Three rules govern the survey industry. First, whoever pays for the research gets the desired results; second, the greater the sum spent, the more blindingly obvious the outcome; third, respondents tend to lie through their teeth.
Taken together these may on occasion produce perturbing results. A case in point is a recent survey on behalf of Milton Pharmaceutical, which commissioned a poll to promote its range of hygiene and sterilising products. Already, you, the alert and fearful reader, will have sensed something nasty, and you would be right to do so.
Faithful to Rule 1, the findings bear out Milton’s desire to demonstrate a need for its products. To echo the words of the bottle-blonde sports presenters on BBC, all from central casting, if you don’t want to know the result close your eyes now.
More than 6 million people in Britain do not wash their hands after going to the lavatory; 21 million do not take a bath or shower every day; 3.6 million bathe only weekly; some 600,000 (they are the ones who stand next to you in crowded Tube trains) bathe just once a month.
It gets worse: some 600,000 people (not necessarily the same 600,000 grimy folk aforementioned) change their underwear just once a month; 69% do not wash their hands before eating and 27% pick up and eat food from the floor.
At first sight, Rule 2 seems to have been broken; the results do not state the obvious. But think again and look around you. Ask yourself, does our population look as though it inhabits the fourth most prosperous nation on Earth? Are we not a nation of slobs? Our litter-strewn and chewing-gum-infested streets are thronged with slouching, shuffling people slovenly dressed and, as night descends, imbued with an air of menace. It would be surprising if they washed on a regular basis.
It is, however, Rule 3 that has the most serious implications, since it suggests that Milton’s findings understate the true extent of our unwashed. Whether it is a resentment of intrusive questioning or a simple wish to please, people lie to pollsters. They are especially inclined to conceal the truth when they feel guilty. It is known, for example, that people who declare themselves willing to pay more tax in the mistaken belief that forfeiture of income is a social good, would in truth rather not give more of their money to the government. And people who enjoy a drink tend to play down the true extent of their consumption. Might it not be the case, then, that when asked how often they take a bath, or change their underpants, or pull on a fresh pair of thongs, respondents tend to err on the side of cleanliness?
There is another factor pointing to a similar conclusion, though it cannot be proved in this case. For obvious reasons the people whom polling companies recruit to stand on street corners and do the questioning tend to be well-presented, clean and polite middle-class women. Just the kind of people in fact who bathe regularly and wear clean knickers and who might raise an eyebrow and curl a nostril when an interviewee confesses to be standing at that instant in a pair of Y-fronts that are still being nicely run-in after a month of uninterrupted contact with unwashed body parts.
Unfortunately, Milton’s 3,000 respondents are not broken down by age and class. One suspects that older people might feel a touch more guilty about being caught in possession of grime-encrusted gonads than a younger generation, for whom delicacy of thought is a stranger. The young who see no shame in binge drinking might equally be supposed to see no harm in carrying a peck of dirt in their pants.
At any rate, Milton’s research tends to blunt the work of scientists at Northwestern University of Chicago who specialise in studying the effect of faint odours that we are unaware of, smells which they say could be exploited by advertisers, theatres and businesses. Dr Wen Li, lead author of the study, says barely perceptible smells can play a key role in whether or not we like somebody. The faintest hint of body odour, she adds, can make someone appear less likeable.
Her findings suggest that business meetings could be made more friendly by using subliminal smells. Advertising hoardings might send out a subtle perfume to win over consumers, and the mood of theatre audiences might be manipulated to suit what was happening on stage.
In Britain, however, there is nothing either subliminal or subtle in the way we smell. Could that be who so many of us behave strangely and hate each other?