A slice of suspicion sprinkled with cynicism is healthy for democracy

Mass manipulators treat consumers as gullible fools. But the suspicion that greeted research on CSR shows the public shouldn’t be regarded as idiots

Comic_companyIt being an inviolable rule that those who commission research may confidently expect to look with satisfaction and contentment on the results, it is plain that the boards of companies boastful of being green and caring did not pay for a recent survey of attitudes to corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes. Had they done so they would have felt diddled.

For the study showed that almost half the public smelt something which, while short of being a fully-grown rat, was suspiciously long-tailed and verminous and not to be trusted. The researchers discovered that lurking in the public consciousness was the suspicion that what CSR was really about was enhancing company image and that other motives such as contributing to the community or motivating employees was moonshine. It is as though a man who wears a false beard and dark glasses as a form of smart business practice has stepped outside and instantly been recognised by his creditors.

While the survey is a cause of understandable irritation in the halls of business it should give comfort to those who want to hear a strong beat in the heart of democracy and also to those who sense that marketing has become too clever for its own good.

In this, as in so much else that is disturbing about modern life, science has much to answer for. Psychologists and sociologists, who must count among their number more charlatans and half-wits than is either normal or healthy, must share the blame with pollsters and public relations practitioners whose belief in their own skills would be harmless were it not shared by politicians and business people.

So confident have these behavioural scientists and their imitators become that they imagine they can order and shape the mass of humanity. Demographic analysis, market research, focus groups, linguistic analysis, motivational studies, make-up artistry, celebrity deployment, the drip-drip release of selective information, these and other tricks are arrayed like bones before a prancing witch doctor. It would be foolish to suppose that such devices do not meet with some success, but it is bought at a price, and the price is cynicism.

The mass manipulators, for want of a better term, have come to think of the public, if they stop to think about it at all, as a kind of collective dolt, the sort of person who in popular fiction was likely to spend his days leaning on a five-barred gate sucking a straw. You could sell such a person a pig in a poke one day and confidently return the next to convince him that the moon was made of cheese.

It is true that the public was never entirely trustful of politicians or advertisers, but allowing for a pinch of salt here and there, it was prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt. But then the manipulators got cockier and bolder. These were the spin doctors, the men and women who could play public opinion like a stringed instrument, or so they thought. It was a form of power and, as is always the way, those with power come to feel a contempt for those over whom they exercise it.

Politicians who juggle statistics, who announce the same policies under a different guise again and again, who bury bad news, who talk of initiatives, crackdowns and public debates that never happen, and who say that black is white and what is more they can prove it; television companies who fiddle phone competitions or, as with the BBC, lie to children; firms who proclaim their green credentials and parade their social conscience for no other purpose than to look good; banks who lend money to inadequate borrowers, they all imagine that the public is leaning on the gate, nodding in slack-jawed acquiescence. But they are wrong, the public is not an idiot and is heartily sick of being treated like one.

So, it is good that a great many people feel that corporate social responsibility is a form of hoodwinking. Good, too, that the turnout at elections is shrinking. And best of all good that spin is seen for what it is and that politicians are more distrusted than at any time since the days of the rotten borough. True, mass cynicism can be corrosive, but what is worse, a gullible, docile populace or a people who have seen through the shabby trickery of those in public life and recoil in disgust?

I wish I could see some means by which trust might be restored, but I cannot. The very fact that the Prime Minister says his mission is to restore trust makes me distrustful. Regrettable but true, scepticism is our best ally and cynicism a friend.

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