Thursday, March 24, 2016

Anna Karenina - a book I hated because of the main character

Back in the 90s there was a show called Ally McBeal, which I didn't mind except for one key flaw. I couldn't stand the main character - Ally McBeal.

The show itself was quirky, funny, had some interesting characters. But Ally McBeal herself was just irritating beyond all reason. In fact, I often said that if that character was killed off and the show continued as Not Ally McBeal, I would have watched it.

Anna Karenina is the classic literature Russian novel version of Ally McBeal. It's an interesting time period, in an interesting place, in a long-gone cultural epoch, full of interesting characters having interesting discussions. Except for Anna Karenina, who has to be the most unlikeable romantic heroine ever written. If the book was called anything else and her character cut from it completely it would be a much better book.

Consider this, throughout the book, Leo Tolstoy repeatedly tells us that Anna is "gracious" and "charming" and "delightful" and "witty", and yet, we never see any examples of her grace, charm, delightfulness or wit. It's like telling us a comedian is the funniest man who ever lived with jokes that would make us cry with laughter. And then not telling us any of the jokes so we can see what you mean.

Anna is obsessed with her own happiness, or lack thereof. The story starts with her mooning around because, despite having an incredibly privileged life in an era when peasants stayed poor until they died at a very young age, and a faithful husband, when so many other women are being cheated on left, right and centre, and a son who she loves, she feels she doesn't have the romantic 'love' that she deserves to have. It's her 'right' to feel in love and her husband is denying her that right and so on and so forth, for pages and pages of self pity at her supposedly awful 'circumstances'.

Then she falls in love with a cavalry officer, Vronsky, who initially at least is painted as a fairly thoughtless, self-interested guy. He is attracted to Anna because of her beauty, charm, wit etc etc - you know the stuff we never actually see any evidence of except that we are told she has it. And then they start knocking boots. Her husband finds out but doesn't want the shame of divorce, so basically accepts it. Then Vronsky resigns from the army and he and Anna leave Russia and wander round Europe in a romantic hump-fest. At some point in all this Anna gets pregnant and goes back to her husband, who takes her in and promises to look after the baby girl. But pretty much as soon as she drops the sprog, Anna is back off with Vronsky. She gets mad at her husband for not letting her see her son - the son she so readily abandoned because she was in love. But now the separation from her son becomes yet another way that she is the poor, wronged soul in all this.

But, hey, she came back to him, so lucky Vronsky, right? No, not really. Because pretty soon Anna is mad at him for not loving her enough no matter what he tries to do, and so she decides to spite him by throwing herself under a train. Now, I have to admit I have a soft spot for trains, and finding out a train was the way the world was rid of Anna Karenina has only made me love them more. Of course, such a death was devastating, ruining poor Vronsky's life even further, so much so that at the end of the book he has returned to the military life and gathered a volunteer army to travel to the Balkans to fight the Turks and most likely die in the process.

If that was all there was to the story, it would be dreadful. But there are some other stories and characters within the book that kind of redeem it. The character Levin, for example, clearly a cipher for Tolstoy himself in many ways, is interesting, even though he is obsessed with 'modern' farming methods and issues of land ownership. Levin's wedding ceremony is really well described and vivid, especially the daze that both he and his wife feel they are in during the proceedings, as if everything was a dream. There is also a scene where Levin and his wife, Kitty, sit by Levin's brother's death bed waiting for the inevitable, which rings incredibly true and is very sad.

There is also a lot of incidental detail about the lives of the rich in comparison to the lives of the poor. The gap between the worlds of peasants and gentry is noticeable and it's easy to see how Russia would prove fertile ground for the communist revolution a generation or so after Tolstoy. With hindsight you can see it coming, with the contemporary social issues in Anna Karenina indicators of a society with gross inequality and subjugation of the masses.

All that additional content makes the book worth reading. Someone should create an excised version with Anna's tiresome demands to be loved taken out. I predict Not Anna Karenina would be a much better book.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Animation review: Kung Fu Panda 3 and Zootropolis

In the last few days I've seen Kung Fu Panda 3 and Zootropolis. Both were pretty solid animated films with some surprisingly mature themes. This post includes minor spoilers.

Don't upset the Dragon Warrior

Kung Fu Panda 3 pretty much continues where the second one left off, with Po meeting his real panda father who was a post-credits reveal at the end of Kung Fu Panda 2. The plot is split between Po discovering his panda heritage while also having to fight a new baddy – General Kai, who has returned from the Spirit Realm to steal the chi life force of the living.

For fans of the first film, Ugwe, the turtle who chose Po as the Dragon Warrior is back. I always liked Ugwe. The animation is top drawer, especially a sequence with an elemental dragon towards the end. There are also lots of very cute baby pandas.

If I was a bit critical I’d say the members of the panda tribe were a bit overdone in being goofily clumsy and fat. It was funny at first, but there is only so many time you can see someone bouncing off a massive panda tummy in slow motion and still laugh at it.

The more mature storyline is the conflict between Po’s panda dad and his adoptive goose dad, who has raised Po ever since he discovered him in a box of radishes. I think it covered the difficulty faced by foster fathers and birth fathers quite sympathetically, even if it resolves it more neatly and quickly than things like this get resolved outside animated films. What is telling is that both panda and goose want to see Po happy, and that enables them to get over their differences. Po ends up with two dads, instead of replacing one. That’s a very positive message.

Zootropolis (called Zootopia everywhere else besides the UK) is the latest Disney film. I really enjoyed it. The plot is a nod to police movies and unlikely buddy movies – a rabbit, Judy Hopps, becomes the first bunny to become a police officer in the city of Zootropolis but struggles to be accepted because of her status as a prey species. She teams up with a streetwise fox, Nick Wilde, in an ‘unnatural’ partnership between a predator and prey species to solve a missing persons case that turns out to be much bigger than she first realised.

Wait, this isn't the Number 8 bus...

There were some good jokes along the way. The scene in the DMV run by sloths was no less funnier for being one of the extended trailers for the film, and Flash the sloth pops up again later in the movie in a moment that really made me laugh out loud. There is also an very nice homage to the Godfather as well. The animation is really outstanding, particularly when Judy sits in the observation car of the train taking her to Zootropolis and we see the city, with its different climate zones revealed one after the other. That whole sequence knocks most science fiction movies out of the park for the level of detail and wonder.

The big plot theme here is the relationship between predator and prey species in a clever parallel to racial tensions in the human world. With predators seemingly falling victim to their ‘biology’ and going savage, the prey species are being urged to take action. It’s no accident that one of the more prominent prey politicians has a hairpiece reminiscent of Donald Trump. The assertion that ‘we outnumber them ten to one’ and therefore need to crush them to protect ourselves from them is a bit like the anti-Muslim rhetoric you sometimes hear. Removing a predator cheetah (who is only really a danger to doughnuts) from the front desk of the police station because the powers that be feel as a predator he doesn’t project the right image, really rams the point home about stereotyping.  (Even if the love of doughnuts is in its own way also a stereotype.)

So, Zootropolis has a very deep theme and an important message. It also boasts a fine meta joke - Alan Tudyk voices the thief Duke Weaselton, who is a weasel. In Frozen he voices the Duke of Weaselton. When he is welcomed at Arendel castle as the Duke of Weaselton, he issues a correction and says it's Wesselton. In Zootropolis his name is mispronounced and he corrects it to Weaselton. I doubt any kids will even get the link, but that’s the sort of thing I quite enjoy.

Kung Fu Panda: 7.5/10

Zootropolis: 9/10

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Neuromarketing - how advertisers could use our brains against us

This is a chunk of an essay I wrote for my MSc. in the module I think has been most interesting so far: External Communications. I previously posted some nuggets from research papers about TV adverts. This is a bit more in-depth. I hope you find it as interesting as I did.

A neuroscientist, plotting
In addition to the insights gleaned from cognitive and social psychology, many marketing experts are monitoring the emerging field of neuroscience, the study of physical changes in the brain that underlie thought processes, such as problem-solving, decision-making and recalling memories. Neuroscience proposes “these mechanisms must be rooted in brain function” (Standage and Trappenberg, 2012, p.235). Although electroencephalography has been used to study the effect of marketing materials on the brain since the 1970s, it is the growth in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) procedures that has enabled neuroscience, ‘neuroeconomics’ and ‘neuromarketing’ to develop in the 21st Century (Kenning, Hubert and Linzmajer, 2012, pp.419-426).

Plassmann et al (2015) claim a number of large polling and market research companies with “neuromarketing” departments, used by companies as diverse as the food company, Campbell’s, and the broadcaster, Fox News. While it complements traditional consumer research, Standage and Trappenberg (2012) warn neuroscience is not ready to replace it entirely. There are critics of the neuromarketing approach, such as Addie (2011) who cites the “number of inadequacies” of using fMRI to examine brain functions, and is highly sceptical that neuroscience can actually deliver what it’s proponents claim.

Adopting a cautious approach, Plassmann et al (2015) outline five ways neuroscience could inform advertising strategy: identifying mechanisms, for example what causes consumers to lose control over their buying impulses; measuring implicit processes to explore situations where consumers cannot explain their buying actions; dissociating processes to see which decisions are intuitive reflexes and which are the product of conscious, rational thought; understanding the differences between individuals, which could help advertisers target individuals who are more likely to be susceptible to their messages; and, finally, improve predictions of how consumers are likely to behave. There are also challenges to using neuroscience in this way, including determining whether changes in the physiology of the brain definitely leads to behaviour change.

There have been some applied uses of neuroscience of interest to advertisers. Research reviewed by Kenning, Hubert and Linzmajer (2012) includes that adverts that consumers consider attractive led to brain activity in areas associated with integrating emotions into decision-making and rewards. Adverts rated as highly attractive and highly unattractive were more likely to be remembered. Brain areas associated with ‘rewards’ are also activated when products regarded as status symbols are viewed, with claims that neurological responses to products can then be used to predict purchasing behaviour.

Price has also been shown to have an effect – excessively high prices activate parts of the brain that anticipate losses, reducing the likelihood of a consumer to pick them. Kenning et al propose this could help businesses establish an acceptable ‘price threshold’. Finally, reinforcing the theory outlined by Harris & Sanborn (2014) about sex in advertising, Kenning et al (2012) comment that neuroimaging shows male consumers have the reward centres of their brains triggered by an attractive female face in an advert. This may have implications when businesses are choosing the ‘face’ of a particular advertising campaign.


Addie, I.  (2011) Is neuroscience facilitating a new era of the hidden persuader? International Journal of Market Research 53(3), 303-305

Harris, R. & Sanborn, F. (2014) A Cognitive Psychology of Mass Communication. Abingdon: Routledge

Kenning, P., Hubert, M. & Linzmajer (2012) “Consumer neuroscience” in Wells, V. & Foxall, G. (eds) Handbook of Developments in Consumer Behaviour. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar

Plassmann, H., Venkatraman, V., Huettel, S. & Yoon, C. (2015) Consumer Neuroscience: Applications, Challenges, and Possible Solutions. Journal of Marketing Research 52(4), 427-435

Standage, D. & Trappenberg, T. (2012) “Cognitive neuroscience” in Frankish, K. & Ramsey, W. (eds) The Cambridge Handbook of Cognitive Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Timing - a crucial element in marketing

We get some random leaflets through our door. I've critiqued one before for various marketing fails. But this rather weird leaflet we received recently illustrates another really important point about marketing: the importance of timing.

All these dates had gone

We got this through the door on about the 20th February. All bar one of the events that were advertised had passed.

Still time to go to one...!

The only one that we could still make was 'The origins of universal knowledge', which is a real shame because clearly the one about geomagnetism and ley lines would have been the most interesting.

(Realistically I know I wouldn't have gone to any of these. I would have liked to. Crazy things like this amuse me. For £3 it would probably have been great value even though I have enough on without going along to stuff like this for a laugh.)

But the point is, because of the timing, the leaflet was useless. I'm not even sure why they bothered paying to have them delivered at all if five of the six events had gone. Maybe they got ripped off by their distribution company. Maybe they had a load of leaflets left and were desperate to get people along to the last one in the series. Who knows? But I doubt it worked.

Timing is critical in marketing - when you make the offer often determines whether people take you up on it. There's good evidence, for example, that marketing emails don't do well on a Monday or a Friday. I often question the timing of TV adverts for special offer weekends, which are broadcast after 6pm on a Sunday when all the shops are shut. Why show it then? It's just a waste of the marketing budget.

It's very easy to spend a lot of time and effort thinking about your message, just to sabotage yourself by sending it out at completely the wrong time. The only thing more useless is sending it to completely the wrong prospects. I'm going to keep an eye out for an example of that.

Other comms & marketing posts
Making communications work: Always do the 'Comms around the Comms'
What makes TV adverts memorable: Some nuggets from psychology research
Marketing b*llocks! The "Camel Balls" bubble gum branding case study

Monday, March 07, 2016

Scottish Premier League for the night: Celtic v Dundee

When I was growing up my friend Edwin who lived round the corner supported Celtic. (His family were from Scotland.) Back then we collected football stickers and Edwin was keen on trying to get all the Celtic players.

Fast forward 30+ years and I had the opportunity to travel to Glasgow for a conference with work. On the off-chance that I might get to a game I looked up the fixture list and it turned out there was a game scheduled for the day I flew into town. Celtic v Dundee in the Scottish Premier League.

The taxi dropped me off right outside

Booking a ticket was very easy and every seat has a 'view' option so you can see what the view was going to be like. I had asked for advice on the When Saturday Comes message board because I didn't want to end up in with the Ultras. I was safely away at the opposite end.

I got a taxi out to the ground. The driver asked if I wanted to go the quickest route or the fastest route, along the elevated motorway, which also gave you a view of the ground. I opted for that and we arrived with plenty of time to spare. I went into the Celtic Superstore. They had everything you could imagine in there in Celtic colours. You could kit out your house in green and white if you wanted to. I bought a scarf and a programme as souvenirs.

Celtic Selfie (note scarf)

I made a big mistake of buying a veggie burger from one of the many food vendors outside the ground and missed out on the chance of a MACARONI PIE inside! (Although as Cathy pointed out that would be a mightmare from a carb point of view.) Still, the curly fries were good. And I will know to wait until I'm inside next time.

Even the little men on the sign wear hoops

Some people have added their own messages to the signs

I had a great view from my seat. There were a lot of spare seats, including most of my row, so second half I moved along a bit to get some space.

Dundee wait while Celtic huddle

The game itself was not a great advert for Scottish football. Celtic started brightly but soon fizzled out into bland play-it-across-the-park football. There were a couple of chances from free kicks and corners, for both teams. But really Dundee had come to defend and hit Celtic on the break. But Celtic were playing possession football and lying deep themselves, so rarely lost possession.

Celtic on the attack

The Celtic crowd are unforgiving, apart from the Ultras in the opposite corner who bounced along and chanted almost throughout the game. Within a few minutes there were sighs and expletives in response to mis-hit passes. From so high up it was obvious that as a team, Celtic were fairly clueless. The goalkeeper, Craig Gordon, echoed the frustration of the fans when he got fed up that no one was ever ready for a pass or throw to play the ball out from the back. He ended up just hoofing it upfield where it was inevitably headed back by a Dundee player.

And on the defence...

Celtic had one really good chance in the first half when they unpicked the Dundee defence for the only time in the game, but then the striker fired wide. Other than that, Dundee defended solidly while Celtic passed the ball across the park in front of them, and then cut it out when Celtic tried to go forward.

Midway through the second half Colin Kazim Richards came on. He's a much bigger unit now than he used to be. He made an impact, just not a positive one, as every touch seemed to be a foul. With twenty minutes to go, a goal seemed less and less likely and even the Ultras stopped making noise. Dundee could have won it at the death but their unmarked player somehow headed wide from a corner. Shortly after it was the final whistle, with lots of boos from the fans who had stayed to the bitter end.

Heading towards a 0-0 draw

Even with a final score of 0-0, I'm glad I went. It was a new experience, And I would go again if I had the chance. Mainly for the promise of a macaroni pie than the hope of seeing a brilliant game of football.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Dissecting bad marketing: When people forget WIIFM

The golden rule, cardinal rule, absolute must do, total imperative of marketing is this: it is all about your customer.

There's an acronym: WIIFM. What's In It For Me? When a prospect reads your copy they should know what the BENEFIT will be to them from buying your product or service.

It is that simple.

I got this email recently from a company. I started reading it, got bored and deleted it. Then I thought 'Actually, this would make a case study of poor marketing.'

Here's the email with the identifiers removed:

Dear Jon,
We are delighted to announce that in 2016 we shall be celebrating our 30th Anniversary.

To mark this significant milestone we have given our brand, website and literature a complete makeover; one that we believe helps reflect our heritage and our aspirations.  Our new logo is simpler and cleaner whilst continuing a theme that has represented our business for the past three decades.

We are very proud of our staff, our customers and our products so it is important that our brand represents this; indeed it is through our brand that we get to share with you who we are, what we do and where we are going.

We work across a number of industries and sectors, delivering expertise and software solutions that meet our customers’ needs, which, in turn, helps them achieve their own goals.  We believe our customers have their own unique requirements and they deserve a friendly, adaptable and professional approach.  It is this that drives us and is core to what we do.

We are all very excited about our new look and the opportunity to share more about the work we do and where we are going.  Please take a peek at the new website: [redacted] where you can learn more about our products and services and gain an insight into our mission and goals.

We would like to take this opportunity to express our appreciation for choosing [redacted] and for your continued support.  We look forward to working ever more closely with you for many more years to come.    
So here's your challenge. Tell me:
a) what does that company sell?
b) what benefit I will gain from using their services?
c) what is the point of this email?

Seriously, someone bothered to send me an inbox-clogging email telling me all about how excited they are about their new logo. Wow, a new logo. Big furry deal, as Dogbert would say.

Let's dissect this and see where exactly it falls down.

It starts with my name. That's actually good. Email personalisation helps make emails more readable.

Then it says they are celebrating their 30th birthday. OK. Not important to me.

Then some blah, blah, blah waffle about how great they are and how they plan to celebrate. They use 'our' 10 times and 'we' 6 times before the first use of the word 'you'. That's how much you, the reader matters. The ideal marketing copy would be the reverse of that.

In fact, here are the total word uses
'Our' = 16
'We' = 15
'Us' = 1
'You' = 3
'Your' = 1

That's a ratio of 8:1 (32:4) words about me compared to words about you. There are some glaring missed opportunities to rebalance this. 

"We work across a number of industries and sectors, delivering expertise and software solutions that meet our customers’ needs, which, in turn, helps them achieve their own goals.  We believe our customers have their own unique requirements and they deserve a friendly, adaptable and professional approach.  It is this that drives us and is core to what we do."

could be rewritten as

"By working across a number of industries and sectors, your needs will be met through applied expertise and software solutions that help you achieve your goals.  As a valued customer, you have your own unique requirements and you deserve a friendly, adaptable and professional approach. You'll find this drives us and is core to how we work with you."

That replace a 6:0 ratio of me-you words with a 2:8 ratio. Still not great, but much more compelling and it means exactly the same thing!

I'd also question whether it is through their brand that they share with me who they are, what they do etc. They will probably have to explain all that stuff. Brands are actually very poor communicators. You know what are good communicators?


There is a tendency to see email marketing as less selling and more about building relationships. But this email doesn't even do that because it is totally one-sided. It's not a relationship; it's just them saying stuff, completely oblivious to the needs, wants, feelings of the people they're talking to.

It is also a wasted contact. What is gained by sending an email to all your prospects about something as pants-boringly useless (to me) as your new logo? I can understand you wanting to go 'Squeee!' with excitement, because having a new logo is a BFD to you. But it means nothing to me. Why would I care? What's in it for me?

And even if I accepted this was a useful and relevant thing to be communicating with your customers with, it's not even a good communication because it's all about you. But if you want my attention it should be all about me.

It's the golden rule. Tell me the benefits. Tell me what's in it for me. Otherwise it's just a crap waste of inbox space.

Read more
Put your benefit front and central
Analysing takeaway menus for marketing fails