Monday, 30 November 2015

Shooting the sugar plum fairy. Why advertising isn't to blame.

The headlines from the report into childhood obesity published today will be all about taxing fizzy drinks. A pretty daft idea that targets just one source of sugar on the basis that in one place, Mexico, a 'soda tax' managed to reduce consumption by about 6%. There's no evidence that this tax reduced obesity, which was the main reason for introducing the tax in the first place.

Others will explain better than I can why all this is pretty daft. Not least because childhood obesity is falling in the UK - as the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) reported recently. More to the point, the problem with all this is that there's precious little evidence supporting a link between being overweight or mildly 'obese' and mortality:

There is now extensive and convincing evidence that the greatest life expectancy is experienced by those who are classified as “Overweight”. In addition, there is no reliable evidence that there is any reduced expectancy even in those who are mildly obese (5). It is true that those who are seriously obese do have an increased mortality but the picture changes when the effect of physical fitness is incorporated.

I suspect there's little or no chance of the current government introducing a tax on fizzy drinks - the prime minister has ruled it out more than once and the dissenters to the proposal from the health select committee report were both Conservatives - here's Andrew Percy:

Andrew Percy, the Tory MP for Brigg and Goole who sits on the health committee told the paper Oliver’s suggestion is “patronising nonsense”.

“This is a classic nanny state reaction and it won’t work.

“Slapping 10p or 20p on a can of sugary drink won’t make people change their behaviour.”

However the committee's report makes a whole load of other proposals that target advertising and marketing activity - that shoot the messenger.

Promotional and marketing techniques for specific products or brands have the aim of achieving one main goal—increases in sales. This is achieved through old (eg TV advertising, programme sponsorship, cinema, radio and billboards) and new methods (eg social media, advergames and internet pop-ups), which are designed to influence our food choices by, for example, overriding our established eating habits, and taking advantage of others such as our desire to reduce costs. The intent can be to encourage us to switch between brands or products; or there may be an additional consequence of getting us to buy and consume more.

Now this argument - from Public Health England and unsupported by evidence - flies in the face of everything that we know about advertising, choice and the way communications shape our preferences and decisions. Firstly, it just isn't true that advertising's purpose is to increase sales (I'm taking this to mean increasing the size of the market - to sell more sweets or fizzy drinks rather than more of the advertisers sweets or fizzy drinks). Here's the most well know study into the effects of advertising:

This paper is concerned with testing for causation, using the Granger definition, in a bivariate time-series context. It is argued that a sound and natural approach to such tests must rely primarily on the out-of-sample forecasting performance of models relating the original (non-prewhitened) series of interest. A specific technique of this sort is presented and employed to investigate the relation between aggregate advertising and aggregate consumption spending. The null hypothesis that advertising does not cause consumption cannot be rejected, but some evidence suggesting that consumption may cause advertising is presented.

In simple terms, advertising doesn't create new demand and there's some suggestion that the reverse is true. Indeed advertising effects on demand are persistently weak:

Advertising effects appear to be so weak as to give little, if any, support for the Galbraithian view that advertisers exert powerful, manipulative effects upon the allocation of consumers' expenditure between products.

As a marketing professional this is pretty depressing - we've all watched Mad Men and read Vince Packard's 'Hidden Persuaders' and kidded ourselves that advertising somehow created the consumerist world we live in. The prosaic truth is that, as we knew in our hearts (and those famed ad men of the '50s and '60s knew), advertising is a mirror held up to society and merely reflects the changes in our fads, fancies, preferences and choices. Don't get me wrong, advertising works but not in the way people who aren't marketers think it works.

And if you think about this for a second, it becomes clear. The advertiser has absolutely no interest in promoting his competitors' products, which is what he would be doing if what PHE says were true. And the effects - or objectives - are no different if it's cars, chicken or chocolate we're advertising. Or indeed if the audience is children or grown-ups (although there's some evidence showing children are more believing of ads this still only makes them choose one brand of breakfast cereal instead of another).

The most depressing part of all this - apart from the wholly unjustified attack on sugar as a macronutrient - is that the select committee conducted a review of and recommends regulations affecting advertising and marketing without taking evidence from any marketers. Yet again - as we saw with tobacco, with alcohol and with financial services - the messenger is machine-gunned by MPs who start off with no knowledge of marketing and finish with no knowledge of marketing.

In nearly every circumstance, brand advertising doesn't create new demand. Yet we see again the lie that banning or restricting its use will somehow reduce demand. This simply won't happen. The committee is just shooting the sugar plum fairy.


Sunday, 29 November 2015

So most academic research is pointless?


This was really striking:

In his new book “Higher Education in America,” former Harvard president Derek Bok notes that 98 percent of articles published in the arts and humanities are never cited by another researcher. In social sciences, it is 75 percent. Even in the hard sciences, where 25 percent of articles are never cited, the average number of citations is between one and two.

We are conducting research because the system says you must research. We are publishing - and supporting a vibrant academic publishing industry - simply because we're measuring performance on that basis.

We privilege academics as specially clever people but the reality is that many of them spend their time doing things that serve no real purpose, conducting research that no-one (bar the journal editor and the academic's mum) will read about.


Saturday, 28 November 2015

Politics is run by bullies.

Politics is managed by bullies...everywhere. It is its biggest problem. It isn't solved by hanging one man out to dry. Here's John McTernan - pundit and former Labour spinner - celebrating violent bullying as a management tactic:

"A Cabinet minister who served in both the Blair and Brown governments retells his first encounter with Labour whips. Newly elected, he was walking through the corridors of the House when he was accosted by one. He was pushed against the wall, his testicles grabbed and twisted sharply – and painfully. “Son, you’ve done nothing to annoy me. Yet. Just think what I’ll do if you cross me.” That is how you manage backbenchers."

This is why that poor kid was bullied and why the bullying was covered up. Because it's normal, everyday practice in politics. If cabinet ministers, senior spin doctors and the like make light of bullying as a tactic of course folk lower down will emulate them.

The entire culture of our politics - just look at Malcolm Tucker from The Thick of It - is centred on ad hominem, on using the personal to control the political. Having spent best part of my working life in this environment, I utterly hate it and the detestable, shallow people who rise to positions of power and influence through being bullies, through trampling over the bodies of their colleagues and opponents.

This is the culture that gave us a Standards Board used by bullies to control what others said, the culture that resulted in Prime Ministers so mistrustful of colleagues as to be almost paralysed in their actions, a culture where the most minor of mistakes is used to crush the enemy (remembering that for the bully the enemy is anyone between them and power).

So dance on the political grave of Grant Shapps, call him a 'thug' or whatever (despite there being precious little to support such contention). I don't know the man, have never met him - I just know his resignation doesn't solve the problem. That he's just a scapegoat just as Damian McBride was a scapegoat, just as were any number of folk we don't know who were shoved aside by the bullies clambering to the top of the political pile.


Friday, 27 November 2015

There's a case for looking at how we tax housing but it's not the reason for the supply problem


That housing is taxed differently and, for most housing, doesn't get clobbered with capital gains taxes does make housing a more attractive proposition. Perhaps reducing capital gains taxes to a sensible level and applying them to all capital sales might work?

But this conclusion is wrong:

The biggest distortion to the housing market is our tax system. This not only increases demand for housing as an asset but it also encourages owners to be less flexible about allowing developments which might affect their wealth. We suspect that this is the root cause of much of the supply problem which needs to be addressed if we are to deal with the longer-term housing challenges.

The first part might be true except that most of us buy houses because we want to use them and the capital gain is nice. The second part is rubbish. Owners are not in charge of the development process (other than by ganging together to stop development) plus there's precious little link between new development and house prices at the very local level - i.e. those 100 new homes round the corner won't affect the value of your house by much, if at all.

The reason for the supply problem is because we don't provide enough land for housing in places where people want to live. And this is entirely down to the planning system. Not the housing delivery and development management part of that system but the local plan bit - this allocates the land. We can fiddle around with the taxation of housing until the cows come home but the supply problem remains if we don't have enough land available to build houses.


Thursday, 26 November 2015

In which a Guardian writer bemoans the lack of slums...

Or so it seems:

In this mix of complexity and incompleteness lies the possibility for those without power to assert “we are here” and “this is also our city”. Or, as the legendary statement by the fighting poor in Latin American cities puts it, “Estamos presentes”: we are present, we are not asking for money, we are just letting you know that this is also our city.

It is in cities to a large extent where the powerless have left their imprint – cultural, economic, social: mostly in their own neighbourhoods, but eventually these can spread to a vaster urban zone as “ethnic” food, music, therapies and more.

All of this cannot happen in a business park, regardless of its density – they are privately controlled spaces where low-wage workers can work, but not “make”. Nor can this happen in the world’s increasingly militarised plantations and mines. It is only in cities where that possibility of gaining complexity in one’s powerlessness can happen – because nothing can fully control such a diversity of people and engagements.

OK, our writer - one Saskia Sassen - doesn't actually use the word 'slum' here because that would load a whole lot of negatives onto her narrative. This narrative is filled with the popular "everything is being bought up by huge corporations" line - as if the buildings in London, New York and Berlin were all owned by collectives, co-ops and interesting old couples who've lived there since the place was built. There's also a slightly worrying 'and lots of the money is Chinese' as if this is necessarily a problem (a decade or so ago the bad foreigners with funny names were Japanese).

Now the point about slums is that they allow people to do those capitalist things away form the gaze of the authorities occupying expensive real estate in the city proper. And our writer is perhaps right to be concerned about the squeezing out of these places:

"Arrival cities are known around the world by many names," Saunders writes: "slums, favelas, bustees, bidonvilles, ashwaiyyat, shantytowns, kampongs, urban villages, gecekondular and barrios of the developing world, but also as the immigrant neighbourhoods, ethnic districts, banlieues difficiles, Plattenbau developments, Chinatowns, Little Indias, Hispanic quarters, urban slums and migrant suburbs of wealthy countries, which are themselves each year absorbing two million people, mainly villagers, from the developing world."

But Sassen is also wrong because the arrival of those grand developers, the imposition of those gigantic regeneration schemes, and the suborning of public space to private use doesn't stop those migrants coming. They still fill up the cracks, occupy what space can be found that's too marginal, contested or contaminated to attract those rich foreigners with funny names and their millions. And Sassen seems overly bothered by the location of public buildings filled with regulators and controllers - as if these people are either the friend of the slum-dweller or their places of work truly public spaces.

In The Arrival City, Doug Saunders talks about Istanbul - not the old city of tourists and old architecture but the far suburbia where the rural migrants settled illegally and built the fastest growing, most dynamic communities of Turkey. And this is the pattern in all our cities - the success of those at the margin makes the success of the city, a success achieved in the teeth of government opposition, eviction, regulation and distrust.

But they stay in the city. I remember selling a magnificent hand-stitched quilt to a middle-aged Jewish lady in Mill Hill. She and her husband were rich, living in a multi-million pound house in a desirable North London suburb. Asking the woman why she wanted the quilt she told me that she 'wanted an heirloom, our families came here with nothing and we want our families to have something'. Those families didn't come to Mill Hill, they came to London's East End and lived in a couple of cramped rooms from where they made their way in the world.

We look at slums and see squalor, dirt and disorganisation. The leaders of these places speak of poverty, exclusion and prejudice. But those new arrivals aren't staying in those slums - the best summation of what drives them is this quotation from Marco Rubio, one of the men seeking the Republican nomination in next year's US Presidential election:

Many nights growing up I would hear my father’s keys at the door as he came home after another 16-hour day. Many mornings, I woke up just as my mother got home from the overnight shift at Kmart. When you’re young and in a hurry, the meaning of moments like this escape you. Now, as my children get older, I understand it better. My dad used to tell us — (SPEAKING IN SPANISH) — ‘in this country, you’ll be able to accomplish all the things we never could’. A few years ago, I noticed a bartender behind the portable bar in the back of the ballroom. I remembered my father, who worked as many years as a banquet bartender. He was grateful for the work he had, but that’s not like he wanted for us. You see, he stood behind the ball all those years so that one day I could stand behind a podium, in the front of a room.

This isn't a defence of slums, just an observation that, for many of those who live in urban poverty, their life is better than the one they left behind. And they also know their children's lives will be better too. I guess only a conservative would really understand this though.


Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The real story is health spending not spending on the elderly.


This graph is doing the rounds, usually attached to arguments about how favoured the old are under the present government.

Right now spending on 'older people' (which I assume means the state pension and assorted other welfare payments directed to retired folk) has got back to the position it was relative to other spending back in 1997. We can also note that, despite falling unemployment and endless stories about the evil DWP, the rest of welfare spending has barely budged as a proportion of total spending. And there's a reason perhaps for old people getting more of the budget - there's a whole lot more of them than there used to be:

I'm not defending the 'triple lock' or other decisions made by government over the past several years merely observing that the increased number of older people inevitably means a bigger bill for old age pensions.

To return to that graph from the Resolution Foundation again, the real change that shows isn't the up and down in terms of funding for old or young but the acceleration in health spending as a proportion of total spending. Now this is, in part, another consequence of those older people - something like three-quarters of NHS spending is on the over 65s (for the simple fact that they need the health care while younger folk mostly don't) - but it is also shows that health spending is the real priority of government. And reminds us that the efficient and effective use of that growing resource represents the dominant challenge for any UK government. Shouting about how old folk are getting a better deal isn't the issue here - getting to grips with the health budget is.


Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Nice thought but I don't think cause and effect is established here...

Some stress-busting green space

The Bradford Telegraph & Argus reports some 'ground-breaking' research into the link between green spaces and depression in pregnancy:

The key finding revealed that while 33.5 per cent of women reported at least one severe depressive symptom during pregnancy, those living in the greenest areas of Bradford were around 20 per cent less likely to report feeling depressed.

Programme manager, Rosie McEachan, said: "This is a really important finding, as it means we can make changes at an environment level which will have a larger benefit for our communities in most need.

"Efforts should be made to increase the availability of green space at a policy level and utilisation of green space at an individual level."

The problem with this is that the mums living in Bradford's greenest areas are (I guessing here) probably older, richer, healthier and better-educated. Not that these eliminate ante-natal depression of course but I suspect that a young single mum-to-be in inner city Bradford is far more likely to suffer from depression than her counterpart up the valley. Which isn't to say that green spaces aren't important but that those demographics are likely to be much more important.

Still a nice thought.