Friday 21 November 2008

Marketing Revisited

There is, out there, a whole Industry-full of Marketing Zombies who have programmed into their victims the assumption that the rest of the population (you and me, folks) are gibbering morons, totally incapable of thinking for themselves, and that everything and anything, if they are to stand any chance at all of flogging it to us. has to be served as a pre-digested pap. Add to this a succession of Governmental nannies who are determined to legislate all the risk out of everything for everybody, and the simplest transaction ends up wrapped in more verbiage than a VAT guide, and festooned with more caveats than a Trade Union policy document.

Take packaging. Brushing aside the more obvious annoyances in that (for instance) if you have something that needs a battery, you won’t be able to buy a pack of less than two, but if it takes two, or worse, four, you’ll find that in that size they only come in threes. There’s also the physical problem, in that if the movers and shakers in the packaging industry really had our interests at heart, they’d design their product so that we don’t need a JCB to force our way into it.

But why should they address these genuine annoyances, when they’re on a far more vital mission. The main function of packaging is not to protect the product, or even, as often appears, to drive the consumer doolally. It is to act as the carrier of a comprehensive Manufacturers Cover-Your-Arse document, usually including:

· A list of ingredients (often, and rightly, a legal requirement, but you’d need to be a Regius Professor of Chemistry to grasp the finer (and thus the more salient) points.) And why can’t they call water “water” rather than the bland faux-impressive “aqua”?

· A chart, in the case of comestibles, giving details of calories and stuff (ditto Professor – but Physics.)

· Various disclaimers covering recycled materials. ‘All our packaging is made from secondhand loo paper’ ‘This can was made from replenishable trees.’ ‘Our bottles are 100% biodegradable.’

· More disclaimers, mostly concerning animal testing, and touching on Whales, Dolphins and other denizens of the deep perceived to be either cute or intelligent. And Pandas, for some reason. But if Medical Research found a use for, say, cockroaches, you wouldn’t hear a peep out of the Animal Rights nutters. Maybe I ought to set up a Leech Liberation Fund. Bloodsuckers Anonymous.

· Genetic purity or the lack of same. But isn’t the familiar hybrid Tomato a genetically modified food?

· Peanuts. (I’ve forgotten – am I supposed to be for or against peanuts?)

· Disposal of the used product and/or packaging. If it’s any shape other than flat, and any part of it is made of metal, don’t sling it on the fire. If it’s shaped like a pineapple and made of metal, just pull the little pin out. That’ll dispose of it nicely. And of course eschewing the local Bottle Bank, or worse, putting the wrong colour bottles into the wrong compartment thereof, is a black cap long drop sharp jerk and into the quicklime job.

· A use-by date (understandable for perishable foods, but can somebody out there tell me why I need a use-by date on a bottle of blue-black ink or a packet of aspirin?)

· A hot line, in case you have a problem. And if you try to ring it, you sure will have a problem. It’ll take you three hours to get through while your call is held in a queue and some snotty voice reminds you of that fact every thirty seconds whilst begging you not to hang up because they value your custom; half-an-hour punching digits, star buttons and hashes into your handset at the behest of a disembodied vaguely female recording; and then you’ll then be kept hanging on at a premium rate quid-a-minute listening to the most expensive and least accomplished performance of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik you’ve ever heard, while the tracey on the other end of the phone files her nails and rabbits to her girlfriend, before informing you that she can’t possibly help you with your problem, no matter what it is, and that you should ring Head Office in Manchester (and thus go through the whole rigmarole again.) Enjoy.

· Pronouncements from Brussels on the subject of how bad for you the product you’re buying is. Does being admonished with every packet that Smoking Is A Short Cut To Hell really inhibit the sale of one single solitary fag? Of course it doesn’t!

· And last but not least, a List Of Instructions. In seven languages, more often than not.

I can understand anyone needing a manual to operate a computer, or a video, or a Hi-fi system – I occasionally need one myself, which is why I get so infuriated when I find that the aide-toi for the appliance in question has been written by a robot, and a Japanese robot, at that, and thus is totally incomprehensible. One knows what each individual word ought to mean, but they don’t seem to be strung together in any recognisable pattern.

But forget the techno-goodies for a moment. Let’s take the most simple household products. In fact, let’s do just that. I’ll go round the house and pick a few real examples at random. Bear with me.

Right. Aerosol can of Sainsbury’s Shaving Foam. Regular, if that makes any difference. ‘Directions’, it says on the back.

‘Wash face and leave skin wet.’ Believe it or not, girls, us blokes just don’t need to be told that a shave is more effective and more comfortable if one starts with a wet phizog.

‘Shake can before use’. Valid enough, except can you honestly say that you know anybody who doesn’t shake an aerosol before pressing the tit?

‘Hold container upright’. Puhleeeze!

‘Press button gently to release a small amount of foam onto fingertips’ They’re slipping up, here. They forgot to tell us to locate said fingertips (presumably those attached to the hand that isn’t grimly holding the container upright as per) within foam-squirting distance of the nozzle. You could be in trouble, here. So could the cat, if he’s anything like mine – rubbing himself around my ankles when I’m shaving of a morning.

‘Smooth evenly onto face’ (they obviously haven’t seen my face – evenly is impossible) ’and shave.’ I’m surprised that they don’t tell me at this point to be sure and use a blade rather than an electric razor.

Rinse with water. As I tend not to keep the gin in the bathroom, water is exactly what I normally use for rinsing purposes. Am I alone in this?

Example 2. The other extreme. A thing of Araldite Rapid. Here, and rightly, they give simple advice re children, skin, eyes, and other damageable and non-replaceable elements. So far, so good, although they don’t actually warn you against spreading the stuff on the loo seat.

But then they go into orbit.

WARNING. Reaction product. Bisphenol A (epichlorhydrin); epoxy resin (number average molecular weight s700. 1, 4-butanedial diglycidyl ether N(3-dimethylaminopropy)0-1, 3-propylenediamine. (The Author will not be held responsible for any errors or omissions in the above transcript.)

Warning? Who are they warning? And against what? Like the poor old judge on the wrong end of F.E. Smith’s celebrated witticism, I’m none the wiser. (….but far better informed, m’lud….) But it sounds all high-tech and impressive. And it’s a well-known fact that gloop with an average molecular weight of s700 is inclined to be a bit iffy. Add a dollop of that hooligan 3-propylenediamine to the stew, and you could be in deep doodoo.

Example 3: A box of cotton buds. “Never insert into inner ear or nose.” But what else does anyone buy the buggers for? They might as well put a warning on a Black and Decker – “Do not use for de-waxing lugholes.”

Example 4: A bar of NEW Mint Aero. (Question – is it still “NEW” when it’s past its sell-by date?) The usual parade of e-numbers, and a list of chemicals which sound exactly the same to me as those used in the Araldite. A note from the ever-caring Nestle Consumer Services Department to inform us that ‘they welcome comments or questions,’ and a PO box number to address same to. At least you don’t have to ring the sods up. And then, proudly emblazoned in a fancy border. “The light minty bubbles are part of Nestle’s proud Chocolate Heritage”.

Wot? Come again? Shall we dissect and discuss? The ‘light minty bubbles’ are, by and large, air. This tends to be the norm, with bubbles. The substance surrounding and thus containing said air is green, not chocolate. It sure is minty, though. The outer carapace of this confection is chocolate, but they don’t mention that component – so can we presume that it isn’t ‘part of Nestle’s proud Chocolate Heritage’?

So have I gotta question for you, Nestle Consumer Services! Is this chockie Grade 1 listed, or what ? May I eat (sorry – ‘consume’ – let’s get the jargon right) it without ending up with an English Heritage halberd up my backside? Should I throw it open to the public on alternate summer Saturday afternoons? Give us a clue. And give us a break – do you really think that anybody falls for such prolix bullshit?

Even the stalwart jar of Marmite is guilty. “Spread thinly on toast,” it says on the back. Surely – anybody who didn’t know that, (Americans, notably) wouldn’t be buying the stuff anyway. “Shucks, Mizz Ellie – Ah jest done gotten me dis heyah thanga Marmite. Muddah come all de way from LunnonEngerlayund. You de one wid de eddicashun an de glayusses – y’all look on de back dere and tellus what it foah.”

I also loved the example quoted in (I think) the Sunday Times, which concerned a chap who had bought a deodorant stick. The instructions thereon read:

“Remove lid, and holding container firmly, push up bottom”

To my mind, this raises several questions:

1 Are you supposed to (a) leave it in situ, or (b) will a momentary application suffice?

2 If (a) , how do you perform natural bodily functions (or for that matter, arcane sexual practices?)

3 Do you need to buy a new stick every day, or

4 Can you just take the old one out and wash it?

5 If (3) how do you tell when the deodorant has run out ? Or must you wait for your best friend to tell you?

6 Does it come in different sizes?

7 Does it work for household pets?

8 Should one buy a separate stick for armpits?

Stop Press: My TV is on in the background as I write, and I’ve just heard a woman, vaguely famous, from her accent transatlantic, but not unnattractive for all that, extolling the virtues of [trying to flog] some nostrum, no doubt expensive, which is, she tells us, shit-hot at de-wrinkling ladies of a certain age. Not that she put it quite like that. She described this cosmetic Philosopher’s Stone as being, and I quote, “A Fresh Sensation in Moisturising Power.”

Madam – please – I beg of you - learn to speak English. Because You’re Worth It.

Saturday 8 November 2008

Back to basics

It’s Uncle Phil’s morning for a whinge. It’s my turn. I’ve earned it, I deserve it, and nobody ain’t going to stop me. So there.

It’s not going to be my usual grumpyoldbugger moan about control-freak politicans, council jobsworths, the growing feeling that we’re virtually being forced to live in a sort of open prison, anarchic amoral youth, or any of the other petty annoyances I tend to get my hair off about.

It’s not even really going to be about books, except as ballast.

The problem is, you see, that a couple of days ago I did my back in. It’s not a new phenomenon; I’ve done it before many times; after nearly 40 years in the antique trade, heaving bloody great lumps of furniture and pianos and such in and out of houses, vans and shops, it’s more of a chronic condition, which most of the time I can live with. But sometimes it seriously flares up, and when it does, it throws my life into tedious limbo. Not only that, it’s bloody painful, costs me a fortune in osteopaths and ibuprofen, and buggers up my love life.

A friend of mine, who's into these things, once told me that the Orientals have the best cure. Three little Japanese virgins tippy-toeing up and down my spine in their bare feet would sort the problem out nicely. They said.

And there’s the rub. Where do you find three young Japanese virgins in Coventry? (Or three young virgins of any nationality, come to that? )

Meanwhile, we’ve got about two dozen crates of books, all nicely catalogued and photographed, ready to go over to the warehouse to be shelved, and I can’t lift the buggers.

And we’re running out of space in our little house.

I’ve got a carload of fresh stock to unload ready for processing, and nowhere to put it even if I could lift it out of the car, which I cant, the garden’s a tip, it takes me half-an-hour to crawl up- or down- stairs, and Susie’s giving me grief bigtime because she can’t do the housework for boxes, heaps and piles of assorted literature.

Maybe I should blame my parents – if they’d had me later I’d have been younger, and better able to cope. But as Marvell put it:

At my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near……….

Maybe he had a bad back, too.
Pressing the right buttons
I get worse, in my old age.

The phone rings, right – I’m packing up some books, and at the same time trying to watch the news out of the corner of my eye, so I need to turn the volume down before I answer it.

Point TV thingy at TV, press button. No result. Realise I’d picked up mobile phone instead of TV thingy. Think – Silly old Sod! Put down mobile. Pick up thingy. Press button as before. No result, as before. Realise I’m holding pocket calculator. Throw same at wall, with torrent of fluent Anglo-Saxon commentary.

Meanwhile, phone has stopped ringing.

Dial 1471. Get strange noise. Realise I’m holding mobile instead of landline phone.

Screw’em. I didn’t want to speak to ‘em anyway. Whoever it was.

Some days one just shouldn’t get outta bed.

Friday 7 November 2008

All That Glisters

While in my local charity shop some weeks ago, looking at such incunabula and 16th and 17th century works as they’d had in that week, I chanced upon a volume in a somewhat garish dust wrapper, emblazoned upon the front of which was a banner bearing the rubric “World’s Number One Best Seller.”

‘Well’, I reasoned – ‘This ought to be a good little earner’ – if it’s that good, everybody will want one’.

So I bought the volume, and then chased around all the other charity shops in the area, and a couple of car boots for good measure, thus managing to acquire another 27 copies. Fair enough, some of them were so-called “Book Club” editions, but for a World’s Number One Best Seller this shouldn’t matter too much, I’d have thought. People like clubs. It’s a security thing.

I duly prepared my new purchases for listing online, with my usual accurate and informative descriptions, pitching the prices fairly high to both create and control demand, and carefully photographed each one – no ‘stock’ photos for me, thank you – then uploaded both words and images, and waited for the orders to roll in.

But, do you know – I haven’t sold a single one. Something, somewhere is very wrong, as my so-called ‘best sellers’ have turned out in fact to be non-sellers.

Worse, I have since tried to read the book – I say ‘tried’ because I found it unreadable – a mere concatenation of scenes involving imaginative and potentially harmful sexual permutations, egregious violence, and shopping, with various plugs for overpriced branded products.

My question is – who can I sue?

The website for not doing their job properly and selling my books in the prescribed manner?
The publishers, for misleading point-of-sale advertising?
The charity shop, under the Trades Descriptions Act?
The author, for turning out such rubbish? or
The local Trading Standards department, for allowing such blatant chicanery?


All is not lost, my friends. I’ve just had an email from a very nice man in farthest Nigeria, offering to buy all my books, offering to pay me for express shipping, and happy to send me an international money order, even trusting me to send him any change after having worked out the shipping cost.