How the Yes was Lost

Why do X-Factor winners sell so many records? Why does JK Rowling sell so many Harry Potter books? Why do people drink Actimel or Stella Artois? Why do people wash their hair in Pro-Vitamin-A-Anticomplex-Regenerise-Maxi-Revitaliftium-4?

Ladies and Gentlemen – I give you Marketing.

Concentrate, here comes the science bit. There are two types of marketing:

Good Marketing

Good marketing is when a marketing message supremely shows off particular aspects of a product such that lots of people want to buy it. Importantly, good marketing must not omit any weaknesses in the product that the consumer would not reasonably expect.

It would not, for example, be good marketing to tell people that a new drug solved high blood pressure while at the same time omitting to tell them it would make them incontinent. It would not however, be a violation of good marketing if they didn’t mention that the drug tasted nasty. A consumer would not reasonably assume their potentially life-saving medicine would taste yummy but they might not expect to be continually pooing their pants.

Bad Marketing

Bad marketing is far worse than simply failing to mention that a drug might make you incontinent. Bad marketing is when the message gets so far ahead of the actual benefits of the product that is being marketed that is misleads people into thinking it has benefits that it does not.

Got it? Good because it’s quiz time.

Do people buy Harry Potter books because of good marketing or bad marketing?

I’ve never read a Harry Potter book. I’m sure they’re fine. I doubt though that they are hugely superior to every other book written in the last 1000 years, as their revenue would suggest. This phenomenon however, is because of good marketing.  Nothing was misleading; they simply did a much better job of getting the message out about their books than anyone else did about their equally good or better books.

Do people buy X-Factor records because of good marketing or bad marketing?

Hopefully most of you answered bad marketing. The music is always terrible but people buy it because millions of pounds are spent on making people believe it is good when it isn’t. If my mum sang Agadoo on primetime TV every Saturday night to applause from Simon Cowell she would sell records. It wouldn’t make it good.

I don’t want to sound like I’m superior and immune to marketing. I’m not. After all, I have an iPhone. When I bought it I never even looked at any other phones for comparison. There are much more affordable phones which are very similar. An iPhone costs something like £35 a month for 18 months plus £100 up front. £730! A logical thing to do would have been to compare it with a similar smartphone that cost £25 a month and nothing up front (a saving of £280). I didn’t though. Why? Marketing.

At some stage I have been subliminally convinced that iPhones are a billion times better than all other phones so I didn’t bother looking at the alternatives. The reality is that they are a little bit better but are they really £280 better than the second best phone?

In moments of clarity, I can grudgingly admit this to myself but if I had to get another phone tomorrow I would again go straight to the phone shop and buy an iPhone without looking at the alternatives. This is the power of marketing. It can make people who are otherwise rational completely irrational and if marketing were motor racing, Apple vs other phones would be Ayrton Senna racing against my mum.

(Yes, that’s the second time I’ve mentioned my mum. She gives me £1 every time she gets a mention in my blog.)

iPhones represent  good marketing though. Apple don’t make anything up but they tell the truth in such a clever way that people really, really want to have their products.

Actimel? Hmm. I don’t want to get sued. In my personal opinion, Actimel is an example of bad marketing. This is because I believe it (and Danone etc.) makes carefully worded claims from which people infer health benefits that I don’t believe are really what they will receive. This article goes into it in a bit more detail.

Stella Artois – good marketing. It doesn’t taste better than other lagers, in fact it’s not really particularly nice but it outsells everything. It doesn’t even claim to taste better; it claims to be more expensive, which it is. It’s “Reassuringly expensive.”

Now that’s clever. It might not taste great but be reassured that you paid more for it than the nicer tasting alternative. Rationality completely out of the window. I sincerely hope that the Head of Brewing at Stella Artois is stinking poor and the Head of Marketing is stinking rich. It is pretty clear who does the better job.

Onwards and downwards. Bullshit shampoos? Scientists in lab coats talking about imaginary scientific breakthroughs while computer simulations of imaginary molecules start miraculously rebuilding damaged hair, almost as if the imaginary recipient had stood on their head in an imaginary bath of imaginary stem cells for a month. Bad marketing.

So, we have seen examples of good marketing and we have seen examples of bad marketing. The above examples of bad marketing though, are the work of mere amateurs. When you become really good, no – when you become exceptionally good at bad marketing, you are given a job as a politician.

When I first wrote about AV in February my final conclusion was:

There will be a massive campaign of misinformation that will significantly influence the choice of voters.

There was too – on both sides. The politicians campaigning for Yes to AV made very little attempt to accurately reflect its benefits in comparison with FPTP. They resorted to bad marketing.

Unfortunately for them they were far worse at bad marketing than the No to AV campaign. The bad marketing on that side was truly something to admire. Honestly, if they put that much effort into sorting out the economy and the environment we’d all be laughing.

We were told that AV was so complicated that none of us would understand it. Amazingly lots of people took this at face value. There’s a bloke I work with who thought this and he’s really very intelligent. Are we all so challenged that we cannot put a few choices in order of preference? I would hope not.

In fact, I would go as far as to say that a person who can’t understand AV probably can’t understand the relative merits of the policies of the candidates between which they are choosing.

For example, I am told by David Cameron that I am too stupid to understand AV but, at the same time, it should be blindingly obvious to me that spending cuts, VAT rises and restructuring of the NHS are no-brainers. They aren’t though – they are really much more complicated. If I am too stupid to understand how to rank candidates in order of preference how could I possibly be clever enough to understand the overall impact on the economy of raising VAT to 20% vs keeping it at 17.5%?

We were told plenty of other things that were all a result of a brilliant use of bad marketing. I was impressed when looking at each one individually but if I take a step back and look at the whole thing together it truly is a work of art. It is abundantly clear that a huge number of people spent a huge amount of time working on one of the most intricate examples of bad marketing that our nation has ever seen.

Many people voted No to AV because bad marketing told them that AV would mean Nick Clegg in government. How brilliant is that?

You should all vote in favour of the current voting system (which put Nick Clegg in government) because otherwise it might mean Nick Clegg in government!

But people bought it. It didn’t make any sense but it didn’t matter – rationality is absolutely no competition against bad marketing.

Let me take a moment to make something clear. If you felt you had a good understanding of the good points and bad points of both electoral systems and voted No to AV then I have absolutely no problem with your decision. My gripe is not with you. My real gripe is that the majority of the public was not given enough information on the good points and the bad points of each system to make an informed decision.

The politicians agreed to allow the country to choose their voting system and then spent all of their time and effort concocting nonsense to confuse and mislead everyone.

It was truly shameful but it was nothing more than we have come to expect – just have a look at my previous blog on NHS reforms. Like it or not, we live in a society where a politician’s job title is firstly, Director of Bad Marketing and a distant second is Secretary of State for Something or Other.

I wrote this blog post simply to highlight this problem and I don’t have a solution. The politicians have no incentive to give us the real facts so solving the problem would mean everyone ignoring what politicians told us about their policies and forming our opinions independently. “I already do this!” you shout and perhaps you do but your vote is much trickier for them to spend time winning than that of a person who doesn’t.

And as long as a significant proportion of the electorate has their vote decided by bad marketing over rationality, a politician has no reason to change their behaviour. Unless, of course, we decided to change to a fairer electoral system.

Oh. Damn.



Indigestion and Electoral Reform

I have belly ache. Perhaps it was all that pizza. Perhaps I have just been fed a little too much misinformation by politicians in recent weeks.

In February I wrote Pizza and Electoral Reform – a blog post about the upcoming referendum to decide our voting system. In it I looked at an example of when First Past The Post (FPTP) and the Alternative Vote (AV) gave different outcomes to the same set of voters’ preferences. I concluded that AV was fairer than FPTP because it took a lot of useful information into account that FPTP ignored.

Some people who read it thought I hadn’t explained that point in enough detail. Reading it again, I think they were right. I was in a bit of a hurry when I wrote it. Sorry about that. I’m in a bit of a hurry writing this to be honest but I’ll try to be clear.

Let me give an example of why taking more information into account might be fairer than ignoring it.

You are getting married and deciding what meal to give your guests. The caterers give you the following options*:

  • Rump Steak
  • Fillet Steak
  • Chicken
  • Halibut

(*There is half a pepper stuffed with rice for the vegetarians but there is no voting option for them.)

Being the kind soul that you are you let people vote on their RSVPs for which meal they would most like to be served.

There is a bit of a quandary for the steak lovers here. By offering two different steak options, the caterers have unwittingly made both of them difficult to elect under a FPTP system.

Why? Well, supposing you have 50 guests coming to the wedding. 27 of them want steak, 18 of them want fish and 5 of them want chicken. If there were one steak option on the menu then both FPTP and AV would leave it the clear winner. There isn’t though – there are two. The FPTP votes come in like this:

  • Rump Steak – 12
  • Fillet Steak – 15
  • Chicken – 5
  • Halibut – 18

Under FPTP, halibut wins even though the majority wanted steak. Using AV, second choice votes would have ensured that steak won the day. It would have been a fairer outcome in my opinion and it would have happened simply because more information was taken into account.

I think FPTP has a massive weakness when the available options are not equally spread out. By that I mean – if there are two popular options that are similar, FPTP will penalise those choices by splitting the vote out between them.

Let’s look at another FPTP example that is relevant to politics. Supposing at the next election there are three major political parties. A large proportion of the electorate are pissed off with the main party because of say, high tuition fees.

Situation 1

The second biggest party puts down a policy to significantly reduce the fees and lots of people vote for that party and that party wins.

Situation 2

The second and third biggest parties both put down a policy to significantly reduce the fees and lots of people split their vote between those two parties and the existing government wins.

Which outcome better reflects the will of the people? We have been told by the No2AV campaign that FPTP is better at getting rid of unpopular governments. It isn’t though. When a government has unpopular policies, all of the alternative parties take the more popular view and split the vote, leaving us with exactly the result that we did not want.

When I wrote the Pizza and Electoral Reform post, I predicted a massive campaign of misinformation. That has certainly happened. Despite the well organised bullshit campaign though, I don’t think there is anything that I have found that suggests, when compared with FPTP, AV is less fair or too complicated for people to understand.

AV is not perfect but I think it’s better than what we have. Whichever way you vote for though – I urge you to ignore the “advice” of the politicians. It truly is a sorry state of affairs when not one politician has been bothered to try to explain the true benefits of the two options without resorting to misleading claims and scaremongering.

Perhaps the best piece of advice in all of this is to just ignore everything you’ve been told by a politician and just vote for the system you consider the fairer using your own judgment. That’s what I’m going to do.

I’m going to vote Yes to AV.