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.

RedEaredRabbit

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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.

RedEaredRabbit

Pizza and Electoral Reform

Politicians have recently been spouting a lot about the inefficiencies of the public sector. Well if it’s true, no better example could surely be found than the politicians themselves. After literally months of hundreds of them pissing around at our expense they finally decided yesterday that there would be a referendum on electoral reform. In the referendum we will be given two choices and asked to vote for the one which we think is the fairer system of electing future governments. The choices will be:

  • First Past The Post (FPTP) – our current system
  • Alternative Vote (AV)

I will be honest – I don’t know which system is fairer and that is a bit of a problem. I don’t consider myself badly informed with what is going on in the world. I am reasonably good at maths yet still I don’t know off the top of my head which system is fairer.

This is a problem not because of my personal dilemma but because I strongly suspect that I am not alone in not knowing which system is fairer. I am fairly sure there are a large number of people in the country who, like me are going to be asked to decide something they don’t have the information to properly decide.

Yesterday, I asked my Twitter followers which system they preferred. It looked like this:

Wow – almost 1 in 3 of us don’t know. If you are one of those people then look no further. I am going to work it out here on this blog and then we’ll all know. Hoorah! So let’s do it with an example.

15 friends are ordering a pizza to share from The Very Big Pizza Company. There are three options:

  • Meat Feast
  • Pepperoni
  • Margherita

Between them they need to decide on which pizza to get and so they take a vote. Their preferences look like this:

The voters

Summarised, their preferences look like this:

Voters

If they use a FPTP system then only their 1st choice preferences are taken into account so, with six votes, they will get a Meat Feast.

If they use AV however then it works like this:

Round 1

  • Meat Feast – 6 votes
  • Pepperoni – 4 votes
  • Margherita – 5 votes

In AV, Pepperoni with the fewest first choice votes at the end of round 1 gets eliminated and the Pepperoni lovers’ second choice votes are added in for round 2…..

Round 2

  • Meat Feast – 7 votes
  • Margherita – 8 votes

Margherita is the winner.

Two different systems – two different results. While we’re here though, let’s look at another system called the Borda Count. In this system 3 points are awarded for a first choice, 2 for a second and 1 for a third. Points are all added up to determine the winner. It’s a bit like what happens in the Eurovision Song Contest.

In this system we find the following:

Borda Count Results

Pepperoni, with 34 points has won.

Three different systems – three different results. So what does all this tell us? It tells us that the voting system we employ can make a big difference to the outcome of the election. With three different systems and the same set of preferences we observe 3 different outcomes.

You might think I intentionally set the group’s preferences such that this would happen. Yup, I did. But it may not be too far from reality. Imagine that it’s May 2010 and Meat Feast is the Conservatives, Pepperoni is the Lib Dems and Margherita is the Labour Party. The different outcomes here have essentially occurred because:

  • More people preferred the Conservatives as a first choice than preferred either of the other two (but importantly not an overall majority)
  • The Lib Dems are most often the second choice of both Conservative and Labour voters
  • Lib Dem voters are more likely to prefer Labour than Conservatives*

* I’m not sure whether this is actually the case but it doesn’t make it an implausible set of preferences.

So I have looked at three different voting systems and they produced three different winners but which is the fairest? Nope, I still don’t know. Let’s keep going.

First, let’s go back to the FPTP system where the group have decided to vote for Meat Feast.

They phone up The Very Big Pizza Company. Before they can place their order, they are informed that unfortunately there are no more Pepperoni pizzas left. Doesn’t matter, right? In the vote Meat Feast came first, Margherita second and Pepperoni came last. The fact that Pepperoni isn’t on the menu doesn’t cause a problem. Or does it?
Anna, on the phone relays this message to the group and they do the FPTP vote again based on Meat Feast or Margherita. Now Margherita wins on the FPTP method!

To me this seems like a big problem. In a fair electoral system, if people prefer Meat Feast to Margherita then the outcome should always reflect this, irrespective of whether or not Pepperoni is available.

FPTP says that if Pepperoni is on the menu then Meat Feast is better than Margherita and if Pepperoni is not on the menu then Margherita is better than Meat Feast!

So FPTP is cack then. Let’s look at the AV in comparison. After the AV vote they phone up The Very Big Pizza company to order their Margherita and find that Meat Feast is off the menu. Now Pepperoni wins. Bollocks.

If AV is a fair system then if it prefers Margherita to Pepperoni when Meat Feast is on offer, it should prefer Margherita to Pepperoni when Meat Feast is not on offer.

Aaargghh. All I have done so far is to find that neither is fair.

When you look at the summarised table of votes above, AV does have a clear problem. Pepperoni had loads of second place votes but these all got ignored because it was eliminated before they could be taken into account. 11 people liked Pepperoni second best but the system treated it the same as if no one had liked it second best.

When you look at FPTP though – it doesn’t just ignore all the second and third place votes for Pepperoni. It ignores, by definition, everything that wasn’t a first choice vote.

My view is that when you need to make a decision about something, you should take as much of the available information into account as possible. AV, while not perfect takes more information into account than FPTP and it is on that basis I think, a fairer system.

Let’s not though, forget about our third option – the Borda Count which we sadly will not get the option to vote for. That system takes every preference into account and I therefore think it is a fairer system than either of the two from which we can choose.

Formula 1 uses something not too far from the Borda Count to decide the world champion. Would Formula 1 be fairer if driver’s second places, third places etc were not taken into account when deciding the World Championship? Bernie Ecclestone thinks so but I don’t. I think a driver with 5 wins, 8 second places and 2 third places has more claim to be World Champion than a driver with 6 wins and 9 races that they didn’t finish.
The Borda Count system is by no means perfect but it allows us to take a lot more information into account than a simple FPTP.

This is not the whole picture though. Even if everyone agreed on the fairest system they would not all necessarily vote in the same way. For a start, some systems are more likely to benefit certain political parties. The Conservatives don’t really think FPTP is the fairest possible electoral system, they just think they will have a better chance of winning a majority than they would with the others. If the party you like the best is going to do better out of a particular system why would you want to vote for an alternative in which they would do worse?

Also, the best system may not be the fairest system. FPTP is the simplest system by far – one cross in one box and you’re done. The more complex the system becomes the harder it is for people to understand and cast their vote. A clever mathematician could come up with a brilliantly fair voting system but if a significant proportion of the electorate didn’t understand it or couldn’t work out how to fill in their ballot papers, it would be worthless.

Some people also praise FPTP for its strength in delivering a majority government with a minority of votes. That doesn’t necessarily sound like a good thing to me but if people really think it is a good thing then why should they not vote for a less fair system in order to achieve it?

Irrespective of these there is something much worse which will undoubtedly have a strong influence on the result of the referendum – the campaign of misinformation which I can see on the horizon, heading for our shores like a giant wave of bullshit. Political parties, unions and other groups will no doubt know which of the two systems benefits them the most and they will undoubtedly be feverishly preparing their campaigns to scare the public into believing that one system means 100 years of darkness to the UK.

On the Today Programme the other day, James Frayne who ran the successful campaign for the Conservative Party to vote No to a North East regional assembly said that because Nick Clegg is so unpopular, the best tactic for the No2AV campaign (yes, they’ve already made a name like a fucking X-Factor band) would be to say if you vote AV you will get Nick Clegg in government again.

It’s shameful that on one hand we will be given a chance to vote to change the electoral system and on the other hand we will be drowned in this kind of crap designed solely to mislead us. Will any political party in the next few months spend time and effort really trying to explain the underlying good points and bad points of each system in a bid to assist the voters into making an informed choice? I hope so but I don’t think so.

So – what have I concluded?

  • AV has big problems and probably isn’t a great system but it is fairer than FPTP
  • The Borda Count is fairer than either of them but isn’t available
  • A fair system is not necessarily the best if it is overly complex to understand
  • Even if people agree on what the fairest system is they will still not necessarily vote for it
  • There will be a massive campaign of misinformation which will significantly influence the choice of voters

Well, to be honest, I’m disillusioned by the whole thing now. Bollocks to this. Anyone for Pizza?

RedEaredRabbit