Fake news and evidence-based policy

Two much-used buzz words of our age.

If you ever wondered whether the ‘fake news’ phenomenon was just hype, today’s newspapers should reassure you that you have every reason to be concerned.

It’s in every news outlet (which, needless to say, doesn’t guarantee it’s true) – the UK Government has been exposed, using dodgy figures to bolster its position on immigration.  The Home Office previously estimated there were 100,000 foreign students a year staying on in Britain illegally – but new data from the Office of National Statistics says there were only 4,600 last year.

“We spent five years trying to persuade the Home Office that the figures they were using as evidence were bogus,” said the Lib Dem leader, Vince Cable, who was part of the coalition under David Cameron. “But they persisted nonetheless on the basis of these phoney numbers.”

We know how this happened.  The government was under pressure from UKIP and felt they needed to be tougher on immigration.  So pluck a figure from the air and ‘hey presto’ we’re as tough as they are.  You have to laugh.  The evidence is the servant of the policy, not the other way around.  It’s like the police searching single-mindedly for the evidence to convict the guy they’ve already decided is guilty.  Evidence-based policy.

So now we know they just make shit up on this subject, how confident are we about the evidence base for other policies?

‘£350 million extra for the NHS’ anyone?

Be very afraid.

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The purpose of ‘purpose’

There’s an endless debate going on about ‘Brands with Purpose’ and I can’t help adding to it, even though a lot of the coverage is profoundly annoying.  A rare voice of sense on the subject is Nigel Hollis’s blog for research company Millward Brown.  In a recent post he addresses the seemingly gratuitous nature of many recent award-winning case studies.  This year’s Cannes Festival was awash with celebrated campaigns which are very beautiful and which address crucial social problems but appear to have nothing to do with marketing, or indeed business.  These include the Grand Prix winner ‘Fearless Girl‘, a statue created by McCann for State Street Global Advisors (who?) designed to help inspire more women to leadership positions.

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The problem (or one of many problems) with this is that nobody knows who the brand is responsible for this work so it can’t yield the brand any benefit.  That’s fine if it’s an act of philanthropy, but it’s not – or if it is then why is it entered into awards for excellence in marketing communications?

Hollis says purpose-led campaigns can deliver a good ROI provided they follow three basic principles:

  1. Identify how the campaign will help the brand make more money.
  2. Address a tension or issue meaningful to the target audience.
  3. Ensure the purpose fits what the brand can/does stand for and offers opportunity to differentiate.

This seems enormously sensible to me.  What’s more, it gives me an irresistible desire to recount the story of an early, largely unsung precursor to these campaigns.

In the early 90s, Texaco was struggling to compete with the more established brands, particularly BP and Shell, who were part of the British way of life, whereas Texaco had the image of ‘A visiting American’.  The new Chairman dismissed the proposed retail campaign and demanded the agency create something that put Texaco on the map.  Desperate to impress, the two sister agencies DMB&B and IMP created a wonderful campaign ‘Children Should be Seen and Not Hurt’.

The company gave away, free reflective and fluorescent stickers from their forecourts.

Hollis’s principles could hardly be more apposite:

It made money because it attracted people to the retail site and a proportion inevitably took the opportunity to make a purchase.  For some it even sparked the habit of using that forecourt regularly.  It also addressed Texaco’s corporate reputation issue in that it presented them as ‘part of the fabric of society’ as the Chairman had prescribed.

It addressed a meaningful issue – road casualties among children was (and is) a hot topic and enormously emotive.  Research by the road safety laboratories showed that improving conspicuity (visibility) was the best way to reduce the number of accidents, which was in turn the best way to reduce casualties.

It was relevant to the brand because – as research indicated – people saw fuel retailers as ‘part of the problem’ along with car manufacturers and road administrators.

Research also showed how, even all those years ago, there was a very grown up response to this kind of initiative.  It was clearly ‘marketing’ because it invited you to go to a forecourt.  But it was also clearly ‘doing good’ because it was giving away free materials which might save a life.  The net effect on the brand was positive because on balance, even to the cynics, it was a n initiative that you wanted to succeed.  That’s the bit that seems to be missing in much of the more gratuitous, modern award-winning ‘purpose’ work.

We didn’t call it ‘purpose’ in those days, we called it marketing.  So next time you tell your friends what a good idea Volvo’s ‘Life Paint’ is, remember, Texaco did it first.

It’s a real Brahma mate

There’s a theory emerging that we’re beginning to see a backlash against the tech that’s coming to dominate our lives.  There are a few ads floating around that poke fun at our obsession with gadgets or with streaming.  Not sure I agree, after all, any kind of excessive behaviour is up for a bit of debunking, and there’s plenty of tech-driven madness to pick from.  However, I do like this ad for Ozzie beer brand Brahma.

I believe the expression “a real Brahma” means something like “The Daddy” or “The dog’s b**ll**cks”. Not entirely inappropriate.

Another great green smokescreen

Lat week the British government, love them, announced they would ban new petrol and diesel cars by 2040.  On the face of it, that could be the most important headline around the environment in decades.  And so it is.  A very important headline.

I’ll just make two observations:

First – it’s obviously total bollocks. It’s hard to imagine a more cynical measure intended to deflect the public’s attention from the authorities’ abandonment of every green promise they have ever made.

For starters, the announcement was made in the same week the UK government failed, once again to meet its EU targets on pollution.  Funny; no headlines about that.

And it comes a week after the same government cancelled the electrification of three rail lines – so the trains in large parts of Wales, the Midlands and the Lake District will be running not on electricity but, taste the irony, on diesel.

But for the real story of our green government you have to look at pricing.  That’s where – through duty and tax – government has the biggest direct influence.  Over recent years  people have been priced out of public transport and back into their cars.

According to Caroline Lucas (Green Party) writing in The Guardian: To get a real sense of the transport priorities of recent governments it’s worth considering how the cost of getting around has changed. While the real price of travelling by car has plummeted by 16% since 1997, train fares are up 23%, and coaches and buses up 33%. Shockingly, the real cost of domestic flights dropped 16% between 2010 and 2015 too.

So far, so predictably short-term and manipulative.It’s entirely predictable.

Second – it’s an interesting example of what behavioural economists talk about as the immediacy effect or temporal discounting. When the argument for greener energy was focused on climate change – an idea so ‘long-term’ in nature most of us will be dead before it’s really important – the policy response was negligible.  There are no votes in a policy that will be hugely important a hundred years from now.  But now we’re talking about pollution today, here and now in our cities, that’s a different matter.  There could be votes in clean air today where there were none in saving the planet next century.

So we may get some more telling headlines.  Who knows, one day we may even get some policies.  But we’re still doomed.

Brilliant or complete coincidence?

This is the new advertisement for the VW hybrid (yes, well done, but that’s something Toyota have been doing for twenty years, so let’s not get over-excited about the news value here).

We all love a good villain, but the question is this: are VW acknowledging that, after the emissions scandal, they are (or were) Public Enemy no.1 and playing a delightfully mischievous game around that?  Or is it just a coincidence?  I like to think it’s a wonderful piece of self-deprecation.  And if that’s the case, I’ll forgive them for being so close to the idea Jaguar used recently.

Meanwhile, at the League of evil

Not sure how I missed these gems from Droga5. Reminds me of a great reference in Buzz Lightyear, the cartoon series spin off from Toy Story, where Emperor Zurg, the epitome of evil in the universe (mwah hah hah) doffs his cap to the marketing people – ‘cos “they’re truly evil”.
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Don’t ask me

Sometimes research can be your worst enemy.  “How so?” I hear you cry.

Consider this example.  Many newspapers are confronted with a conundrum.  More people are reading the paper (mostly online), but fewer people are buying it (paper edition).  Revenue falls while the demand for more content continues to rise.  One response is the pay wall.  But this threatens to marginalise your title and it appears to give other free offers a big advantage.  The Guardian’s response has been to appeal for voluntary contributions through different levels of ‘membership’.

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Given the paper’s history and its loyal following among those who share a broadly liberal ideology (myself very much included) this seems pretty sensible.

But, if we look a bit further, here’s the ‘rationale offered to prospective members:

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Let me draw your attention to the bit about revenues falling fast.  Behavioural economics and the writings of Mark Earls (‘Herdmeister’) give us some clear learning around this.  Telling people that others, like them, are deserting the paper in their droves is the worst thing you could possibly say.  Much better to say that more and more people are subscribing online.

There’s a significant body of experimental evidence for this.  Richard Shotton quotes a fab example from the Arizona national park, in which visitors were taking away start wood in alarming quantities.  The park authorities set up an observed section and tested three approaches: i) said lots of other people were taking wood home and this was depleting the area so please don’t take wood home ii) said most people don’t take wood home, so please don’t you take wood home either and iii) control saying nothing.  The second approach asking people to fall in with ‘herd’ behaviour was by far the most successful Indeed approach (i) actually seemed to encourage the taking of wood.  This result is echoed in lots of other studies.

So why is The Guardian – a smart operation with sophisticated marketing – getting it so seemingly wrong?

I would venture to suggest it’s because they have relied on asking people questions – using market research.  I know this is true because I have been a respondent in some of this research too.

In short, if you ask people what to do, they will give the common sense answer.  If you want me (and others like me, who support you) to remedy this revenue problem, it seems sensible to explain the situation and, because we want the same thing, we’ll offer our help – we’ll subscribe.  But we won’t.  because behaviour doesn’t follow those rules.  Marketing doesn’t work by explaining what I need you to do which prompts you to behave accordingly.  People don’t act to maximise their utility and they don’t do what you ask them to do – at least not directly.  It’s oblique.  The world of brands and marketing doesn’t make sense if you treat people as rational utility-maximising agents.  Most of the world’s most successful brands wouldn’t exist (and we’d be poorer for it).

Sadly, modern marketers seem to be using market research as a simple mechanism for asking people their opinions.  What’s needed is a proper model of influence – a set of hypotheses around which stimulus will provoke what response. Then, based on the answers we get to our questions, we diagnose the solution.  We don’t simply ask people what to do then do it.

I do hope the Guardian gets over this myopia.  We’d be much poorer without it.