November 2009 Archives

Insurance company Axa has commissioned some cod research to come up with the dazzling idea that we should rename the word 'pension'. The great thing about this is that only 20 per cent of the people surveyed were put off saving for a pension by the word 'pension'.

It's a bit unclear how they came to that conclusion in the first place as much of the source release is about word association. Axa says YouGov conducted the poll but, as ever, there are no clues as to whether the sample is larger than the locals hanging around a nearby Starbucks or what questions actually went into the survey. There are some shockers in there. Remarkably, 72 per cent of young people associated 'pension' with old age. Who says the education system is in crisis?

But a stunt's a stunt and emboldened by the size of an underwhelming minority of respondents, the company put up a survey to ask what term should replace the word 'pension' and, apparently, got 900 responses. The top ones were corkers like 'Age Wage', 'Future Fund' and 'Freedom Plan'. I hate to think what the losers were. 'Cackpile' perhaps? My favourite is 'Magic Beans' - clearly the idea of someone who's been sold a personal pension by the likes of Axa in the past 20-odd years.

I'm all for this word rebranding thing. We've got way too many ugly words. In fact, I suggest we rename all problematic words. Not only that, we must go further and work to stop them becoming terms of abuse, the demeaning last step for all euphemisms coined with good intentions. Let's face it, 'special needs' didn't do fare so well. So, my plan is to replace these problem words with the same one: pilkoj.

For most people 'pilkoj' has no meaning. It's a tabula rasa. Society can apply any meaning to it but can't corrupt it because it means all sorts of things. You can't shout "Pilkoj!" at someone in the street because they can't be offended at a word with no specific meaning.

Obviously, there will be teething problems and issues of comprehension: "How much pilkoj do I avoid by putting more money into my pilkoj?" But these are minor considerations compared with making language a happy fun place for everybody.

So, Axa, I say pilkoj to you.

Bums on seats

26 November 2009

From the journalist's perspective, it's amazing how often PRs have almost no focus on the target. Or rather, the target the average journalist thinks the PR has is not the target they are actually aiming at. The discrepancy usually surfaces when it comes to the sticky business of 'events', whether these are simple face-to-face meetings or full-on press conferences.

The scenario runs something like this:

PR rings or emails to find out if a journalist wants to meet an exec or go to an event hosted by the client. So far, so good. Let's assume that it's not to announce the opening of the Altrincham sales office (I've nothing against Altrincham but I'm sure the local paper has a greater interest in this) but something a bit more relevant.

The problem is, for whatever reason, the journalist is not available on that day. Here's where reality and assumption start to part company. Nine times out of ten (I made that statistic up, it's probably less than that, but it feels like it), the PR will say something along the lines of "oh well, never mind. I'll send the press pack."

Now, I can't speak for anyone else, but the bit that surprises me is how rarely the PR says: "Is there another way of doing this?" More often than not, it's me checking whether another day can work by phone or other means. To be fair, some will say, "of course, no problem". These are what are known in the trade as The Good PRs.

However, a lot of the time it descends into farce. Usually, the PR will say they will check it out and...nothing will be heard until the next event. If you push the issue, no executive is available for a conversation except on that very day where, apparently, they will struggle to do an interview using a hotel's speakerphone rather than the perfectly serviceable, purpose-designed, electronic starfish at their own office. Excuses range from "the press packs won't be ready then" (so do it without) to "they're all away the week after".

The best ones are when I can't do the meeting because I'm at a conference elsewhere that I know for a fact will be attended by management from the PR's client. You'd think this one would be a no-brainer wouldn't you? Let's do the show right there. Um. No. That option is not available. It's all about the means rather than the end. The opposite happens quite often as well, although is a bit more understandable.

I don't want to write the story I'm given - I'd rather have something else more interesting and like to organise things that way. But it's always a bit of a surprise to find how rarely anyone in the whole promotion business seems bothered about The Message making it to publication. I can only assume it's because the means are getting measured not the end product.

So, I'm going through the list of talks and panel sessions at the IP-ESC conference trying to work out which ones are worth turning up to and which are best replaced with meetings. (If the acronyms IP and ESC mean nothing to you, you probably don't want to know any more about this event, so I won't explain it.)

Part of the process involves triaging sessions using just their title and abstract in those cases where you're not quite sure how good the speaker is. Actually, you can do it mostly by title because one thing I've found is speakers and the people who put their presentations together often try, and generally fail, to disguise their real intentions. Unfortunately, their real intentions often seem to be to deliver the most anodyne pabulum possible.

Here are some of the warning signs of talks that are guaranteed sleep inducers:

"Adventure" - It's obvious, really. You know you've a real yawner on your hands. So, what do you do? Spice it up with the word 'adventure' and maybe people will think you're Indiana Jones and will tattoo "Love you" on their eyelids. Or not, because you've actually tacked the word onto something suspiciously sedentary, such as "The 21-year SX101 flange-bracket adventure".

"X: what are the issues?" - This is one that tends to turn up in panel sessions. It's approximate shorthand for: "We don't know what this panel is about either, maybe you can help".

"Doing X with Y enables Z" - Generally, a sales pitch in disguise. Except the disguise has slipped a bit. Often, because the presenter is so upfront about it, there's a reasonable chance of finding some worthwhile content. Which is more than can be said for anything that involves the word...

"Evolution of..." - This one's deceptive. It looks interesting but is generally the conference equivalent of being sold double glazing. The speaker will generally airbrush history to make sure you agree that uPVC is indistinguishable from woo..er sorry, make sure you agree their product is The Future.

"Innovation..." - Let's face it. Experts around the world have tried to come up with a workable definition of 'innovation' that is better than "I'll know it when I see it". The word, unfortunately, is nothing more than a promise of forthcoming motherhood and apple pie. Don't ask what innovation is, only understand that it is good. And run don't walk from sessions entitled "Innovation through supply chain partnership" if you prize sanity or not being sent down for ten years for attempting to perform an appendectomy with the presenter's own Vaio.

Thinking about it, anything with 'leveraging', 'solution' or 'partnering' is generally one to be avoided. If you get more than one in the title, double your efforts to avoid it.

Modern gaming

10 November 2009

Some 25 years ago, I played a game called Elite on the BBC Micro. Some people still go a bit misty-eyed over it, recalling happy days when spaceships that looked like coathangers were the bleeding-edge in terms of computer game realism. The game picked up a lot of fans because, unlike others on the Beeb, such as the venerable Chuckie Egg (a bit like Donkey Kong but with a chicken, or a duck, or something), it was fairly open-ended. There was no plot as such that guides many of today's more filmic experiences.

And it let you go bad. The trouble with Elite was that, being based on trading stuff and avoiding the odd raid from space pirates, it could get a bit dull. So, to liven stuff up, it was tempting to turn to drugs running and vandalism. This, naturally, did not make you all that popular with the police in the game who would try to blow you and your ship out of the sky if you happened by their space station. That was unless you got your retaliation in first. One trick was to arm up with lots of firepower on the back of the ship in a space station, leave and then hover just outside. After a few minutes, another ship, presumably with innocent passengers aboard, would try to leave. But with an overarmed ship, all you had to do was blast away and then keep blasting because the game's logic had the police ships camped up inside the space station.

You could keep going for hours because the game wasn't programmed to deal with this scenario. But the novelty soon wears off and it's time to cut and run. I honestly can't remember if my in-game character ever survived the ensuing onslaught but I vaguely remember that, if you knew what you were doing, you could make to the point where you could transfer to another system where there might not be a bounty on your head.

As I recall, I don't think Elite ever stirred up scare stories about encouraging kids and teenagers to do evil. But, the mixture of weaponry (for self-defence you understand) and a slightly more freeform game structure than usual meant the choice was there.

Fast forward 25 years and we have a fairly transparent publicity stunt by a games developer turning into one more call to get nasty games banned. Ahead of the launch but in good enough time to let the opprobrium build up, some game sites posted footage of the 'nasty level' in Modern Warfare 2, in which your character attempts to curry favour with a bunch of Russian terrorists by gunning down civilians in an airport terminal only to be despatched as an infiltrator at the end. This, apparently, is an optional level that, being optional, is not critical to the game other than its role as atrocity exhibition to secure headlines. I have to say that it worked a treat although it begs the question of what the next games developer will do. (Has anyone done Spanish Inquisition - The Torquemada Years yet? It has two levels to complete: the repression of conversos, Moriscos, Protes...it has three levels...)

The difference, and only difference, lies in the level of realism. It's one thing to shoot up a glowing coathanger. Stepping over the bloody body of a victim you've just (albeit virtually) shot in the back is a very different experience. But which is worse? Genocides often rely on one ruling elite convincing their populace that The Other is not human. It's not really killing at all because they are beneath you. If you look at the nasty level and think "that really is quite sick" then I think the game has done very little to damage your sense of morality.

It's very easy to think banning is the right thing to do when you see the sub-Beavis & Butthead comments under some of the videos ("lol, they blew up the elevator", "I want to see how you can blow a head with a rifle", ffnn, ffnn, hurr hurr). But most people know the difference between the world of a game and reality. You need to watch out for those who don't but the presence of video games don't make them any more or less dangerous: these are people for whom society has no meaning anyway.

The most disturbing comment I saw though, and more than a couple of times was "There is no such thing as in-game morals". I could see the point: I took advantage of that aspect of computing gaming playing Elite. But, there are parts of gaming that do leak into real life, particularly in massively multiplayer games where forms of money now change hands. Blowing away a friend in a deathmatch repeatedly has no knock-on consequences other than bruised egos if they're the ones who keep staring down the barrel of a rocketlauncher. But there are more subtle problems that are starting to emerge where in-game actions have real-world consequences, if only minor for the moment. For example, social engineering outside the game itself has been used to cheat World of Warcraft players out of their in-game money. No in-game morals? That's not a situation that's likely to hold up much longer.