Column March 10, 2010: Marketing – the greatest menace of our age

I WENT to Costco on Sunday. Well, I had to. I’d completely run out of 60-litre bottles of olive-style oil, whirlpool baths and big tellies, and where else was I going to get them all in the one shop?

In amongst the pre-braised lamb shanks and mammoth multi-packs of contraceptives (Who buys those, by the way? It would be quite the statement of intent) I found a packet of prunes. 

Now, I do like a prune and don’t mind who knows it. If you’re put off by the name, redolent of 70s sitcoms and old people’s homes, then that’s your problem – more prunes for me and to hell with the consequences.

But I refused to buy these prunes, because they had been rebranded in a desperate attempt to bypass the prune stigma.

And what were they now called? Fruity Snax 2.0? Fun Plums? Mega Raisins? 

No. A marketing numpty had renamed them “pitted dried plums”. Pitted and dried. It would be difficult to imagine two more dismal words used to attract consumers. “Diseased and disappointing,” possibly. What sort of person would refuse to buy prunes because of the image problem, but happily snap up a bag of pitted dried plums? I suspect there wouldn’t be many.

I went on to Tesco, because life as a journalist isn’t all glamour, glamour, glamour, and was assailed again by the marketer’s art. I was looking for a torch and Tesco had just the thing, a nice silver jobbie, like one would imagine Fox Mulder would hold at shoulder height if The X-Files was still on the television.

But this wasn’t an ordinary torch, apparently. This was a “high velocity” torch. I scoured the packaging to work out exactly what this meant in the context of a torch, but gleaned no clues. Was it more aerodynamic than other torches? And why would one throw a torch in any case?

Or maybe, somehow, the light from this torch travels faster than light from other torches. It was starting to look like a bargain. For years, I’ve bemoaned the sluggish performance of conventional torches and their frustrating way of casting out light at the speed of light and no quicker. My misery was at an end. Take that, physics!

The alternative did not bear thinking about. Could a marketing gimp have just chosen a couple of words which sounded good but were essentially meaningless? Surely not.

But the portents were there. It was clear the marketing divvies had taken over. And the proof was all over the deodorant shelves. There, I saw two different varieties of the same brand of deodorant. One offered 24-hour protection, another reduced underarm white marking. What a dilemma. If I opted for 24-hour protection, and, let’s face it, I should, I was leaving myself open to white marks under my arms. But if I wanted pristine pits, and, let’s face it, I should, I was going to have to forego 24-hour protection. I could only expect 18 hours, tops.

I suddenly understood why Roman Catholic priests don’t marry. Those black shirts would look terrible under the arms if they chose 24-hour protection. On the other hand, if they didn’t want the white marks, they’d be a bit whiffy after a long day. No wonder women aren’t interested in them.

Celibacy has nothing to do with tradition and papal authority, and everything to do with the unwillingness of deodorant manufacturers to put all the things one actually requires from a deodorant into one bottle.

It’s not even as if we can combine deodorants. For one thing, they all have different smells, so anybody coming close to your underarm would experience the same nauseous effect as one does walking within 50 feet of a branch of Lush.

I blame the marketers. They’ll be running the country next.

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Column March 17, 2010: Behind every good man is a good woman but sometimes she’s in front of him

I RECENTLY took delivery of a FutureScope 5000.

You won’t have seen one yet as they’ve yet to be invented, but basically it’s like a special television which lets you see the future. I won’t trouble you with the detail about how I got hold of it. This isn’t an episode of Doctor Who.

I can’t use the device for personal gain, to influence important future events or for any trivial purposes, which renders it fairly useless, so don’t ask me for Saturday’s lottery numbers. (I will tell you this, though. If you’re a football fan, don’t bother taking any holiday next May. And we never find out where they are in Lost.)

Anyway, I’ve just watched a broadcast from 2016, which I found quite instructive, and I’ll share it with you…

AN INTERVIEW ROOM. A PANEL OF THREE IS INTERVIEWING A MAN.

CHAIRMAN: Mr Dooley, we’ve read your CV, and it’s very impressive.

PANELLIST #1: Ooh, yes. Nicely set out. Very posh. Did you do it on a computer?

DOOLEY: Er, yes.

CHAIRMAN: And I think I speak for the panel when I say you come across well at interview. We’ve no doubt you can do the job.

DOOLEY: Great!

CHAIRMAN: There’s just one thing. There is another candidate who is equally qualified who we’ve already seen. So I’m afraid we have to go to the statutory tie-breaker: who’s got the best wife?

DOOLEY: Oh!

CHAIRMAN: Yes, ever since the 2010 general election was decided by which candidate had the best wife, and the winner brought in a golden age of prosperity, the end of global warming and the retention of BBC Radio 6 Music, it’s been generally acknowledged as the most effective way to decide on the best man for the job.

PANELLIST #2: Or woman.

CHAIRMAN: Yes, very funny, Derek. As if! You did bring your wife, didn’t you?

DOOLEY: Of course. Just in case. Darling?

MRS DOOLEY WALKS IN.

CHAIRMAN: Very nice. Well turned out. Is that a tattoo?

DOOLEY: It is. But it’s a small tasteful one.

CHAIRMAN: A bit racy, but nothing too threatening, like pink fur-lined handcuffs. Ideal. Good. Mrs Dooley, tell us about your husband.

MRS DOOLEY: Oh, he’s ace. You should absolutely give him the job. He’d be good.

CHAIRMAN: Nice voice, posh but not too posh. Good. Any complaints about his conduct?

MRS DOOLEY: He works too hard, and he squeezes the toothpaste tube in the middle.

CHAIRMAN: Excellent. The first part is a compliment thinly disguised as a criticism. The second humanises the candidate. This is top-notch stuff. What do you reckon?

PANELLIST #1: She’s got lovely shoes.

PANELLIST #2: I fancy her a bit. Not a lot, but more than the other one. She was a right sour-faced moo.

CHAIRMAN: She certainly was. Mr Dooley, the job’s yours. You’ve definitely got the best wife. Can I borrow her? I’m up for president of my golf club and my own wife is rubbish.

The broadcast ends there. I think we’ve learnt a valuable lesson: always do your CV on your computer as it looks nicer.

Column March 24, 2010: I can see clearly now the pain has gone

IF YOU want to feel old and a bit rubbish, I highly recommend going for an eye test. Hand over £50 and you can confirm that you can’t see properly any more.

I can’t complain about the professionalism of my optician, neither in her conduct nor in her ability to extort money I had no idea I was going to shell out.

But I really don’t like tests, especially ones I know I’m going to fail. I mean, I’ve worn glasses all my life.

“Sit there,” said my pleasant examiner, “And rest your chin on there.” That was nice of her. My chin needed a rest after being agog at the price of some of the designer frames.

It was just like being at school and looking through the railings at the outside world. She flashed a few bright lights at me and puffed air in my eye. She said it was to test the strength of my muscles, but I reckon it was just to see if she could make me cry. Like I say, just like being at school.

“Would you like me to take a picture of the back of your eyes?” Too flipping right, I thought. How cool is that? More to the point, how was she going to get a camera in there?

“Good. Oh, there’s an extra charge.” FLASH! Another bright light. An orange veiny orb appeared on her computer screen. It was my eye, either that or a close-up of a female body builder.

Having broken my spirit, she took me into the testing room. I sat in the dentist-style chair.

“Do you have any trouble with floaters?” she asked.

“I beg your pardon.”

“In your eye. Do you have any trouble with floaters in your eye?”

“Not that I’m aware of.”

“Can you read the bottom line?” Blimey, I thought. If I could read that bottom line, I wouldn’t be sitting here. I’d be counting grains of sand on the surface of Jupiter. I’ve just come in WEARING GLASSES. What do you think?

“Er, no,” I said.

“Have you ever thought about contact lenses?” I wrinkled my nose. I had but only in the same sense as I’ve thought about having a full body wax. It seems like a lot of discomfort for something nobody else would even notice.

She moved in with what she thought would be the clincher. “Well, to be honest, with your very poor right eye, you’d only need one.”

Excellent, I thought. A monocle that only works when I put it in my eye, you say? I can’t even shower without having a towel nearby in case I get a bit of soap in – how likely is it that I’d voluntarily shove a shard of hard plastic onto my eyeball?

“No,” I said. “I’m a glasses wearer. I’ve worn specs all my life. It’s part of my identity. People use it as short-hand when referring to me. ‘See Gary over there, him with the glasses?’ ‘What, the weird-looking speccy one with the towel?’ ‘Yeah, him.’ That’s me.”

She went quiet.

Anyway, the good news was that my eyesight hadn’t changed. The bad news was that it was still rubbish. I staggered downstairs to look at the frames for my new specs. But there were two choices, essentially: invisible and very very visible. Dammit, I thought, I’m a glasses wearer. I’m not going to apologise for it. Say it loud, I’m a four-eyes and I’m proud.

I chose a frame and waited in the sales area while the helpful assistant found as many charges as she could to add onto my bill. 

“When will they be ready?” I asked.

“We’ve an hour service. That’s an extra £5 .”

“Great! I’ll have that.”

“They’ll be ready at 3pm.”

“But it’s noon.”

“Yes, but you want super-duper techno lenso magic.”

“But you’ve just told me I need that.”

Defeated, I left and returned three hours later. I wore my new, very very visible specs to work. “Are you wearing those for a bet?” asked a colleague.

“What do you mean?”

“Those glasses. I didn’t know you wore glasses.”

Column March 31, 2010: Zip-a-dee-don???t-dah

IT WAS a glorious early spring day on Old Hall Street and the light glinted off the gleaming glass of the Liverpool Daily Post Hyperdome.

Flowers of optimism were in bloom everywhere, warmed by the rays of the March sun. Lunchtime walkers were openly ambling about without coats. It was, in short, ace.

It couldn’t last. Not for the likes of me.

I stood at a pelican crossing, a small bag of nuts in my hand, and she appeared next to me, the woman who would ruin my day.

I looked right, then left, and made a terrible discovery. The woman was wearing a pair of jeans, and her zip was open.

I’m no fashion expert. It’s entirely possible that this is how young people are wearing their trousers these days. “Yo, wassup, dude?” they might say to each other. “What are you doing with your zip up? There’s no way you can hang with my posse if you ain’t flying low. So to speak.”

But what if it were a fashion faux pas, as I strongly suspected?

You see, if I were in the same position as Zip Lady, I’d want to know. In fact, I hereby grant you, the reader, permission to approach me in any circumstances if you notice any such wardrobe nonsense.

And if the person standing next to me had been a gentleman, I would have had no qualms about pointing out his inadequacy.

“Hey, mate,” I’d have said, in the universal language of men who don’t know each other, “You’re, erm.” And he’d have known, and sorted himself out.

And I’d have had to write a column about something else.

But I have no idea about the etiquette of telling a woman about that sort of thing. If she’d had a label sticking out, or her top was on inside-out, or she had a slug on her sleeve, I’d have told her. Trouser grief, on the other hand, is a minefield.

I resorted to my stock response when faced with any dilemma: What Would John Leslie Do?

I identified the former Blue Peter and This Morning presenter as an anti-role model long before the various unsavoury and unfounded allegations about his private life, owing to his uncanny ability to do the wrong thing in any given situation.

The man, never let it be forgotten, dumped Catherine Zeta-Jones a nano-second before she became one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.

Then, later, he mislaid a video tape he took while entertaining the fragrant Abi Titmuss, an activity which, in any case, risked damaging valuable electronic equipment.

So what, indeed, would John Leslie do in the event of a lady’s garment malfunction? A case immediately sprang to mind.

When the TV host Judy Finnigan proved too robust for her halterneck dress, and flashed the nation during a live awards ceremony, Leslie was the one person in an audience of hundreds who dashed forward and adjusted her decolletage.

I decided he, no doubt, would have walked across, without fuss, bent over (he’s a tall gentleman) and pulled up her zip himself, giving the lady a friendly wink.

I did the opposite. I studiously avoided her glance and tore away at the earliest opportunity. Ignorance is bliss. As is not being punched in the eye by an irate woman in jeans.

 

MORE proof that ignorance is bliss – the continuing scone-eating grin of Gideon “George” Osborne.

The man’s clearly an idiot. He’s either going to lose the election or he’s going to become Chancellor of the Exchequer. He has nothing to smile about.

Still, it’s a source of delight that Labour refers to him as “Boy George”, as he’s eight months older than me. Only in politics could somebody who left his teenage years behind 20 years ago be considered the giddy voice of callow youth.

Column April 7, 2010: Chain of fools

GAZING through my bus window, I saw him. Clad in close-fitting green and yellow, he balanced upon his cycle at the red light.

His face set granite in concentration, he edged forward a centimetre at a time, deftly yet jerkily twisting his front wheel to keep upright and moving at all times.

I marvelled at his skill. And then I thought, “You massive divvy.”

When I was learning how to ride a bike, the first thing I was taught was how to put one foot on the ground to avoid falling over.

Yet this man had apparently bought all the expensive kit without knowing how to stop.

I have no idea how he was going to end his journey. Perhaps he was hoping to find a mattress shop which displayed its wares upon the pavement.

Maybe I was wrong. Maybe he knew perfectly well how to stop, but was compelled not to. 

Had Dennis Hopper attached some sort of explosive device which would detonate if he came to a rest?

Perhaps he was helping sick kiddies by doing a sponsored “being a eejit.”

Or maybe he was one of those cyclists who, upon seeing a red traffic light, thinks: “This is not for the likes of me, for I, I am a cyclist. Stop? I shall never stop, for I am protected by my magical shield of environmental smug.”

Of course, had he had the courage of his convictions, he wouldn’t have been such a terrible weed, and would have raced forward, across the Allerton Road traffic, confident that his brightly-coloured high-visibility outfit would make him impervious to accidents, cars skidding in his wake.

The light turned to green and he made off, nipping through the traffic, flipping from lane to lane.

I have absolutely no idea why some cyclists should behave like idiots on the road. If I were balancing on two wheels, exposed to the world, I would be warier of the Goliath machines punching through the air beside me.

I certainly wouldn’t take risks like dashing in front of cars, weaving in and out of the traffic, and jumping red lights.

Nippy might well beat big and lumbering most of the time, but when big and lumbering wins, it tends to be a decisive victory.

 

I CAN’T begin to count the number of times I’ve been in a restaurant and had to send back a mixed grill because the tomato wasn’t a perfect hemisphere.

As my old gran used to say, a tomato that isn’t round is like a dog with five legs – an abomination and an insult to Mother Nature. Mind you, she used to go absolutely spare if she saw we’d bought plum tomatoes. We’d have to point them at her so they looked round from her perspective. In the end, we decided buying tomatoes just wasn’t worth the trouble.

So I’m delighted to see Marks & Spencer has come to my rescue. Currently the store is selling tomatoes. But these aren’t just ordinary tomatoes. These are M&S Classic Round Tomatoes. 

Now I can buy tomatoes with confidence, safe in the knowledge that I’m not going to find an elongated one.

And they’re not just Classic Round Tomatoes. They’re “the perfectly versatile tomato.” Again, this is a plus point for me. I’m sick and tired of boring one-dimensional tomatoes, only suited to eating.

I want an all-purpose tomato – one I can use as a torch, an MP3 player and a wallpaper pasting table – and M&S has clearly come up with the goods.

Ah, hang on. It doesn’t say on the packet whether they’re red tomatoes or not. I mean, I can see that they’re red through the cellophane, but you can’t be too careful.

Oh, well, if they’re not absolutely perfect, I can always throw them at the nearest cyclist and see if I can tip him over.

 

Column April 14, 2010: It’s not our fault, Gov

IF ONE visits the United States of America, one is asked a series of questions including: “Have you ever been a representative or member of a terrorist organization or a member of a group which endorses terrorist activity?” Cunning, eh? If Osama Bin Laden ever tried to waltz into the States, he’d be done bang to rights.

But it’s not as stupid as it sounds. The US Government is sort of counting on terrorists to tell a fib about their intentions. Because when they do try their hands at a bit of terrorism, Uncle Sam can say, “Ooh, you big fibber, you promised you wouldn’t let off any bombs. We’re going to prosecute you for telling lies.”

Yes, not as stupid as it sounds, but still quite stupid. The US reduces itself to a wronged wife: “It’s not the murdering we object to. It’s the deceit.”

It’s also a back-covering move. It doesn’t stop terrorism, but it absolves the US authorities.

I thought about this while I watched the FA Cup semi-final between Portsmouth and Tottenham (SPOILER ALERT: Portsmouth win) and, specifically, the electronic advertising hoarding at the side of the pitch during a lull in the match.

I saw an advertisement for beer, just the name of the manufacturer, and underneath, in smaller type was the order “Drink responsibly.” You’ll see the same legend on all alcohol advertising nowadays, along with groups of late- twentysomethings enjoying small quantities of fermented beverages in a sensible way, ie,. not being maudlin or aggressive, or projectile vomiting outside the Jacaranda.

Frankly, if that doesn’t wipe out binge-drinking at a stroke, I have no idea what will. Already we can see the effects of this campaign on the streets of Liverpool on a Saturday night. Around Concert Square, it’s wall-to-wall people having a sensible time and being respectful of each other’s personal space and dignity.

“Charley, what do you think? Should we have another glass of Bailey’s? Perhaps a Malibu?”

“Oh, I don’t think so, Jade. I already have a definite, if slight, sense of well- being. If I’m honest, I actually think we’ve overdone it as I’m verging on being a bit tipsy. Let’s just stick to soft drinks from now on.”

“Yes, you’re quite right. That would certainly be the responsible thing to do. We’ll just have a cuppa and, if we’re lucky, we’ll be home in time for Casualty.”

I’m not exactly Oliver Reed, but even I would find it difficult to have just one alcoholic beverage on a night out. I’d prefer to abstain completely.

The “Drink responsibly” campaign has only one guaranteed success. It enables the drinks manufacturers who sign up to it to say, “Not our fault, mate. We’ve been quite clear. We reckon binge-drinking is right out of order.”

And it enables the Government to say, “We’ve done our bit. We’ve had a word with the drinks manufacturers and we’ve made it very clear we reckon binge-drinking is right out of order.”

Even sweet manufacturers have their own SnackWise marque, essentially saying “Sweets are lovely, but if you eat too many, you’ll end up with a big tummy.”

It’s got nothing to do with being responsible and everything to do with the avoidance of blame, as the only people who would heed the warnings are the sort of people who already give a damn. If you don’t know or care that sweets are fattening and beer can make you drunk, then no warning in the world will put you off.

 

THAT said, I actually had a single glass of wine at lunch last week for the first time in, well, my life. I was meeting a couple of former colleagues and was sitting in a French restaurant and I suppose I was a bit overwhelmed by the occasion. I had a delicious steak baguette with Dijon mayonnaise, salad and thin pommes frites, and felt thoroughly cosmopolitan. If Gerard Depardieu had walked in with Juliette Binoche, I’d have happily invited them to our table and talked about French stuff.

And then I realised, “Hang on. I’ve come to a French restaurant, with all the glories of Gallic cuisine on offer, and I’ve basically ordered burger and chips.”

Column April 21, 2010: Too close for chorizo

TUMBLING headlong, as I am, towards the age of 40, I should perhaps be less excited than I am by sitting at the front of the top deck on a bus.

But the fact is, when I climb the stairs and discover the front seats are unoccupied, I feel like the winner of the bus lottery, king of the number 78, Bus Aldrin.

So I was delighted to find myself at the front of the top deck, the public transport equivalent of the corner office. Not only could I see where I was, I could also see where I was going. And how rarely in life can one say that?

I spread out and I put my bag on the seat next to me. Best of all, I had room to stretch out my legs in front of me. At five feet eleven and a half – and you can imagine how galling that lack of half an inch was when I stopped growing. I have the Devon Loch of pituitary glands – I spend most of my time on buses with my knees either side of my ears. It was, in short, ace.

Regular readers of this column, and indeed, students of Sod’s Law, will know that such happiness could only be fleeting. As surely as Knight follows Day on the bill of a Gladys Knight show with Darren Day as support, 12 stones of annoyance planted itself next to me.

I don’t really like it when people sit next to me on the bus. I was scarred by an unfortunate incident involving a sneezing passenger with a weak pelvic floor. Even if that nice Karen Gillan off of Doctor Who had sat next to me, I’d have been a bit browned off.

But it wasn’t that nice Karen Gillan. It was a stubbly, stubby, swarthy gentleman who started off by reading a text on my phone, which was on my lap.

I tried to angle my body in such a way that it would render my new acquaintance incapable of reading my phone’s screen. But I could not, firstly because my bag, which had been dislodged from its comfy seat, was now stuck between my two feet.

And secondly, more importantly, it was because Mr Swarthy had decided to adopt a Continental approach to personal space. He had attached himself to my side, his left arm against my right, his left foot against my right, and, yes, his left thigh against my right. If he had leant into my face and sung a Spanish song about love, loss and chorizo I wouldn’t have been a bit surprised.

I am unused to such intimacy on a bus journey. If I have to sit next to somebody, I play a version of the game where one drags a loop around a twisty wire without touching it. I contort my body so as not to touch the other passengers. And I think they appreciate my pains.

I looked around to find another seat. But there were no empty seats. And in any case, I was stuck, trapped by the bag between my feet, the wall of the bus and the barnacle which was now attached to me, a 12-stone barnacle called Miguel. If I had tried to stand up I would have ended up in his lap, which would have been pretty much exactly the opposite of the message I was trying to give.

No matter, I consoled myself. The bus would soon empty and he would move to a different seat. I felt the cool glass of the window against my cheek and relaxed. Then the person behind me got off the bus. My new friend didn’t move. All right, I thought. He probably didn’t notice.

Then another person got off, and another, and another. I realised that we were now the only people on the top deck of the bus, apart from a young woman near the back. And the Barnacle was still clamped to me. I started to come round to the idea of a life with Miguel constantly by my side. 

The bus reached the end of the route. And he still didn’t stand up. I took action. I grasped my bag and rudely barged past him. I looked back as I reached the stairs and saw Miguel slowly realise the bus was going no further. I wasn’t paying attention as I watched him stand. I put my hand on the yellow rail. Right on top of the hand of the young woman.

Her eyes flashed daggers at me as she pulled her hand away.