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.

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This really really is the final word on the election this time

There’s been a lot of hot air expended on the ‘polling fiasco’ (you have to say that in a shock ‘horror probe’ newspaper headline voice) evident at the recent British general election.  OMG – the polls taken before the day of the vote didn’t reflect the final outcome.  But – and this is truly amazing – the exit polls did.  OMG again.  It’s very obvious to anyone who has worked anywhere near market research, so it’s a bit mystifying to hear respected pollsters floundering as they’re quizzed by grinning pundits.  In research, we often ask people how they feel about things.  Sometimes we ask them about their behaviour.  If we’re sensible, we don’t get the two things confused.  So there’s cunning insight number one – duh, people don’t necessarily (or even very often) act according to their stated opinions.  Cunning insight number two – political strategy involves the incumbent trying to scare the pants off us by asserting a change would be a calamity.  The behavioural scientists call it loss aversion, discounting future outcomes and many other things.  We can call it fear of change.  That’s what the Conservatives did very explicitly (” A Labour government held to ransom by the SNP – they’re evil you know”) and very successfully.  So people who were considering change ended up reverting back to the status quo when it came to the crunch.  Add to that the way voters fell back into the normal pattern of tactical voting at the booth, despite their avowed commitment to one of the (wasted vote) minority parties.  So it really is no surprise that the polls overstated the vote for the opposition parties but the exit polls were reasonably accurate.  Stating the bleeding obvious, as I said.

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Advertising effectiveness 1: the dilemma

We all know it’s difficult to measure the effectiveness of advertising (and all the content that ordinary people also call advertising).  There’s a fundamental conundrum in it.

To evaluate marketing, you have to have an influence model.  Mostly this takes the form of something like a sales funnel.  A bit like this: you create awareness, leading to an attitude shift, greater brand consideration and ultimately purchases.  Sounds perfectly sensible.  This has been the prevailing wisdom since the twenties when Starch and Gallup started researching these things.

The problem is that’s not what happens.

Neuroscience tells us that brand decisions are made instinctively in the reptilian brain or by using heuristics.  We simply don’t go through that deliberative process the sales funnel describes, to learn the messages being communicated.  When did you last spend some quality time considering the competing claims of two brands in a category you don’t care about?

Behavioural economics demonstrates that we make our choices on all kinds of irrational grounds.  Future outcomes are discounted.  Loss aversion takes priority over likely gain.  Choices are dependent on how they’re framed.  It’s all very different to the straight line thinking that traditional economics and the sales funnel assumes.

So traditional methods are dodgy at best.  But they have what Charles Channon, many years ago, termed ‘organisational validity’.  Which means they hold sway with your boss even though they’re pants.

Neuroscience has thrown up some interesting research methods which short=circuit this imaginary reasoning process, so there’s some hope for improvement, but it tends to be used as an interesting add-on to existing approaches.  In the future, someone may make this work.

Until then there’s a choice between no explanation at all or one we know is wrong.  That’s the dilemma.