31 January 2009

Let them eat negative growth

One advantage of a global recession is that I don't need to explain to my friends in Australia what stories are in the news in the UK. I think there are as-yet-undiscovered tribes living in the Sunda Shelf mangroves who could tell us the technical definition of a recession is two quarters of negative growth. And as the pyre of Bad News Stories grows ever higher, commentators are starting to talk about a new Depression.

The great thing about a Depression for news mongers is it is not only more sensational than recession - in case we had become immune to the power of the 'R' word - but it appears to have no technical definition. I once heard that a Downturn is when your neighbour loses his job, a Recession is when you lose your job and a Depression is when an Economist loses his job. The best the dictionary can do is: "A period of drastic decline in a national or international economy, characterized by decreasing business activity, falling prices, and unemployment." With that sort of looseness of definition, I can almost hear the newspaper hacks sharpening their pencils - let the bad times roll!

Partly this is a product of the growth of 24-hour rolling news since the last recession, which generates the need to constantly ratchet up any story at a terrific pace. "Newsflash: Recession is still happening" will hardly sell more satellite dishes, so before long someone will break ranks and push the story to the next level. And with no-one to say that it isn't a depression, and some striking parallels to the crash of 1929, everyone is looking to read something into everything.

But one striking difference between now and the 1930s is we don't seem to be starving. Subway, a chain of American sandwich retailers, is bucking the trend by recruiting more staff and opening new branches, while McDonald's continues to offer teenagers and immigrants the chance to wear nylon and a row of plastic stars. Last September Tesco, the UK's largest food retailer, announced record profits of £2.8bn.

It we seem we still have a long way to fall before we see repeats of one of the most haunting images of the 1930s - rows of men queuing at soup kitchens. And of the most memorable songs of the Depression, Big Rock Candy Mountain, is a fantasy of food that only a hungry mind could dream up; I can't see Lily Allen recording a cover of that before her 15 minutes are up. Of course there were plenty of other dreadful things from the 1930s I'd also hate to see repeated - Fascism, War, the novels of Virginia Woolf. But the persistence of saturated fats to sustain the growing human species remains the most positive sign that we're not quite into a Depression yet.

27 January 2009


Like the residents of Palestine, the BBC has taken flak recently, but of the metaphorical kind for its decision not to broadcast an appeal for the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC)'s national humanitarian appeal for Gaza. Director General Mark Thomson has cited the need for the BBC to protect public confidence in its impartiality as the main reason for this. In doing so, the Corporation has taken heat from all sides - government ministers and politicians of all colours - not to mention the requisite celebrity opinion, courtesy of Sarah Morton: "It’s not a political message. It’s about raising money for children who are dying."

It is quite a turnaround to have the government criticise the BBC for being too cautious in its desire to remain politically neutral. And, having been put on the back foot by the Daily Mail-organised moral panic over the Ross-Brand affair, the Corporation must be doubly shocked to now be on the receiving end from the liberal left elite. More pompous members of the acting fraternity have suddenly announced they will never work for the corporation again.

Personally I am glad the BBC has stood up to the blackmail of Hollywood-based actors who seem to think freedom of speech only works in one direction. The BBC is under no obligation to provide platforms to humanitarian organisations no matter how worthy - its responsibility is towards the licence fee payers. I don't think the BBC has actually killed any children in the middle east, but you might not have guessed this from the general tenor of the reaction from those shouting the loudest.

Given the choice, I think I would rather the BBC took a cautious approach, and take protecting its neutrality and integrity as a greater priority than the need to broadcast a modish appeal (and before anyone accuses me of insensitivity - does anyone remember any BBC TV broadcasts for aid for victims in Congo?). I think I am happier that this sort of decision is taken by the BBC themselves and not the likes of David Soul. To deny there is no potentially political dimension to the film is naive at best, and disingenuous at worst.

I believe the Palestinian people have been greatly wronged by the state of Israel, robbed of land, denied basic freedoms you and I would take for granted, and that Israel has exploited western acquiescence to entrench a position it has no right to take and no intention of retreating from. But I also feel the Palestinian cause has been exploited from the Arab side by less than wholesome organisations who make awkward bedfellows for the British left, and cause frequent embarrassment by their reactionary outbursts.

Organisations such as British Muslim Initiative, which is cited by news organisations as the acceptable face of organised British Muslim opinion, whose president, Mohammed Sawalha, called the BBC actions a "disgraceful decision". According to a Panorama documentary in 2006, Mr Sawalha is a senior activist in Hamas who “master minded much of Hamas’ political and military strategy”. In Gaza it is never just about children who are dying.

Having had the broadcast made on ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 (whose collective audience is higher than BBC1), as well as this high-profile, publicity-generating spat, the DEC appeal has had a tremendous boost. DEC reckon income so far is double what they would otherwise have expected if the BBC had just run the film. Not that anyone seems to have welcomed this outcome, despite the fact it is only "about raising money for children who are dying."

25 January 2009

Preaching to the unconverted

President Obama today announced the lifting of the invidious ban on US overseas aid going to family planning clinics who talk about abortions with clients. On cue, the Vatican weighed in with its myopic view, as senior Vatican official Monsignor Rino Fisichella accused Mr Obama of having "the arrogance of those who, being in power, believe they can decide of [sic] life and death."

Of course the Vatican is something of an authority on the arrogance of being in power. And historically has certainly enjoyed its fair share of deciding "of life and death", when threatened by those who would question such power. Maybe it will advise American Catholics to refuse to pay a portion of their taxes in protest, in the same way they advised millions to stop donating to Amnesty International for having the nerve to back the right of women to be treated as adults. Promoting the rights of unborn children to the exclusion of all else seems fitting, given the Vatican's infantile political agenda.

Joe Biden is the first ever Catholic Vice-President of the USA (one "first" that somehow got overlooked), so they probably thought they had a man on the inside. No wonder, then, the Vatican said the Obama Presidency was already "heading quickly toward disappointment". During the election race the Catholic hierarchy had helpfully suggested that that Biden, and those like him, not take holy communion because of their pro-choice views. If the leader of any other made-up country presumed to tell an elected politician what to do because he had a hotline to God, you'd say it was chutzpah at best. Or possibly the arrogance of being in power.


One bi product of the recent "miracle plane landing" on the Hudson River in New York was the publicity garnered for Twitter, which was the medium that broke the story first, as people zoomed pictures from their mobile phones around the globe before the major news agencies had even loaded their cameras. I thought I should try to get to grips with this amazing technology so beloved of new media aficionados, so I visited twitter.com.

I'm sure I can't be the only person who, upon discovering what Twitter actually is, remains rather underwhelmed. According to the site, Twitter is simply: "a service for friends, family, and co–workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?".

Yes, really. No matter how mundane the task is that you are performing - from morning ablutions to lagging pipes - you can bore a wide circle of your friends with 140 characters to let them know. Burned the dinner? Forgotten to buy milk? Have an itchy left buttock? Why keep it to yourself? Your friends should be told. Repeatedly. On their mobile phones, so they can't miss it. I assume it is a service that is aimed at Facebook users who worry they are not self-absorbed enough.

I had to re-read the site to check it wasn't some elaborate joke by Chris Morris or something. In fact I'm still not sure it isn't. For example, when faced with the obvious question "why use Twitter?", with a straight face, twitter.com proudly replies:

Why? Because even basic updates are meaningful to family members, friends, or colleagues—especially when they’re timely.
Eating soup? Research shows that moms want to know.
Running late to a meeting? Your co–workers might find that useful.
Partying? Your friends may want to join you.

So imagine you are running late for a meeting. How could you have possibly let colleagues know this, before the invention of Twitter, if all you had were a mobile phone? Moving beyond parody, it finishes:

With Twitter, you can stay hyper–connected to your friends and always know what they’re doing...Twitter puts you in control and becomes a modern antidote to information overload.

For those of you who feel being "hyper-connected to your friends" via your mobile phone doesn't at all sound like "information overload", your medium has arrived.I wish I were making this up. Either that or I had invested in mobile phone shares, if this really is "incredibly useful" as the once-credible Wired magazine informs me. In fact, I'm thinking about founding a rival service called shitter.com, which allows you to serve an SMS to all your friends every time you move your bowels - just about the only thing left to fill the gap in the market left by twitter, facebook, blogging, linked-in, myspace and 'Britain's Got Talent.'

Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans, John Lennon once wrote. He was wrong, of course - we don't make plans any more as we're all too busy telling everyone what we ate for breakfast.

17 January 2009

Apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, how was the play?

Excitement mounts ahead of the inauguration of Barack Obama on Tuesday. Curiously, the President Elect himself has decided to travel to Washington DC by train, repeating the same journey made by Abraham Lincoln in 1861 - I can only presume this is because he is the last senator from Illinois since Lincoln to be accede to the post of Commander in Chief.

If I were him, though, I'd stay away from the theatre.

12 January 2009

Sign of the times

If you caught any of last year's Channel 4 series Can't read, can't write, you may remember the story of Linda, a 46-year-old bibliophile who could barely read a word. As we followed Linda's moving story towards its climax, like King Midas she found that realising her dream had the unintended consequence of Too Much Of A Good Thing. Having lived in a letterless cocoon her whole life, the revealing of the code to literacy meant everywhere she looked, previously dormant words jumped out at her, and challenged her to read them. To walk to the shops was to be assaulted verbally (in the true meaning of the word), as the crowded high street, with its signage and advertising, overwhelmed her senses.

I thought of Linda this weekend as I was stuck in traffic on the outskirts of Ipswich with little else to look at except the street signage. There is a belief amongst certain local authorities that Less is More, but sadly Ipswich is not one of them.

Most perplexing was a sign mounted high on a lamppost that warned: You are entering a public area. Not conscious that I had left a public area, I looked around for additional clues to show where one public area ended and the other began. It reminded me of the occasion I had been in a railway station, another institution suffering from excessive signage, where someone had affixed a sign to a door that read: This is not a door. Quite a philosophical challenge for the travellers to ponder as they waited for their trains.

Back in Ipswich, I noticed our sign contained a clue: a red triangle containing a drawing of several glasses. The glasses were not filled with any liquid, but from their shape I think I was meant to infer they would normally contain alcohol. Given the triangular shape of street signs in the Highway Code means an information sign rather than a warning, and the fact there was no line through the image, I presume it doesn't mean alcohol is verboten. But the juxtaposition of the two elements certainly was confusing.

So either:

i) in certain public parts of Ipswich not immediately discernible to the eye, it is recommended you carry an empty tumbler, or

ii) there are random parts of Ipswich which might make you feel like having a drink, and the council thinks you should be aware of them, or

iii) In public areas of Ipswich there are a lot of empty glasses.

And if it is somehow connected to curbing public drunkenness, and sober people can't understand the signage, what hope is there of correcting your behaviour if you are actually drunk? Like the enormous electronic noticeboards on the M25 that periodically flash DON'T DRINK AND DRIVE. To which I always think: "well if you do, it's a bit late now".

08 January 2009

Hazardous spill

Regular readers of this blog will know of my recent obsession with Moral Hazard, brought on by the spate of bank nationalisations across the western world. It is rather like toxic waste: once it is out, it is very difficult to contain without a lot of damage being done. And the cost of cleaning it up is not only high, it is ultimately borne by the taxpayer.

After the ignominy of the various bank rescues, the shame associated with government bail-outs seems to have disappeared. First the American car industry's Micawberish pleas ultimately resulted in something indeed turning up - $17.4bn diverted away from the destitute bankers. In these topsy-turvey times this was portrayed as a victory for the working man, though presumably not the men who work for companies that have to compete with GM and Chrysler, such as Ford. Not to be outdone, the UK car industry has been making similar noises so it too can compete on an uneven playing field.

Next up the US Steel industry is pressing for protective clauses in any fiscal stimulus package put forward by the soon-to-be President Obama. Meanwhile over in mainland Europe, the Italian government has pledged to prop up the Parmesan cheese industry, buying up 100,000 wheels of parmigiana and 100,000 of Gran Padano in a bailout worth 50m euros. And ahead of Christmas, as a sop to the Low Countries candle industries, duty was imposed upon imports of candles from China. After all, how do you say no to businesses that have been honestly failing, if you have already rescued those who failed through dishonesty?

Personally, though, I couldn't be happier about the situation. After all, as the definition of critical industries that are "too important to fail" expands, I am pretty sure that this will some come to include advertising. Advertising in the UK was worth more than £19bn in 2005, more than 1.5% of GDP, and the UK is a major centre for creative advertising, and multinational companies often use UK-created advertising for marketing their products globally. London is acknowledged alongside New York as one of the two world centres of creative advertising and two thirds of international agencies have their European HQ in London.

So although I am working for a company that is looking to make redundancies, I feel sure the government will step in and save my job. After all, next to banking, advertising seems a positively moral business to be in.

Things ain't what they used to be.

In times of economic slowdown, marketers - even keen to shore up their income - try to persuade businesses that brand loyalty still trumps price-sensitivity in the long run. While difficult times might make people temporarily switch to Value baked beans, failure to promote your branded product means the same consumers cannot be guaranteed to switch back when the good times return.

But what do you do when the product disappears, leaving only the brand - or, in post-modern theory, the signifier replaces the signified? A successful example of this practice was celebrated recently, with the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the TV police drama Taggart, whose eponymous hero has now been dead for a greater portion of the show's run. Viewers have gotten over the fact of actor Mark McManus's death, and bought into the programme's brand values: a gritty, Scottish, police procedural.

But how far can you take this - and what factors decide the success or failure of such a post-modern brand? Take this year's Paris-Dakar Rally - the self-proclaimed toughest off-road race for predominantly amateur car drivers, usually run between Paris and, err, Dakar, Senegal, local politics permitting. While many people have heard of the race, a greater number might be surprised about the route is has taken when it kicked off its 2009 incarnation last week. Not only did the race not go near either Paris or Dakar, it didn't even take place on either of the same continents as its namesake cities, as it has been run between Buenos Aires, Argentina and Valparaiso, Chile.

This was almost as remarkable, to me, as the news of a reunion concert by The Three Tenors. Despite the obvious handicap of one member of the trio being dead, the marketers would have us believe that, what to most people would be The Two Tenors, is actually The Three Tenors (R), without Pavarotti but augmented by some distinctly lightweight replacements from the world of pop. If such a venture succeeds, it will be proof of the power of brand loyalty over not only good taste and judgement (as if that's something new) but the laws of basic arithmetic.

Where can one draw the line? Could I organise a Beatles reunion without any member of the Fab Four playing, but Ringo's cousin standing in on triangle? Can I sell eccles cakes as "Spangles" if I wrap them in sweetie papers? How much will people pay for the idea of something over the thing itself and be willing to delude themselves for the sake of a sense of belonging engendered by an advertising budget? Given my profession I suppose I should be grateful that, despite the recession, there's still one born every minute.