31 December 2008

Oligarchs of the world unite

Almost lost among the myriad recent failings of western capitalism was the story that Gazprom is broke. This time last year it was vying to become the world's largest company, and now investors are deserting it like a new year's party after the booze has run out. Having once had the governments of western Europe over a barrel, the unofficial private monopoly of Russian gas has been forced to go cap in hand to the government for a cash bailout, after running up debts of $49.5 billion.

I realise in these days of trillion dollar debt this might not seem like a lot, but to give it some context, that is roughly the equivalent of the combined public and private debt of India, China and Brazil for next year. For those of us uneasy with the fact that our central heating bills were bank-rolling Vladimir Putin's political agenda, this is an unexpected silver lining to the rather big black cloud in the economic sky. And it also gives western governments a chance to laugh up their sleeve - after all, it seemed a touch unfair that Russian capitalism was quite so dynamic, as the Johnny-come-latelys of the free market.

But I guess the fact that Gazprom will soon be a basket-case company, propped up by government money to protect its inefficient practices, in many ways, shows how far the Russians have come in 18 years. It took General Motors nearly one hundred years to achieve that level of business acumen.

30 December 2008

Cutting crime

As if it wasn't depressing enough with half of UK retailers about to go out of business, the Conservatives have decided a good bit of panic is in order, by drawing attention to the rise in knife crime in the UK. According to their figures, there are now 6 knife murders every week in the UK. The inevitable corollary of this message is a demand for more police on the streets.

Given the disproportionate coverage this sort of crime regularly attracts in the news, I thought this was a rather small number, so the story actually had the reverse effect of its intention by reassuring me, rather than making me anxious. It is a well-known principle of political stirring, of course, relying on the general inability of humans to make sense of statistics and use them to calculate probability.

Last year, according to the Office of National Statistics, there were 504,052 deaths in the UK. Of these 2,481 people killed themselves with intent, while another 2,236 were met their deaths after an accident in the home. So by just using the raw data, I am nearly ten times more likely to either kill myself on purpose, or by accident under my own roof, so maybe the government should send round a few coppers to my house, just in case.

19 December 2008

Criminal advertising

Though it is not always easy to tell, the creation of advertisements in the UK is often considered to be something we are rather good at. Not only is there a regulator who says what you can do, there are actually lots of awards for its practitioners, giving the impression of some sort of quality standards that must exist. Not just any idea can become a professional advert, you understand.

Except at Christmas. Obviously there are conventions that are not so much expected as demanded (fake snow, golden turkeys amid a table of food groaning under the weight of its own opulence etc). But there is also an incredible amount of lazy, derivative advertising that gets redressed and wheeled out every year, like the Christmas decorations. It's as though the Christmas period is so important to so many retailers that they adopt a herd mentality, never daring to break from the pack with an original campaign. This year's John Lewis campaign (know the person, know the present) is an obvious example.

But I was today stopped in my tracks by a seasonal ad outside Colchester station that was original in its approach, but it served to remind me that 'original' is not the same as 'good'. As far as I can tell, Essex Police have dispensed with the services of a professional advertising agency in their latest PR assault upon the criminals of Colchester and decided instead to hold a competition amongst primary school children. How else to explain such an appalling piece of creative - reproduced below for your pleasure:

Where to begin? It's the season of goodwill, so let's overlook with the pretext that a local criminal will think twice about a bit of B&E when confronted with a 48-sheet normally aimed at commuters (insert joke here about City workers being criminals). We start with a statement so obvious, I can scarcely believe they bothered - if you nick something you might get caught. I presume this is also true of other times of the year, and that it's not just Christmas when coppers try extra hard to catch perps.

Then there's the pun. My son thought it was funny when he found out there was a herb called Thyme, before he became sophisticated and moved on to laughing at farts. To illustrate the power of this double entendre, we have a seasonal visual, and the central weakness of the idea: that you cannot show a picture of thyme, because that would be to underline the joke and remove the 'gap' you want the readers to close in their minds. So you have to show something else we serve at Christmas that may contain thyme - but is hardly synonymous with that herb. Because we don't serve thyme at Christmas, we serve turkey, cranberry sauce, puddings and cheap wine. We might equally have a close-up of a paper crown with the line "Commit a crime at Christmas? You must be crackers".

I suppose the main problem I have is understanding the call to action. Having processed the information, what does the advertiser want me to do? Given that the target audience is pretty narrow (unless ordinary members of the public suddenly start committing crime at Christmas), are we really to believe hardened criminals will have their hearts turned by the prospect of missing a roast turkey dinner with their families? Such insight into the criminal mind seems dangerously simplistic for a modern police force - maybe Essex Police also think lags dress up in black-and-white hooped jumpers with bandit masks and a sack marked "SWAG"?

I'm going to investigate whether this ad is covered by the remit of the Independent Police Complaints Commission.

16 December 2008

Who went bust the best?

Having dealt with irony in his interview with Andrew Marr (see below) former Prime Minister Sir John Major then moved on to delusion. In outlining where Gordon Brown had gone wrong, he also set about explaining where John Major had gone right. It turns out that, contrary to popular memory, the last recession was, in fact, his finest hour.

The problem with the present government is it is going broke in the wrong way. Because the current recession is a result of the credit crunch and collapse of the global banking system operating under very loose regulation (whose idea was that?), Gordon Brown has the "luxury" of public spending to boost growth. So pity poor Sir John whose misfortune was to create the wrong type of recession - one born of "inflationary growth" (again, whose fault was that?).

But brave Sir John spotted an opportunity for the country. His masterstroke was to cure the UK economy once and for all of the scourge of inflation that had plagued governments for 50 years. Engineering a recession to "cure" inflation is certainly a novel approach - like Henry VIII's radical solution to the problem of Anne Boleyn's headaches.

Presumably, therefore, the cure for the Conservative Party's split over Europe was to engineer the heaviest election defeat for 180 years. Another triumph for Sir John...

15 December 2008

It's like rain on your wedding day...

Sir John Major has been speaking out about the looming recession and government attempts to fix the problem. On the Andrew Marr show he said it was "ironic" that Gordon Brown should be heralded as the saviour of the world when the recession is attributable to his own mistakes.

It's an interesting point, but is it ironic? What I think would be more ironic would be, say, if someone who had been Chancellor of the Exchequer who engineered Sterling's entry to the European exchange rate mechanism, after years of pegging the Deutschmark, despite interest rates of 15%, an inflation rate three times higher than Germany's and a boom coming to the end of its cycle. And if that person then became Prime Minister, and spent £27bn of UK reserves shoring up the pound, ultimately failing, and then plunging the UK economy into a recession and housing market crash. And then if that same person had the big brass neck to turn up on TV to tell another Chancellor-turned-Prime Minister where he had gone wrong.

Yes, I think that might be really ironic.

10 December 2008

Dead air

In a great PR coup, Sky is claiming its show about assisted suicide is the first in the UK to show a man dying on air. This, of course, is patently untrue, as anyone who watched Sky's "Baddiel's Syndrome" a few years' ago will attest.

06 December 2008

Relatively speaking

While having the misfortune to be ill last weekend, I had the even greater misfortune to catch several hours of programming on The Disney Channel. For those of you unfamiliar with its oeuvre, it is an odd mix of cloying North American moralising dubbed into English accents, transmitted through a variety of emetic formats. High on the list of culprits is ‘Little Einsteins’, which I watched with incredulity.

‘Little Einsteins’ is a TV sub-brand of the popular “Baby Einstein” product range, that keeps the great scientist himself in the top ten list of highest-earning dead people. ‘Baby Einstein’ preys upon the worst instincts and weaknesses in parents who should know better, by charging premium prices for ordinary toys with some claim to pseudo-scientifically proven benefits for infants. No sooner does a story appear about an alleged link between exposure to Mozart and precocious child development, and the Baby Einstein company will produce a dummy that plays the prelude from Cosi Fan Tutte.

While the products are careful to make no claims to turn your darling dunce into a Nobel prize-winner, the inference one is meant to draw is clear: the use if the Einstein name is lending scientific credibility to the product, even if none is demonstrated. Similarly, the “Little Einsteins” TV programme purports to introduce pre-schoolers to the world around them by encouraging investigation and observation. And then it blows it by falling back into educational gibberish.

In last Sunday’s episode, the diversely representative Little Einstein cartoon characters were demonstrating how seeds grow into plants, and the required ingredients and processes. Except they were magic musical seeds which, once planted, warmed and watered, grew into musical instrument-bearing plants in the vegetable patch. Ripe harpsichords and swelling violins, growing on the vine - is this what Einstein's reputation and ideas will mean to future generations?

Of course the easy defence for this is: it's a kids TV show, not Science 101. But if you are using the power of the Einstein name to explain the world around you, that surely brings with it some responsibilities? Or does anything go? Imagine if the Little Einsteins went to find where eggs came from and discovered a magic bush that grew them, instead looking underneath a chicken - would that be a good thing to teach our children? It smacks of a middle-class muddled-headedness about the role of science, and our children's engagement with the world: that somehow teaching kids about the science of the world in which they live will stunt their imagination, or will bore them - neither of which is true.

Incidentally the word "Einstein" is a trademark of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem - so I'm guessing that's where the royalties go. I hope that doesn't so much comment on the state of teaching at that university as the parlous state of funding for higher education that relies on Disney Faustian pacts.