How (Not) To Party: the bizarre ending to last night’s Andrew Neil show

If you want to laugh at people who have held some of the highest offices of state, dancing to Underworld’s Born Slippy, read and view on …

Picture the scene: you’ve just come home from moderating a discussion group across in Peterborough, you’re a bit tired and you flop down to watch the end of Question Time. The usual tweetfest kicks in about an annoying judge, a business leader out of his depth talking about public affairs, a bumptious Conservative that I think was one of the Famous Five, some fact-laden Marxian analysis from a journo and an MP who looked and sounded Tory but was actually Labour. Then it finishes, the twitter torrent subsides, as sensible people go to bed – it’s 11.30pm. But the political junkies hang on for This Week, hosted by Andrew Neil (Brillo Pad to Private Eye readers – that is, most of the show’s late night audience). It’s usually pretty entertaining but not something I would post on in Strangers On The Shore. But this week’s This Week had a pretty special ending, which is worthy of a spot on here. Bear in mind, this is ostensibly a political discussion show:

By now I was back on twitter and watching the late night gasps of amazement and horror tumble in on #bbctw. Remarkably, This Week was actually trending on twitter for a few mad minutes. The consensus: a truly remarkable piece of broadcasting. This is what you can do with the freedom of having a niche but pretty loyal audience in a late night slot.

Pick your own micro-highlight if you will:

  • Michael Portillo‘s flitting between a zoned-out gape and realistic E-ed up teeth-grinding mime
  • Jacqui Smith‘s limited range trance-like wrist-pointing
  • Andrew Neil’s adventures on the wheels of steel

You have to pinch yourself to remember we have a former Conservative Defence Secretary, a former Labour Home Secretary and a heavyweight BBC political commentator happily making arses of themselves here, albeit to a tiny late night audience of people like me. Oh and Andi Osho, who did well to maintain some dignity. But all credit to all of them, it made my night.

One of the twitterati, with an admirable Half Man Half Biscuit -inspired twitter moniker (@lookdadnotunes), tweeted to me the last performance on a political tv programme to approach these levels of embarrassing behaviour: Jeremy Vine‘s cowboy act during the BBC’s 2008 election coverage:

What can you say to that? Except to observe that comedy is a high risk business. Behavioural economics tells us that due to the universal human trait of loss aversion, people give roughly twice as much weight to a negative outcome than the equivalent positive outcome. In comedy, make that 20 times. It’s on there forever Jeremy. I guess comedian brother Tim hogged all the comedy-talent-inducing Shredded Wheat in the Vine family. Which brings us back to Andrew Neil’s hair …

Some laughs for my birthday – Mitt Romney, by Bad Lip-Reading

For those who like their comedy Pythonesque and find US politicians generally absurd, this is too good not to share. Mitt Romney on the campaign trail and what it looks like he’s saying … I’ve watched this about eight times and I’m still laughing at lines like “Thanks for the bench”. It’s by the brilliant BLR (Bad Lip-Reading).


How you can visualise data with an MIT research budget – wow

If you can stop him talking about his kids, he can be quite interesting.

Thanks to Dutch social media expert Jaap den Dulk (twitter: @dulk) for the link to this talk from MIT Media Lab researcher Deb Roy earlier in 2011. Jaap gave a talk this morning as part of the ICG webinar on social media. This is worth looking at for several reasons but the main one is some very cool visualisation of data, bringing media, location, time and words into one dynamic yet easy to look at model. At times it’s really quite breath-taking (look at it 12:25 in, for example).

Surely we’ll be seeing a lot more of this kind of thing in the next few years, once more companies can afford to generate it. It’s 20 minutes or so, so if you only have time to look at a couple of interesting bits, read on, I’ll highlight a few time codes here.

You could probably trace his movements around the house using 19th Century photographic methods

At 8:50 there’s a nice sequence on visualising both movement around the house – the snail trails I’ve seen used plenty before – and mapping words and phrases uses in different locations, which was new to me. The snail trail / movement footprint footage was nice to look at in its own right, but the combining of that movement with the audio-recorded data on language was really impressive. Roy builds topographical maps, for example, of where the word ‘water’ is uttered. You can see how brand owners could use this to visualise, for example, how people talk about their brands and product areas in different parts of the house.

The next bit of visual pyrotechnics trumped that. At 12:25, he shows a superb graphic of social media feeds relating to tv programmes being sifted for relevant information and connections being made between this data and the tv audience, the “event structures” of the broadcasts themselves and the physical geography of where everyone is.

Frink: a brilliant man, pushing the boundaries of science into lunacy

The other remarkable thing about Roy’s film here isn’t so much about social media as ethnography. When someone gets on stage, starts talking about his baby, then shows a complex slide and says “Here’s a map of every word my son learnt, in chronological order …”, your heart sinks. Lunatic cognitive scientist on the loose with too much time and money. It soon leaps up again though as you start to get your head around what he’s done. And what he’s done is a very cool bit – no, chunk – no, mammoth lump – of ethnography.

He put cameras in the ceiling all around his own house and filmed everything (with a few exceptions … calm down there, Larry Flynt) for more than five years, as a massive experiment for MIT. He’s also audio-recorded everything. One of the highlights to look at in the film, or listen for really, is at 4:50. He’s done the audio equivalent of time-lapse photography on his baby’s attempts to say the word “water”, right from gaga, to a clear pronunciation of “water” (albeit with an American accent – you can’t have everything). To do this he edited 6 months of audio footage into 40 seconds. It’s an audio treat, if you can avoid throwing up at his beaming parental pride (just close your eyes, as he does).

It’s a gargantuan bit of work that can rarely be even thought about in the commercial world of limited budgets and tight objectives. But he’s able to show, as he puts it, “new social structures and dynamics that have previously not been seen.”

Britney Spears: harder to stalk than I had imagined

This might bring a whole new audience to Strangers On The Shore and (another) one that will be bitterly disappointed.

I went into t’ Smoke yesterday for a meeting on AQR ambassadorial business and had a spare half hour afterwards before my schlepp back to Jericho (in Oxford, not the West Bank). So I popped into the National Portrait Gallery. I’d last been when I lived in London village in the 90s and was really impressed with the overhaul it’s had (no doubt several years old by now).

Enjoyed David Beckham sleeping on video. However, I saw Tilda Swinton doing the same thing in person inside a case at the Serpentine in the mid-90s and I can attest that there’s nothing like the live experience of watching a celeb sleeping.

The John Swannell room was a giggle, with a marvellously cheesey 80s photo of George Michael and the very funny portrait of museums curator Sir Roy Strong looking like a cross between an extra from Shakespeare In Love and Captain Birdseye:

Sir Roy Strong: An Elizabethan Reverie, by John Swannell, 2010 - NPG - © John Swannell / Camera Press © John Swannell / Camera Press

It was shortly after this that I spotted – or at least think I spotted – Britney Spears with someone else who looked very familiar but I couldn’t place. Writing this now I’ve just realised it was quite possibly Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (of whom I’m a fan).

Karen O and Britney Spears in some horrific alternative reality

Of course I could be completely wrong. But while wolfing down a sandwich in Pret afterwards, my curiosity got the better of me. I thought it would be an easy thing just to Google Britney Spears on the iPhone and see if she was indeed in London that day. Yes I know, it’s borderline weird celeb stalking behaviour and it is beneath me; but anyway, I did it.

But no dice. I’d imagined that your modern global celebrity is pretty much papped 24/7 and her movements would be effectively electronically tagged by the cyberworld, like a recidivist burglar. Perhaps I wasn’t looking in the right places, but I was really surprised how little her movements seemed to be known by the stalkerati. And I gave up, unable to establish the whereabouts of the troubled pop diva. I’ll have to wait for her (I’m sure rigorously detailed) autobiography.

Back to the art though. The highlight for me (and I only had time to whizz around the contemporary stuff on this visit) were the self-portraits by the Bradford-born artist Tony Bevan. There’s a link to his website here: Tony Bevan at the National Portrait Gallery

© Tony Bevan. No sign of Britney Spears or Karen O. I accept I have no evidence.

As ever, it looks much better in real life. I liked the tension between the gritty, bodily rawness here and a more cerebral design sensibility, making art out of the real. It’s as if he’s playing out the conversation between figurative and abstract painting on his own face; and playing out for that matter the body/mind dichotomy there. It’s really quite striking and reminds me of some of the (recently croaked) Lucian Freud’s better stuff.

So a better use of half an hour than fiddling on twitter I’d say, vital though that is for the future of Western society.

The Light At The End Of The Tunnel (Is The Light Of An Oncoming Train)


One of my favourite song titles (from Half Man Half Biscuit‘s Cammell Laird Social Club album) seems appropriate today, given the economic news.

While oncoming trains do tend to mow down anything in their path, there are some upsides ...

As an individual micro-business, the bigger patterns of the economy kind of don’t matter – and kind of do. It can be hard to make the connection sometimes. At one level, it’s of course still possible to be doing very well even in a tough environment. A disappointing average for business as a whole still means there are a whole lot of businesses doing fine. Hopefully Shore is one of them. The Autumn’s been sparser than it was last year but then last year I was totally flat out all Autumn. On the other hand, it’s definitely been a tougher environment over the last few quarters and one suspects it’s not completely unrelated to the general doom and gloom out there.


But if it cheers anyone else up, I’ve had a real pick-up of enquiries and prospects in the last few weeks and, if anything, I have more potential projects in the offing for 2012 than I had at the same stage last year. Whether they will come to fruition is another question!


Another nice optimistic note is a meeting with some lovely AQR colleagues in The Crypt at St.Martin’s-in-the-Fields this morning, discussing an initiative to help nurture emerging young talents in the qual research arena.


So, unlike the Derbyshire Peak District-based hero of the HMHB song, who has lost his Eyam-born girlfriend to an Eva Cassidy-listening tv producer called Steve in Notting Hill, I’m feeling pretty upbeat.

I know, I know, it's serious

But then, as John Peel used to say of listening to The SmithsGirlfriend in a Coma, misery can be expressed in an uplifting and funny way.

Isn’t black humour what we do best in this country? Let the good times roll …


Highlight of the week: Soviet-era posters on the dangers of alcohol, in Creative Review

I’ve been a sucker for Soviet-era Russian posters ever since seeing a Stenberg Brothers exhibition of Russian film posters in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in 1998. Imagine my delight then this week when Creative Review tweeted (@CreativeReview) a series of public information posters mainly from the 30s, 40s and 50s on the perils of booze for the heroic Soviet worker and his heroic Soviet family:

Creative Review: Soviet posters on the dangers of drink

I could have picked many but I enjoyed this one the most:

"The poison of moonshine kills the health of the workers"

There’s just so much going on in there, from the stern finger-pointing matriarch to the fist-clenching neglected child, to some Cossack dancing gone badly wrong.

Then there’s this one. This is how you motivate people to change their behaviour in a command-and-control economy, I guess. I wonder if it worked?

"How we eradicate drunkenness – Through school, club and village cultural houses to the victory above drunkenness. – Pioneers! Teach your parents not to drink! Teachers! Explain the damages of alcohol to children! Youth! Do sport, and you will not want to drink! Women! Stand up against drunkenness and drunkards! Visit cinema and theater – this is a reasonable pastime. Pass your free time in the club and village cultural house. Play chess – it’s a useful pastime."

It certainly managed to produce a few chess champions but I suspect even Deep Blue has the occasional tipple.

Can’t argue with the message though.

Hewlett Packard: Stick to Plan A for Plan B

I enjoyed Drum’s ad for Hewlett Packard, featuring Plan B doing She Said, which I caught a couple of weeks ago before the Tintin film:

It’s a 21st Century truism that for every artefact created, there must be a “the making of” film (because we can’t handle anyone being behind the scenes any more). Even David Attenborough devotes a precious portion of his prime time Frozen Planet slot to big up the intrepid film crews. They do a heroic job but for God’s sake keep them behind the camera. If I want to see Scottish lighting technicians getting excited, I’ll watch the Robot Wars grand final.

But I actually didn’t at all mind – and even quite enjoyed – Mr. B’s little film. He kept it nice and simple, with the reflections in the studio glass the only visual extravagance and it actually worked well. I was able to temporarily suspend my anger towards HP for ripping me off on expensive cartridges for my Photosmart Premium printer.

But if the cinema version was tight, punchy and just about got away with the tag “unpretentious”, the longer film I’ve just watched on YouTube failed on all these counts. See what you think:

Morrissey The Consumer Monkey: Fancy a Second Hand HP Printer Rejected by a Bitter Independent Research Professional?

A nice, pacey exposition of musical craft was replaced by B’s dubious musings on the profundity of his own lyrics (learn from Mark E Smith, mate, don’t discuss them), set to moody shots of said besuited soul-boy from the kind of fly-on-the-wall documentary-style filming that should be splatted with a rolled-up copy of the Racing Post.

Where it really sealed its ignimony was the sequence at the end in the Ritzy in Brixton – a venue presumably chosen for its ‘keepin’ it real’ credentials – in which The B-Meister performs some kind of free prize draw on behalf of his ink-hungry American paymasters, with the lucky winner gesticulating and whooping from the stalls like a 60s Iowa housewife. Our hero, until a minute ago telling us how much he “loves being an artist”, has been turned into a poor man’s Leslie Crowther.

Having started the ad a shuffling, broodingly porky lump of complexity in black and white, reminiscent of Robert de Niro in Raging Bull, he ends it evoking the automated toy Morrissey The Consumer Monkey, from Vic ‘N’ Bob’s Big Night Out.

So I can see she's got two apples there ... does that mean she's really got four? Or does that doubling effect not apply to pomaceous fruit?

Sophia Loren once said that “sex appeal is fifty per cent what you’ve got and fifty per cent what people think you’ve got.” Perhaps showing a little less of the artist’s musings would be a good idea if Plan B is to retain his mystique. Plan B should take a lesson from The Smiths, whose Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want is bringing joy and anguish in equal measure to their fans in the Christmas John Lewis ad. The power of hearing the track (and of the John Lewis ad) for me is in the simple rarity value of a Smiths track being used in a piece of film: getting the permission was the event and it’s got a load of publicity for John Lewis beyond the ad itself. Keeping a mystique around a band is quite a feat these days.

But perhaps the Reeves and Mortimer surreality has become the reality and Morrissey IS a consumer monkey after all. I know he’s obsessed with Fanta, if that counts. My favourite image-shattering tale of a pop-star-in-retail-environment is Stuart Maconie‘s story of having seen emotionless German electro-popsters Kraftwerk at their untouchable best on stage one night, only to spot one of them buying a tube of toothpaste in Boots the next day. Artists have to go to the shops too.

Did I ever tell you about my encounter with John Cooper Clarke in WH Smith? No really …

An Old Git Remembers: The Last Time Youth Unemployment Was This Bad

Youth unemployment in the UK went over the 1 million mark this week. It’s not been this bad, we hear, since the early 90s: see the chart in the BBC News story on it: Youth unemployment. As this shows, the peak was really in 1992: and it just happens, that’s when I first came onto the labour market. As I approach the grand old age of 42, may I offer you a Werther’s Original and take you back to the Britain of 1992, for a brief flurry of inappropriate unemployment nostalgia?

My Bloody Valentine's 'Loveless' - 1992 wasn't too bad if you filled your head with guitar noise

1992 was the year Leeds won the title and Happy  Mondays released Yes … Please. Quite a year then, ahem. Finding a grim employment situation when I graduated in ’91, I took off travelling for seven months, hoping things would look better in ’92 when I got back. The plan had been to line up a job before I went, but it soon became apparent that was hopelessly unrealistic. On my return in April ’92, John Major had just won the election, the Rodney King riots had just happened in Los Angeles and footballers had started wearing massive shorts again, after years of increasingly figure-hugging numbers. And I didn’t have a job.

I was only a few months on the Bru (as it’s known in Belfast, or at least was then) and I landed on my feet with a job in a law firm in London. So it wasn’t exactly Boys From The Black Stuff. But even for someone who ostensibly came out unscathed, graduating at a time of high youth unemployment had a lasting impact.

"Let's go to work", as not that many people said in 1992

Though I’d done a law degree, I’d realised already I didn’t want a legal career. I had been looking for a job in advertising or marketing, which my older brothers were already in. I even considered market research. But with a lot of big employers just not hiring graduates at all that year – and others starting to insist on people having something called a “relevant degree” – I was getting nowhere. After a few months, I started to panic about my chances of getting any kind of a break at all. I was 22, had not had a proper job before and had very few actual work-ready skills. I also had no experience at all of anything I actually wanted to do.

But I was lucky, because I’d done a law degree. Law firms were still taking people on and at least they couldn’t say I lacked a relevant degree. So I swallowed my pride, decided to reconcile myself to a career in law and (two years after my peers) started applying to law firms. I got into a decent one for the September 1994 intake and then secured a place in the College of Law for September 1993.  All I had to do was fill in a year as a paralegal (working for a law firm in an unqualified capacity), for which I got paid £13,000. That was not much even then for a year in London, especially given my interest in drinking large volumes of ale, dining out most nights, albeit that it was in the Deep Pan Pizza All-U-Can-Eat, not Chez Nico.

If you’re still following this interminable piece of navel-gazing, there is a point. It looked like a success story on paper, but the only thing was, I was doing the wrong career. As a result, I spent most of my 20s thinking work was something to be suffered rather than enjoyed. I saw my working life as so many wasted hours. It was 1998 before I made my leap into qualitative research and it transformed my whole outlook on life: I found there was such a thing as stimulating work. My detour had taken the first six years of my life post-university.

I’m sure many of today’s unemployed youngsters would give anything for such a stroke of misfortune. But if there is a learning at all, it’s that it can pay to play the long game: compromise, switch to something that’s not your first choice, but which still gives you some skills and which keeps you marketable. If you’re lucky, when things look more positive and buoyant in the economy, you may then be able to do something you really do want to do.

But today’s graduates don’t need any lessons from me I’m sure. They seem a more practical, realistic and work-ready bunch than my generation ever were. Many of us entered university with a naive attitude to what life would have in store for us afterwards. They on the whole have the right attitude. But the economy skewers them just the same.

Everybody will be doing behavioural economics in qual

Do you see what I did there?

Social norming in action - that clever Obama chap took advice from BE experts

The title’s speculative, but no more so than the communication to the American public by Barack Obama’s team two weeks before the 2008 Presidential Election, to get the vote out: “A Record Turnout Is Expected.” The Obama campaign realised that, at that stage in the campaign, detailed messages would not get through. But Obama could still affect people’s motivation to vote by getting across one simple thing: most other people would be doing it. This wasn’t some inspired guess, it was done on the advice of America’s leading behavioural economists. It worked because of what they call the social norming effect. The Obama turn-out example has become a classic of behavioural economics (BE) and shows the scale of impact that BE insights can make.  I’m raking it up again now because I’m celebrating the latest edition of the AQR’s excellent indepth (AQR indepth site) booklet, Behaviour Economics: Out Of The Box. If you’re in the AQR, please read it; if you’re not, ask someone who is.

indepth: beg, borrow and steal it. Not this one, the new one. And don't actally steal it please.

The indepth booklet is a great starting point for people just waking up to this and actually moves things forward for those of us who have been thinking about this too. Crawford Hollingworth, Sarah Davies and Wendy Gordon have done a great service to qualitative research with these punchy articles, which set out what the fuss over BE is all about, why we in qual can’t ignore it and, crucially, some tips on how to use BE insights and approaches in qual practice.

I particularly like the table of BE concepts (heuristics, discounting the future, anchors etc), which distils nicely a lot of verbiage from the seminal BE texts. [I recommend, by the way, all qualitative researchers get around to reading, sooner rather than later, Nudge by Thaler and Sunstein, Predictably Irrational by Ariely and anything by Daniel Kahneman or Jonah Lehrer (I’m just finishing Lehrer’s The Decisive Moment right now). They are all very accessible and aimed at the general reader.]

What I am especially grateful for is Wendy Gordon’s practical tips on how qual researchers might approach briefs differently, in the post-BE place qual research now inhabits. As she puts it, groups on their own will not cut it when we’re talking about understanding consideration sets, purchase intentions, switching brands, understanding brand choice, customer journeys and a host of other core areas for qual research. As ever, we need to triangulate using multiple methods and we need to be more experimental.

A mind-shaped super-structure

But as guest editor Ken Parker says – and those in May’s inaugural AQR training session on BE noted – haven’t we been onto this for some time in qual? Well yes, we have. We have been zooming in on analysing behaviours where we recognise the client needs a behaviourally-driven answer; and since qual began we have been rejecting reportage in favour of deeper interpretation of what is really going below the rational radar. He asks, is BE just a new framework to drive our approach and analysis?

Well, yes, in my view it is – but don’t under-estimate what it is to now have that framework. It could be a game-changer for qual. The framework does not just provide a language to better describe and justify what we do in qual, it also embodies established knowledge about human behaviour and how to influence it. It’s got vast practical applications for our clients and many are either already using this stuff or looking for help in doing so.

Choice architecture: I'll have the second cheapest one please

The BE revolution is happening smack in the middle of qual research territory – it’s about why people do things and how organisations can influence them. If we’re not part of it, we could be severely marginalised by it. The good news, we are ideally placed to be a big part of it: we’ve known all along that human ‘irrationality’ is where it’s at, that what people say is just a clue towards the deeper truths of why they do what they do. This is not a cultural shift for us. It is a great opportunity. Our place is at the coal face of both generating BE insights and applying them.

We’ve been doing some of this for years. Anyone who has done a deprivation test has been using a BE approach; anyone who has helped tweak advertising copy has been influenced by linguistic anchors and heuristics, probably without thinking of it in those terms. But BE gives us a structure and a language for what we have been doing. This will help us a lot in explaining what we do. It is also a challenge to us to be truly systematic in our analysis, without losing our knack for “whole brain” thinking.

A qual researcher faces a big choice. At this stage, she needs to listen to both her automatic and reflective system. And start running.

The acquisition of language in early humans put a rocket under human evolution. BE can do this for qual researchers: it really has the potential to make us more effective and have more direct impacts on our clients. We can be the homo sapiens here, surging ahead through learning and adapting the new tools. There is another alternative though, if we don’t grasp this: an increasingly bleak Neanderthal-like future, using the same old tools with diminishing returns.

Two things to take away from this if you’re a qual researcher grappling with BE:
1. There is a really useful body of knowledge out there about human behaviour and how we think, in accessible form – at the very least, let’s make more use of that.
2. There are some really useful terms and concepts BE writings have pushed into currency. Even if we don’t use them with all our clients, some already know and use them – we need to be ahead of the game on this.

And a final salutary thought: there is a place at the behavioural insights table for qualitative researchers, perhaps several places. But we need to turn up.

A 21st Century one man band does Pixies

I don’t think one man can replace the Pixies – but this punter’s made a pretty good fist of it. Where Is My Mind? is a great song anyway and this guy does something amazing with it: a masterclass in human beatbox looping. Sorry if I got the jargon wrong, kids.

When I was a kid, people like him were red in the face, had a drum on their back, a harmonica in one of those frame things and a weather-beaten accordion and they stood outside the newsagent’s on Portstewart’s main street. But then when I was kid, the Pixies were recording the original of this track. Ah, they don’t write songs like this any more …

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