On Cillit Bang and a new low for marketers…

Right. Okay. Got one for ya. You’ll like this. Earlier today I wrote a post about my father, who I haven’t had any contact with for almost thirty years. It was a difficult post to write – it had taken me almost two weeks to build up the nerve to write it. After I got it out there, however, a number of people commented almost immediately – uniformly pleasant, supportive, decent posts. I’ll confess, it was nice. As usual some of them were a little more emotional about the whole thing than I felt comfortable with, but generally the whole thing was a positive experience. I felt positive that I’d got the message out, was hopeful that talking about the experience might make such a process easier for someone else to go through, and felt that I’d said enough for the moment. Everyone’s got something out of it. Everyone’s happy.

And then I got a comment from a man called Barry Scott. The comment read as follows:

“Hi Tom, Always remember one thing. Life is very, very short and nothing is worth limiting yourself from seeing the ones you love. I hadn’t seen my father in 15 years until 2 years ago. I was apprehensive but I kept telling myself that no matter how estranged we’d become there was no river to wide to cross. Drop me a line if I can be of any more help. Cheers, Barry”

Sounds fine, doesn’t it? Except that ‘Barry Scott’ isn’t a real person – he’s a marketing vehicle for a brand called Cillit Bang and his weblog is a barely disguised viral marketing platform for the product.

Now clearly, it was pretty difficult to believe that even a marketing / advertising organisation would be comfortable actively promoting their product in a space where someone was reporting their first contact with their father for nearly three decades. I mean, sure, there’s some limited mileage to be gained in getting a link on a number of weblogs – although with all the anti-spam tech in place now they can’t possibly have been hoping for Googlejuice. But still, that’s not an enormous benefit for such a grotesque act.

My view was that any right-thinking person would view trying to market your product on such a post as revolting, corrupt, cynical, disgusting, sick and dishonourable. And to do such thing in such an offhand, casual manner? I mean that’s got to be bordering on sociopathic. And for it to be a trick! It could only be viewed as an attempt by these people to exploit a community’s – and an individual’s – good faith to sell a few bottles of highly corrosive cleaning fluid. And it wasn’t even an automated message operating indiscriminately – this was a hand-written note posted by an individual human being.

But as I’ve said, my instincts in this matter were that no one could be that cynical, so I decided to do some exploring. Some possibilities – the guy who wrote the comment wasn’t connected with the weblog or advertising at all, just reusing the name / meme. Or maybe the weblog wasn’t connected to the brand, and was just some jokers attempt to collate and maintain some funny brand-related stuff. Maybe it was even an attempt to subvert or parody Cillit Bang.

So stage one is to find the IP address of the person who left the comment. According to Movable Type that is And according to Sam Spade that correlates to a which is owned by an organisation called Young & Rubicam. Going to the website of Young & Rubicam, I see that they handle advertising campaigns. Their site is all Flash, so forgive me for retyping some of it:

“We make connections between our client partners and their customers. We are client-focused, insightful, pragmatic. We believe in ideas. Ideas based on rigorous analytic processes and human insights.”

Hm. Human insights. Okay, so they’re an advertising firm, the comment purporting to be Barry Scott comes from their servers, the weblog looks like a marketing tool of some kind. I think we’re beginning to see a pattern. So I find their London offices and I start to ring around. They have a few offices in London under a variety of names: “Banner Corporation PLC”, “Nylon”, “Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R”, “Y&R Holdings (U.K.) Ltd European HQ”, “Young & Rubicam Brands EMEA”. I ring each in turn, they’re all terribly helpful, but none of them think they’re handling the Cillit Bang brand. So no luck there. Maybe this isn’t as cynical as we’d initially thought?

From here, it’s back to the internet. After a search for Cillit Bang and Young & Rubicam brings back very few decent answers, I try the more general Cillit Bang agency which eventually leads me to a page on kreativ online which lists the Cillit Bang account as being the responsibility of Partners J. Walter Thompson, which then leads me back to

From here it’s back to the phones. We’re still trying to determine, by the way, if the weblog is a marketing platform at all. So off we go to JWT’s uk offices, who are quite comfortable to accept responsibility for the Cillit Bang account but who sound very confused by the idea that the campaign might have an associated weblog, and even more surprised by the idea that people working for another advertising agency could possibly be posting comments in the name of one of their associated brand assets. They say they’ll ring me back shortly, and indeed they do – this time with another set of names including Sabrina Geremia and Marva Carty working at a company called Reckitt Benckiser. So I go and ring them up.

This phone call is a little more involving. Sabrina is unavailable, so I talk to Marva. I ask if they’re running a viral web-based campaign for the product Cillit Bang and she says, slightly reservedly, that they are and that it’s a weblog. Shortly afterwards we’re at a dead end – Marva really wants to know what’s going on before she’ll say any more. I tell her the story of the evil exploitative marketing company virally promoting cleaning products duplicitously all over the story of my reunion with my estranged father, and for some reason she starts to sound a little nervous. She’s unclear as to why any organisation would do that – I point out that people post comments all the time to try and get higher rankings in Google (it doesn’t work) and traffic from people who follow the links. She sounds very uncomfortable. She wants me to send all my evidence to Sabrina who will get back to me on Monday morning. I say that I can’t guarantee that I won’t write about this stuff in public in the meantime.

And it’s just as well that I didn’t guarantee it, because you’re reading it. One way or another – whether these specific people are directly responsible for spamming our conversations with their marketing – this whole enterprise stinks to high heaven. The fake weblogs that pretend to be real are almost bad enough – it’s an attempt to muddy the reality of a community with the fantasy world that they need to flog cleaning products and make it seem glamourous or exciting. But someone out there – associated with one marketing group or another – is also keen to directly stick their dirty little hands in the cookie jars of well-meaning, honourable people. They’re quite happy to pollute or destroy the value of the enterprise for everyone else if they can derive even the tiniest return from it.

I’m going to give them the benfit of the doubt and say that this whole enterprise is based on clumsiness and stupidity rather than evil, but we have to make a stand and make it clear to these people that if you live by the sword you die by the sword. It’s not good enough for just these marketing people to realise that they’ve screwed up and damaged the brands they were associated with – we have to keep making examples of them to stop other clumsy organisations viewing our self-created territories as nothing more than sales opportunities. Do not lie to us because we will expose you. Be honourable, or we will erase you. And all anyone will see when they search on Google for your products is that there is no depth to which you will not stoop to get another few bottles into someone’s shopping basket.

To be decent about the whole thing, I’m going to let Marva have the final word, because maybe other marketers out there will hear them and learn from them, and it will stop them making the same mistakes again. And the evidence I’m going to send to Sabrina? The URL of this post. If she sends a more coherent response back, I’ll post that too…

“Us going into blogging is a new thing – it’s a new thing and we’re not trying to do anything that could cause you distaste. If this is the kind of thing that’s happening, then we need to stop it happening. I honestly don’t believe that the effect it’s had has been at all intentional. If this is happening then it needs to be re-evaluated. This is not what we’re trying to achieve.

Addendum (added 3rd October 2005): The people at Cillit Bang have apologised for the error of judgment and I have accepted their apology. You can read more about it here: An Apology from the Cillit Bang team.


The first contact with my father in 28 years…

Deep breath. Breathe in. Breathe out. Where to start? Um. Probably I should start with the standard preamble. The story so far. Right. It’s pretty much all contained within the Family category of this site, but for those of you who just wandered in off the street, I’ve been trying to find my biological father who I haven’t seen since I was about five. A few months ago I decided to use a service called Traceline to see if he was still alive and to try and make some form of contact. To be honest, I’d come to the conclusion that he was probably dead. A couple of months ago they said they’d found him, I sent a letter for them to pass on (if he’d take it) and since then I’ve been waiting.

And then two weeks ago I got a reply. I noticed the letter on my doormat when I got up for work in the morning, but I had too much to do and so I only let it register a little in my brain before leaving it unopened on the floor. I didn’t hurry back from work, either. I can only assume I was scared. When I got home though, I opened it immediately and read it in two long gulps. My eyes caught on a few sentences of peculiar grump that reminded me all too much of myself and my clumsy mechanically articulated use of language. And then I read it again. My first contact in twenty-eight years with my father. Crap. Fuck. Wow. I felt… excited, I guess – like I was on a ride. Not really happy as such. But for a moment, everything else fell out of my head.

So this is the bit, I think where things get a little harder to write about. While my father was a creature only conjured by my mind, it seemed completely reasonable to write about my speculations. But it gets more difficult to write about a real person. And having a two page, handwritten, artifact in my hand makes him more real than I think I was expecting. And I feel more territorial about the contents of the letter than I’d expected either. I want to tell everyone about it, but I don’t want to drag the whole experience down into the mud and the murk by luridly exposing every aspect of it to any random punter who happens to troll around my site. So I’m not going to go into detail about what the letter says (just like I didn’t go into any detail about the letter I sent to him).

But I will say a few things about my sense of it as a reply and how I’m reacting to it. He sounds slightly shaken up and confused by receiving the letter, much as I have been by receiving a reply – hoped for but maybe not expected. But generally, although it feels slightly distant, I think it’s pretty much the best letter I could have expected. And I’m enormously glad that I got the gay thing out of the way immediately. Now there aren’t any nasty surprises further down that particular road, I feel that we can get on with whatever happens next. He was honest enough to state that the whole thing was a bit confusing and disorienting, but he also seemed prepared to suspend judgement. That’s a good foundation, I suppose.

I guess the main problem from my perspective is that I have absolutely no idea what to do next. I thought writing this post might help me get some perspective, but I’ve been sitting on the letter for two weeks now and trying to work out how to reply and nothing is coming to me. And as every day passes, I have a sense of him thinking about whether he said something wrong or alienated me or whatever. I suppose after talking into the ether up until this point, this has been the first moment where I’ve had to think about it as a conversation, and it’s scaring the hell out of me.

Anyway, I’d just like to thank everyone who has written to me or posted comments over the last few months sending their support. I genuinely don’t think I’d have had the nerve to continue with this process without the support of my peers out there in the wild. I’ll continue to post up general updates about my state of mind and this whole process until such a point where it feels too personal or invasive, because I’ve heard from people that it’s helping them work out whether they should try and find lost parents themselves. All I can say is that so far the experience has been unsettling and destabilising, but an important one for me, and I’m incredibly glad I’ve got as far as I have. And good luck to those of you still contemplating something similar. I hope it all works out for you.


A minor change to the design…

I’m kind of in the middle of another one of my random holidays where I feel continually oppressed by not having got anything sufficiently significant done. I really really need to learn how to take time off from all this web stuff. Anyway, I’ve been thinking for a while of getting rid of the ‘recent entries’ box on the homepage and replacing it with a way of directly navigating into the rest of the site. Today I thought I’d throw up this particular rough solution and see what people thought. I haven’t always categorised my posts, and I’m still working out how to do it well, so there are lots of gaps and posts that haven’t been captured and categorised yet. But it’s a start… Any thoughts? My first one is that it gives undue and slightly troubling access to a few semi-decent posts that maybe it shouldn’t…


Links for 2005-09-29


Links for 2005-09-27


Links for 2005-09-26


Links for 2005-09-25

Personal Publishing

A weblog in negative space…

When I first started keeping a link log, I ran out of things to talk about. I’d got so used to relying on writing brief things about other people’s sites – and then occasionally writing longer pieces when I got inspired halfway through something else – that with the restrictions imposed by the linklog format, I suddenly realised I had little else to say.

Except that wasn’t true. I had an enormous amount to say and no time in which to say it. I’ve noticed as time has passed that many things get linklogged as soon as I see them. But many others sit in my browser waiting for greater attention. They’re the things I think I ought to be talking about in more detail – they’re the things I want to think about more rigorously. That’s the stuff I have opinions about. Except I don’t have any bloody time to write about those things, so two-thirds of the time they just sit there for weeks until either Safari crashes or I linklog them anyway. What a weird situation to find myself in – posting only those things that interest me enough for me to want to keep a record of them, but don’t interest me enough to write about thoroughly. There’s something wrong there, surely?

There’s a third category of things that I write about – and that’s stuff that has emerged from me, rather than being a commentary or response to what other people have done. Rather than just a reaction, these pieces represent actual work put in by me. I write these infrequently, not because I don’t have those things to write, but again because I have no bloody time. Last week I asked people what I should write about: my trip into the heart of government, my visit to Our Social World, ETech Proposals, Microformats, Controlled Vocabularies versus URL clouds, splicing semantic structures together with tags, conceptual page-rank, the Guardian redesign and … some other stuff.

What did I end up writing about? Nothing. Why? No bloody time. I have an enormous file of projects to build, ideas I’ve had, posts I want to write. I keep track of them because otherwise I forget them. I used to keep track of them by writing the damn things, in a kind of get … them … out … of … my … head kind of a way. But no longer.

It’s the white space you should be reading, not the weblog itself. The real value around here lies in the stuff that’s notable by its absence.


Links for 2005-09-24


Links for 2005-09-23