Archive for the ‘media’ category

The ableism of “on the go”

January 19, 2017

What does “on the go” actually mean? Various online dictionaries, all of which seem to be plagiarising each other, say that the phrase has been around since 1843 with the meaning of “in constant motion”.

But we don’t say the moon is “on the go” around the sun. We don’t talk about Robert Fludd’s “on-the-go” machines. These days, “on the go” is a marketing phrase. And by that, I really mean a phrase that people use to tell us stories about ourselves, stories told with the intention of manipulating us.

Some people genuinely believe that products and devices marketed for use “on the go” really are used mainly by people in a hurry. I’ve heard stories about the early days of designing software for smartphones, where the assumption was that the user would be “on the go” (and indeed “out and about” and other such stock phrases denoting busy-busy-busyness), so they would use the phone for quick, simple things and save the complex stuff for “real” computers. As late as February 2015, a research paper about grocery shopping on mobile phones was entitled On the Go: How Mobile Shopping Affects Customer Purchase Behavior.

What’s the reality? Developers now understand what users have known for a long time: that someone accessing the internet via a tablet or smartphone is more likely to be slumped on their sofa or sitting in bed than “out and about”. Which means they want to use their device for the complex things too – maybe it’s the only internet-connected device they can afford, or maybe they spend most of the day in bed and a lighter device is easier to manage. Either way, their reasons for using a tablet or smartphone have bugger-all to do with being “on the go”. Did the researchers of the paper I cited above really believe that people doing a whole grocery shop on their smartphone are putting toilet roll in their online basket while physically dashing from place to place?

It’s a similar thing with e-readers. They’re marketed for their portability, with the implication that otherwise you’d be throwing War and Peace in your bag before hiking the Machu Picchu trail or jumping on a train to Paris. But I do all my e-book reading at home. Other people tell me that they love e-readers because you can make the text bigger, or because you can hold one and turn the pages with the same hand while the other arm holds a baby or rests in a a sling.

Another example: snacks marketed as “on the go” because they don’t require preparation or cutlery. Are they mostly bought and consumed mid-jog? No, they’re mostly bought by people who don’t have access to a kitchen, or who never learned how to cook, or who are too disabled/depressed/tired to prepare food from scratch. The consumers of “on the go” snacks are probably doing just as much sofa-slumping as your average tablet user.

My point here: things marketed as “on-the-go” make life easier because they compensate for missing resources. Sometimes those resources are financial, which is why so many low-income people access the internet through phones and why insecurely housed people eat more convenience food than most. But a lot of the time those resources are about health and what we can broadly call “cognitive resource”: attention, energy, intelligence, knowledge.

But to talk about that would be to talk about poverty and arthritis and poor education and depression. It would be to talk about insecure housing and chronic fatigue syndrome and failing eyesight. So we reframe it all as being about the frantic pace of modern life. That’s why the marketing for TENA Lady pads explains that the typical buyer needs them because she’s “always on the go” and loves to “keep busy”.

Up to a point, it’s nice to look into the marketing mirror and see someone prettier looking back at you. You buy urine-absorbing pads because that’s what sporty women do, and definitely not because you keep leaking urine.  You buy ready-grated cheese because that’s what busy executives do, and definitely not because your hands hurt.

But wouldn’t it be nice to look into that mirror and actually see yourself sometimes? The marketing concept of “on the go” erases people with disabilities and people in challenging but unglamorous circumstances. They’re replaced by imaginary people who can’t stop dashing around. That erasure is, of course, ableist as hell. It also means that we miss out on more interesting, realistic advertising – and the marketers miss out on telling us the real reasons why we should use their products.

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George Osborne and the cult of early

October 10, 2012

George Osborne has been talking about blinds. He seems to have made the same point both during his speech at party conference and during a Today programme interview, which suggests he’s proud of it.

“Where is the fairness for the shift worker, leaving home in the morning, who looks up at the closed blinds of the next-door neighbour, sleeping off a life on benefits?”

Yes, Osborne is a paid-up member of the cult of early. His speech makes a lazy equivalence between opening your blinds, getting up early and doing valid work. Or rather, a lazy equivalence between not opening your blinds, lying in bed all day and receiving benefits paid for by the sweat and toil of others.

I’m delighted to see that there’s already been a backlash against his bullshit on social media with the “#myblindsaredownbecause” hashtag. (The Guardian did something similar too.) If you’ve ever read this blog before, you won’t need me to explain why Osborne’s rhetoric is dangerous, lazy rubbish. There might be a thousand reasons to leave your blinds down – and none of them are the Chancellor’s business.

I’ve written in the past about how the cult of early preserves the sumptuary laws. What I meant by that is that the cult of early is inextricably linked with a culture that says you have to be seen to be working, to go through certain rituals that have no value in themselves if you want the value of your work to be accepted. When we talk about “getting your hands dirty” we are talking about producing a visual sign for the approval of others, a sign that says our work is “real”.

Of course Osborne is of the social class that wears a suit rather than a fluorescent tabard, a class that stays up late in the House of Commons rather than getting up early to take up somebody’s floorboards. But his commitment to the modern-day sumptuary laws is total. The Conservatives want – have always wanted – people to look like what they are. That’s what’s behind the Conservative obsession with keeping school uniform despite no evidence that it improves academic performance or children’s behaviour.

Conservatives want the little people to look and behave like little people. They’d love it if social pressure controlled our appearance even more than it already does. If you work in a blue-collar job, you probably already get up early, drive a white or branded van and wear suitable clothes for the job. Maybe you drive badly and park on double-yellow lines to make the point still further that you are a Real Worker. Perhaps your appearance is visibly dirty or dusty. But for the Conservatives, that’s not enough. Open your blinds before you leave the house, for God’s sake, or all this theatre will have been for nothing!

The party that preaches rolling back the state and social mobility wants nothing of the sort. They want grubby little tradesmen to be thinking about their low social status before they’re fully awake in the morning. And they’re encouraging our neighbours to judge us even more than they already do. Leave your blinds closed and you invite judgment; open them and people get to look inside your house and draw more detailed conclusions about how you’re failing at something.

I used the word “theatre” when I described the rituals we go through to prove we’re workers, and I used it advisedly. Osborne is using the misdirection techniques of a stage magician. Leaving the house painfully early? Sick of your job that doesn’t pay enough, your boss who treats you like crap, the fact that you can’t leave because you won’t find another job? Don’t look at what might be causing those problems. Don’t think about the failure of coalition policy and contemplate joining Labour or the Greens. Don’t think about getting some real protection in your workplace by joining a trade union. Just look up! Look up at your neighbours’ windows and occupy yourself in observing, policing, judging. What lazy scroungers they must be.

Sexing up bad news

December 5, 2008

As the credit crunch bites, Britons may be turning to sex as a cheap way to pass the time, a charity says.

A YouGov survey of 2,000 adults found sex was the most popular free activity, ahead of window shopping and gossiping.

Publishing the results to coincide with World Aids Day, the Terrence Higgins Trust reminded people to practise safe sex and pointed out that a packet of condoms costs a fraction of the cost of a night out. […]

Lisa Power, head of policy [at the Terrence Higgins Trust], said: We’re glad that people are finding ways of relieving some of their credit crunch woes, but if there’s one thing it’s worth forking out for, it’s condoms.

“Alternatively you can get them free from family planning and sexual health clinics.”

From the BBC News website, which accompanies the story with a stock photo of some feet in bed, captioned: “Snuggling under the duvet could also save on those heating bills.”

The Terrence Higgins Trust commissioned the survey to draw attention to the fact that rates of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases are rising. I suppose that’s not newsworthy information in itself, unless it can be turned into another credit crunch story.

Woolworths and the myth of consumer power

November 26, 2008

This blog is partly here to unravel the seemingly inexplicable elements of human behaviour and communication.

Many posts so far have skirted around one of the biggest causes of seemingly inexplicable behaviour, without mentioning it outright: power.

I believe that a large proportion of behaviour which otherwise makes no sense whatsoever can be explained with reference to power. Men who wolf-whistle at women in the street despite the fact that this method has never been known to attract a woman; toddlers who take your hand to lead you into a different room before immediately turning round and leaving you there; the colleague who takes more time asking you to do something than it would take her to do it herself. They’re all ways of reinforcing, testing, demonstrating power relations.

Power is the elephant in the room, so we joke about inexplicable behaviour instead. In reality, it’s quite straightforward. The goal of the wolf-whistler is not to attract a woman; it’s to reinforce his status as dominant by reminding women not to get too comfortable in “his” space. The toddler who wants to take you on a pointless journey is testing the limits of what he or she can get an adult to do. And the colleague who makes a fuss over simple things is using demands to reinforce the power relations between you. It’s all ritual and it’s all about power.

Capitalism is the ultimate outlet for the cultural narrative that ignores power and brushes off its manifestations as inexplicable, confusing or boring. The rhetoric in favour of a free market makes it sound as if capitalism is a vehicle for natural justice; good companies make money, good workers get jobs. We carefully maintain the myth that capitalism is about rewarding hard work, climbing the ladder, being competitive, making good. We pretend that it’s a system where customer feedback, in the form of increased or decreased spend, helps businesses adjust what they provide to better suit the needs of the customer.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Capitalism is about power. That’s why so many elements of it are inexplicable. It is not, and has never been, about rewarding hard work. It’s about using a system that pretends to reward hard work in order to reinforce power relations between employer and employee. It is also not, and has never been, about giving the customer what he or she wants. It’s about seeing how you can manipulate the customer into wanting whatever you’ve got. Advanced capitalism is about seeing how miserable you can make the customer and still make money out of him or her. Because being able to make someone miserable and take their money at the same time means that you have a lot of power.

The phrase “consumer confidence” plays into the myth that consumers have power, that there is some link between how a company treats its customers and how likely it is to survive the “credit crunch”. The reality is that consumers continue to take huge amounts of crap in return for handing over their hard-earned cash.

I went into a branch of Woolworths a couple of weeks ago. They were offering various deals on boxes of chocolates: two for one, three for two, £2.50 off, etc. Signs listed the types of chocolates included in each deal. It sounds simple, but it was made fiendishly complicated by the fact that most of the brands of chocolates listed as part of each deal were not on sale anywhere in the shop. The chocolates that were part of a deal and available in the shop were scattered all over the shop rather than together on the shelves. Some chocolates were part of two separate deals which were not to be used in conjunction with each other.

In order to take advantage of any of the deals, the customer had to be able to memorise several separate lists, search the shop for items on the lists, mentally eliminate items that were on the lists but not available in the shop and perform other demanding feats of memory and mental arithmetic.

You might ask why this branch of Woolworths was putting certain brands of chocolate into three-for-two deals when it didn’t stock those brands. Some people might suggest that it’s because they made a mistake. Others might say that it’s because the signs listing the deals were created centrally and didn’t take individual shop stock into account. I think the answer is simpler than that: power. Advertising unavailable items is one of the oldest capitalist tricks in the book. Even better if you can offer a juicy deal on the unavailable item. You manage to attract people and make them miserable at the same time. And once they’re in the shop, they’ll probably sate the desire you created by buying something else. You have a miserable, frustrated, paying customer. That’s power. The wild-goose chase is a classic manifestation of capitalist power.

Moving from aisle to aisle on my own wild goose chase, I was slowed by the sheer volume of other customers trying to buy chocolates. We were all confused and stressed, getting in each other’s way, blocking each other’s view of the chocolates and the offer signs.

Woolworths has been in trouble for quite some time, but it’s nothing to do with consumer spending or the lack of it. It’s in trouble because the parent company Kingfisher has made millions of pounds by selling off Woolworths properties and overloading the subsidiary business with debt.

I found out shortly after my trip to Woolworths that it’s now in big trouble, on the verge of being sold off for £1. This conversation on the Money Saving Expert forum is an unintentionally hilarious take on the whole thing. The posters have reacted to the news that Woolworths is in trouble by sharing tips as to how they can continue to buy from Woolworths, circumventing the stock problems in the shops and the website’s usability failures. Bear in mind that this conversation is taking place on a money-saving forum where people are supposed to be helping each other buy less unnecessary crap.

And yet the media keeps bringing up the myth that “consumer confidence” is a factor in Woolworths’ failure, that this hundred-year-old chain could have been saved if only we’d bought more. The thing is, it will be saved. It will be bought up (probably by Hilco) and it will continue to make us jump through hoops in order to buy things we don’t really need or even want.

On my last trip to Woolworths, I had a lab-rat’s pride in negotiating the maze that had been set for me. By combing the shop I managed to find two items that were part of the same deal. I bundled them into my arms, joined the queue… and waited. I waited with a line of people ahead of me and a crush of people surging forward behind me. Checkout assistants blipped purchases through and mumbled totals before sitting, arms folded, waiting and watching without lifting a finger while customers packed their own shopping. They would start blipping the next customer’s purchases through while the previous customer was still standing there, struggling with plastic bags and stuffing change into their purse. Each customer was set up to fail in their task of promptly packing their bags, because almost all their purchases would be blipped through before the previous customer had got out of the way.

After ten minutes I was bored of watching this display of contempt and I was no closer to the front of the queue, so I put my boxes of chocolates back and left the shop without buying anything. But most people in the shop had already invested too much time and mental energy in their purchases to give up at this stage. So they remained, waiting patiently to hand over their cash.

The right Targets

October 26, 2008

When Joan Collins played bitchy Alexis Carrington in Dynasty two decades ago, she was the highest paid actress on television.
But the credit crunch must have reached even the privileged surroundings of Hollywood.
For the actress was spotted last week pushing a trolley around the distinctly unglamorous surroundings of a discount supermarket.
[…]
She is not the only celebrity to have been hit by the worldwide credit crunch.
Actor Nicolas Cage, who earned about £19million in the past year, has reportedly had to sell his luxury yacht for £3million.
The 44-year-old Oscar-winner put the 132ft Sea Ghost on the market last month fearing that it would become a financial burden. The ten crew members were made redundant.

A sub at the Daily Mail (where else?) has headed the articleWould you credit-crunch it?” It’s good to see that in these troubled times, we can still afford great journalism.

Pudsey hit by credit crunch

October 15, 2008

The BBC is to ‘tone down’ the fundraising aspect of this year’s Children In Need because of the credit crunch.

Producers of the annual telethon feel it is inappropriate to appeal for money at the moment so will promote alternative ways of helping such as donating time, reports The Sun.

An insider told the paper: “There have been very senior discussions about this as execs are worried. The appeal will come smack bang in the middle of the worst financial crisis for years.

“The last thing they want is people feeling guilty about not chipping in. Obviously they will still be calling on people to give them money as the charity still needs cash. But there are scores of other ways people can help without having to hand over cash.”

The article (from Yahoo News)  doesn’t mention whether or not Terry Wogan will still be paid for hosting the television appeal.

A cuppa a day keeps the crunch away

October 1, 2008

The old-fashioned high tea – scones, cakes, sandwiches and, of course, a refreshing cuppa – is enjoying a credit-crunch revival and attracting a new, young clientele, it was claimed yesterday. […]

Donna Lewington, who runs the Highdown Tea Rooms in Worthing, West Sussex, said business this year was up by as much as 30% on 2007.

“We are finding that a lot of people are getting fed up with national chains of coffee houses,” she said. “They realise that a pot of tea and a scone the size of a dinner plate is better value for money than a grande latte and pre-packaged food.”

From the Guardian.