30 July 2008

Life lessons from Ryanair

Earlier this week Ryanair, the world's least favourite airline, issued a profit warning, turning its earlier rosy forecasts of 10% growth in profit into 10% reduction in profits. As the shares slid, Chief Exec, Michael O'Leary, warned of even lower fares and subsequent margins in order to keep up its market share. He blamed not just the rise in energy costs, but the potentially damaging proposal by the EU to drop subsidies for regional airports, subsidies that underpin the entire Ryanair business model.

Needless to say, whatever Ryanair loses in fares it will make up by increased charges for baggage, overweight baggage, unevenly distributed baggage contents, early boarding, food, drink and unfashionable clothing. Actually the last one might not be true, but with Ryanair you never can tell. They seem to pride themselves on delivering a service that gives customers a philosophical lesson in the sheer arbitrariness with which they can apply the rules and fleece passengers of cash.

I flew Ryanair four times (I say "flew" rather than "have flown" because I do not intend to ever use their 'services 'again), and of those four flights, I had a profoundly negative experience on two occasions. They apply the principle of Lowest Common Denominator not just to their prices, but as an entire customer service philosophy, all the time asking the question: exactly how much bad service can we get away with? The answer is, of course, almost anything as long as they keep the fares low, as they understand customers, essentially, in terms of prostitution - we will suffer more or less any degradation as long as the price is right. And the lower the fare, the lower the service, but the more we love it, apparently.

I am intrigued by the point at which people realise that a service is something that is actually worth paying for. That no matter how low an airfare becomes, there is a point at which human dignity requires some self-respect.

I suppose I should end my boycott of Ryanair in order to enjoy an experience of the arbitrariness of life - random punishments and misfortune would remind me of the chaotic lack of purpose that characterises human life on earth, and that all complaints famously go unanswered would serve to remind me that there is no retribution after the event.

But I'll settle instead for the amusement of hearing Michael O'Leary call the European Union "communists" because they are considering stopping paying him subsidies via the obscure airports Ryanair uses. Maybe he should write them a letter of complaint?

24 July 2008

Moon Unit Esq.

As someone who has had the awesome experience (in the true sense of the word) of giving another human being a name to be known by, I read with interest about the New Zealand judge who has drawn a line in the sand over the choice of names parents may give their children (story here). In such a subjective field, clearly one man's Matt is another man's Poison, but there can be few who wouldn't consider the newly-outlawed name Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii to be rather unusual. I don't know by what moniker the nine-year-old former Ms Hawaii goes by now, but it must certainly make school registration less onerous.

It has thrown open the debate on acceptable names, as this decision is just one of a number that the kiwi judiciary has been comfortable making in recent years to combat extreme parental boredom. It also reveals the arbitrary nature of what is deemed acceptable - apparently you can get away with calling your offspring Violence, Number 16 Bus Shelter and Benson & Hedges (twins), but not Sex Fruit, Stallion or Fish & Chips (twins). Such randomness seems almost as bizarre as wanting to call your child Yeah Detroit, another unacceptable name according to the NZ courts.

Casting my mind back to the naming process, while I don't think I would have been troubling the Registrar with Keenan Got Lucy or Cinderella Beauty Blossom, the desire to be different is certainly a strong one. While we may crave the anonymity of conformity for ourselves, we think our children so profoundly unique that they must stand apart from the crowd. Thus names such as John and Alan have dropped out of common usage altogether for the under 5s - instead replaced by herds of Freyas and Benjamins.

When considering these things, you have to think of the long game. Prince Harry's on-off girlfriend Chelsy Davy is clearly from posh stock, so imagine her parents feelings about the ubiquitousness of that name that must have seemed so other-worldly back in the 1980s. I recall hearing a distinctly non-ABC1 parent screaming "You-ni-ee" across a crowded TK Maxx at her errant daughter, no doubt sending the Mitford sisters spinning in their graves. Who knows whether similar fate will befall the Oscar of today in 20 years time. No doubt there were a few teenage Adolfs in the 1940s who felt the uncomfortable need to change their names. Under such circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising parents reach for ever surreal combinations of names. After all, if you met Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii, it seems certain you'd remember her, which is surely part of the point about being named.

22 July 2008

Drink up, there are thirsty children in Africa

Volvic's latest sales promotion employs an interesting approach to the psychology of selling. As you prepare to slake your thirst with a litre of France's finest H2O, your eye is caught by the label that tells of the chance to turn this into a 10 litre drink for people in Africa. For every litre of Volvic sold, Danone is committed to delivering 10 litres via various well-creation schemes in Mali, Ghana, Malawi and Zambia. So you can offset your guilt about the amount of landfill your plastic water bottles create with the knowledge you are helping the needy in Africa.

Maybe it's just me, but there seems something ridiculously mercenary about this whole scheme. By combining the two events (water sales in Europe, water supply in Africa) in such a precise ratio, it has the unintended consequence of making them appear to be linked as cause and effect. The proposition 'if you drink our water, we'll pay for water for Africa' begs the question: "what happens if we don't drink enough"? Will the wells run dry across the savanna if we stop sticking away litres of spring water? Drink faster everyone, the summer is coming.

It also is to misunderstand an important sales technique: the reciprocity principle. Humans are hard-wired to understand reciprocity as the basis for social organisation - you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours. Numerous successful sales techniques are built upon the idea that giving something to a customer makes them far more likely to buy something from you. But your chances of doing this successfully are multiplied if you do the giving first - it puts the obligation onto the customer, even if no formal arrangement exists. If it didn't work, companies wouldn't bother giving away free gifts, trial packs, BOGOFs, discounts and prize draws.

Returning to our thirsty Africans, Volvic are expressing this the wrong way around - putting the onus upon us to act, before they will fulfill their side of the bargain. Of course the small print reveals that they are not that callous: they have actually already committed to paying for kit that will deliver 2 billion litres of water regardless of my consumption. But to make the promotion pay, they feel the need to link this provision directly to sales, which is not just an error of PR judgement, but one that will directly impact upon the bottom line.

I'm willing to bet the president of Volvic that he would sell more water if he put the 2 billion figure up front, and let consumers follow with their wallets. I'll let you know what he says.

11 July 2008

The White Man's Burden

There was a lot of interest in the recent 11th African Union summit amongst western media. African leaders turned up to discuss the pressing matters of Millennium Development Goals around water and sanitation to find European media outlets telling everyone that the issue of Zimbabwe had overshadowed everything. Whether it did or not scarcely mattered, since the likes of The Sun were hardly going to sit through all that boring development agenda talk. They were there to observe Mugabe's arrival like schoolboys trapping bugs in a jar to see if they'll fight.

I'd like to think the British press and other parts of the Conservative party were particularly prescient in their calls for action to be taken against the Mugabe regime these last 5 years or so. No doubt the plight of the oppressed all over the world touches them deeply, evidenced by the wealth of front page news stories and foreign policy pronouncements, demanding all political corruption be opposed by force, not coming to a British newspaper anytime soon.

In fact, Mr Mugabe probably felt quite at home in Sharm el Sheikh, mixing the likes of Omar Bongo, the improbably-named President of Gabon. He's been in power for 40 years now, last elected in 2005 despite widespread accusations of electoral fraud and bribery, not to mention violence. I don't remember that leading the news 3 years ago - I must have missed it.

President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan was also there, someone whose use of violence as a political tool overshadows even that of Robert Mugabe. President Gaddafi of Libya was a low-key presence - the western media no longer seems interested in the fact that political parties have been banned in Libya since 1972 and there are no free elections as we would understand the term. Not since they gave up their WMD programme at least.

There is, of course, one big difference between Zimbabwe and other African countries: a substantial white population. Surely that couldn't be the reason for the focus on Mugabe's ills at the expense of similar coverage of some of his neighbours? Not that they deny it happens elsewhere, just that, well, it's somehow less newsworthy. Those pictures of Amy Winehouse won't print themselves you know.

The wages of sin

The Daily Mail is not a publication known for its sympathetic treatment of minorities claiming Human Rights infringements. But today they celebrated the case of Lillian Ladele, a registrar who refused to conduct civil partnership ceremonies for same-sex couples on religious grounds. When pressed to do so by her employer, she sued for infringement of her religious beliefs and won; an employment tribunal ruled that Islington Council "took no notice of the rights of Miss Ladele by virtue of her orthodox Christian beliefs."

The most interesting part of the ruling, it seems to me, is the qualification about the rights of people who hold "orthodox" religious beliefs to have their rights respected. Apparently religious orthodoxy can now be judged by industrial tribunal - that if enough people claim a faith-based reason not to to do their job, then it's okay. What about if she had refused on the grounds that she just hated gay people instead of playing the God card? Would that have been grounds for dismissal, or would Islington Council have to respect her rights to hold those views and not do her job? If not, that is putting religious beliefs on a higher footing than non-religious beliefs - what does that say about the rights of atheists?

Presumably if Ms Ladele had been a member of the South African Dutch Reformed Church, she might have claimed to right not to marry mixed-race couples. Fifty-thousand people in South Africa say that's an orthodox view, even if it might not get you on the front page of the Daily Mail.

07 July 2008


Hazel Blears, the improbably titled Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, made an exciting announcement last week about government plans to enable local authorities to tackle something called "Migrancy". It marks a return to the Good Old Days of New Labour: creating a new word to control the terms of political debate.

After all, if you were to talk about "tackling the challenge of migrants", you'd be embroiled in a political knicker-twist quicker than you can say 'Trevor Phillips'. But by saying "migrancy", you take away the agent - it's not saying the Polish builder is the issue, just the act of him coming here that is a problem. I mean challenge.

Unwittingly it gets closer to the truth than intended - Hazel loves those Czech plasterers for keeping labour costs down, if only they wouldn't insist on speaking funny and making the place look untidy. "Migrancy", then, is a new word that successfully combines two existing words: "Migraine" and "Vagrancy", planting a negative connotation in the mind without you realising. Peter Mandelson would be proud, were he not trying to concoct a few neologisms of his own to describe President Sarkozy.

04 July 2008

Apostrophe now

While looking for a present yesterday in a bookstore on High Holborn, London, I consulted the store directory, which read:

Basement: Childrens Books

In a bookstore. A place where you might go to get some learnin' about how to punctuate words right and stuff. Innit. Sweet screaming Jesus, if we can't even rely on a national chain of bookstores to punctuate its store livery correctly, then I think the end is surely nigh.