Blame the Poles, no blame the polls, just blame someone

There has been a good deal of wailing and gnashing of teeth following the supposed failure of the opinion polls to predict the result of the US Presidential election. It follows similar complaints after the Scottish independence referendum, the British general election and most other polls in recent years.

The Washington Post is typical of many observers in talking about “the polling disaster of 2016”.

“The disaster of the 2016 election forecasts is not dissimilar (to a plane crash) with a series of mistakes building upon one another to lead prognosticators astray. Pollsters now are sifting through the wreckage to find the black boxes and assess what went wrong in order to prevent it from happening again.”

It has even popped into popular parlance.  You now hear ordinary people, on the proverbial Clapham omnibus, musing that the polls got it wrong – again.   There’s a certain irony about observers’ rush to blame the polls for this state of affairs, in an election, itself so characterised by ‘blame culture’.

In any case, their angst is wholly misplaced.

I’ll just make two points about polling.  First; for a host of reasons, they cannot be wholly accurate predictors and second, to expect them to do this is to misunderstand the nature of quantitative research.

Opinion polling cannot ever be a truly reliable predictor of behaviour.  Firstly there are a bunch of reasons specific to the particular research design adopted.  For example, in the last UK general election, the industry’s post mortem concluded that the Labour vote was overstated and the Tory vote understated because when you approach people to respond to the survey, Labour voters (ordinary working people and poorer types) are disproportionately likely to be available to answer your questions than Tories (busy senior managers and professionals) who are too busy.  This is just one of many ways in which the best-laid plans of market research designers fall down on the intricate trivialities of daily life.

If we weren’t already sceptical about the accuracy of the polls then we should be alarmed by the fact that the “poll of polls” often shows results which differ by large margins even when the surveys were only a few days apart. If nothing else this reminds us that the findings are ‘directional’ and can’t be considered objective.

There’s a more fundamental issue here too.  Contrary to appearances, quantitative research isn’t really about asking people questions.  It’s about designing experiments.  And this particular design falls down because of what particle physicists have called the Observer Effect.  This means that the act of observing will influence the phenomenon being observed. For example, for us to “see” an electron, a photon must first interact with it, and this interaction will change the path of that electron.  Tha same is true of opinion polls in general elections.  Because poll results are published, seeing your party down in the polls may encourage you to turn out and vote.  Seeing your party up may encourage you not to bother.  Either way, the poll is likely to be undermined by its own findings.

This isn’t intended to be a damning indictment of opinion polls.  Quite the reverse.  They are mostly a good thing – if I were plotting a political campaign I would want to know if my messages were getting through.

But if we expect them to predict the result, we’re misguided.  The nature of voting is simply too fluid and subject to too many influences.  And in any case, expecting quantitative research to predict future events is never likely to be that accurate in this or any other area of study.  When we use quantitative research to ask people how likely they are to buy a new product, we don’t expect that the numbers will literally represent the number of buyers.  We take it as a guide. We compare it with other similar studies in the past and some other benchmarks to help guide our judgements.  We don’t simply take the numbers and treat them as some kind of truth.

Nobody should have these expectations of ‘truth’.  And the practitioners themselves have scored a massive own goal by allowing these unrealistic expectations to spread – well it must have appeared good for business I suppose.  Until now.  Now the pollsters have become one more group to blame for everything going wrong.  Talk about shooting the messenger.



All swap clothes for Christmas

Christmas is coming and that means one thing.  Lots of new retail advertising.  Here’s the newest entrant – it’s House of Fraser, brought to you by an agency I much admire – 18 Feet and Rising:

I have to admit I rather like it.  But here’s my misgiving.  It’s a Marks & Spencer ad.  Everything about it screams M&S except the logo.  Which is a bit tricky.

So imagine my surprise when I saw the new M&S Christmas commercial:

It’s also quite nice (though I’m not overwhelmed).  Except for one thing.  Like many advertisers, the client appears to have gone to their agency and said: “Please give me a John Lewis ad”.  And unlike most agencies, they have done exactly that.

So House of Fraser is now morphing into M&S who are, for their part, impersonating John Lewis.

So it’s like a weird version of retail clothes swapping.  Or one of those bizarre questions that crop up in philosophy tutorials about how much of your brain you can merge into another entity before you become them or they become you.

Maybe that’s what they mean by Shwopping.



This Girl Can

One of advertising’s favourite themes of the last couple of years has been female empowerment.  The campaigns for Sport England ‘This Girl Can’ and P&G’s Always ‘Like a Girl’ were much-lauded and they hoovered up a load of awards.  The awards weren’t just for creativity.  There were also PR awards and both campaigns won Gold at the Account Planning Group awards for creative strategy.

I particularly like the Sport England campaign.  It’s the kind of long-term thinking which characterised the best Central Office of Intelligence (COI) campaigns, before its sad destruction by the politicians.

I’m struck by the irony – that is the actual irony rather than in the Alanis Morissette sense – that the industry was subsequently plunged into an intense bout of flagellation over whether women were unfairly treated in the industry.  This culminated in all that unpleasantness with Gustavo Martinez at JWT and Kevin Roberts at Publicis Groupe.

As far as the advertising is concerned, I find it easier to be impressed by the Indian Nike campaign below, which seems to have a more direct relationship with achieving a tangible marketing goal.  In this case, selling sports kit to athletic women.

And frankly it was about time Nike did some really good advertising again.

Being British

I know this isn’t new.  In fact it’s several decades old.  But today is the day when America goes to the polls, after the most cynical, most polarising, most racially inflammatory and generally most ‘American’ election campaign we’ve ever seen.  And it seemed like a good moment to reflect on what it means to be British:

For this, I turn to the unrivalled genius of Douglas Adams:

‘This actually did happen to a real person, and the real person was me. I had gone to catch a train. This was April 1976, in Cambridge, U.K. I was a bit early for the train.

I’d gotten the time of the train wrong. I went to get myself a newspaper to do the crossword, and a cup of coffee and a packet of biscuits I went and sat at a table.

I want you to picture the scene. It’s very important that you get this very clear in your mind. Here’s the table, newspaper, cup of coffee and packet of biscuits.

There’s a guy sitting opposite me, perfectly ordinary-looking guy wearing a business suit, carrying a briefcase.

It didn’t look like he was going to do anything weird.

What he did was this: he suddenly leaned across, picked up the packet of biscuits, tore it open, took one out, and ate it.

Now this, I have to say, is the sort of thing the British are very bad at dealing with.

There’s nothing in our background, upbringing, or education that teaches you how to deal with someone who in broad daylight has just stolen your biscuits.

You know what would happen if this had been South Central Los Angeles. There would have very quickly been gunfire, helicopters coming in, CNN, you know. . .

But in the end, I did what any red-blooded Englishman would do: I ignored it. And I stared at the newspaper, took a sip of coffee, tried to do a clue in the newspaper, couldn’t do anything, and thought, what am I going to do?

In the end I thought, Nothing for it, I’ll just have to go for it, and I tried very hard not to notice the fact that the packet was already mysteriously opened.

I took out a biscuit for myself. I thought, That settled him. But it hadn’t because a moment or two later he did it again. He took another biscuit.

Having not mentioned it the first time, it was somehow even harder to raise the subject the second time around. “Excuse me, I couldn’t help but notice . . .” I mean, it doesn’t really work.

We went through the whole packet like this.

When I say the whole packet, I mean there were only about eight biscuits, but it felt like a lifetime. He took one, I took one, he took one, I took one.

Finally, when we got to the end, he stood up and walked away. Well, we exchanged meaningful looks, then he walked away, and I breathed a sigh of relief and sat back.

A moment or two later the train was coming in, so I tossed back the rest of my coffee, stood up, picked up the newspaper, and underneath the newspaper were my biscuits.

From The Salmon of Doubt  by Douglas Adams

More evil than you thought


I’ve worked with politicians and public servants in the past, so it’s no surprise that politics is a dirty business.  But I’m continually staggered by quite how low politicians can stoop.  And it’s not just the politicians themselves.

Allow me to introduce James Comey.  Not previously a household name in Britain, he’s Director of the FBI.  Surely beyond the backbiting day-to-day nastiness of politics.  No, far from it.  Comey has taken the extraordinary step of actively intervening in the US Presidential election to try to scupper Hillary Clinton’s campaign.  This breaks a longstanding convention that supposedly neutral public servants don’t make provocative interventions close to the election.  Comey’s intervention was 11 days away from polling day.  He wrote to Congress announcing an investigation into emails which might or might not be related to the investigation they conducted into her own emails, while she was in office some years ago.  An investigation which deemed she was careless, but guilty of nothing wrong.  And let’s put this in context – if she were  guilty of the worst accusations, it would be a trivial procedural matter by any sane standards.

But in politics where there’s dirt…..





The Tale of Tom

I fear I may have to revise my preconceptions of fashion retail marketing.  Many years ago I worked briefly for one of Burberry’s agencies and I confess I became rather sceptical.  The brand’s presentation seemed a bit one-dimensional, and a bit too much like every other high-end fashion brand.  So I was interested to see their new Christmas film.  The title makes it sound like something written by Beatrix Potter, but I have to say I rather like it.