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This week: do brands have morals, can objects think, and a theory of why people voted for Trump.
THE REPUTATION GAME
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a review, for the New Statesman, of two new books about reputation. One of the books, The Reputation Game, by two PR experts, includes a discussion of the VW dieselgate scandal of 2015. The authors talk about it as if it was just obviously disastrous for Volkswagen's reputation and business. Reading this I wondered, how do they know? I've been having similar thoughts ever since the scandal broke, and the share price halved, and every pundit and chin-stroker delivered a grave prognosis: VW had broken a solemn covenant of trust with the public and now it was damned forever. I wondered if normal people actually care about this stuff - don't they just want a car that works? If so then regulatory deception, however heinous, is pretty much irrelevant. Ah, say the chin-strokers, these days, consumers want to know that the companies they buy from are ethical and decent, it's terribly important to them. Yet here we are, two and a half years later, and VW is outselling its biggest rivals and growing its profitability. Its share price is up 10% on where it was the day before the scandal. It's generally regarded as being in great shape. This is partly because the company's management didn't let the crisis go to waste - they used it to push through long-overdue changes - but mainly because consumers don't think of brands as people. They don't assess them in moral terms. They care about what the brand can do for them. To use a distinction highlighted in my review, when it comes to corporate reputation, capability beats character.
PC GONE MAD
This is a fascinating study which finds evidence for the theory that part of the reason people voted for Trump was to kick against what they perceive as the constrictions of political correctness. Fieldwork took place in the run-up to the 2016 election. Participants were asked if they were likely to support Trump or Clinton. One group was primed, before they were asked their preference, to think about norms of political correctness, specifically as restrictions on what they can and cannot say in public. That group turned out to be much more likely to support Trump than the control group. The authors describe this as an instance 'backfiring social norms'. Restrictive norms are effective in the short term but risk backfiring in the long term because people resent anything that seems to threaten their freedom of expression, and seek to compensate for it (an example of Le Chatelier's principle). You might argue - I would - that if you believe in the norms, then in the (even) longer term, the backfire effect is a price worth paying, because eventually those norms will be widely accepted and no longer seen as restrictive. It's just that in this particular case, the price turned out to freakishly, unpredictably high.
EYE ME MINE
I love this (very short) story about the nineteenth century astronomer Percival Lowell. It's funny and sad and a beautiful metaphor for our unwitting solipsism.
I generally don't like recommending things that everyone else has already recommended but I'll make an exception here because, if you haven't got round to it, you really, really need to read this interview with Quincy Jones. It's staggeringly good. One of the great twentieth century lives, and still going strong in the twenty-first. So many brilliant quotes and amazing stories, the most amazing of all being his own; the whole of America is there. It's long, but make time for it. I've been spinning it out all week, I didn't want it to end.
THE HILLS ARE ALIVE
A very good short account of a theory taken increasingly seriously by some scientists and philosophers: pan-psychism, which posit that inanimate objects are conscious. Rocks, tables, spoons, the earth itself. Sounds crazy but as someone says, why on earth would you think common sense is a good guide to the workings of the universe. Also explains a lot about the relationship I have with my toaster.
HOW STRANGE THE CHANGE
Someone clever has transposed Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit into a major key and it sounds pretty good. Obviously not in the same league as the real thing, but a cute poppy song that reminds me of the Spin Doctors. Kurt would have hated it.
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