If you can keep your head when all are losing theirs, you might succeed

In desperate times, marketers should resist following wild goose chases led by the scare-mongering media if they are to find where the smart money lies

First the smart money was on eggs, then it was on pliers, and then it was on keeping it in the bank, but that looked the least smart of all. In these troubled times, the desperation is so thick and viscid you can almost smell it.

The other day I received a mailshot from Kerrie Head of Princess Cruises UK. It can’t be easy selling luxury holidays to people living in the shadow of redundancy or whose savings are earning zero interest, but Kerrie grits her teeth, straightens her shoulders and gives it her best shot.

“Dear Mr Murray,” she writes. “Have you ever dreamt of standing on a glacier, watching a bald eagle circle over head?”Well, Kerrie, this may come as a disappointment, but no, I have not. I once had a nightmare of standing on a traffic island, while bald-headed Brits, of the modern variety, circled in white vans, but I got over it. Princess Cruises is, of course, only one among many companies mourning the loss of funny money when house prices soared and the proud owners of desirable residences sat on their decking, sipping G&Ts and dreaming of glaciers and slap-headed fowl. Nowadays, money isn’t funny and to succeed in marketing you must be truly smart.

It helps if you can proceed untroubled by either bureaucratic encumbrance or the attention of the health and safety lobbyists who – and this really is a measure of the wickedness and injustice of the modern world – are immune to financial strictures and flourish both in good times and bad.

Worse, they are maddeningly capricious, as we saw last week when,after years of scare-mongering, they declared that eggs are safe to eatafter all. For years, we were warned that yolks contained enough cholesterol to clog the Dartford Tunnel and that more than three a week were a serious hazard. Now, without even the decency to blush, the experts have changed their minds. Go ahead, they say, eat as many eggs as you like, it won’t harm you.

We’ve heard it all before. One day, wine is good for you, the next it is dangerous, especially when drunk in the privacy of their homes by the middle classes. None of this would much matter – in fact it would scarcely affect us at all – were it not for the eagerness of the press to pick up and run with every scare story, like lap dogs with a stick.

Seldom, if ever, do journalists question the credibility of the science behind thestories. They have neither the time nor the training and, in any case, scare stories are sexy. It’s more gratifying to stoke emotions of fear and anger, which are potent and easily aroused, than than those of contentment and placidity.

Knowing this, the public relations business has become adept at feeding pseudo-scientific horror stories to lazy journalists. Just last week, for example, Which? reported that about 3 million Britons have resorted to DIY dentistry, including pulling out teeth with pliers, because they cannot get NHS appointments. Three million, eh? That’s an awful lot of pliers and an awful lot of teeth. And an awful lot of hokum.

Which? arrived at the figure by extrapolating the results of a survey of 2,631 adults to the population as a whole. It’s an unreliable and fallible technique, but when the goal is headlines, who cares how the ball is bundled over the line? Indeed, Which? was so brazen that it was loath to stop at 3 million. So, it concluded that 6 million adults had despaired and reached for the pliers “or knew someone who had”. This is urban myth made science.

The Consumers’ Association is just one among many who employ statistical legerdemain to gain publicity. The motor insurance industry frequently uses the tactic. Thus, Sheila’s Wheels “reveals” that “a massive 67% of women currently have a hairstyle that can fall in their eyes while driving. However, despite this risk, only a fifth of women always secure their hair off their face before getting behind the wheel. Indeed, more than 9 million female motorists say that they never secure their hair back before driving”. Scary.

In a similar vein, esure reports that “in excess of 2 million UK motorists have had an accident, near miss, or momentarily lost control of their car as a result of sneezing while driving. And it’s not just those behind the wheel who need to be wary of hayfever symptoms. In-car passengers were found to contribute to more than an estimated 670,000 accidents, with sudden sneezing distracting the driver.” Wonderful thing, extrapolation.

How many women drivers sneeze because their loose hair gets up their nose? It can’t be fewer than 15 million. 

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