The Golden Age of Bullshit

11 04 2014

Everybody in our industry should watch this. You don’t have to agree with it all, but most of it is hard to argue with.

Nike, Lance Armstrong and Moral Relativism

18 10 2012

This is a post I wrote for MB’s internal intranet thingy. Whilst I’ve edited it a bit, for that reason it may have a slightly different tone to my usual Research Geek posts and doesn’t have any swearing in it. But I thought, as I’d written it, I might as well share it in case there are any readers out there that still remember this blog exists:

So, Nike have dropped Lance Armstrong. Lance Armstrong has also resigned as head of his Livestrong Foundation.

I don’t think Nike had much choice here. Not only is Armstrong a proven cheat but it seems he was also involved in encouraging (or “bullying” according to the testimony) his team mates into doing the same. It seems he may well have been encouraging his team mates to “Just Do It” in a rather different context from that which Nike intends. Armstrong and US Postal were far from alone in their cheating though. I saw a stat recently which said that the fastest up the Alpe d’Huez (the Tour de France’s most notorious and difficult climb) this year would have been 41st fastest in 2001. [EDIT, I had read this stat but hadn’t checked, it isn’t quite right, but it’s not far off – the fastest in 2011, Pierre Rolland would have been 40th in 2001.] Doping was rife, it seems Armstrong was just much better at it than everyone else. I suppose there’s some achievement there at least.

There are also those questioning whether Nike knew more than they are letting on at the time and, indeed, whether they were even involved in covering up the doping. Whether that’s true or not, they would not want any further attention drawn to those accusations which would be unavoidable as the story continues to unravel. A continued association with him would have made the regular resurfacing of these allegations unavoidable.

What’s interesting here from a brand point of view is the decision that his reputation is beyond repair and a continued association with Nike could only be negative for the brand. Contrast that with their handling of the Tiger Woods fall from grace and the difference is palpable (they also stuck by Kobe Bryant when he was accused of rape.) Indeed, Nike trumpeted the fact they were sticking with Woods with a controversial ad.

Many commentators thought this was a mistake and was in bad taste and that Woods should be dropped. Until recently, they seemed to be taking the same approach with Armstrong. Indeed, in 2001 they had explicitly supported him in their ‘What am I on?’ ad. At that time I can’t imagine Nike knew what was going on. If they did, it was a spectacularly risky route to go down.

I think there are three important differences between Armstrong and Woods that encouraged Nike to stick with him. First of all, Woods admitted he was in the wrong and apologised. Granted he only did so after being caught out, but at least he did so. Armstrong, as far as I’m aware, has yet to explicitly admit his guilt and apologise for misleading people. Up until very recently he was still clinging to the “never had a negative test” line and pushing that over and over again. Secondly, Woods’ indiscretions were, shall we say, extracurricular – he was not accused of cheating at the sport for which he was famed. Sure, his clean cut image took a big whack, but his achievements as a sportsman, his ability to ‘Just Do It’ was unaffected. Arguably, one of Tiger’s weaknesses as a brand property was that he apparently had no weaknesses – his continued success was machine-like. The rehabilitation after the fall of which Nike was making themselves an explicit part could make the partnership stronger, the Tiger was human after all. And that brings me to the third difference, that Woods is still playing and still at the top of the game. Of course, it’s a long while since he’s won a major and he doesn’t dominate the sport as he did before, but he’s still easily its biggest name. Perhaps this, in part, motivated Armstrong’s most recent comeback?

All of this raises an issue of moral relativism for brands – when is an indiscretion sufficient to cut your ties with a celebrity? Is an indiscretion against your sport really a worse thing than one against your wife? Morally, of course not. Do I care about that one way or the other, or am I simply worried about the continuing credibility of a celebrity to endorse my brand? I suspect the latter is true, though few would admit it. There is no moral judgement, simply a brand value judgement. For many brands, their values would determine that the call may be seen from outside as having been made on moral grounds but the cynic in me suspects that, in reality, that’s not the case.

I was dubious about Nike’s strategy with Woods. I didn’t like the way is father was used in the ad above. But in the long term I think they were right to stick with him. I think brands are usually too quick to pull the trigger when their endorsers fall from grace. Celebrities are human. Providing they acknowledge their mistakes and apologise in an appropriate way, they can often come back stronger. But you do need to be brave to stick by them.


9 11 2010

It's not the tool, it's what you do with it that counts.

In my last post I wrote about the ethics of using neuroscience techniques for market research.  I’d like to broaden that out to make a wider point about the nature of tools.  Any type of tool, research tools included,  is value-neutral – they are neither moral nor immoral.  Morality only comes in to play at the point at which we, as humans, make use of the tool.  The manner in which we use it determines the morality of the action rather than the nature or utility of the tool itself.  Morals are, after all, rules that judge the acceptability of human conduct.

Of course, moral absolutism is  a dangerous thing, even if the absolute proposed is that an object is without moral valence.   Some would argue the tools of warfare are a clear exception to the rule – if a tool is specifically designed to cause death and destruction in the most efficient way possible then it’s harder to argue the value neutrality of all tools.  However, the tools of war can also be used to defend yourself against crazed invading ideologues trying to impose a morally corrupt way of life on a population (like Hitler in Europe or the US in South East Asia).  There are also those who argue that the military industrial complex acts as a deterrent and, ergo, the tools of warfare actually prevent death and destruction.  I don’t necessarily agree with all that, but as there’s some debate around it, it seems that even for a tool actually designed for a fundamentally immoral purpose is only really immoral if we use it to that end.

Think of an axe.  An axe can be used to chop firewood and sustain your life.  An axe can also be used to hack someone you don’t like very much to bits, or even hack someone you do like to bits for kicks.  Now forget the axe, it’s the 21st century.  Think of a chainsaw.  You can use a chainsaw to do both the wood chopping and the person hacking with significantly greater efficiency.

There are two things I’d like to draw from this and, hopefully, you’ll see the parallels to what I was talking about in my last post.  Further, we should also be reflecting on what this means for advertising and brands as tools (this value-neutral business is actually something I trot out more often to people who argue brands are evil that it’s something I say to research haters).

First, both axe and chainsaw are morally neutral.  You can use them both for good or evil and any number of layers in between.  In essence a chainsaw is a more efficient axe.  This means that it can be more effective for doing good or for doing evil but it doesn’t make the chainsaw itself any more of one or the other.

Second, there is another interesting effect of the chainsaw being more efficient.  I am of course using the wood chopping to represent the  ‘good’ extreme on my moral axis – but once you mechanise and industrialise wood chopping and you’re not just chopping the firewood you need to sustain yourself, the moral waters become much more muddy (or at least, they get filled with logs, making them equally hard to navigate).  It’s still the human action that’s at question, but a more effective tool facilitates excess and thereby brings questions of morality to the fore even when considering actions where previously there were none.

So in short, what I was trying to say in my last post is that if you think advertising and brands are evil then of course the research tools that help facilitate them will make you equally uncomfortable.  They’re not evil, but the way we use them is where we should stop and think about ethics.

If you have a new research tool that is more effective in exposing people’s desires, then the chances of a chainsaw massacre of consumption increase exponentially.  If neuroscience is giving us more effective (indeed, more  mechanised) access to thoughts, feelings and emotions, even if we don’t think the every day wood chopping of building brands is morally questionable, the questions around how we implement neuroscience techniques ethically are still valid as mass deforestation won’t be good for any of us.

Black Magic

3 11 2010

When I wrote about the barriers to neuroscience adoption a while ago there was one issue I skirted which probably could have been fleshed out a bit more – ethics.  When I did the talk at XLRI I basically lumped it in with ‘Scpeticism’ but I got asked about it again in a meeting yesterday so thought I’d note a couple of thoughts.

The reason that neuroscience/biometric methods are appealing to researchers and marketers is also the thing that makes people unsure as to whether it’s ethical to use them.  It’s well known that people don’t know why they behave the way they do and find it hard to talk about the way they feel about things – so cutting out the middle man and going direct to source for that info is pretty valuable.  But those worried about this stuff would say that the middle man we’re cutting out is sort of the bit where our  humanity resides.  People may, justifiably, want to keep some things under wraps for any number of reasons (although most often we’re learning things that people can’t tell us rather than things they won’t).  As a result, those who doubt the ethics of biometric measurement would argue that we are taking knowledge that people have not volunteered and, like black magic, using it to control them.

Those are potentially valid concerns.  My argument, however, is that they are not concerns specific to neuroscience/biometric research but to all research and, by extension, any advertising that draws learning from that research.  If you have an ethical problem with research and advertising generally (which some do) then fine – but people raising these concerns with me in meetings are usually people spending a lot of money on advertising and research, so I assume they don’t.

Let me illustrate my point.  As Tom Ewing has ably pointed out, what those critics of research who roll out the ‘all research is wrong‘ line fail to understand is that we already know that it is (in an absolute sense).  As such, we have all kinds of ways of finding stuff out about people’s thoughts, feelings and desires without asking them directly.  Take one of Millward Brown’s many hundreds of tracking studies, I don’t ask people to rank the associations they have with brands by how important they are because I know they’re not very good at it (and often, they just don’t know whether sexy or easy to use is more important to them).  Instead, given that I also ask them about their preference for brands, I am able to run myself a lovely regression model from which I can infer which of these associations are the stronger drivers of preference either within the category as a whole or for specific brands.  They haven’t told me why they like Persil better than Surf, but sneaky researcher that I am, I’ve found out – and maybe Persil will use that information to better target them and people like them.

(Before you say so, I know that’s not perfect, I know my model is only telling me about the relative strengths of relationships between claimed brand preference and a set of associations that I chose to put to the sort of people I chose at the specific point in time, by now already in the past, that I deigned to ask them. But I’d ask you to focus on the matter in hand, this isn’t a question of which [if either] of these approaches is most valid it’s about whether or not they are ethical).

So research has, for many years, generated insights into human behaviour without people necessarily volunteering them directly.  People are no more aware of my regression models and how brands are using them to sell them more soap powder, than they are of the brainwave outputs they voluntarily hand over and how clever boffins run those through an algorithm to give me something I can use to understand advertising better.  Is either of those things deceitful and insidious?  Maybe, but if so, I say they are equally so.

Further, some perspective is required.  We may be increasingly tapping into people’s deep, unspoken desires – but we’re not homing in on a magic bullet that lets advertisers push a button that has a definitive and predictable consumer response at the other end.  We are gaining a better understanding of why an ad has worked when we do get it right of course and therefore narrowing the odds of us being able to repeat it – but we’re a long way off complete mind control.  People still have agency.  That’s not going anywhere.

As long as the usual rules apply – we’re doing this at an aggregated level, we’re not using it to target the specific people involved through direct use of their personal details or data, they have given us their express, informed permission to collect whatever data we’re collecting through whatever method and so on – I really don’t see how neuroscience and biometric research is any different from ‘traditional’ methods.  If you object to one, you object to it all.

Hiiiiiiii Dr Nick!

27 10 2010

When Nicholas Hall from Stanford’s Behaviour Lab took to the podium at the XLRI Mindscapes symposium his first words were ‘Hi Everbody’ – it took every ounce of my self restraint to not reply with a resounding ‘Hiiiii Dr Nick’.   It turned out when I spoke to Nick afterwards that he doesn’t actually hold a PhD and he had been mislabelled, so it’s maybe a good job I didn’t.

Unlike the infamous Dr Riviera, Nick has a very good grasp of his subject.  The Stanford Behaviour Lab has been running for several years, so his role at the symposium was to talk about the sort of learning that this kind of set up can generate as XLRI embark on a Lab of their own.  I liked Nick’s central point – what this type of work allows us to do is test lay hypotheses about human behaviour.  We all have theories about why people behave a certain way – what they do in his lab is design an experiment to test them.  Nick urged the nascent behavioural lab at XLRI to do the same.  I think it’s worth thinking about how we could do the same more in commercial research as well – I’m not sure we utilise experimental designs enough.

Nick also talked about a couple of cases to illustrate the sort of findings they are generating.  Some you would likely be familiar with, dealing with subjects like the paradox of choice and competition in the mental workspace – both of which emphasise how important it is not to overcomplicate when we build brands.  It was the third of Nick’s cases that I found particularly interesting as it seems to validate something many of us have been thinking for some time – it is more important to be meaningful than to be nice.

Working with Jennifer Aaker on behalf of a major search engine an experiment was designed to try to understand how brands can increase people’s happiness.  I didn’t take any notes, so I may not get the exact details of the study spot on, but as I understand/recall it – students were given sums of money by the brand – some were asked to use it to spread happiness amongst fellow students on campus, others were asked to do something meaningful for others (there was also a third group as a control).  Those that had done something meaningful for others were much happier than those who had been simply been spreading happiness, they also rated the brand much more highly as a result.

It’s not (always) enough to get people to consume more of your brand because they like to do so.  What brands should be seeking to do is make a meaningful difference to people’s lives and the lives of those around them.  True happiness this way lies.

The FIFA Marketing Police

15 06 2010

Dutch girls escorted away from the ground by an embarrassed looking FIFA official.

Another day, another World Cup post. I do like to keep things topical. This one also has the benefit of being about marketing a bit and having a picture of some pretty Dutch girls at the top of it.

FIFA may have made the right call (eventually) on not banning the vuvuzela, but the over-zealous policing of what fans choose to wear to support their team is another example of their attempts to stifle the joy of the supporter in favour of protecting their corporate sponsors. The fat, greedy misogynist old men that run the game obviously didn’t get the memo on releasing control and co-creation.

The full story on this can be found here in South Africa’s Star newspaper.

I can understand that FIFA might be a bit miffed if hoards of Dutch men and women were waving flags with Bavaria written all over them – they have a relationship with Budweiser to think of after all. But these are unbranded dresses given as a free gift by the beer brand. They may be recognisable as representing that brand in Holland, and well done to Bavaria if that’s true, but Eric Cantona is recognisable as a simple of Nike – are they going to chuck him out if he shows up at a France game? I also note from this article that Silvie Van Der Vaart has worn the dress in question (indeed, I found a picture) – I wonder if they’d escort her out if she turned up wearing it.

I think there are two important points here.

The first is, where does this all end? The full list of FIFA official partners is here. Does someone wearing Nike kicks, or a Nike replica shirt get taken out? What if a load of Chelsea fans show up with Samsung emblazoned on their chests – how does that effect the relationship with Sony? It’s certainly a more blatant display of branding than these Dutch girls were guilty of. It really is impossible to control this, so why try to and in so doing further cement the perception that you are money-grabbing leeches who care more about sponsors than fans?

The second is that this is playing directly into Bavaria’s hands. I saw some of the girls wearing this dress on the TV. I noted they were quite fit, but I had no idea the dress had any association with Bavaria whatsoever (granted that might not have been true if I was Dutch). Now I know very well who Bavaria are. I have some fairly strong associations with their brand and a decent idea that they are pretty smart marketers. So well done FIFA, for achieving Bavaria’s objectives for them expertly.


The Curiously Persistent Simon Kendrick took great pleasure in pointing this story out to me. Aside from the great news that the frankly awful (even by ITV’s famously low punditry standards) Robbie Earle is off our screens, there is a clear suggestion that many of the girls ejected were part of an orchestrated effort by Bavaria. It still seems highly likely from the Star story that some ‘innocent’ genuine fans were also caught up in this.

Further, I don’t think this makes any real difference to the 2 main points I make above – in fact, it makes the second one all the more pertinent in my view. Bavaria are clearly trying to get as much mileage out of this as possible – the stories about fans watching in their pants last time around, as linked by Simon in the comments below, demonstrate that they know this can work. FIFA have played right into their hands. This could have just been a few pretty girls on the telly wearing a brand cue. It’s now a major international story. The more FIFA keep behaving this way, the more brands will continue to ‘ambush’ them.

Technology and Toilets

24 04 2010

Pic source: Oh Wow!

If you were to have a standard class train ticket in India, you’d probably encounter a toilet like the above. If you’re of a typical Western sensibility, you’d probably find it quite unpleasant. But you should count yourself lucky. According to a recent report by the UN, only 31% of the Indian population have access to a proper toilet. That’s not all however, the thing that really grabbed the headlines was the fact that the same report indicated a mobile phone penetration of around 45%.

In my last post I talked about how every now and then I get a big reminder of India’s scale. With that in mind, it’s worth referencing what this means in real numbers. The basic truth is that there are 179 million (or 17.9 crore in local parlance) more mobile phones in India than there are people with access to basic sanitation. Further, there are somewhere in the region of 800 million Indians without access to a proper toilet. This can only reflect badly on Indian governance.

The crux of the matter is that private industry in India is forging ahead. In a country this vast, mobile phone infrastructure is not easy to build – particularly in the face of a complex and restrictive regulatory framework and a vicious price war (though admittedly, the telcos only have themselves to blame for the latter) – despite these not insignificant headwinds, mobile networks and handset manufacturers have been able to reach, pretty much, right across the country.

What this report highlights beyond doubt is that the public sector has been markedly less successful in putting the necessary infrastructure in place. Even the very basic sanitation and refuse services that you expect a government to provide are lagging way behind the commercial development of India Inc. In the medium term, this can only negatively effect India’s GDP growth. This recent McKinsey report (registration required) shows how desperate urban India is for a focussed programme of regeneration and how it lags behind rivals such as China and South Africa in per capita investment. That’s before you even start to think about the conditions of vast swathes of rural India.

I’m not saying that building sewers, refuse systems, roads and the like is easy. Of course it isn’t. But India, rightly, has pretensions to be one of the major global powers in the next 50 years or so. If it wants to achieve that, it can’t afford to continue lagging so far behind the other pretenders to the throne in terms of raising the basic standards of living for the majority of its vast population.

I’m a social democrat at heart and as such I’m certainly no advocate of privatisation of public services. But I can’t help but wonder whether if Tata or Reliance had been in charge of bringing a proper system of sanitation to the Indian masses over the last ten years or so, there wouldn’t have been significantly more progress.