I’ve seen the error of my ways – in black and white

In an elegant piece of psychological warfare, The Daily Telegraph is selling readers certificates of birth and marriage.

It takes rare marketing skill to sell the self-same product to the same person twice over. If that customer also happens to be self-selecting, you have attained marketing nirvana.

This exceptional feat has been pulled off not by some bright imaginative newcomer, the equivalent of a dot-com supernerd, but by a venerable old-technology veteran of some 150 summers. Who can this be, I hear you cry, neck craning and eyes popping? Well, dear reader, it is none other than the dear old Daily Telegraph, the journal once beloved of retired Brigadiers, every one of whom resided in either Tonbridge or Buddleigh Salterton, but now making its appeal to the kind of people who want to know not just that Kate Winslet attended a film première but also that she did so in a Ben de Lisi dress.

As with all newspaper readerships, the Telegraph’s comprises a rich diversity of customers who buy the product for a variety of reasons. Some are interested in the crossword and not much else; some are avid followers of the racing pages; some enjoy fuming at the witterings of the columnists; some derive their opinions from the leader columns; a few, who have neither heard the radio nor seen the television, might glance at the news pages; and, one suspects, a great many eagerly await the weekly health pages in order to feed their own anxieties.

But in all of this there is one abiding mystery: who reads the classified ads? These columns are made up almost entirely of births, marriages and deaths – known in the trade as hatches, matches, and dispatches – and cannot conceivably be of any greater interest than the pages read at random of the A-Z telephone directory, except (and this is the point) to the people who placed the ads.

So when the forthcoming marriage is announced of Tristram, son of Mr and Mrs Arnold Gusset, of Slumbering Hollow, Wiltshire, and Cressida, daughter of Mr and Mrs Trevor Vain-Hope, of Sodden-in-the-Marsh, Salop, you have six guaranteed readers. With births and deaths you have even fewer, for in the one case the principal is too young to read, and in the second he is no longer capable of doing so.

But it is upon such slender threads that the enduring popularity of the births, marriages and deaths columns continues to hang. It ought to be a source of great comfort to newspapers that, though outstripped in terms of immediacy by their electronic successors, they retain a unique ability to record the really significant events in people’s lives, including arguably the most significant all: death.

There are, however, few products more perishable than newspapers. Though no longer used for wrapping fish and chips – the Food Standards Agency would not allow it – newspapers are quickly recycled by the environmentally conscious and their contents forgotten. But births, marriages and, depending upon one’s religious belief, deaths too, are not transient events but the beginnings of greater things, and as such deserve better than to be instantly pulped and de-inked. With that in mind, the Telegraph offers those who place classified announcements of births and marriages (though, for delicate reasons, not deaths) a more permanent record. For a fee of £9.50 plus package and postage of £1.95, you can buy a “personalised certificate” commemorating the appearance of the announcement of a hatch or match.

Optimistically, the Telegraph says these documents are mementoes that will, in the case of births, “be appreciated more and more as the years go by” and, in the case of marriages, “treasured for ever by the bride and groom along with their close family and friends”.

Somehow, I doubt either claim is likely to be borne out. For it is a fact that as we progress through life we acquire personal possessions, often of no material value at all, rather in the way that a magnet attracts iron filings. And of all these items certificates of one kind or another are the most useless. They are the reason why bottom drawers were invented.

Nonetheless, as Dr Johnson observed of second marriages, hope triumphs over experience, and few of us can resist the acquisition of yet more printed evidence of our own achievements. So hats off to the Telegraph for being on to a winner.

For in this uncertain world there is little doubt that the printed word retains the power to lend credibility to otherwise unlikely occurrences.

My guess is that if the Telegraph’s certificates are ever looked at for a second time it is to steady the nerves of the beholder and confirm his or her grasp on reality. For there are moments in every parent’s life when, seeing a baby mewling and puking, or a teenager doing the same, sanity totters on her throne. Is it really possible that you could have fathered or mothered that? Similarly, when the confetti is blown on the wind, the honeymoon over, and you notice for the first time that hair is blocking the plughole and unwanted underpants are underfoot, you may take some convincing that you entered the state of matrimony with your eyes open.

In either case, the Telegraph certificates will offer proof positive that you are indeed the author of your own misfortune, and, more amazing still, were once proud of it.

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