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This week: how tell if your new brand is doomed, Harry and Meghan's big move, and my thoughts on that Cummings blog.
NEW FROM ME
My final New Statesman column of the last decade was on the perils of too much information. It was probably easier to work out what was going on in the election campaign if you weren't following every twist and turn of it. In this week's NS you can find my profile of Malcolm Gladwell. I've been an admirer of his for twenty years or so, so this was quite a big deal for me. Luckily, he made it easier by being very nice to interview.
NEW YEAR, NEW ENERGY
Maybe, like me, you're too lazy to make New Year's resolutions let alone keep them. If so I suggest investigating what The Ruffian's sponsor, Look After My Bills, can do for you. Look After My Bills (LAMB) enables you to do the right thing without any effort. It finds the most economical energy supplier available to you right now, and it makes sure you are always on the best supplier in the future, whoever they may be, by using whizzy technology that I don't understand. The result is that you save money and you never have to do the onerous work of shopping around ever again. As if that wasn't enough, you get the enormous satisfaction of indirectly supporting The Ruffian.
CANARIES IN THE AISLE
Gladwell's first book, The Tipping Point, helped get everyone in marketing obsessed by "influencers", which, before it came to mean shysters with an Instagram account, meant something like trendsetters; early adopters with refined tastes who picked up on a brand early on and helped it become popular. But what if your brand gets bought early on by people whose taste is so odd, so quirky, that the very fact they're purchasing it is a signal that it's going to tank among the broader population? According to a paper in the Journal of Marketing Research, such consumers exist - people who habitually buy things that nobody else will touch - like coffee-flavoured Coke or a supposedly self-cleaning cat litter box. The paper's authors refer to these consumers as "harbingers of failure". You can find a good summary of the paper's findings here. As one of the authors of the study puts it, "Systematically, they (the harbingers) are able to identify really terrible products that fail to resonate with the mainstream."
I really wanted to be positive about the New Year's blog post from Dominic Cummings if only because it was widely greeted with derision, and it's very dreary to agree with deriders. But he hasn't made it easy for me. I was hoping for some more development of his ideas now that he's in government as opposed to standing on the outside ranting about it. Although the tone is a touch mellower than previous posts it's still the same grab bag of undigested references. His reverence for the omniscience of mathematicians and economists is almost comically naive and oddly old-fashioned, a throwback to the early 1960s, McNamara-era belief that a country's problems can be solved by Really Clever People from elite universities. As we should have learnt then, running a government is not like running a factory or a hedge fund or NASA. As Giles Wilkes (a former SPAD and maths geek himself) writes, the problems of government do not yield to maths because they are, essentially, people problems: problems of entrenched beliefs and competing interests. Actually - no offence - being a mathematician may put you at a positive disadvantage when it comes to solving those, because mathematicians spend so much time in a rarefied world of abstraction they find it hard to interface with normals (at one point Cummings says he wants mathematicians who can explain maths papers to other mathematicians). Still, having done my own rant, let me try and be more positive. For one, I hope and trust that in person DC is a lot more savvy and focused than in his writing, certainly when you speak to people who have worked with or for him they are net positive. Secondly, there is an argument to be made that the actual content of his blogs doesn't matter so much. What matters is the attitude they strike, and the signal they send. There are already plenty of forward-thinking, innovative and analytical people in Whitehall and some of them are already grappling with bigger issues of twenty-first century governance. Just by signalling that innovative solutions will be favoured - just by being "Dominic Cummings" - the prime minister's chief adviser may embolden those people and unlock imaginative initiatives stifled by previous regimes. Even ones that have nothing to do with spatiotemporally chaotic systems. (Oh this just in - if you're interested in more, read this brilliant commentary).
THE STORY OF APPLE
This is a pleasingly presented anthology of Apple's print advertising since 1977, with an informed and clear commentary on how the brand has evolved (Apple's ad agency, Chiat/Day, is an alma mater of mine). Apple has rarely if ever produced really stellar work, as it did on TV, but there is plenty of interest in how they moved from selling the idea of personal computing, to selling product features, to selling values - and then back to selling product features again.
Mixed feelings about H&M. I think it's a shame although Tanya Gold nails the emotional truth of Harry's situation here. The couple's rushed-out statement had a flavour of Get Brexit Done. The Palace's exasperated response - basically, "it's a lot more complicated than that" - reminded me of Remainers saying "but it won't be done". Not literally, no, but there is a point of no return and that's what Johnson's slogan captured. Similarly, H&M may feel they had to do things in this inelegant way in order to get the institution to accept they're going. Having said that, and again as per the Brexit debate, the Palace is clearly right, and it's not clear to me how this will work. If H&M are proposing to divest themselves of their titles and become private citizens, that's one thing. If they're proposing to leverage the Sussex brand without discharging the duties that came with it, that's another.
I've written before here about how a tragedy of the climate crisis debate is the way nuclear power has effectively been written off purely for reasons of politics rather than planetary welfare (for a detailed assessment of its pros and cons, read this). A new study provides depressing confirmation of what that means. Following the Fukushima disaster, German phased out its nuclear program (despite the fact, incidentally, that modern plants are much safer than Fukushima and Germany's are even less likely to be tested by a freakishly large earthquake/tsunami, and that even under those circumstances, nobody died of radiation nor is anyone predicted to). The paper finds that after Germany shut down half its nuclear production, the slack was taken up by coal, which not only meant more carbon emissions but a significantly increased risk of death from air pollution. (While we're on environmental matters, here's evidence that banning plastic is bad for the environment. The campaign against plastic has echoes of the 1980s drive towards low-fat foods, which were packed with sugar. Good intentions, counter-productive consequences. For a useful overview of plastic pollution, see here).
KING OF COMEDY
I really enjoyed this podcast interview with Monty Python's Eric Idle. It's from Conan O'Brien's pod, "Conan O'Brien Needs a Friend". The show is worth investigating generally. I usually skip the first ten minutes of "banter" with COB's crew which makes me itch (like Steve Wright's posse) but once past that, he is a really good interviewer. This episode is really interesting on how the Pythons changed comedy and why they were successful in America. Apparently, Elvis Presley was a huge Python fan. He memorised their scripts, and sat in bed with his girlfriend playing them out, funny voices and everything. It's crazy to imagine, and Idle himself still can't get over it.
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