Archive for April, 2009

When pigs flu: the social life of pandemics


Alex Steer writes:

The numbers are changing constantly, but at time of writing, somewhere around 1,800 people (over 1,600 in Mexico) have been infected with the new ‘swine flu’ strain, and 103 people have died. The World Health Organization is coordinating the response, calling it a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

When reading headlines like these, our thoughts naturally turn to the past and the future: where did this come from, and where will it lead? Our impressions of the past often inform the futures we imagine. We know about the possibilities of pandemic disease, even if few of us have experienced them. In 1919 between 20 and 100 million people worldwide were killed by an influenza pandemic; between 1982 and 2007 more than 2 million died of AIDS.

From flesh-eating viruses to ebola to winter vomiting, we are fascinated by the extremely unpredictable: the small outlying cause that transforms our lives; the sick man on the plane who brings down a city. Modern zombie lore is driven more by our fear of inexplicable pandemic outbreaks than by our belief in voodoo. (If you don’t believe me, watch 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead and Dead Set in succession. But don’t do it late at night.)

Pandemics, unlike zombies, have full and active social lives. Even events which seem radically unpredictable have driving forces, many of which don’t need a microscope to be seen. They range from urbanisation to the dense migration networks and transport systems which increase each infectious person’s sphere of influence; from healthcare policies which exclude uninsured low-income workers from care to lumbering organisational structures which make it hard to close roads or supply drugs at short notice. It takes a whole range of forces, not just a few strands of RNA, to make a pandemic.

Our own stories also drive our behaviour. In the hour before this post was written, 24,000 stories containing the word ‘swine flu’ were indexed by Google News. This morning airlines and hotel chains saw steep declines in their share value. Newspapers carried photos of travellers at UK airports wearing masks.

Swine flu may or may not go pandemic, but so far it isn’t even close. Each year 3-4,000 people in the UK die of normal-strain influenza. Our response is out of all proportion to the clinical risk. It reflects our fascination with the pigs-might-fly rareness of new diseases, and our unwillingness to grapple with the other factors that affect how, when, and where people get sick.

The picture of that childhood game of chance, “Pass the Pigs”, was borrowed, with thanks, from Kaptain Kobold on Flickr.

28 April 2009 at 8:45 am 2 comments

Still trusting Twitter


Oliver Wright writes:

Since my last post on the role Twitter is playing in relation to more traditional media, a couple of events have highlighted how Twitter, and social media in general, is having a greater influence on significant news events.

When riots recently broke out in Moldova’s capital, Chisinau, thousands of young Moldovans protested against elections whose outcome ensured the communist government would stay in power. The events were quick to grab the headlines, with Twitter once again thrust into the limelight as an example of microblogging’s ability to mobilise people.

It was quickly dubbed “Moldova’s Twitter Revolution”, at least by journalists, but after a week of protests (judges subsequently ordered a recount) a more nuanced story has emerged. Those involved in organising the protests explained they used many online tools to organise the protest; planning involved blogs and LiveJournal accounts, followed closer to the actual event by facebook groups and text messaging. Twitter was, among other things, a clever way of ensuring their message gained space in influential media outlets. By this measure the protests have been a resounding success. (For some more in-depth analysis, take a look here and here.)

Closer to home, the political scandal that has dominated media discourse has been ‘smeargate’ (or #smeargate in Twitter), the saga in which Gordon Brown’s political and press adviser, Damian McBride, resigned after leaked emails described plans to publish gossip stories about senior opposition party politicians on a ‘political gossip’ blog, Red Rag. These were, it was said, primarily to be a response to claimed slurs about members of the Labour party on the Conservative-leaning Guido Fawkes’ blog – a Westminster rumour mill.

Whatever one’s political affiliations, the incident highlights the importance placed within government on the influence of the blogosphere. As a result (unintended), the public is now more aware of political mudslinging previously shared between small groups of politically motivated bloggers. In Moldova, a couple of shrewd planners used their knowledge of how the media operates to take advantage of social networks, particularly the viral nature and gravitas of Twitter, in order to garner the maximum media exposure for their cause.

As we’ve noted earlier, taken individually, services like Twitter, and previously facebook, can seem like isolated fads, but seen within the context of an increasingly savvy and networked online community, they take on greater significance.

The picture at the top of the post was borrowed, with thanks, from the Political Graffiti blog.

27 April 2009 at 6:25 pm Leave a comment

Constructivist advertising


Andrew Curry writes:

I knew about the Russian Constructivist artist Rodchenko’s work as a photographer and a designer, but until I visited the Tate Modern’s current exhibition (in London until 17 May) I hadn’t realised that he’d also run an advertising agency. His partner was the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, who wrote the copy, and the company was called ‘Advertising-Constructors-Mayakovsky-Rodchenko‘.

They designed adverts for the Moscow department store GUM, for the state airline, and also some posters which would these days fall under the heading of ‘social marketing’, for trade unions (“The Trade Union is a Defender of Female Labour”).

The two men were able to set up the business after Lenin encouraged some small-scale private enterprise in the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1921. Mayakovsky dismissed criticism of those who thought that this wasn’t revolutionary work by saying ‘it is necessary to employ all the weapons used by our enemies’. He clearly learnt the lesson well – one of their posters was for a union opposing the NEP. Rodchenko later did the famous posters for Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin. Their advertising and design work was revolutionary, in both senses (British and American ads from the same period look fussy and cluttered in comparison), and decades ahead of its time.

The poster at the top of this post, for the state airline, is courtesy of the Tate Modern.

22 April 2009 at 6:08 pm 2 comments

Connecting with cricket


A guest post by Robert Stanier

The start of a new cricket season (at least in Britain) seems a good moment to mention one of my surprises of the close season – that Bob Woolmer’s huge book on the “Art and Science of Cricket” turned out not to be so much of a coaching manual (although it is), as a complete history of cricketing innovation.

Woolmer played cricket for Kent and England, and coached South Africa and Pakistan, and his book is a wonderful example of someone taking a subject they have deep knowledge of, and love, and completely re-thinking it. He draws on all sorts of fields of expertise, from psychology (visualisation techniques), to physics (reverse swing), to historical analysis (comparing Ian Botham’s tips on batting in 1980 with the Reverend James Pycroft’s in 1851), to statistics (there’s no advantage in winning the toss in a one day match, despite the conventional wisdom!), and fusing them together with his experience of being at the top of international sport.

Every ten pages or so, he comes up with something utterly new and original, even to a hardened fan such as myself. For example, he links Don Bradman’s career batting average (40 runs per innings more than anyone else in the history of the game) to the fact that Bradman never saw any cricket played until he was fifteen, and largely taught himself to bat by striking a ball against a fence in his back yard. No one ever got round to ‘correcting’ his technique – but it was all but impossible to copy.

More practically (for someone like me), he explains why for most batsmen the best guard to take is leg stump.

More importantly, even for a non-player:  it’s about taking a subject, completely rethinking it, and coming to utterly new conclusions. It’s a process that must be applicable in dozens of other fields. And this is a classic example.

This is probably the most important book on cricket in the last thirty years. Maybe longer.

Robert Stanier, now a vicar in London, is a former colleague. Thanks to Deewhy RSL Club in Sydney for the photograph.

21 April 2009 at 9:14 am 1 comment

Some good things we’ve seen # 1


Compiled by Tom Ding

The first of an occasional column: Passed around the office lately were:

  • A brilliant presentation on the “past and future” of city magic by Matt Jones of Doppir
  • A map of the internet (or at least the 333 most important bits) modelled on the map of the Tokyo metro – not the first time, by the way, that we’ve blogged about maps based on tube networks.
  • Another less subterranean map of parliamentary expenses (thanks, Digital Urban) – MapTube, the mapping mash-up site which published this also has a map showing all of the London tube stations in their geographically correct positions.
  • A complete visual history of Lego’s ‘mini-figures’ from which the picture at the top of the post is taken. And news of a rather larger Lego figure, a sculpture of Jesus made from 30,000 bricks, unveiled at a church in Sweden just in time for Easter.


16 April 2009 at 12:20 pm Leave a comment

Consumer responses to recession


Andrew Curry writes:

We recently launched our second report on changing consumer attitudes to recession – The Reconstructed Consumer. Henry Tucker and Chris Grantham presented to clients new UK data, collected in February, which suggests that consumers are coming out of the hangover stage of the spending boom and are starting to think consciously about how to reshape their behaviour.

In Feeling The Pinch, which we published last August, we found that consumers’ initial response to the recession was to buy things more cheaply rather than change shopping patterns. Now, falls in food and energy prices, and in interest rates, have eased some of the immediate pressure on household budgets – but pessimism has deepened about how long and deep economic recession will be.

Over half now think that things are “going very badly” for the UK economy (the other half merely think that things are gong badly). The data, perhaps unsurprisingly, show sharp declines in trust in banks, and also in CEOs and large organisations. Local independent organisations, in contrast, have seen gains in trust.

There are some interesting findings within the grain of the research, which goes into some detail at category level. One is that people’s attitudes to categories depends on how they classify it in terms of their ‘mental wallet’. We asked people to classify different expenditures by whether they thought of it as ‘Basic’, ‘Lifestyle‘, ‘Sanity’, or ‘Indulgence’. Spending gets trimmed at both ends: ‘basic’ and ‘indulgence’ expenditure gets cut back to pay for ‘lifestyle’ and ‘sanity’ spending. Of course, different consumers classify categories in different ways.

And consumers seem to be responding to brands which demonstrate confidence in the face of recession – in particular, the majority think that brands which have cut their prices were probably over-priced to start with. This seems to play better for those brands which were already at lower price points – witness McDonald’s positioning itself against Starbucks in the US with its “four bucks is dumb” campaign, or Tesco struggling to win over enough Aldi shoppers with its ‘Britain’s biggest discounter’ strategy.


The Reconstructed Consumer is available as a paid-for report. For more information please contact Jennifer Kivett on 020 7966 1824.

14 April 2009 at 7:00 pm Leave a comment

Indian millennials


Rima Gupta writes from India:

It’s always interesting to get a national perspective on international trends, as we did this month when India’s Economic Times picked up on the millennials’ research in the latest edition of our Global Monitor.

The research shows that millennials in India – the 16-25 year olds – have some strong similarities with those elsewhere. As summarised by Economic Times:

This group in India is not very different from peers anywhere in the world. They present similar paradoxes that puzzle even the most successful marketers. Their global outlook makes them very individualistic and interested in forging their own identity. They are multi-disciplinary and goal-oriented.

But there are also strong differences: “they identify strongly with their parents and are even proud of Indian traditions and culture much more than their western counterparts”.

Looking at some of the data in a little more detail, Indian millennials were much more likely to want to stand out in a crowd without being too different – 51% thought it was important to be a trendsetter (compared with 22% in the UK and 29% in the US). But it seems that they are also more likely than their British counterparts, and much more likely than American millennials, to say they were “strong advocates” of their own culture and traditions.

There’s an interesting dilemma in here for Indian marketers: how to represent difference, and new trends, in a way that is respectful of continuity.

Rima Gupta heads The Futures Company India. For more information about Global Monitor, please contact

The image is of a shop inside the Madurai temple in Tamil Nadu.

3 April 2009 at 9:08 am 1 comment

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The Futures Company was created through the merger of Henley Centre HeadlightVision and Yankelovich in 2008. This is the blog of the new company - but the former posts from the former Henley Centre Headlightvision blog still can be found here.

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