Is a bald man un-electable in the UK today? And if so, to what extent is marketing responsible?
These are serious questions, brought about of course by the defeat of William Hague in the general election and the widespread suspicion that one of the candidates to succeed him as leader of the Conservatives, Iain Duncan Smith, is similarly, and therefore potentially as disastrously, handicapped.
Marketing’s role in the rise of baldism seems to have been to cultivate over many years the notion that it is acceptable to buy goods only from well-proportioned and attractive people. Despite the occasional campaign on behalf of the overweight and in other ways physically disadvantaged – sometimes described as “normal people” – to feature in commercial messages, the advertising industry sticks stubbornly to what it knows works.
It seems likely, therefore, that a population accustomed from early childhood to want and buy consumer goods promoted by people with even, white teeth, symmetrical features, slim bodies and an abundance of glossy hair will consciously or unconsciously apply the same criteria to buying political policies.
Research in the US supports that contention. Dr Raj Persaud, consultant psychiatrist and ubiquitous savant, says the question of whether hair loss influences electability has been put to the test by researchers at the University of Arizona. After studying photographs of 522 US governors, senators and congressmen, the academics concluded that the elected officials had indeed suffered less hair loss than would be typical for men of their ages.
As Dr Persaud points out with customary sapience, this could mean that voters favour non-balding candidates. There are other possible explanations: there may be a tendency among bald men to not seek high office; or there may be a tendency among bald men who do seek high office to wear wigs. Whatever way you look at it, there does seem to be a problem with the electability of bald candidates.
To investigate the matter further, psychologists at the University of Central Florida used computerised trickery to vary, from the luxuriant to the billiard ball, the hairiness of a number of men, and asked 1,000 undergraduates to assess the resulting images. Full-haired men were rated as more dominant, dynamic and masculine than bald men of the same age. Surprisingly, though, there was no link between quantity of hair and degree of physical attractiveness.
This suggests that bald men have difficulty being elected because they are seen to lack the drive and masculinity that the electorate wants from its leaders.
Personally, I favour the view that marketing is to blame. Or rather the huge success of marketing and the market economy. We live in an era of unprecedentedly widespread affluence and choice. And many people enjoy the fruits of this abundance, despite their being at best half-educated and at worst near idiots. They bring both to the market and to the polling booth a self-centred, babyish superficiality and desire for instant gratification.
When the mass of people were poor, they were more grown-up. For there is nothing like hunger and deprivation to focus the mind on the things that really matter. Nor was it by chance that when times were hard there was a widespread appetite for self-improvement. In the days of the Workers Educational Association and in the heyday of the public libraries, people took their politics seriously.
But now that we are rich and comfortable we can afford to treat politics as another branch of the entertainment industry, and a rather inferior one at that. After all, more people vote to eject victims from the Big Brother house than voted for the Government in the general election.
This is not, of course, to argue for a return to mass poverty. Rather it is to observe that in an age of easy plenty, when we can afford to indulge a keen interest in the latest news of the millionaires Chris Evans and David Beckham, politics is neither here nor there. Which is why so few bother to vote.
It would, however, be a mistake to believe that this is the end of politics, that ours is a post-political age. For while it is true that for the present the UK is a giant adult playground in which we can gratify our appetites and surf erratically across the entire wash of childish emotion – from bitter hatred (at any football match) to weeping sentimentality bordering on mass hysteria (the death of Diana), this life is deceptively easy.
If death and taxes are certainties, so too are the laws of economics. In one important respect our prosperity is an illusion: we are nearing the peak of a credit-fuelled consumer boom. When we have toppled over the top and the reckoners come knocking, it will be time for the playground to ring to the sound of stamping feet and shouts of “It’s not fair”. Only then shall we again take politics seriously. Who knows? We might even vote for a bald candidate if he could return us to a glorious condition in which we can throw punches and litter, shop till we drop, luxuriate in victimhood, sue for compensation and generally feel at
ease with ourselves.