Posts Tagged 'Mad as hell!'

The rich: better than you, but in a nice way

Too many low-value people

I dislike the idea that some of us are “high value” people if that value is based on wealth alone. Yesterday I read that “high value” people may be allowed to pass through UK airports more quickly, because it is somehow wrong that they should stand in a big queue with the rest of us.

It’s a fundamental assumption (though clearly an optimistic one) that society gives all of us the same value, except in specific situations, which means there are expectations which we all share. The social concept of “value” is based in expertise and helpfulness. Doctors and nurses can point to a qualification, and they can show a consistent record of successful intervention when they are needed. Similarly, entrepreneurs may help us by investing in the economy, which would be handy right now. But we share a common set of values. Doctors can’t be racists. An entrepreneur can’t prise the last pint of milk out of my fingers in the queue at the supermarket, or take the last seat on the bus, not even Sir James Dyson. Maybe him, on reflection.

Back to the airport: I’d prefer a country where passports get checked in the order we arrive at the desk.

The offensive idea to fast-track those of us with high value isn’t designed to get firemen and nurses through passport control more quickly. It is clearly a case where “high value” is a feelgood alternative for “rich”. In practice, the “value” which the Borders Agency wants to give us will not be social value. Here’s the Guardian reporting Brian Moore, the departing head of the UK Border Force, describing the plans to define a super-race of people who might get their passports checked before the rest of us:

Moore said it would cover people who were “valuable to the economy and were valued by the airlines”. He said the move was intended to demonstrate that Britain was “open for business”.

Note the sneaky little transition: for the “valuable to the economy” bit, the government would have to tell us all whether we are useful to it or not, which isn’t going to happen for electoral reasons I don’t need to explain. In which case only the second description, “valued by the airlines”, matters. It becomes a frequent-flier perk for business class. The Borders Agency would be moonlighting for the British Airways Executive Club.

So the class system is being disguised as social opportunity. In reality, the government would not know if the members of this commercially-designated super race are of any value at all to the UK economy. But they would get preferential treatment because they’re defined as “high value” by a commercial entity, and the whole thing is given the “open for business” label so we don’t realise that it is basically a regressive perk for the wealthy.

Similar logic applies to the fashionable generic description of rich people as “wealth creators”. I thought that the people who created wealth were the workers, who are paid less than the value of their labour. That profit may improve their lives through more jobs and higher wages, or might be hidden in the Cayman Islands. All we can say with certainty is that the rich are “wealth possessors”. The economic mumbo-jumbo that describes them as “wealth creators” is there to distract us.

Calling someone a wealth possessor doesn’t make us happy though, which is why the phrase wealth creator is becoming more common now that inequality is at its worst since 1940. It’s the sound of the privileged speaking well of themselves, in case the rest of us get all upset and start asking questions about offshore tax havens and equality of opportunity:

Note also that the UK leads the world in using this term. More than half of the English-language articles describing people as “wealth creators” are published in the UK. In the US, the slightly more defendable (though no more economically justifiable) “job creators” is preferred for this elite social class.

We can’t seem to shake off the idea that wealthy people deserve respect for what they are, not what they do. If these mysterious “high value” people can demonstrate that they have been selected because their wealth works for our benefit, not just theirs, maybe they can push in front of me at the supermarket and take my milk. That is, assuming the government doesn’t give them their own line at the till first.

The ironic death tourism pitch

Geddit? You'll find some excellent spoofs of this poster at Political Scrapbook

Kudos to excellent politics blog Political Scrapbook for continuing to cover the insensitive advertising campaign for tourism in Tunisia (an example above, taken from the blog). I despair: some dim advertising creative said, “Hey lets subvert the 219 deaths and years of torture and stuff by making it, you know, funny”. And then some equally dim executives approved them.

Is there now nothing that we consider inappropriate as a way to sell things? If any of you clever kids in the sales business thinks this is ok, please explain below.

The War On Hyberbole

Forget the death, maiming, destruction and ruinous expense: war can also be an opportunity to photograph your dog

We’re at war. I’m sure you noticed.

There are the usual military wars but, for people who like to call talk radio stations at 4am or visit their golf club bar to complain, the real wars are closer to home.

For example, if you’re the type of person who, before forming an opinion, wonders “What would Jeremy Clarkson think?”, you will have noticed that there is a War on Motorists going on. Don’t worry, car fans. I live two minutes from the A12, and I can tell you that you’ve already won this one. My advice to militant motorists: rather than whining about speed cameras and fuel tax and congestion charges and cycle lanes and car parking charges in the letters pages of local newspapers, open up a second front. Tarmac over the Eurostar line and invade France. Just as long as you promise not to come back.

The Mail tells us that the government is busy recruiting ex-ministers for a War on Dole Cheats. I approve of less thieving, but Labour ex-ministers of all people should know that it’s easier to start a war than to win one. Note also that Dole Cheats have been abusing the well-intentioned Tanks for the Homeless scheme for so long that they’re armed and ready to fight for what isn’t actually theirs. Well, they would be, but The Jeremy Kyle Show is on in half an hour, and after that the chippy’s open.

A quick scan through today’s news also shows that there are wars of varying believability being waged on our behalf on antibioticscybercrime, gold, de-legitimization, and media center software. It’s not an exaggeration, because they are exactly like real wars! If someone has to die so that media center software can be defeated, one day our kids will thank us.

Also in the news: Lance Armstrong has declared war on the French hotel industry. Either that or he complained about some French hotels; but that doesn’t sound quite as exciting when you’re writing a headline.

Among blogger armchair generals you’re never more than a couple of posts away from a fictitious War on Something. For example, over at loopy United Liberty, the dastardly US Government is waging a war on dogs, in which we must take sides:

A world where drugs are widely available legally would be supremely preferable to a world in which I have to fear that a SWAT team will break down my door and kill my pets

it concludes. I’m curious to see half a dozen sausage dogs in camouflage jackets trying to load a mortar, but I can’t say I’m rooting for either side, based on this article.

You could say – wait for it – that I don’t have a dog in this fight.

With everyone – and now their pets – currently conscripted in some media-invented war or other, our armed forces are going to be overstretched. I have a way to cut the workload: we can beat the internet’s lazy writers at their own game by declaring a War On Hyberbole.

There may be a million-strong Blogger Army against us, doubtlessly even now claiming they would die typing for the right to exaggerate, but I’ve got a plan to win that can’t fail.

1. We wait for one of the Blogger Army to announce that he or she is the General.

2. Ten comments later the rest of them will be far too busy complaining that this is exactly what Hitler would have done to fight against us*.

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* Ironically, on this occasion they would be correct.

Dr Eurfyl ap Gwilym gives Paxman a mouthful

I know I’m behind on my posts, but until I finish them off I’ve got a quite exceptional interviewee here to keep you occupied: Dr Eurfyl “you let me finish my point” ap Gwilym, senior economic advisor to Plaid Cymru. If there was ever an example of how simple, well-presented statistics can give you the edge in an argument – against Jeremy Paxman at his sneeriest, too – this is it:

Boom! Stay in school kids, and one day you’ll be able to argue like him.

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The Non-Dom-Wombat Diversion

Mutant wombat attack: this election's Cinderella issue

Conservative strategy on what we now call The Ashcroft Affair has often been to use the Wombat Diversion. So when a journalist asks about Lord Ashcroft’s non-dom tax status, a well-briefed MP will point out of the window, shout “Good lord! A giant wombat is attacking parliament!” and try to change the subject.

The Wombat Diversion is a long-standing interview technique, and not just in politics. The one time I got ask Bill Gates a question, he answered it by saying, “Actually what you should be asking is…” and answering an entirely different question, which I recall being along the lines of “Why is Microsoft so excellent?”

Of course it’s not usually giant furry critters that get the blame when politicians are misdirecting; single parents and economic migrants are much more compelling as diversions from their own faults. Also, pointing at your competition and saying “Look at them! They’re just as bad as we are”, then doing a runner, is considered a good way to change the story – and one which I note the Tories were still using yesterday.

Over the last few weeks there could be an entire battle group of oversized marsupials munching on Big Ben, cheered on by feral hoodies, and it still wouldn’t have helped the Tories escape the Ashcroft day of reckoning. If we look at the amount of coverage of Lord Ashcroft’s tax status over the years, the trend is firmly upwards. With only 2007 as a break, the proportion of political stories about the Conservative Party that mentioned him kept going up for half a decade. I speculate that this is because the dissimulation became the story – a sort of wombat feedback loop:

Labour has found a similar problem. The political interviewer’s party game in the last few months has been to try to make a Labour politician say the word “cuts”. MPs have tied themselves in entertaining linguistic knots in an attempt to avoid being associated with this word. When Evan Davies is doing the interviewing on Radio 4′s Today programme, he sometimes exhausts an entire week of the BBC’s exasperation budget when trying to get Labour ministers to say “cuts” even once.

On one hand, the political machine is winning. No one has stepped out of line, in case Gordon Brown throws a tangerine at them. But the number of articles discussing the Labour party and spending cuts continues to climb. Often the articles are not about cuts, but about how the politicians refuse to talk about those cuts: more wombat feedback. The graph is a bit more up-and-down, but mostly up, with a spectacular result last September when a quarter of all political articles about Labour mentioned the “C” word:

It’s my theory that Wombat Diversions – not just for politicians, but for anyone in the media – are becoming ineffective. We are more comfortable than our parents were with the idea of leaders (that’s CEOs and football captains as well as MPs) as liars and cheats who are cynically manipulating us based on little more than their lust for wealth and glory. On second thoughts, maybe “comfortable” isn’t quite the word, but you see what I mean. And so, at that point, we stop looking for what they are saying, and start looking for what they are not saying, and discuss that instead. The longer they keep not saying it, the harder we look.

Second, it’s much easier to spot evasion and misdirection when you can Google it afterwards. Even the BBC had good sport yesterday by stringing together a series of interviews in which senior Tories tried the Ashcroft Wombat Diversion in all its forms: strung together, the spluttering evasions were comedy gold. A Wombat Diversion might keep the story off the front pages in the short term, but thanks to internet reporting there are an unlimited number of other pages where it can incubate.

Foolish media trainers still consider this type of misdirection to be useful, but times have changed: whether a you are a product marketing manager or you’re Baron Ashcroft, it’s not up to you any more to decide what peasants talk about. For example: if people hate your set-top boxes you can’t get away with saying that you’ve got a new one coming out soon! if you have 109 one-star reviews on Amazon for the one people are buying today. Politics is going through the same process.

A sad consequence of this is that, when mutant Wombats really do attack the Mother of Parliaments, it will take us by surprise. “Why didn’t the powers that be warn us?” we will ask as giant furballs chomp their way through the House of Lords. It would be ironic, at this point, if Lord Ashcroft escaped death because he was in Belize, filling in his tax return.

Sugar pill cynicism

A Punch cartoon about homeopathy which, like homeopathic medicine, simply makes no sense at all

Just a quick Friday afternoon update to say the Talk Normal massive is in favour of the 10:23 campaign: a bunch of protestors is going to take a massive overdose of homeopathic remedies tomorrow. It’s in protest at the spread of these sugar pills to parts of the world where they can have a genuinely damaging effect on health, but also at the decision of pharmacists like Boots to market them.

There’s no point in me going over the arguments again why something that is diluted so much that it doesn’t have a single molecule of the active ingredient in it might not work beyond the placebo effect. That has been covered excellently elsewhere, and if you can’t believe that homeopathy is silly you’re unlikely to be convinced by me; or, furthermore, to worry because I think you’re an idiot.

Boots makes a different argument: if the pills don’t actively harm people, and customers like to buy them, why shouldn’t Boots sell them?

Because, I say, Boots has a privileged position in the UK which allows it to make surplus profits as long as it acts ethically. To explain: when I was researching Scoring Points, my book about what Tesco did with its Clubcard data, I heard how Tesco discovered that its young female customers often stopped buying products from the pharmacy aisle for no obvious reason. Tesco did some more research, and discovered that they were going to Boots instead. What suddenly sent them to Boots? They were pregnant, and more concerned about their health. Even though Boots was, on average, 20 per cent more expensive, they valued it as one of the few retailers that they trusted to do more than just sell them stuff.

Which is why it’s ethically not good enough for Boots to admit to a parliamentary committee that there is no evidence that homeopathic remedies are effective, but continue to profit from them (“I have no evidence to suggest they are efficacious. It’s about consumer choice and a large number of our customers think they work,” is the quote). It’s an example of how customer service is mutating from “we’re here to help because sound advice is more important than short term financial gain for you and us” (the reason why the mums-to-be swapped from Tesco to Boots, or what banks used to do) to “If you’re paying, then we’ll give it to you”.

In the first case, the sort of brand trust that Boots enjoys has a meaning, and can conceivably justify charing higher prices than a supermarket. In the second, the Boots brand is just a label to help separate you from your disposable income.

Boots certainly isn’t the only company that’s going down this path, and maybe commercial homeopathy is small beer in the the face of the Great Branding Cynicism of the early years of the 21st century. When it comes to cynical marketing, it’s not as if Big Pharma’s got clean hands, is it?

Homeopaths seem, in my experience of them, to be pleasant people who believe in what they are doing. Good for them. Boots, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to believe in homeopathy as anything more than a source of revenue from gullible people – and for that it deserves any bad publicity it receives.

Cheer up! Blue Monday will soon be over

I’m not looking forward to 17 January 2010, which at this desk will be known as Crap Sunday, one of the unhappiest days of the year for Talknormalists.

Why is this? Because Crap Sunday comes one day before Blue Monday, the arbitrary media invention of the most depressing day of the year, and so it marks the beginning of the (luckily short) season of pseudo-scientific stories which show that this day is, apparently, mathematically depressing.

If you don't know what this is you missed the 1980s

I’ve written about rubbish equations before, but much to my surprise my blog post alone hasn’t solved the problem. And so this weekend we must hunker down for the annual attack of the idiots.

Look on the bright side. For students of the asinine, Blue Monday 2010 has a lot to offer.

1. There are two Blue Mondays this year. Excitingly, some press releases I’ve seen quote 18 January, some say it’s a week later, on 25 January. This could be a demonstration of how the scientific method means our knowledge advances in small steps; its conclusions should not be taken as revealed truth; they are merely suppositions based on the best evidence that we have today. We should welcome uncertainty as a stimulus for debate and further research.

On the other hand, it might just mean that one PR company timed its campaign a week earlier than the other, and the equation is so vague and subjective that you can fit it to more or less any day of the year if you try hard enough.

2. Who should we put in the stocks and throw fruit at? Dr Ben Goldacre did the real research on this when the equation first showed up. Blue Monday was invented by Porter Novelli (“We have the right conversations with the right people at the right time”) in 2006 for Sky Travel. The idea of the equation was shopped around academics, offering them money if they claimed to have derived it. Dr Cliff Arnall, at the time a temporary lecturer at the Cardiff University Centre for Lifelong Learning, grabbed the opportunity and made some good publicity for himself – though his former employers seem less delighted. He has no genuine insight into the day when you are least happy, but at least he has “Dr” in front of his name. If we could only get a picture of him in a white coat, then Blue Monday would be so much more credible.

3. How do we give depression more pizazz? The question has been asked in a thousand marketing brainstorms. One genuinely sad aspect of Blue Monday every year is the miserable attempt by some PR companies to inject pep into unhappiness by telling us to buy something. Recall that the whole sham was set up to sell holidays; other people use it as an excuse to bung out a lightweight “why not buy this?” press release – just as long as they don’t get too hung up on the depression thing. For example:

Blue Monday is believed to highlight a more general temporary gloominess for a usually more balanced and positive population, says Caroline Carr, hypnotherapist and author of the just published Living with Depression.

General temporary gloominess: translation - “as a therapist, how can I describe this fictional marketing construct as if it was real so that I can plug my book without overstepping any kind of regulatory guidelines.”

Journalists trot out exactly the same Blue Monday feature every year, partly because the end of January is pretty barren if you’re looking to fill the inside of a local paper. You did detox diets, giving up smoking and and gym membership in week one, and it’s not time to do “Put some spark into your love life with these Valentines Day ideas” yet. Those lifestyle pages don’t fill themselves, you know.

I don’t like to miss out on a misery party and so I feel the urge to explain my personal general temporary gloominess with an equation. After as much as 30 seconds of careful research, I came up with this:

Where D is how depressed I will feel

Ci is the number of column inches given to article Ai where i=1, 2, 3, …
E is the number of times they mention that stupid equation
and delta is the number of days that this story lasts

If you want to use my formula in a meaningless and generic story about how journalism bloggers get sad when they read press releases about Blue Monday, please quote me as “Dr Tim Phillips, an expert in disappointment at the Polytechnic of Cynicism”.

Selling empowerment by the pound

no lack of power here

If you’re lacking power, don’t worry. There are a lot of people who can sell you something for that. At the time of writing, about 80 press releases in the last week were promising some form of empowerment.

Whether it’s from the ambitiously named Empower MediaMarketing (“Understanding is the bottom line”), which among other recent empowerments organised a Discovery Channel Shark Week promotion for Long John Silver Fish Tacos, or the Ladies’ Professional Golf Association (“to inspire, empower , educate and entertain by showcasing the best golf professionals in the world”), or even the Center for Applied Identity Management Research‘s ongoing efforts “to empower and engage with clients in combating identity theft crimes and mitigating fraud”, there’s a lot of empowerment available – if you can pay for it.

Which isn’t really the point of a word that once described how you give victims of discrimination or poverty the ability to change their lives. Empowerment had an ethical and political meaning, which doesn’t have much relevance to tacos or golf.

The releases that mention empowerment on PR Newswire confirm that empowerment in 2009 usually involves a commercial transaction. It’s empowerment in the sense that if you buy a pair of jeans from me, I empower you to wear some new trousers.

Or, rather: “Possession of the Talk Normal LegRight Solution (TM) empowers the global community of potential denim-wearers to actualise our jeans dreams!” See? We can all get into the action.

According to Factiva, quite a few businesses are getting into it. Empowerment went almost unmentioned until recently, but not now:

I get it: it’s no longer enough to sell us a product, we have to buy a better life. Marketers have hijacked the idea of empowerment to do this, because it’s a no-risk proposition. “We don’t make promises,” these empowerers tell us, “we just sell you something to help you change yourself.”

They don’t make you happy; but they are willing, for a fee, to claim they empower you to achieve happiness. It’s not their fault if you’re too stupid, ugly, poor (or powerless) to make the best of it.

Commercial empowerment: if it works they take the credit. If it doesn’t, that’s your problem.

Post-PowerPoint stress disorder

It’s not exactly pushing the boundaries to say you don’t like PowerPoint. Our common dislike has even become a sort of business non-apology apology. When someone says “I know the last thing you want is death by PowerPoint ha ha”, what they are really saying is, “Sod you. You’re getting 20 slides whether it’s the last thing you want or not.”

I was trying to work out how much of my life I have spent looking at PowerPoint slides. Over the last 15 years, as an absolute minimum, I have spent at least three hours a week looking at presentations. If I spend 12 hours a day awake and get Sundays off to sit in the corner crying softly, that’s two weeks of every year. When I got involved with the exciting worlds of business and technology, sitting in room trying to work out why I am staring at pictures of two racially diverse men shaking hands wasn’t how I saw my future.

I earn some of my money presenting webcasts, where often the preparation time includes the following conversation:

Me: What does the slide with the man punching the air in front of the graph with the line going up next to the cloud inside the interlocking oval shapes balancing on the three pillars mean?
Vendor: (consults notes) It means we add value.

I’ve collected three examples of the type of slides that have been quietly making me crazy in 2009. I know the last thing you want is death by PowerPoint, but I could make that into three bullet points, maybe add a flow chart of my slow descent into fatal madness, perhaps some clip art of a doctor strapping me into the straightjacket…

First category: What the hell are you looking at? Or: why have so many slides got pictures of casually-dressed self-consciously ordinary people looking into the middle distance on them? Like this one from Cap Gemini:

If you’re wondering what the bland expression on the face of the data centre manager is meant to imply to us, I have discovered that he’s thinking these batman pyjamas are comfortable. I offer you this as evidence: recognise the expression?

(Click on the picture to buy the pyjamas. They’re top value at £22 from Great Universal. I’m hoping for commission).

Second, if you need three paragraphs to explain the diagram then you didn’t draw the bloody picture properly. Note to IBM: when you show your diagram to people and they tell you it needs some explanation or it looks like a lot of blobs with arrows coming out of them, don’t make the explanation even more opaque than the picture:

And third, what are you graphing against what? I’m talking about diagrams with the structure of something along the bottom and then two different categories up the sides and then layers of other things at the top and then lines across the middle and then some extra blobs that don’t relate to the graph in the top corners. Best done using bright colours or 3-D shapes so that no one notices.

I know the last thing you want is death by PowerPoint but this next one might just kill you. Combining elements of all the above, here’s one from Big PowerPoint itself that just makes no sense at all:

If you created this slide, I’ll enable one more business imperative for you: I’ll give you a mug if you can explain what it means to me. If the rest of you have any slides that you think deserve an unsympathetic audience, you know who to send them to.

I take comfort in the knowledge that, though I have lost months of my life looking at these crimes against communication, I’m better off than the poor sap who spent years training as a graphic designer and then ended up having to draw them.

Happy Gifting Season!

Don't let small children see this picture

It’s that time of year again: the time when the press runs stories about how loony councils are stealing Christmas. Evidently, it’s political correctness gone mad. Every year you have to start your Christmas rant earlier to beat the rush, and so I discover that the Bishop of Lichfield kicked off the annual they’re stealing our Christmas season more than a month ago.

Religion looks like it is on the way out here, but tell it to the Pagans: they will tell you that no one gets to keep the Winter holiday for ever, you just get to mind it for a while until someone takes it by rebranding it as their own celebration.

The classic scare story is that Birmingham tried to rebrand Christmas as Winterval so that non-Christians wouldn’t get upset. Then there’s Luminos in Luton, for example, which regularly gets remembered as the council’s attempt to take the Christ out of Christmas.

Let’s get this straight: the stories are dangerous rubbish.

Winterval’s a pretty silly name, but you try and find something catchy to call the Winter Solstice, Christmas, Hannukah, Diwali, Eid, and all the other festivals at this time of year. Not to mention, for example, the Pagan holiday called Yule.

Our quaint British War on Christmas worries is small beer compared to what’s going on in the weird mind of Bill O’Reilly at Fox News in the US, where such happenings are part of secular progressive agenda that includes legalization of narcotics, euthanasia, abortion at will, gay marriage.

That’s one hell of an office party.

If you want to find out who is doing the rebranding, loony councils and crazy teachers are an easy target. But I’ve noticed a charming phrase that’s popping up in news stories and even more in press releases: it appears December is becoming Gifting Season. I can’t find a mention of the phrase before the mid-1980s, and around two thirds of all the mentions of Gifting Season I could find in the press have occurred since 2006. It’s really the only phrase that conveys the profound and committed consumerism of:

The Container Store™ Thinks Outside the Box with the Selection of CashStar’s Online Gift Cards, or

Carphone Warehouse’s 21 new mobile phones.

The Gifting Season may be shallow and cynical, but it is also a profound and spiritual phrase for the marketing communications enthusiasts among us, because you get to have it both ways: on the surface it promotes the spirit of giving, but it has never been used without some mention of how you should spend your money.

But you won’t find irate Gifting Season articles in the press this year. In this economy newspapers and networks know better than to turn their fake outrage on the greatest Seasonal Gift of all: the gift of advertising.

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