Posts Tagged 'commercialism'



The spade nomenclature differential dynamic

So I’m walking through Waterloo station and I see this billboard claiming  jargon-free insurance policies. Usually I don’t write about advertising because most of it irritates me; though I did like the little puppets that shout “C’mon!” But this billboard was right on my metaphorical platform.

I thought it would be worth testing whether spades really are being called spades at the moment, so I did a Phillips Weasel Index search using the whole world’s published articles about everything since 2003. I compared the number of articles mentioning the word spade with the number that use any of the synonyms for spade listed by Thesaurus.com. It’s bad news for Talknormalisers: it suggests you are about twice as likely to find someone literally not calling a spade a spade as you were six years ago.

For garden centre managers, driven insane that customers now take so long to ask for the product they want, this is – wait for it – groundbreaking research.

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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.

Indoctrinate your children now, before it is too late

A quick extra post for those of you with small children. You want to be a good parent, so start them off in life with a clear signal that they’re not going to take any crap in meetings.

The tiny clothes are nothing to do with me (I just found them on CafePress while Googling myself. Come on, we all do it), but I endorse the message. Order one for the special toddler in your life – or maybe they will sell a large size for your boss to wear at weekends when he goes to that special house where he sleeps in a big cot.

Faint traces of buttock

In September 2009 The Times Bugle podcast described an apology by the former CEOs of bailed-out banks in front of a UK parliamentary committee as “not so much half-arsed, as containing barely detectable traces of buttock.

As the CEOs of the large US banks appear in front of their senior politicians to admit to as little as possible – while approving billions in bonuses from trading in a market created and supported almost entirely by central banks – it’s worth having a bit of a buttock rummage in the press to see what’s motivating our CEOs to do good.

What are we writing about corporate social responsibility these days? After all, when money’s tight, it’s a pretty obvious thing to cut back if money is more important than ethics.

On first look, there’s good news in the press coverage of CSR. The consistent rise in the number of stories about it since 2002 has continued. There are about four times as many articles about CSR now as there were in 2002, which suggests that interest hasn’t gone away:

What are these stories about? Business ethics in general have been in the news quite a bit in 2009, yet the number of stories that mentioned CSR alongside ethics or ethical behaviour, and didn’t talk about profit, dropped off suddenly:

Still, doesn’t look too bad; the long-term trend is slightly upward. And this is a rough measure: it would not capture a story about how ethics are more important than profit, for example.

Now if we look at the similar graph for CSR stories that mention profitability but not ethical behaviour, we see the opposite effect in 2009: a sudden jump.

Note the scales were different; so to see what’s really going on, let’s overlay the two trends:

Gosh! Our search is not perfect, but in 2002 there were the almost the same number of ethics-not-profit stories as profit-not-ethics stories. Since then the number of ethics-based CSR stories hasn’t really shifted, and is now declining. But look at the coverage for CSR-as-profit! That’s really taking off.

A couple of possible explanations: maybe the only way to protect a CSR programme right now is to convince shareholders and CEOs that it is all about making pots of money. Or maybe we’re all just writing stories about balance sheets now, and find business ethics a bit irrelevant.

In the banking industry in the last 12 months – a sector that has been accused both of being ethically-challenged and far too motivated by profit – there have been 82 stories on CSR that mention ethical behaviour, but not profit. There have been 548 (six times as many) CSR stories that mention profit, but not ethical behaviour.

You might think that business, and especially the financial sector, has often been half-arsed about its social responsibility. If so, these graphs seem to suggest (in Bugle terms) that the press coverage of those responsibilities shows increasingly faint traces of buttock.

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.

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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