22 November 2011

Leveson the playing field

Watching this week's Leveson enquiry into Media Ethics this week, I was fondly casting my mind back to the rather brilliant summer we had. It's a little hard to recall today, coming as it did before the dismal days of Eurozone crisis, Greek default, London riots and the latest John Lewis commercial, but there was an exhilarating two week period when the News of the World was in its death throes. Every day something worse would emerge, and another previously untouchable News International employee would be defenestrated with indecent haste. In that Schadenfreude fortnight, when it became clear that the Police's reluctance to investigate the phone hacking scandal had less to do with incompetence and rather more with complicity, we were forced to ask ourselves some big questions, such as "who polices the police when they're in the media's pocket?"

Watching this week's coverage, I was asking myself a not dissimilar question: who reports on the reporters? You too can watch the coverage live online: http://news.bbc.co.uk/democracylive/hi but if you do, you may notice a bit of a disconnect between what you can see and what you can read about it afterwards. For as the phone hacking allegations spread beyond News International, the popular press coverage of events has vacillated between simply ignoring them to shrilly denouncing the participants with the sort of crude ad hominem arguments that would embarrass a guest on the Jeremy Kyle show.

The Sun has mainly chosen the former approach: the heart-breaking testimony of Milly Dowler's parents was relegated to a single paragraph on page 6. The Daily Mail has chosen to go on the attack, getting its proverbial testicles caught in the mangle over Hugh Grant's reasonable assumptions about its source for a story (his full testimony is here). The moral personal failings of both Grant and, latterly, Steve Coogan (who testified today) apparently remove from them the rights of privacy and free speech that the press so happily enjoy and abuse. Inevitably today the same old arguments were wheeled out in defence of British tabloid journalism, and will be every time someone has the temerity to complain of an intrusion, here neatly summarised by Sarah Sands in today's London Evening Standard:

"Celebrities participate in an over-the-counter trade when they have a product to sell but otherwise their lives are none of anyone else's business".

You must read the above sentence in your most withering, irony-dripping voice. Once you've done so, you may find yourself agreeing there is a certain hypocrisy in currying favour with an editor one day and spurning him when it has become inconvenient. This opinion is probably tacitly held by a reasonably large percentage of the population - probably those who seek self-justification for fuelling the activity through their daily purchase of a tabloid paper. I make this assumption on the grounds that the initial phone hacking story failed to really ignite until the catalyst of Milly Dowler's voicemail hacking by News of the World. It took intrusion into the life of the an ordinary victim of crime to set off the furious indignation of the British public. In other words, celebs were, if not exactly fair game, then not much worthy of our sympathy either.

I find Sands' argument both baffling and horrifying in its implications. It is, in effect, a reworking of the vile rapist's defence of "she was asking for it". The celebrity here has aroused the interest of the press and must suffering the consequences, no matter how far they go. And if the celebrity has, in the past, courted publicity from the press for a project or piece of work, then it's an open and shut case: a metaphorical flirtation with a showbiz reporter is an invitation to a fully invasive assault any time the press feels like it. It's part of the price of being who you are, and you love it really. Sands here is portraying the media as the helpless victim, as though they are forced to give a rising star publicity in their papers; the reduction of people's privacy to a transaction is very much the prerogative of the paper, not the other way around as Sands would have us believe.

There's something peculiarly British about this attitude that explains why the tabloid press gets away with so much. Foreigners encountering UK tabloid reporting for the first time are often shocked by its intrusion because they have heard of something called the Great British Reserve. This means an overbearing deference to people's privacy in everyday life. Contrast how open someone from, say, the USA will be upon first meeting or moving into a new neighbourhood with the UK, where the time getting to know new neighbours can be measured in ice ages. So how does the press get away with it?

It's because the Great British Reserve is trumped by something even greater, called Not Getting Above Yourself. Success in the UK is both celebrated and despised, and for every Lily Allen there's a Julie Burchill ready to knock them down a peg or two. This is the role the tabloid press performs and I'm sure there are sections of it who genuinely believe that, by reporting on Steve Coogan's latest affair, they are performing some kind of public service - as do, no doubt, those who read it.

There's a deep-seated psychological flaw in this attitude that is very ugly. The passive-aggressive sneer of every Liz Jones hatchet-job in the Daily Mail suggests that somehow these celebrities are getting away with something. How dare they enjoy the trappings of fame with no downside. The idea that long-lensed paparazzos are an important counterweight to the excess of celebrity, in the same way investigative journalists are to Executive power, is as unquestioned as it is laughable. Press reporting of Leveson is truly the rage of Caliban seeing his face in the mirror. Or, in this case, the Daily Mail.

20 November 2011

The way a cookie crumbles

Is advertising an art or a science? It's one of those facetious questions sometimes asked within advertising circles, and the answer largely depends on the department you work within, or what you are trying to get the client to pay for. Though officially a 'suit', I lean more towards the former: advertising is, fundamentally, about persuasion, and persuasion, as we all know, is an art. This also allows practitioners to keep a certain mystery around its practice; Lord Beaverbrook famously once remarked "I know that half my advertising budget is wasted, I just don't know which half".

This was the accepted way of things in the 20th century, in the dark, pre-digital days when advertising was channeled through the relative anonymity of a TV, newspaper or billboard. But in this era of digital media dominance, we now have the specter of Advertising As Science. Forget the uncertainty of knowing whether your audience sits rapt in front of your ad or disappears to make a cup of tea, now we can measure exactly who sees your ad and what they do once they've seen it. What started with "hits" on a website that became "unique visitors" has culminated in the phenomenon you must have noticed that is known as "remarketing" through the all-conquering Google.

If you've searched for a product recently - say a pair of Chelsea boots - you may have noticed, as you surf through unrelated, random websites, multiple ads showing you umpteen Chelsea boots. Maybe they even suggest trousers that would go well with this mythical pair of Chelsea boots? This is remarketing - where a website you have browsed places a cookie on your computer that allows it to serve advertising to you, via the Google display network, should you fail to convert the browsing into purchasing. This is Advertising As Science; we no longer need to persuade you why our Chelsea boots are the best because WE KNOW YOU WANT THEM! And we will continue to batter your eyes with ads for them until you give in, because we know we are right. We have statistical proof. Quite simply, you are wrong, because our science has proved it.

I recently visited thetrainline.com to find out prices of tickets from London to Manchester. Ever since, I have been served not just manifold web advertisements for thetrainline.com, but ads quoting me the latest prices for London to Manchester, repeatedly. This is despite the fact I have already purchased tickets on their website for Manchester, and travelled using them more than a week ago; apparently there is no satisfying my appetite for train tickets to Manchester. This is not so much targeted advertising as 'Terminator' advertising - the relentless pursuit of the consumer, like Arnold Schwartzenegger in the eponymous movie, advertising you to death.

Apart from the obvious fact this is incredibly annoying, not to say spooky, I think it also true to say that agencies and clients are missing a trick in the relentless pursuit of greater targeting. The Advertising As Science dogma has it that the more personalised an ad becomes, the greater its effectiveness: it cuts out the waste of talking to people who don't want a product to reach only those who do. This approach, presented as fantasy in the Tom Cruise movie Minority Report, is fast becoming reality. Apart from its incredible presumptuousness, it also fails to grasp the complexity of human beings.

If I only try to reach those people who have shown an interest in buying my Chelsea boots today, where does tomorrow's customer come from? I still have hard-wired into my brain advertising slogans from 30 years ago for consumer goods that couldn't possibly have been aimed at my infant brain or unwaged pocket. Many of them are for consumer brands that I now purchase as an adult, who have inveigled their way into my affection over the years through exposure and persuasion when I couldn't possibly have been the target audience. The need to renew an audience and market through persuasion means the 'purity' of a fully targeted approach is as misguided as the 'purity' of a gene-pool; it is through cross-fertilisation, serendipity and, frankly, randomness that success is rewarded. Sometimes the best breakthroughs in creative thinking happen when you need to take a chance. The alternative vision of the future, to paraphrase George Orwell, is of a Chelsea boot stamping on a human face - forever.

13 November 2011


Yesterday, squashed between Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday, like a burp between dinner courses, was an international football match. This being a friendly game that no-one gave England much chance of winning, the news instead focused on whether Our Boys would be allowed to wear a poppy commemorating Our Men on their football shirts. "No" said FIFA, citing their law forbidding the wearing of political symbols by member countries' teams. Ever quick to spot a bandwagon, our Prime Minister thought it a worthwhile use of his time to plead for flexibility from FIFA. Eventually a compromise was reached that satisfied everyone's sense of self-importance: FIFA could save face, The FA got its chance to appear respectful, and the Daily Mail got three days of foreigner-baiting headlines.

Two things struck me about this wholly manufactured story. First, if I were the Royal British Legion, I'd be desperate not to talk about it - and the rather cool statements issued by the RBL rather back this up. If you think of the values of the poppy: honour, sacrifice, selflessness and duty, it would be hard to think of a less appropriate group of brand ambassadors than those over-indulged, feckless popinjays: English professional footballers. The sight of alleged racist, serial philanderer and user-of-disabled-parking-spaces John Terry braying at his mates on the bench with a poppy on his chest is a toxic brand association.

The second, more important point is the whole issue of the poppy as a political symbol. Of course it is, and why are so many people so horrified to admit it? For David Cameron to claim there is no political link between war and remembrance might be charmingly naive in someone more charming.

One simple proof of its potency as a political symbol among many I could cite is the furore caused in their native Ireland by talent-dodging pop stars Westlife, who were used to promote the poppy in 1999. Whether you agree with the interpretation is irrelevant; the interpretation, as with beauty and goal-line clearances, is in the eye of the beholder.

I believe it should be embraced as the ultimate political symbol, understood in the context of the noble exercise of politics, as opposed to the less noble politicians it is sometimes tainted with. Politics is the attempt to resolve conflict without resort to war. It's the evolutionary triumph of the human brain. War is when politics breaks down. In that sense war and politics are two sides of the same coin, inextricably linked - so to call the commemoration of the consequences of war apolitical is disingenuous.

The poppy is the symbol of politics gone wrong, and the impact that has on millions of people when elites too proud, mad or deluded consider risking the lives of each other's children is a price worth paying. Sometimes it is, mostly it is not. The poppy serves to remind us what happens when politicians of all colours on all sides fail to do their job. So when a politician tries to tell you remembrance is not political, he's trying to get off the hook.

07 November 2011

Good offences make good neighbours.

Last Saturday I took part in the most exciting piece of participatory democracy in my area since the General Election: a public meeting hosted by a local councillor to decide on a local issue affecting my street. There was a sum of money to be spent on local improvements to an area of greenery, to make play provision for the neighbourhood’s children. Except the neighbourhood’s parents rather like the green area as it is, thank you very much, and feared the erection of gaudy swings would attract an Unwelcome Element into our midst, to sit, after dark, swigging cider, smoking fags and generally Being A Nuisance. Teenagers, in other words.

From the neutrality of living in a house not directly affected by such a prospect, it was vaguely amusing to see the mix of articulate NIMBYism and misdirected bluster as people who had lived comfortably side-by-side for nearly a decade were forced to get distinctly uncomfortable by expressing a public opinion in full view of their neighbours, the political equivalent of getting undressed with the curtains open in our sleepy, ordinary street. Having laid the issue of the swings to rest, the subject of the deeply unpopular New Bus Route suddenly resurfaced unexpectedly, like cider from a teenager’s gut, and just as unpleasant. It had been in the local paper that the council had changed its mind yet again and re-routed the bus through the same neighbourhood, but not after it had spent many thousands of pounds erecting bus stops on a different stretch of road. A separate meeting was needed for this fresh challenge, and so a date was timetabled, and everyone left with a renewed sense of vigour.

To the outsider this might all look like a terrific waste of money in times when that is the one thing no-one can afford: money earmarked for a park no-one wants, bus stops installed for a road with no buses, and a social club rented for an hour for the hoi polloi to collectively mutter to their elected busybody. And yet it may well be the best money spent in the area. In that hour I met more of my neighbours than I have ever done before and felt a real sense of common purpose. Ours is a typical modern British street, with houses built within walking distance of some amenities, but a drive away from others, a collection of castles for Englishmen to hide in. Though well connected and served by facilities, it is not built around anything – it has no heart in any sense of the word. And yet, by its fumbling incompetence, the local council had engendered a sense of purpose to the place for the first time in a decade.

In the same way people exhort the government to stimulate economic recovery through investment in public schemes, I’d suggest there is a social bonus to such spending that has mostly gone unnoticed. If a local authority wants to foster better community relations in tense times – and this summer’s scenes in London would suggest it might be worthwhile – there is a cheaper way of doing it than building another youth centre or commissioning trampoline classes for the under-privileged. Every council ward should announce the most outrageous planning scheme it can think of: nuclear power stations next to the school, digging up a football field to build young offenders’ institutes, a combined uranium mine and refugee crisis centre upstairs from ASDA. Before you could say Section 106 Agreement, you’d have neighbours chaining themselves together to block the street, organising cake bakes and raffles for lawyers’ fees, exchanging emails and maybe even smiles.