What’s in a name? £100,000 if you believe market researchers

Market research claims that people called David or Susan are more likely to be high earners.

In these drowsy dog days of summer when the air is heavy, the days long, and Nature takes a rest after the exertions of spring, we may all be forgiven for laying down the tools of our trade and having a little fun. So it is with a kindly understanding and an indulgent smile that we look upon the work of an unnamed market research company whose idiocy at a different, more taxing time of year might have provoked impatient scorn.

Market researchers are dull dogs and rightly have a haunted, guilty look. How could it be otherwise when their days begin by despatching small platoons of assistants, each with a clipboard and instructions that they should waylay busy citizens in shopping centres and streets and inquire as to their preference for dunking Hobnobs in their coffee daily/every other day/sometimes/never/don’t know?

It must therefore have been with much the same spirit of unaccustomed levity to which a High Court judge might surrender when flicking a ball of inky blotting paper at the members of the jury, that the unnamed market research company undertook its commission from Barclays Bank. And oh what fun when it produced its findings, duly published in The Daily Telegraph! “People called David and Susan are more likely to earn &£100,000-plus a year than those with other names, according to a survey for Barclays Bank of 60,000 high-earning customers.”

Seldom in the history of market research – a long past strewn with inconsequential findings, meaningless statistics, and blindingly obvious commonplaces – can such a joyfully useless piece of non-information have been unearthed and held up for public inspection.

Note the impish glee with which it teases: Davids and Susans, it says, are more likely to earn &£100,000 or more. That’s nonsense. Of the sample taken there were more people of that name pulling in a hundred grand a year, but that is no guide to the future, nor does it make sense to infer a causal relationship.

However, if any more market researchers feel in a similarly skittish seasonal mood, let them join in the fun. Look out for, “People called Godfrey and Hilda are more likely to suffer from ingrowing toenails according to a survey of patients of a leading chiropodist.” Or “People called Lionel or Gertrude are more likely to suffer from Munchausen’s tickly cough by proxy than people with other names, according to a survey of psychiatric patients.” Historians might care to contribute: “People called George are six times more likely to become kings of England than people called Ethelred.”

The appeal of this research is that it demands nothing from us other than laughter. If we were to change our names by deed poll to David or Susan we should be no more likely to be rich than if we were to change them to Horace or Clarissa. If we were to christen our offspring Susan and David they would be no more likely to earn &£100,000 a year than if we were to call them Janet and John.

Our happy impotence in the face of this research is comforting when so much of the information generated by surveys and statistics causes nothing but unease and unhappiness. Every item of research into the consumption of cream cakes, alcohol, tobacco, salt, and sugar carries the strong implication that we should do something; that in order to live longer and to avoid great pain we should don the hair-shirt of the ascetic and forswear earthly pleasures. Every finding on climatic change makes us feel uneasy about turning on lights. And when researchers are not bothering us with tiresome questions they are disturbing us with the answers. So let us congratulate the unsung men and women who trawled through the names of 60,000 Barclays customers, fed the data through their computers, collated the results and, after labouring long into the night, came blinking into the soft morning sun, holding aloft the news that David and Susan were fast storing up riches on Earth.

A pity, though, that the number crunchers had access only to names, addresses and incomes. Had the information been fuller, who knows what other delights might have been revealed? Could it be that people with inside-leg measurements of 30 inches are more likely to be in the &£50,000 a year bracket than those with waists of 40 inches or more? Do redheads command higher salaries than slapheads? Do men with blue eyes fare better financially than women with green eyes? Are gap-teeth a sign of prosperity? But these are questions for another summer, another season when the drudges of market research lay aside the solemn duty of depressing the citizenry, and instead, in a moment of sublime silliness, remind us that statistics are nonsense and surveys mere wind-blown chaff.


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