that we have created, recognised, or just announced so that we can fill inside news pages during the summer (I’m looking at you, residents of Hindley) means that poor old “drama” just can’t keep up, so that problem is solving itself. A Google Ngram (screenshot below) shows that the respective frequency of crisis and drama in literature was roughly equal until the 1960s. Then crises began to get more popular, while the level of reported drama stagnated.

In some ways, this is a pity, because calling something a “crisis” adds a level of almost military dignity to something that’s usually anything but dignified. For example, if we remodelled this weekend’s most popular crisis as the 2011 US Debt Ceiling Drama it would capture the flavour of hysterical soap-opera that some of the politicians involved seemed to relish. If we were stricter on what could be called a crisis, then we could also recategorise the rest of the non-crisis crises – based on impact, location and duration – and give them more accurate descriptions. I’d like two levels, one called palaver, and an even less serious one called kerfuffle; you are welcome to suggest your own.

Five things I learned from Google Ngram

Note: I promised that I’d ask Richard Stallman if I had represented his ideas correctly. Turns out I hadn’t. I have pasted his response in the comments section below. It’s a fascinating debate, and goes to the heart of Talknormalism: if you describe something with a misleading name, then you start to make assumptions based on the name, not on the facts.

Before I went on holiday, I pointed out the address of the Google Ngram viewer, which originally came from my creative friend Ryan Hayes. Ngram allows you to search for the frequency of a word or phrase in books going back to 1500: the database is 500 billion words. You type in the phrase, and it draws a graph for you.

You can imagine that after a couple of Mojitos on Miami Beach last month I was thinking about little else, so here’s what I thunk:

1. Intellectual property

I once wrote a book criticising the abuse of our intellectual property laws, but the more people I meet who have profited from them, the less I feel like defending IP in its current form. I particularly recall speaking at a very posh luxury goods conference in Paris which made me want to set about my fellow panellists with a cosh.

Dr Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation is the enemy of lazy IP thinkers, and in this article he argues that “intellectual property” is a meaningless term, popularised for propaganda purposes by the people who have most to gain financially from it, and that it was rarely heard until 1990. Here’s the Ngram of intellectual property that he created, showing how recent the concept is:

Original research: Dr Richard Stallman

2. Angels

As committed Talknormalist Brett Hetherington writes on his blog, “we live in superstitious times”. Having seen my tip, he used Ngram to go searching for “angels”, and discovered that, in a secular age, we’re actually writing twice as much about these fantasy beings as we were 30 years ago. Brett or Dr Stallman might argue that intellectual property is no more real than the idea of an angel: both concepts being a convenient construct designed to give power to, and increase the revenues of, global organisations that seek to exploit us. I’ll email Dr S to ask, and Brett can comment below if he thinks I’ve overstepped.

Original research: Brett Hetherington

3. Paedophiles (or pedophiles)

Moral panic or long-overdue recognition of a problem that was ignored for too long? Although the term was coined in the 19th century, we certainly write a lot more about paedophiles these days.

4. Low-hanging fruit

The Patient Zero of buzzword bingo was not always so pervasive. The phrase took off at about the same time as “intellectual property” did – probably because many of the same people were using both phrases. If some consultancy firm made up the phrase “low-hanging fruit” today, it would probably use IP law to protect it, and we’d all have to talk about MegaGlobalConsult Low Hanging Fruit™ instead. I think I’m saying that we got lucky, but it doesn’t feel that way.

5. Honesty and transparency

The great thing about “transparency” is that it doesn’t have ethical baggage – it’s a technical description of your activity that’s suited to amoral business relationships. Therefore transparency is a much more useful word than “honesty” if you work in marketing. Transparency is jolly popular lately, but honesty is in long-term decline – in books, anyway. And we write more often about angels than we do about honesty, which is proof that we’re collectively bonkers.

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