Dealing with the dumb and dumber

With the New Year still swaddled in nappies and full of wind, the latest entry for the forthcoming volume Marketing to Morons has already arrived. First, though, a footnote from the old year. The Queen’s Christmas Day message to the people of the Commonwealth, to give its full name, was widely heralded as the unveiling of a rebranded improved New Monarchy, now with added compassion. In the event, it was a complete failure. The Sun, which is to the mood of the moronic what mercury is to temperature, recorded a collective thumbs-down. Its readers had expected the Queen to subscribe in full to the new “Dianysian” spirit of the age and to devote all of the ten minutes allotted to her broadcast to a blend of apologia and eulogy, culminating in the rolling of a tear down the regal cheek. Instead, what The Sun’s readers got from Her Majesty was bloody cheek. Elizabeth Parkes, 62, of Grimsby rang the paper’s hotline to say: “It was terrible – Diana was hardly mentioned. I wouldn’t care if the monarchy finished tomorrow. It died with Diana.” Marketers planning new campaigns, launching new products, dreaming dreams, and reaching out to the great admass would do well to ponder the message from Grimsby, which is that there is something in the human psyche that renders the cognitive processes impervious to reason, judgement, perspective or balance. It is sometimes described as stupidity. Which brings us to the newly-arrived material for marketing’s most promising textbook. New Scientist magazine, with the help of Internet users, has compiled an international list of instructions, useful hints and warnings prepared by manufacturers for consumers of their products. For instance, a bottle of flavoured milk advises buyers: “After opening, keep upright.” A packet of Sainsbury’s peanuts says: “Contains nuts.” Rowenta warns people who buy its steam irons not to use the product while the clothes are on the body. A camera on sale in Europe carries the warning that the product works only when loaded with a film. An American airline serves its passengers with sachets of nuts and spells out what to do with them: “Instructions: Open packet, eat contents.” Marks & Spencer, which knows a thing or two about consumer satisfaction, tells buyers of its steam puddings that the product will be hot after heating. John Hoyland, who collated the list, says, “Either companies think we are really stupid – or people really are stupid.” If only it were that easy. As Mr Hoyland also points out, there is today a tendency for people to sue if they suffer hurt or damage as a result of doing something that they were not warned about. The practice began in the US, which in less than two hundred years has transformed itself from a land of rugged, self-reliant, pioneering individuals into a nation of whinging victims for whom every setback is the fault of someone else and must be assuaged by financial compensation. Years ago, when people dared to smoke and drink in office hours, Madison Avenue executives were fond of the three, four or five cocktail luncheon. Noticing the trend and adhering to the belief that vodka does not taint the breath, the chairman of one agency urged his executives to steer clear of the Smirnoff on the grounds that he would prefer clients to think they were dealing with drunks rather than idiots. Mr Hoyland’s research into the advice on packaging forces us into a similarly unhappy choice: between believing consumers are either cunning, greedy and without principle or simply plain stupid. There is a third, and more comforting, option, which is that people are indeed stupid but, having suffered as a consequence of their stupidity, are urged into litigation by lawyers who are by definition cunning, greedy and any other nasty adjective you can think of. That, however, doesn’t entirely convince, since the word has got out, even among the near-imbecilic, that there is money to be made from, so to speak, ironing your shirt while it’s still on your back. There is a further distinction to be made, and that is between stupidity and ignorance. In the US, screwdrivers are sold with the warning that they are not to be put in the ear. In this country, a doctor who prescribed two suppositories and at the next appointment asked the patient how things were progressing, was told: “For all the good they did I might as well have shoved them up my arse.” There is, of course, a duty on manufacturers to supply their products with adequate instructions and, where appropriate or necessary, warnings about the effects of misuse. But there ought, too, to be a limit to the extent to which people are to be protected from the consequences of their own stupidity. Unfortunately, in these dark days we dwell in the shadow of a government that so subscribes to the notion of the people’s idiocy that it mounts a public demonstration of how to wash your hands and bans the sale of a foodstuff that has come to be synonymous with the very notion of a freeborn English people. When Marketing for Morons appears, it will have, his righteousness permitting and his good nature obliging, a foreword by the Rt Hon Anthony Blair QC, MP, PM, and all-round Prig.


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