Keeping your money safe

Where do you keep you money safe, if you have it, in troubled times?

In the bank? But you won’t get much interest. Under the bed? But the insurance company won’t cover all that much cash if it is stolen. In the stock market? Hmmm

At a time when everything seems failing around us, the one sector in which investment has proved to be a success over the last year (23% up), I am told by one investor, is … sustainable forestry

I have never seen a silver lining, but perhaps this is it.

A call for ideas

There has been some great public interest web innovations for people as citizens. Now, with Consumer Focus Labs we are experimenting in online solutions for consumers. It is new. It is collaborative. It is … experimental!

The team has a great track record and we’re launching a call for ideas. So, if you have ever thought ‘why doesn’t someone think of doing that?’ -however wild, then join in, visit Consumer Focus Labs and submit your idea.


In 1957, subliminal advertising became a public controversy. Marketing man James Vicary, claimed to have demonstrated that sales of Coca-Cola and popcorn rose dramatically when he tested flashing the phrases “Drink Coca-Cola” and “Eat popcorn” up for 1/2000 of a second during film showings.

The word subliminal means that the content is perceptible only to your sub-conscious – literally ‘beneath the threshold’ of what you are aware of. On the surface, it goes unnoticed.

The test in fact turned out later to be a gimmick, but for Vicary, a bona fide marketeer, who used branding techniques to select the names for his own daughters, Christine and Ann, the timing was unfortunate. The same year, Vance Packard’s book “The Hidden Persuaders” was published, detailing how advertisers used motivational research and psychological techniques to manipulate the public. Packard claimed that the words ‘knife’, ‘blood’ and ‘murder’ were shown subliminally in Hitchcock’s movie Psycho to raise fear in his audience.

In the background to this debate, there was also the relatively new concept of brainwashing, which emerged out of the Korean War as a way to explain why so many American prisoners of war defected to the enemy. Brainwashing (and manchuriancommunist conspiracy) became the plot of the classic late ‘50s cold war novel The Manchurian Candidate, by Richard Condon.

As a result, in 1958, after consumer campaigning, the use of subliminal advertising was banned in America, followed by other countries such as the UK. The idea behind the ban was that advertising needed to be something that we could be conscious of, so that we could choose whether to accept or reject it. It was designed to protect us from a form of persuasion we are incapable of resisting.

As I may possibly have mentioned, over recent years I have collaborated with marketing academic Agnes Nairn, on a book, now published, called Consumer Kids. It is no surprise that children live in a seamless world of commercial persuasion, much of which they enjoy. But one development that did emerge of concern is the extent to which marketing to children today uses techniques to influence children’s brains in ways that are also hard for them to resist, albeit using stimuli that they can see, hear or smell – i.e. that are supraliminal.

According to psychologist Cordelia Fine “stuff we can see, hear or smell – supraliminal stimuli – can be just as effective [as subliminal advertising], if not more so. Supraliminal stimuli work in just the same way, so long as we don’t realise how we’re being affected. Since we are usually unaware of the many marketing tricks that can influence us, or optimistically assume that we are impervious to them, we may be in this state of blithe ignorance much of the time.”

Agnes and I write about supraliminal marketing in this month’s Prospect Magazine, the companies that are wiring up children’s brains to see how they respond and the need for a new agenda of neuro-ethics as we learn more about who we are and how our minds work.

No need for torture

sl380523I was in the Tower of London for our social marketing conference recently. The event brought together a series of demonstration sites across England which are using social marketing to good effect for behaviour change on issues as diverse as teenage drinking, breast feeding and smoking.

As the team from Stoke said, the most important lesson was to “stop guessing what people want”. By starting from where people are, you have more of a chance of persuading them to act voluntarily.

Not that voluntarism was what Kings, Queens and Regents had in mind when you went to the Tower of London.

Social marketing – less guesswork and no need for torture….

You are going get educated

Government Minister Stephen Carter describes the proposals for a UK Digital Rights Agency, which is about rights for copyright holders not digital rights for consumers, as a “straw man” that “could be torched, tolerated or a touchstone for the start point of constructive debate and design.” The discussion paper entitled “Copyright in a digital world” itself however is more explicit – that “fundamentally this has to be an industry owned, industry run and industry led body” that “educates consumers” – hmmm

You can input directly to government on this – by next Monday, March 30th – in what must be the shortest “consultation” on record.

The discussion paper states “we understand this is a very short response period, but stakeholders will appreciate the need to make rapid progress on this issue”. No doubt, all those industry owned, industry run, industry led lobbyists that surround government and the IPO are ready to respond…

A street to remember

These are my photos from time I spent in St Marks Road in Bristol, talking to local people and getting a sense of the issues that they face as consumers. As Consumer Focus, we have looked at one street to get a sense of how the national picture and data we know on consumer experience bears out when you look at a single community and the everyday concerns that people have down one street.

It turned out to be an inspiring project, with some amazing and passionate people. I came away knowing that our campaigning can touch people’s lives for the good.

Monetary reform

For years and years, bright sparks have argued that the house of cards of a leveraged financial system stems from the way in which banks can create money through lending, far in excess of the reserves they hold from the public as depositors. Over time, this has meant that it is not the state that creates most money in the economy but banks – and that they rather than we get the benefit of this. For some critics, this has extended too to a critique of interest itself, as a device for making money out of money – or a suggestion of negative interest and an interest in local and complemetary currencies.

All this counts as ‘monetary reform’ and one of the most articulate and visionary of these dissident thinkers is James Robertson, Britain’s greatest unknown intellectual. James is collecting a campaign and movement around monetary reform worldwide that aims to put pressure on the G20 meeting coming up in Britain in early April.

We are moving into a new financial system as well as a downturn or depression. The radical toolkit deserves a fair hearing. The idea that this was all the fault of Fred Goodwin (who I understand now has two bodyguards) is simply lazy thinking. It was not just individuals. There was a system at work and it is the system that we need to think anew.


I gave a presentation a year ago for the Local Government Association, where I played a game where audience members could chose any one word from each of three columns and make up a new piece of public service jargon.

You can play it too!




























Words do matter. But these are not the words that ordinary people use. One of the great privileges of our work here is that it brings us into contact with people and their experiences of public services up and down the country.  We ask people what marks out the best public services? People speak about empathy, compassion, warmth, the human touch, respect and focusing help on people who need it most.

So I am delighted to see that the Local Government Association has now identified 200 words to avoid policy people put these words together like bits of lego, pretending that they mean something when they’re done.

Recession tactics

katherine-garrett-coxKatherine Garrett-Cox came by the office this morning. She is Chief Executive of Alliance Trust and, for me, the smartest cookie in the financial services biscuit box. Her view is that consumers matter more in a recession as companies can’t get away with shoddy practice. “Only companies that offer the highest level of customer service will hang onto consumers in a recession.”

Be very afraid…

hammerThe Hammer House of Financial Horrors comes to town this week with Hector’s comment (Financial Services Authority CEO) that banks should be ‘very afraid’ of the new rules they can expect.

There is an interesting analysis of this at Management Today. Is this a case of the FSA jumping on the bandwagon they think they need to be on? If so, that is no better than saying everything’s basically okay. As my colleague Philip Cullum said to me, neither position indicates real reflection on what went wrong and what didn’t, and what this means in terms of how they operate now. Principles-based regulation per se did not cause the current problems; on the other hand, the FSA’s view that the only people it could learn from were other financial service regulators and the industry was clearly myopic.

Adair Turner, the FSA Chairman, is due to report on what he thinks the lessons are. I hope he is the right man, along with Hector Sants, to repair the regulatory system. But the financial turmoil is far from complete in terms of its effects on us all and the most we can hope for is no more horrors please.