Alert Alert !!!

My eyes are peeled. I’m scanning the horizon.  I check behind.  And to the sides.   Everyone I see will be scrutinised from head to foot, until I am satisfied they offer no threat.  Every vehicle will be checked.  Every house I pass will be noted and its details recoded.  Nothing goes unnoticed.  I am a coiled spring.

I am alert. So alert.  I am positively tingling with alertness.  Alert is my new middle name.  Beyond alert.  I’m more alert than Alert Ali McAlert, winner of last year’s ‘Mr. Alert’ competition.

I must be safe from the COVID-19 virus right?

Stay alert

If you didn’t know (because either you’ve been living in a cave, or somewhere outside Britain) this is the British Government’s campaign to keep the public safe from corona virus.

Stay Alert (what?) Control the Virus (er, how?) Save lives (but, who, where, how, che?)

My main question is this:  Is this the worst piece of public policy communication in history?

Seems like a no-brainer to me.  It’s the biggest stinker ever.

Why do I say that? (I don’t hear you ask)

Well for a start it makes no sense.  Staying alert will make no difference whatsoever to anything relating to the virus.  Or anything else, except I’ll be exhausted rather quickly.  Is alertness somehow relevant?  Am I at more at risk while sleeping than I am when fully ‘on my guard’?  I think not.

Controlling the virus is not something I know how to do, nor something it’s in my power to do so instructing me to do it leaves me floundering.

And saving lives, while undoubtedly a good thing, is not really in my remit – I don’t think I’m being asked to find someone in danger and rescue them, so what exactly is it I’m being urged to do?

Alice Bennett, a senior lecturer in contemporary literature, put it better than me, on Twitter:

“It’s a fantasy that we can ‘control the virus’, but we can’t actually control our attention either. ‘Stay Alert’ is the ‘Never Forget’ of public safety messaging: actionless, objectless, infinitely expansive”

Inevitably the authors of the campaign have felt compelled to defend it:

“The truth is that people really understand the message, people understand what ‘Stay Alert’ means,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock told BBC Radio 4’s “Today” program .

In fact, polling by YouGov, on the Monday following its launch, suggested only 30 percent of people knew what “Stay Alert” means — and even Tory MPs privately expressed dismay at the botched messaging before the key document was finally published at lunchtime on Monday.

Apparently, the original intention was that the five letters making up ALERT would form an acronym for five actions people could take to prevent the spread of the disease.  But according to Politico, the graphics for the new campaign were leaked to the Sunday Telegraph, the weekend before, leading to what is known in the trade as a ‘botched launch’.  And no acronym was forthcoming.

No wonder the campaign has been met with a mixture of derision and confusion.

I couldn’t help take a quick peek at what some experts in Government communications thought about it.  A couple of senior staffers at the Central Office of Information (The Government’s centre of excellence for public communications, until it was broken up a few years ago) summarised their thoughts as follows (no names, no pack-drill):

“I wonder what was the thought process that went into the new slogan: BE ALERT, CONTROL THE VIRUS, SAVE LIVES.  This slogan is meaningless and confusing.”

“It’s a box-ticking exercise that clearly doesn’t give a shit about whether it actually changes behaviour or helps people.”

So far so utterly damning.  But there’s another side to this.  Because, if there’s one area where the current British Government is generally sure-footed, it’s mass communications made simple.  The Brexit campaign was a triumph of persuasion, where the case to be made was logically er flimsy at best.  And the last general election saw the Conservative Party wipe the floor with their opponents, despite a fairly iffy record in government.  All of this was achieved with a single-minded approach to communications based on a religious adherence to polling and feedback from focus groups.  It has been a thoroughly professional job.  They gave every impression of knowing what they were doing.  Until now.

So what went wrong?

Stay alert for further bulletins…….

The adult world is such a disappointment

I’m a great admirer of the British political campaign group Led by Donkeys. For a start, they use wit very effectively to expose the hypocrisy of the current British government.  That must be a good thing. Second, they have the best name of any campaign group ever.  It comes from the expression Lions led by donkeys – describing the belief that British soldiers in the First world war (the heroic lions) were sent to their deaths in the thousands by Generals (the donkeys) who were incompetent and indifferent to the slaughter that resulted from their decision.  The analogy with our current political leaders seems excellent.  I have never had such a strong sense that the people in power in Britain are disconnected to and uninterested in ordinary people.

When I was at University, there were a number of notorious drinking and dining societies, largely populated by the privileged few.  Prominent among them was the Bullingdon Club, whose members would famously go out for an evening to the best restaurants in Oxford, get riotously drunk and trash the place, leaving a large pile of cash to pay for the damage.  Depending on how you feel about these things, it’s good harmless fun or the unacceptable face of the class system – or even something in between.  One thing really never occurred to me – that, thirty years later these would be the people running the country. 

Perhaps Lions led by jackasses would be more apt.

But it’s not just the government that has disappointed me.  The sentiment expressed in Led by Donkeys could describe a great deal of my experience of growing up.

When I was growing up, I learned in school how institutions worked, how economics worked and broadly how society was organized.  It was presented as a world that was ordered, sensible.  It was run by competent and knowledgeable people who were trained and experienced and who had the greater good foremost among their goals.  They learned from experience and things improved over time, as our knowledge and understanding progressed.

Then I went to University, travelled a bit, had a career and so on.  The world I experienced was very little like this.  Some of it was a bit like I had imagined – there were clever people in high positions in big businesses.  I had always imagined you had to be smart and also at least reasonably well intentioned to succeed.  But an alarming number of the businesses I worked with were led by charlatans and bullshitters.  And they seemed no less successful than the good guys.  Maybe I was impossibly naive to imagine any different.

I worked in Government for a time and was staggered at what a dirty, backstabbing business it was.  I’m sure people go into politics with good intentions, but what I saw was just cynical and grasping.  We talked a good game about ‘evidence-based government’, but this was the opposite of what actually happened.  It would more accurately be described as getting-back-into-power-at-any-cost-and-shafting-the-other-bugger-based-government.

How else could we have had something as patently wrong as Brexit?

So, over the years, my faith in the people influencing our lives diminished.

And this week it reached a new low. Or should that be a new high?

This is the crowning glory of stupidity in high places.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) is a former client of mine.  We worked together on renewable energy policy when it was called the DTI (Department for Trade and Industry).  It was a sensible, grown-up thing.  There were adults who worked there. They wore suits and everything.

At least I thought they were adults.

BEIS has recently announced its plan to bring back the use of imperial measurements. For those of you who live in the post 1980s world, I should explain, that means pounds and ounces, stones etc.

I checked. Nope, it’s not April 1st.

Business Minister, Paul Scully said “While we think of fruit and veg by the pound, the legacy of EU rules means we legally have to sell them by the kilo”.  “Our consultation today will help shops to serve customers in the way their customers want.”

I’d love to know who these customers are. To have been taught about pounds and ounces in school, you’d certainly need to be over the UK state retirement age.

During the 2019 election campaign Boris Johnson (ex-Bullingdon Club) pledged to bring back imperial units, claiming this was restoring an “ancient liberty”

I am still awaiting the imminent announcements on reinstating longbow practise on the village greens of England and removing votes for women and those who do not own property.

Back on Planet Earth, Tory peer and boss of supermarket chain Asda, Lord Rose, talking to Times Radio, said “returning to imperial weights and measures was “complete and utter nonsense”. “I’ve never heard such nonsense in my life. I mean we have got serious problems in the world and we’re saying ‘let’s go backwards'”. “Does anybody in the country under the age of 40 even know how many ounces there are in a pound?”

I do think he’s being unreasonably generous.

Lions led by twats?

The demise of Advertising

In the 70s and 80s, London’s advertising business enjoyed a golden age and was the envy of the world.​  Most people over 40 can remember dozens of famous campaigns that became part of the culture and social history of the time.  We still unthinkingly quote and refer back to old campaigns for Guinness, Carling, Heineken, Yellow Pages, oxo, Persil, VW, Coke, Pepsi, B&H and so on.

In the intervening decades a few things changed – driven by new technology, legislative oversight and competition.

Legislation and regulation addressed some of the financial anomalies. For example the 1987 Pliatsky Report which uncovered malpractices like over-charging for production, to claw back money sacrificed to win competitive pitches with low rates.

There was a massive growth in global competition – first from the US but later from everywhere.

Business culture evolved, with less appetite for risk and greater focus on efficiency and economy.  Less pain, less gain but more certainty. The industry became global and corporate. Boutique shops became the exception as the industry was dominated by massive global players like WPP and Omnicom.

Above all, technology leapt forward, shifting the emphasis from the unreliable world of creativity and ideas to the seemingly more dependable world of targeting and efficiency.  The creative industry became a media targeting industry.

We stopped making memorable campaigns and we started measuring click-through-rates.  For a proper commentary on how digital advertising and marketing has led us to take our eye off the ball, read Mark Ritson on what he calls ‘technoporn‘.

Ironically, advertising is significantly less effective now than it was before the technological revolution. For the evidence of this, read the analyses by Peter Field and Les Binet for the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising.

Advertising is no longer an attractive place for  the most creative people to build a career.  We no longer attract the top talent.  

We no longer lead the world.

We no longer contribute to the culture.

The business imperative and the march of technology took us one step forward and eight steps back.

Dog? Baby? Dog? Baby?…………Dog

In the first year of Covid (are we going to give this year a name like AD or BC?) the number of births recorded in the UK fell by 4% to a record low. The fertility rate stood at 1.58 births per woman. The natural population replacement rate would be 2.1; that’s the figure required to maintain the same population excluding net immigration. So that’s a whopping decline in fertility, with some major implications for the UK’s age profile.

In that same year, the number of UK households owning a dog jumped (down boy) from 23% to 33%.


There is a theory, gaining in popularity, that the world has turned so ugly that that more and more people are simply choosing not to bring children into it. Or, as John Elledge wrote in the New Statesman:

The mystery isn’t why the birth rate is falling – it’s why anyone has kids at all

He notes that that this is also the first time a majority of women remained childless by their 30th birthday. According to Elledge, we’re not having kids because that requires economic security, and we haven’t had that for a generation. Instead the economy has lurched from crisis to crisis.

Having a child requires both money and stability, and for more than a decade now the entire world seems to have been conspiring to deny the under-40s either. Since 2007 this country and its economy has rolled from crisis to crisis: the crash, the recession, austerity, the next recession brought about by austerity, Brexit, the pandemic, another recession (a really big one this time), and now if we’re very lucky maybe we won’t have war in Europe but quite possibly we will. Anyone under 35 has never known the good times.

Others point to climate change and the failure of humankind to create a sustainable ecology for future generations. If our grandchildren are going to inherit a dying planet, maybe we’re irresponsible to have children at all.

Then again I’ve heard commentators citing the way the western world has turned away from the prevailing liberal tradition, electing a succession of despots, fanatics and bigots as our leaders. Corruption, nepotism, cronyism and extreme inequality look set to become the norm. It’s only a matter of time, they say, until we’re back to the law of the jungle. Do you want that for your kids?

You can see why playing happy families may not be top of the agenda for lots of folks right now.

Instead, it appears, they are getting a dog.

Of course, I’m just messing with you. This is one of those classic statistical quirks, that we love to over-analyse and turn into a spurious conclusion.

In truth, fertility rates have been declining steadily for decades. The UK rate fell in all of the last 5 years and has declined by 16% since 2012.

Incidentally that’s also why immigration is so essential to maintain a sustainable dependancy ratio, but le’s not go into that right now.

The jump in dog ownership is a short term spike. Between 2012 and 2019, dog ownership was pretty steady around 9 million. In 2019 it leapt to 12.5 million. It seems reasonable to conclude this is a Covid effect.

This doesn’t mean the world isn’t a terrible place, or that bringing babies into it isn’t foolhardy.

Or that getting a dog isn’t the answer.

We’ll just have to work that out for ourselves.

Dear Online Seller……

When I order a product online, I need to know a few things. Can you guess what they are?

I need to know the order has been placed successfully and payment accepted. Check.

I need to know when to expect delivery. Check.

Nearer the time, it would be nice to have a time slot. Nice.

I’d like to know it has been delivered – in case it went to the wrong place and I’m still waiting. Or where it has been left. OK.

Do I need to know that the order is being processed? (What does that even mean?)

Do I need to know your team is “working on it”?

Do I need to know you have sent it to the courier?

Do I need to know the courier has received it?

Do I need to know any or all of these things simultaneously in triplicate, by phone, text and email?

I think you know the answer.

Thank you.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to politics in Britain today

If you’ve been following Westminster politics over the last year, this may make sense of everything:

I’d love to say it was my own observation but I admit I found it in the Sunday Times, via Tortoise Media.

Douglas Adams once wrote of a planet on which humans are ruled by lizard overlords.

There’s a paradox: the planet is a democracy, the humans hate and outnumber the lizards and yet the lizards always get elected.

It turns out the humans vote for the lizards for a simple reason: “If they didn’t … the wrong lizard might get in.”


Climate change is a thing. Crikey. Who knew?

I’m writing this on the day when the IPCC has issued its latest report to tell us that it is beyond doubt that human activity is driving climate change.

It makes grim reading.

As the Guardian puts it:

“Eight years in the making, authored by the world’s leading climate scientists and approved by 195 national governments, the report confirmed the meaning of the evidence before our eyes: the cumulative impact of human activity since the Industrial Revolution is “unequivocally” causing rapid and potentially catastrophic changes to the climate.”

No shit Sherlock?

Here’s an excerpt from a speech I read recently:

“The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is rising,and the temperature of the earth’s surface is increasing.

“There is now an effective consensus among the world’s leading scientists and serious and well informed people outside the scientific community that there is a discernible human influence on the climate, and a link between the concentration of carbon dioxide and the increase in temperature.”

“Over the next century temperatures might rise by a further 1 to 3.5 degrees centigrade, and that sea levels might rise by between 15 and 95 centimetres. Some of that impact is probably unavoidable, because it results from current emissions.”

“It is an important moment for us. A moment when analysis demonstrates the need for action and solutions.

“If we are all to take responsibility for the future of our planet, then it falls to us to begin to take precautionary action now.”

Who gave this speech? Who could this visionary be?

Was it the view of a politician jumping on the bandwagon in summer 2021 as we head for the COP21 talks in Scotland? An eco-warrior splinter group, demonstrating on the streets? A Think Tank? University research body?

Strangely, no.

It was a speech given by the Chairman of Oil Major BP, at Stanford University in – and this is the good bit – May 1997.

That’s twenty four years ago.

It was followed by a global advertising campaign and lobbying of governments all over the world – not just by enlightened energy companies but by NGOs, science bodies and campaigners of all kinds. For twenty four years.

We have known all of this for decades. Of course we have.

The only people who didn’t know this, were paid not to know it.

That’s what really makes you despair. Because that hasn’t changed either.

Save Buckbeak, er Geronimo

It’s 2021. The UN IPCC has just published its most apocalyptic warning yet that climate change is bringing human civilisation to a grizzly end.

The world is in the grip of the worst pandemic any of us has ever experienced.

The big story of the day is about the perils of testing for a dangerous and highly infectious disease, which could threaten a whole population if allowed to get out of hand.

It’s about following through on the difficult and sometimes painful ramifications of the testing regime.

It’s the story of Geronimo, the alpaca, grazing peacefully in a field in Gloucestershire.

Old McDonald had a farm And on that farm she had an … alpaca.

In case you hadn’t heard, Geronimo tested positive for bovine tuberculosis four years ago and was sentenced to be exterminated. It hasn’t happened yet, partly because the legal appeals have taken this long, and partly because there is a popular movement to save him. Celebrities, like national treasure Joanna Lumley and BBC nature presenter Chris Packham, have lent their voices to the clamour. A hundred thousand supporters have signed a petition. The Daily Mail and other papers are backing Geronimo, and his owner, Helen McDonald in her fight to save him. Protesters have even created a ‘human shield’ around his field.

It’s pretty tough on veterinary nurse, Ms McDonald, because she is forbidden from trading livestock, or receiving income from them.

Meanwhile Geronimo posted on his Facebook account (yes I know)…. ‘Stressed and upset to find ourselves in this awful situation but so very grateful for all the support from everywhere!’ 

Whether this is a hideous injustice or an example of the authorities being rightly cautious, to prevent the spread of a dangerous disease, it’s a great, if rather sad, story.

In Geronimo’s defence I feel bound to say that his owner has repeatedly argued he should have the more definitive test, to establish beyond doubt whether he is sick. He has been healthy, by all accounts, for several years now, suggesting the original test may have been a false positive. In recent years, nine other alpacas have been destroyed in this way and all of them were subsequently shown in post mortem to have been healthy, despite originally testing positive.

On the other hand, it’s tempting to be suspicious, when popular campaigns like this get up a head of steam. Joanna Lumley has a track record of getting stuff done in good causes. But I heard the Prime Minister’s father, Stanley Johnson, speaking in Geronimo’s defence on the radio the other day, which immediately made me conclude (perhaps unkindly) someone is making some money out of this. And if the Daily Mail supports something, it’s always a good rule of thumb to oppose it.

For context, when the British meat and dairy industry was wrecked a few years ago by BSE, we had to cull large numbers of cows. We accepted that as a necessary means of limiting the spread of a dangerous disease – surely a subject we have become all too familiar with recently. There was resistance form farmers whose livelihoods were under threat, but I don’t recall the same support from animal lovers we’re seeing now.

There’s one crucial difference, of course.

Cows are nowhere near as cure as alpacas.

The parallel with Buckbeak the HippoGriff, in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, is remarkable. The magical creature is unfairly condemned after being provoked into attacking Draco Malfoy. Harry, Ron and Hermione save him, by setting him free, just a few minutes before the intended execution.

What Old McDonald’s Farm needs is a trio of under-age wizards to save the day.

Lucius Malfoy, who got Buckbeak condemned, was naive when it came to reputation management. I’d be astonished if DEFRA Minister George Justice doesn’t see the PR value in this story, and grant some kind of reprieve for Buckbeak Geronimo.

Come on George, you know you want to. As you said yourself, recently “We are a nation of animal lovers.

It’s just too good an opportunity to miss.


George did indeed delay the final decision. For a bit.

Then Buckbeak, sorry Geronimo, was exterminated.

The post mortem did not find that he had bovine TB.


Have April Fools pranks had their day?

I was planning to write a world-weary rant on the futility and lack of anything remotely funny in April Fools Day pranks.

My first stop was a short whinge about Volkwagen’s pathetic effort this year (2021).

I’m writing this on April 2nd, but a week or so back, I stumbled across a debate on social media about the pros and cons of VW’s forthcoming rebranding in the US. According to reports leaked to the press (Reuters, I think), they were about to rename the brand as Voltswagen of America, as a nod to their new electric car strategy. Volt, geddit?

How we laughed.

Some commentators were getting oddly exercised about this. For me, it was a bit ‘ho hum’. but it’s the sort of meaningless gesturing that big global brands occasionally indulge in, so I didn’t think too much of it.

I later discovered it was an April 1st prank.

Well, let me explain why it doesn’t work:

  1. It wasn’t April 1st, it was some time in March.
  2. It wasn’t remotely funny
  3. How does simply announcing something that’s not true count as a prank?

I despair.

Many years ago, I worked on advertising for Tetley Tea and every years we created a press ad of some kind for April 1st. The deal was that it had to be a reasonable joke, poking fun at ourselves and raising a smile. It was a novelty and people enjoyed it – they told us so in focus groups.

But in the intervening decades, the tradition has become dreary. It’s not a novelty any more, but feels like a chore. I suppose, in a world where no advertiser seems to have anything to say other than an unrelated story, April Fools ads are no less meaningful than the day to day promotional stuff.

I appreciate I am naturally a bit of a curmudgeon in these matters. Most so-called practical jokes leave me cold. People seem to have mistaken extreme wit for simply telling a lie.

Then everything changed.

I came across this offering from those endlessly wise-cracking funsters, the South Australian Police.

It’s everything an April Fools idea should be. Notably, it’s funny.

Come to think of it, this would be worth running regardless of any April Fools nonsense.

SAPOL, we salute you.

Reminded me, very strongly, of the campaign we ran at one of my previous agencies for an STI testing kit. You’ll spot the strong similarity.

This was nothing to do with April Fools. It was just a very funny way to draw attention to the product, which offered a distinct advantage over its competitors. You could test yourself for a sexually transmitted infection, it without everyone knowing about it.


The murky world of online reviews

I used to joke that online reviews were useless, because everything I ever looked at always scored an average 4.6 out of 5. Little did I know, it’s so much worse than that.

A news story broke this week, because it emerged there was a thriving trade in buying and selling Amazon reviews. Businesses were apparently spending large sums to acquire thousands of positive reviews. This does beg some questions. Wouldn’t it be obvious the reviewer was talking about a different product or service than the one seemingly being appraised? Presumably the reviews were also edited so they made sense in their new location. So why not just make them up to start with?

I had previously imagined that most reviews were written by the seller. That’s why they are all 4.6 out of 5.

I had a moment of clarity a couple of years ago, when I tried to post a negative review and discovered the service provider had blocked it. Easy to post a positive one. Very difficult to post a negative one. Hmmm. Smell a rat? I investigated a little and found my experience was not unusual.

So when I say I’m cynical about online reviews, we’re talking confidence levels of close to zero.

The icing on the cake arrived last Christmas. In the weeks approaching the big day, I was surprised to find myself receiving a series of random packages, which I had never ordered. First came some magnetic false eyelashes. Then a week later, I received a magnetic cat toy. Next, arrived a set of bathroom scales which measure body fat. Finally, a pack of rather unattractive underwear. I was baffled, so I did what I usually do in such unprecedented circumstances. I asked my kids. They’re young adults, you see, with extensive experience of online skulduggery, so they know about this sort of thing. “Oh yes, they said, it’s a thing. It’s called brushing” Apparently, sellers send you the product so they can submit a fake review in your name. There are even accounts from people who write the reviews.

As I mentioned, I was already deeply suspicious of reviews, so I don’t feel especially outraged by this – though the implications for identity security are pretty worrying.

What really does make me sit up and say “WTF” is the economics of the thing. How can it make financial sense to give a product away in order to fuel a positive review? What’s the actual value of a review? More than the value of a sale? I don’t think so. There’s clearly something else going on here. Or the world has gone totally bonkers. On the other hand, we live in a world where a cryptocurrency looks like an investment and stock markets reach record highs in the deepest recession we’ve ever seen. So maybe that horse has long since bolted, left the country, made a new life abroad, raised a family and retired to a comfortable stable in the country to see out its old age.

Feeling a little below par

Golf is not allowed at the moment due to the Covid lockdown restrictions.

Which is crazy, because surely golf is the most socially-distanced, Covid-restriction-friendly outdoor pursuit there could be.

I won’t lie to you, it’s making me a bit ratty.

Indeed, you could say I’ve been feeling a bit below par.

How witty, you may say. Please don’t.

Because this expression is always used incorrectly. As every golfer knows – no, scrub that. As everyone knows, below par is good. Above par is bad. So if I’m feeling below par, I’m doing well. If I’m feeling above par, I’m doing badly. Not so difficult really.

I don’t understand why the common usage of this expression has evolved to be so, well, er, wrong. Or, if you’ll indulge me, over par.

And that makes me almost as ratty as not being able to play golf.