Posts Tagged 'commercialism'

Joy Index, part two: US three times less depressed than Europe

If you find this image of despair stimulating, click on the image to go to “The brokers with hands on their faces blog”

Diligent Talknormalists will recall that, just over a year ago, I introduced the Joy Index to measure the mood of the English-speaking world. The index was compiled by dividing the number of stories in the news media mentioning “joy” by the number mentioning “gloom”. I exclude sports reports, which are fun but produce a transient excess of both; and obituaries, where our joy or gloom at someone’s death would probably owe more to that person than the state of the world.

When the line goes up, we’re becoming more joyful. When if goes down, we’re becoming gloomier. Actually, the index is dominated by gloominess – the amount of joy in our lives, or at least in the newspapers, is remarkably stable.

In the US, the average of the Joy Index was at an unsurprising historical low, just above 2.0, during 2008 – the same level as it reached in the week of the 9/11 attack. In the first week of August 2011 it was all the way down to 1.62.

So, first the good news! In 2012 the US has been, until recently, much less gloomy if we take a monthly average: the TN Joy Index has kept well above 2.0 at all times. Of course, October was a gloomy month. Hurricanes are like that. But, compared to the darkest days of 2008, there’s between two and four times less gloominess in the news:

Meanwhile, in Europe, the English-language press isn’t so optimistic. The index shows there’s about three times as much gloom for each unit of joy as there is in the US. I blame austerity, or maybe socialism:

It is, in the words of the nonsense phrase, a global world. It’s possible that Americans just don’t like to write about gloomy things as much, though that would be a recent phenomenon: last time I calculated the index, there wasn’t this US-Europe split. Most of the time, we are all in it together. When you take the indices in November 2011 as a starting point, the ratio of joy-to-gloom in Europe and the US rises and falls in just the same way (until Sandy in October):

We’re on the same emotional rollercoaster – it’s just that Europeans really, really want to get off. This could be because, more often, the ultra-gloomy news has been happening in Europe. When the index dipped, the three most important topics in gloomy stories were the Euro zone, consumer confidence and Central Banks in Europe, and Euro zone, consumer confidence and monetary policy in the US.

When the index went up, the gloom story headlines showed no strong pattern. Clearly it is better to worry about many things, some of the time, than one thing, all the time.

Think of the upswings in the Joy Index as having a hangover while it is raining outside, your car needs a new gearbox, and a small child has been singing really annoying made-up songs for three hours. Never mind! In the Joy Index downswings, your life would be exactly the same – except the bank repossesses your house as well.

One final point, for those of you who read blogs while wondering, “this is all very well, but what do the markets think?” Since November 2010 the US Joy Index has been a statistically significant predictor of the size of the month-end change in the Dow’s moving average. As I said last time: sell gloom, buy joy.

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.

Not an epic fail

I was reading an article in the paper yesterday in which two men, pedalling from Hastings to the London Olympic site in a pedalo shaped like a big swan for a documentary on how London is changing, were described as having taken an “epic” journey. In the comments below the article, someone pointed out that we may be lowering the bar on epicness.

Thing is – and I’m telling you this before my friend Chris appears below the line to explain – what they did really is epic, in the original concept of the word. I looked this up. We borrow the concept from the epic poems of Greek literature, which detailed the achievements of someone who struggled against adversity for a principle and whose deeds occurred while he wandered about a lot. OK, so I didn’t really bother to finish reading the definition, but you get the idea.

Pedalling from Hastings in a fibreglass swan to document the consumerisation of our culture is, in a British way, epic, and contrasts with the way we commonly use “epic” to describe something which has only the quality of bigness. The film of this small pedalo epic is out today. It is called Swandown, and I’d rather watch it than having to sit through many recent cinema epics, where “epic” translates as “45 minutes longer than it needs to be”.

I remember Rolling Stone reviewed Oliver Stone’s epic film Alexander as a Buttnumbathon, for example.

Looking at European press coverage over the last 10 years, the growth in the frequency with which films, books, fashion items and pedalo journeys are described as epic has been similar for press releases and in newspapers. This has resulted in approximately 15,000 things becoming epic for the first time since the beginning of 2003, and we’ve still got an Olympic Games to exaggerate.

As we are often told, we live in a global world these days (which always makes me wonder what shape they expected it to be). But, as our horizons get larger, the epic stuff gets smaller: our 10 year timeline begins with the epic gym kit transportation solution of 2003, the Nike Epic backpack:

A godlike manbeetle from the future

At first glance it looks a bit small for an epic hero’s knicknacks. The siege of Troy took 10 years, for example. We can’t be completely sure: there are 15,000 lines in the Iliad, and Homer never once mentions a Greek warrior’s luggage allowance. We must therefore conclude this is a modern concept, and so I suppose Nike is free to corner the market in heroic backpacks.

But some of these 15,000 things just aren’t epic, even if the excited journalists who happily rewrite press releases for us wish it were so. Fast forward to last month, when MTV used “epic” to describe Mark Wahlberg fighting with an imaginary teddy bear. I sat through Alexander, I’m relaxed about rucksacks, but this is where I draw the line.

I’m back and still irritated

Eco car. I found this picture on a site titled “World of Female”. It’s like Germaine Greer never happened.

As someone who would favour a republic in the UK, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee was never going to be a completely happy weekend – but it gave me the kick I needed to post again. So a bit of general business:

  1. Sorry I’ve not been here for you. I’ve been at university learning how to compile better graphs (among other things). It has been really difficult, thanks for asking, and a bit mystifying for the other students. For the last nine months they have been wondering why someone brought his/her dad to lectures.
  2. But I’m back now. Anything that’s bothering you Talknormalwise, let me know. With the pervasive doublespeak about negative growth, expansionary contractions and now the coyly-titled London Bridge Incident, the cause of Talknormalism needs us more than ever.
  3. Today I’m mostly annoyed by the phrase Eco cars. Delighted as I am to read about cars that run on stale bread or something (I haven’t looked into the mechanics in detail, as you have probably guessed), the phrase is like “Life guns” or “Health cancer”. It’s designed to make gullible people super happy, by convincing them that cars reduce pollution. To be clear, in case you were super happy until just now: cars never do this, even cute ones with mice in them (see above).
  4. THE NEXT BIT IS VERY IMPORTANT. You can tell I’ve been in academia: I bury the vital information in item five.
  5. If you like Talk Normal (“delightfully amusing”, Fortune Magazine), I’d appreciate if one or two of you can pop over to my book page on Amazon and review my book. At the moment I’m lacking those “I laughed until my head exploded” or “The most important book of the decade” five-star zingers, and so I will remain poor for ever. If you could write a review I won’t have to hire a word of mouth agency to write hundreds of fake reviews like all those companies with successful social networking strategies.
  6. In conclusion (academic writing style again, sorry) please write a review for me.

If you do that, I’ll be back shortly with a larger post featuring better jokes. Maybe a graph: let’s see what the reviews say.

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.

What the government would like to say about economic recovery

Selfridges opened its Christmas shop last week, specifically to irritate people like me. I prefer my new bag. It’s £4.99 at Modern Toss.

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.


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