Advertising Politics Public Relations

On Labour, Ipsos MORI and the TPS…

This is one of those grumpy old curmudgeonly men blog posts that I kept reading on the web and never really understood until very recently. I’m just warning you so you can get out now.

I have a long-standing grudge against direct marketers, which basically comes down to my desire to live uninterrupted in my own home without having people ringing me up, coming around my house or stuff crap through my doors twenty-four hours a day. I forgive people dropping off pizza vouchers as that’s more public service, but otherwise I bloody hate the bastards. I don’t know if it’s an intolerance that has come from the world of spam, but given that I get around seven or eight hundred pieces of spam in any twenty-four hour period and given that only about five hundred bits get caught by my filters, perhaps my tolerance has been rather exhausted. I could make a joke about how my spam filters have such problems with them because they’re mosly indistinguishable from all of my daily correspondence with friends and colleagues about the size of my penis, but I’m not sure that would be funny and anyone my mum reads my blog occasionally now, and she’d probably roll her eyes.

Going back to Direct Marketers, there is hope! There is a process you can undertake which will stop these bloody people harrassing you and it mostly works! By law, direct marketers from the UK have to check your address and phone number against ‘Do Not Call’ lists. So if you don’t want to receive this stuff, you just go to this page and sign off from all the various lists. While you’re there, you’ll notice a couple of creepy things about these lists, including that there’s a list called the Baby MPS which is a list that you and sign up to if you suffer a miscarriage or baby-related bereavement. It’s the list that stops them bombarding you with advertising crap for the child you’ve lost. It’s not up to them to find out this stuff, it’s up to you to let them know that your child has died. Better still–I would think–would be if they couldn’t send it to you in the first place without your express permission. But there you go.

I say it only mostly works because actually you still end up with stuff from abroad and some people just ignore it. So I went ex-directory and also signed up for BT’s Privacy Service. I think at the time I had to pay to get control over who was able to phone me, but that’s no longer the case, it seems. Together you can mostly fight to regain your peace and quiet, and if you’re prepared to shout loudly at anyone proselytising at your front door then you’ve pretty much got the whole kit covered.

Anyway, so I’m at home, and first the phone rings and it’s a bloody automated phone call from the Labour party asking me how I’d vote in any upcoming election. Interesting. Suggestive. Also really aggravating. My disgust for this kind of home invasion is such that I briefly consider voting Conservative to spite them. Or for Boris Johnson. I’d vote to bring Thatcher back from the dead (she’s dead right? in all the ways that count?) if she’d kick direct marketers back into the pit of hell from whence they’ve scrabbled their filthy little way up into the world. You can read about these people on the Direct Marketing Association website. They’re interested in ‘inspiring consumer confidence and trust’ in people who pump shit through your phone line and front door. They use that form of language that PR people are trained in, which is so drained of meaning as to be linguistic equivalent of one of those sandwiches that only the British sell, in pharmacies for God’s sake. Places where you go to get Thrush cream or treat your corns. Sandwiches and language alike are cold, damp, inoffensive, lack all substance and make you want to heave.

Ranting aside about value-neutral, intellectually empty advertising pap, I tell them how I’ll vote and then hang up. I’m sort of vaguely aware that–of course–the Telephone Preference Service doesn’t extend to political parties. Probably this is reasonable, although it makes me angry.

Twenty minutes later though, another phone call. This time from Ipsos MORI. Ipsos MORI are a polling company, and they make money by being paid by people to do polls on their behalf. Since they are not explicitly selling or marketing things to you, they don’t have to pay any attention to the TPS. Instead, they randomly dial numbers and then ask people questions about themselves and whatever service they’ve been paid to harrass you about.

I don’t realise that they’re within the law, so I cause a big stink on the phone. I know it’s not the fault of the people at the call centres, but they’ve been put there to insulate the people who really are responsible and there’s no way to get to those people, so if you’re going to punish the company in some way, if you’re going to get them to stop doing it, then you have to complain. They explain to me that they are a ‘bona fide market research company’ concerned with public affairs, media, marketing, ‘loyalty’ and advertising (I got the latter stuff off their website). This doesn’t endear me to them enormously.

Now, these people clearly get complaints. They have a section called Called by Us? which has four sections: “Where did you get my telephone number from?” which is a pretty decent question to get started with. Then my favourite, “My telephone number is registered with the Telephone Preference Service (TPS) and/or BT Privacy to stop cold calls so why are you calling me?”. Then one about the safety of supplying information and another about making complaints. That’s the lot. It’s clearly a pretty big deal. Their answer to the TPS question includes these lines:

There are no legal or regulatory requirements to filter unsolicited calls made for research purposes against the TPS. To exclude individuals with TPS registered telephone numbers could bias the results. It would also deny you the opportunity of participating in this research, the results of which may impact policies or services you use!

So the reason they inflict this stuff on people who specifically ask not to receive such unsolicited calls is because it would deny us the ability to participate! They even use an exclamation mark! To make it clear that this would clearly be ridiculous! But what if we don’t want to participate? Do we get the option to make that clear with the TPS? Nope. They’ll put you on a do not call list if you ask specifically, but it’ll be just for that one company, not any other. There’s basically very little you can do.

I know this is sort of a weird little petty vendetta by now, and I’m really sorry about that. I’m still getting in hundreds of press releases after writing a pretty strongly worded post on that subject that got a fair amount of correspondence. I’m still irritated by the way the Cillit Bang crew were prepared to plumb new lows to hawk some old cleaning drivel. This isn’t the same. It’s not the same scale, but it’s still really annoying. It’s another branch of sanctioned spam that you have no way of opting out of. PR spam. Comment spam. Life spam. Phone spam. It’s people actively costing you a little of your time or calm or space or patience to make themselves a tiny amount of money. And it would be all right if it was infrequent, but there’s a flood of it, everywhere, all the time, in every channel.

In this particular case, I went to Downing Street’s petitions website and tried to start a nice, simple little petition about this subject. Something nice and clean. It read like this:

We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to: ‘require polling organisations like Ipsos MORI to abide by the preferences of citizens who have opted out of cold-calling via the Telephone Preference Service.’

All organisations that want to cold-call to sell or market products in the UK have to check that the person they’re contacting has not declared they do not want to receive such calls via the Telephone Preference Service. At present, polling and research organisations are not required to abide by this law, and Ipsos MORI chooses not to do so.

They declare that not calling people would ‘deny [people who have said they do not want to be called] the opportunity of participating in [Ipsos MORI’s money-making] research’. The organisations concerned allow you to opt out of further contact from them, but does not stop other polling organisations
undertaking exactly the same processes.

This petition contends that it is not up to Ipsos MORI or any
other polling organisation to decide whether or not people
would like to be cold-called, it is up to the people they make
their money from.

The British public should be able to refuse cold-calling by
polling organisations at the Telephone Preference Service, and
the Government should hold these organisations to account if
they violate this agreement.

Unfortunately, the Downing Street site rejected the petition because (and I quote) it contained, “Potentially libellous, false, or defamatory statements”. I’m still trying to work out what on earth they were referring to, but if I come up with anything I’ll let you know.

Public Relations

Ben Goldacre vs. Clarion Communications

A lovely piece in the Guardian today, although I’m going to link through to the full uncut version on because it’s more curvacious and has a nice bounce to it:

“Jessica Alba, the film actress, has the ultimate sexy strut, according to a team of Cambridge mathematicians.”

This important study was the work of a team – apparently – headed by Professor Richard Weber of Cambridge University, and I was particularly delighted to see it finally in print since, in the name of research, I discussed the possibility of prostituting my own good reputation for this same piece of guff with the very same PR company in June.

Here was their opening email: “We are conducting a survey into the celebrity top ten sexiest walks for my client Veet (hair removal cream) and we would like to back up our survey with an equation from an expert to work out which celebrity has the sexiest walk, with theory behind it.

And there was survey data too. “We haven’t conducted the survey yet,” Kiren told me: “but we know what results we want to achieve.” That’s the spirit! “We want Beyonce to come out on top followed by other celebrities with curvy legs such as J-Lo and Kylie and celebrities like Kate Moss and Amy Winehouse to be at the bottom

Then I managed to get hold of Professor Weber at a remote location in Greece. He told me this: “The Clarion press release was not approved by me and is factually incorrect and misleading in suggesting there has been any serious attempt to do serious mathematics here. No “team of Cambridge mathematicians” has been involved. Clarion asked me to help by analysing survey data from 800 men in which they were asked to rank 10 celebrities for “sexiness of walk”. And Jessica Alba did not come top. She came 7th.”

These “cash for bad science” stories add nothing to our understanding of the world, and they do nothing to promote science. They sell products, pay money, misrepresent the very notion of doing research, and sell the idea that scientists are irrelevant boffins engaged in pointless head scratching.

And did they really get 1,000 respondents from an internal email survey? Well maybe: Clarion Communication are part of WPP, one of the world’s largest “communications services” groups. They do advertising, PR and lobbying, they have a turnover of around ¬£6 billion, and they employ 100,000 people in 100 countries. These corporations run our culture, and they riddle it with bullshit.

The thing that gets to me is the absolutely casual relationship to the truth. I wonder how the people who do this rationalise it? Do they really think it’s okay to just make up pseudo-scientific studies to get people to buy their products? Or do they think that it’s the responsibility of the press to do more work and that their job is to just get away with as much as possible…

Advertising Public Relations

On being 'challenging' to PR people…

Some people have been having trouble working out why I’ve got so worked-up about this whole public relations thing. Perhaps this quote from a Flickr user called keeneypr on the thread about PR posted overnight will help explain to you why I’m so angry about the whole thing:

Our job is to get even “challenging” people like you to write, say and/or do what our clients and companies want — of your own volition — and not even realize that you’re doing it. If you are telling us that you only want information from people whose views you like and trust, then we’ll just reach you through them and you’ll never be the wiser.

I could find a dozen similar quotes by people like him from the conversations that I’ve been having over the last few months with PR people. To be honest, I find it sickening. That they would seek to use me as a device to further their aims makes me even more unhappy.

Advertising Journalism Personal Publishing Public Relations

This is not a brothel…

As has probably become clear recently, I’m currently not particularly well-inclined towards people who work in public relations – particularly the particularly unscrupulous ones that spam me with press releases and work ardently to try and persuade me to talk about their products or services on my site.

They don’t seem to understand that I find it objectionable that they would consider me a platform for them to sell their wares. Nor do they understand that I could consider it even more irritating still that for the most part they haven’t got the slightest idea what things I write or care about. They consider my personal voice a commodity to be acquired, along with what little credibility and authenticity I have. This–I’m afraid–just pisses me off.

It may seem like a trivial thing to get angry about, but you’d be surprised the pressure that you can receive to deform what you write to serve other people’s best interests. And it needs to be said, quite apart from my own personal irritation with these people, they are actively trying every day to commandeer the conversations that you are having out there by fair means or foul to serve their needs more effectively. They do it by offering perks, holding or withholding access to people or things and by making people feel privileged by giving them gifts or treats.

For those reasons I’ve made every effort through the last few years to never be beholden to anyone, even to not allow myself to get in the kind of position where I might be unsure of my own motives. But this doesn’t seem to be enough to get the message across, so in a fit of irritation the other day, I wrote a pretty angry and frustrated post on my Flickr stream associated with the picture that opens this article.

In the post I stated that for as long as I have it up, will never contain anything that someone has tried to persuade me to write about. This applies equally to PR people, to marketing people or to my employer. I will write about any company or business (including the one I work for) only when I think there’s something genuinely of interest to talk about. I will only write about my employer when I’m proud of something they have done (or I have done with them) or when I really feel I have something to say. And I will absolutely never talk about something that I hear about through a press release, or as a consequence of someone giving me a freebie.

Of course, I’m not trying to talk for everyone with a blog out there. There are a lot of semi-pro bloggers out there who operate much like journalists and have good relationships with PR people. Their sites are treated like a job, and any access they can get to these organisations can help them do that job. So good luck to them. But they ask for these press releases. They encourage this contact. They make it clear that they’d like to receive them. I have to say that posts from Guy Kawasaki (encouraging the giving of schwag and compliments to bloggers to butter them up) and Paul Stamatiou (pitching for freebies and flights) make me (and Jeremy Zawodny) slightly queasy, but as long as these particular pundits don’t try and talk for the rest of us then I have no problem with them making it clear that they’re interested in receiving press releases. However, that doesn’t apply to me.

As far as I’m concerned, an unsolicited press release is quite literally no better than spam. It is an e-mail that arrives in my Inbox, trying to sell me something. In fact it’s worse than spam, because it actively seeks to persuade me–sometimes bribe me–to sell something on their behalf! Can you imagine how affronted you were if your Viagra spam not only tried to persuade you that you were impotent and in need of assistance but also wanted you to sell it to your friends? What kind of person would you be if you took up the opportunity to bring up sexual problems at every party you subsequently attended? That’s the kind of person that PR people seem to think I am.

I’m going to be putting up a page on my site soon for people who want to send me press releases, and it’s going to say all of this on it. Hopefully people will start to get the message that–for me at least–their attentions just simply aren’t wanted. If you feel the same way, then perhaps it’s time to let them know in public that your culture isn’t here for the benefit of their clients and that your voice is not for sale.