Home » 'Impossible things' » Black Friday: Is Big Data the new Democracy? (Obituary, Fidel Castro)

Black Friday: Is Big Data the new Democracy? (Obituary, Fidel Castro)


So, Farewell then, Fidel Castro.

Reaching 90 was a great achievement, given the many attempts on your life by the CIA. Probably due to your magnificent national health service, large cigars and bracing climate, you survived.

It’s a shame some of your ex-friends and political opponents didn’t make it past their 40s.

“…the key marketing ingredient of all consumer products being the deliberately designed-in margin of dissatisfaction”

The blackest of Fridays

By: Consumer Correspondent, Delia Bogof ©2016 @poundland.com


I recommend this cut-and-paste link, assuming it works, to a lengthy but fascinating Marxist analysis by Stuart Jeffries of the consumer-capitalist conspiracy known as Black Friday.

Perhaps it should be renamed ‘Red Friday’, in honour of the ink-bespattered statements that will flutter onto your doormat in December, just before Christmas, to remind you of the sheer lunacy that overtook you on 25 November, when you found your righteous soul being sucked away down a retail storm-drain in the artificially generated mass-panic of Shopageddon.

My motto is, of course: ‘Don’t buy stuff, don’t burn stuff.’ And that could mean something as simple as just staying in bed tomorrow, pulling up the covers and relishing the thought that no sale bargain is going to give you so much gratification as that smug feeling you’re going to get from knowing you resisted the siren call of the merchants of stuff.

Except that yesterday, Blue Thursday, negotiating the exit lane from the supermarket past piled-high tins of festive biscuits at Only £4, £60 plastic trees (with LED lights) and £12 litre-bottles of soothing industrial vodka, I succumbed to a sudden urge to spend £30 on a fetching, sky-blue, retro-styled, portable Akai vinyl-record player in a nifty little suitcase, with added something-or-other, Bluetooth? Greensward? Greybeard?

Why, for Pity’s sake?

I actually have a proper, old-fashioned DJ-style turntable hooked up to an old amp and a pair of speakers, for playing the few scratchy LPs I’ve mostly hung on to since schooldays, half a century ago, when in moods of eccentricity. But there was nowhere else to put it except on the floor behind the piano under the avocado tree where it’s difficult to get at, and the amp has developed an annoying mains hum, and the complicated system of weights and measures that balance the tone-arm for optimum performance is fiddly and maladjusted….

Did it meet my need to maximise my media usage in, for instance, the sitting-room? The kitchen? Upstairs? Travelling in the camper I haven’t actually bought – yet?

So often have I given in to the impulse to acquire an apparently desirable item after walking past and eyeing it hungrily forty or fifty times, and then regretted it, that I feel sure Buyer’s Itch must be a recognised medical syndrome.

I’ve already bought my Xmas presents, far in advance. Back in September, I spent some money on some things – a saxophone, a weekend jazz workshop, a tablet thing – some other stuff I can’t remember, and decided to allocate the expenditure across both my October birthday and Christmas. I come from a precariously small family: there’s only my mum, who may not make it to Christmas this year; and my two kids, both twenty-something, busy making lives and dispersed throughout the land.

Ensuring I still get the essential quantity of presents every year is really down to me alone now*.

So this record-player is something else: a nostalgic wind-up reminder of my youth, possibly; a little ‘Dansette’ in a box, like the one I had in my study at school, where I found Miles Davis and Archie Shepp and Roland Rahsaan Kirk, the Stones, Leadbelly and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers  to fuel my teenage boarder’s spotty rage.

Anyway, what’s £30 nowadays? The blue wooden suitcase is fine, the thing does actually work; but crappy, so crappy the plasticky turntable, the tone-arm, the flimsy cartridge, the knobs and levers, the hinges and the catch…. all made from gossamer-thin stuff, light as air and twice as bendy.

What did you expect, other than mild disillusionment – the key marketing ingredient of all consumer products being the deliberately designed-in margin of dissatisfaction that eventually swells to a desire to trash the thing and buy a better one, that will take your itching consumer discontent to yet another level of suicidal, self-loathing despair.

While somewhere out on the sparkling sea, the smiling, carefree Mr Akai is entertaining a bevy of lovelies with expensive champagne and cheerful banter: far from the madding crowd, the lowering skies, the scrambling contumely, the drizzling loneliness that follows free with every purchase.

Fuck capitalism. Just absolutely fuck it.

*To emphasise this point, my ex-sisters-in-law, known as The Aunts, each gave me a book for Christmas. I am trying in my OCD/Asperger’s fashion to find a kind way to point out to them (suggestions on a postcard, please) that a) I have bothered to read only one book in the last five years (on global food politics) owing to z) failing eyesight and y) ditto comprehension; and b) if I were disposed ever to read another book in my life, it would be neither x) brooding broadcaster Jeremy Paxman’s autobiography, nor w) Monty Don (the gardening writer) writing about his loveable dogs.

I have however detected a pattern here: Paxman, Don and I are all self-proclaimed boarding-school survivors who have written extensively about our depression. Now you know why.


We hear a lot about the ‘Just About Managing’ class, families who work but barely make ends meet.

Good news then that they Just About Managed to spend £2.9 billion on acquiring Black Friday bargains, online and in the High Street; mainly on credit cards. The bulk of the stuff they bought was imported – Chinese-made, US techno-garbage.

Trump this, Trump that

As a fascinating footnote to history, we discover that Donald Trump’s paternal grandfather, one Friedrich Trump of Kallsberg, Bavaria, having avoided military service by the simple expedient of travelling to the US, was later expelled from Germany by official proclamation as a draft-dodger and illegal emigrant (not immigrant, emigrant – you needed permission to leave), and returned to New York in 1905 with his pregnant bride – Elizabeth Christ.

In just that one sentence lies a world of semi-fictional narrative possibility. It gets better.

Friedrich subsequently joined in the Klondyke gold rush and opened a restaurant-cum-brothel, sending back to New York the gold nuggets in which he was paid for the ladies’ services. The Christ-child, Trump’s father Fred, thus benefited from his mother’s and aunts’ property investments, founding the fortune on which little Donald relied to repair his early-years business failures.

His obsequious pleas to the Kaiser to be allowed to return to Germany having fallen on deaf ears, Friedrich thus escaped having to do military service a second time and so was not killed in the First World War. Lucky man. Smart, you might say.

Now, there’s a lot of fake news about, I’m told. The attribution for the foregoing, reported in The Guardian, is to historian Roland Paul. Let us hope he is not simply making it up as a Facebook meme for our times.

But in the ongoing debate over nature versus nurture, the story of the Trump dynasty does seem to score quite a lot of points for gene theory.

Bag it, don’t bin it

Following his release in the late 1940s, a German PoW chose to stay and make his home in England.

Christian Brann went on to found the business that still bears his name, Brann Direct. A creative copywriter, he pioneered the use and science of direct – or ‘junk’ – mail in this country. You may revile him or admire him, the choice is yours (Yes envelope, or No!).

But you should not misunderstand him.

Many years later, my creative agency had a motto: ‘It isn’t junk until it goes in the bin’. (Gentle Reader, I wrote that!) The point being, that while direct, personalised advertising is intrusive – it doesn’t work otherwise – it can and should also be entertaining and informative.

Whether the recipient acts on the information or not is less material than that they read it, then put it behind the clock for future reference. Either way, we can learn from their responses.

Drawing on his pre-war experience, Brann realised that if a company could know as much as possible about its potential customers and their preferences, it would actually save waste and enable them to enter into a kind of mutual partnership that would make future transactions as efficient as possible. Producers and suppliers would be advertising only to a self-identified group of interested users instead of splurging expensive ad copy into the void. Thereafter, the pool of willing buyers would just need occasional topping-up.

Earlier efforts by advertisers to recruit purchasers to ‘club’ schemes had been successful, up to a point; but required the kind of commitment that not everyone busily rebuilding the postwar world would be able to keep up. A less formal relationship was needed, that would use up no more time than it took to tick a box and pop the self-folding envelope back in the post on the way to work, preferably with a small cheque inside.

Consequently, although most recipients are unaware of it, the piece of mail you get in the post may only be one version. In a process of assiduous testing, other versions will have been targeted to different consumer profiles – including previous customers – to see which works best, for which groups.

The right product, at the right price, at the right time, to the right buyer….

Profiling is the key to successful direct mail – that, and lucky timing. By continually testing and refining the message in all its elements – headline, copy length and style, design, different price-points, the ‘free’ offer, even the colours used – and by applying the latest consume profiling techniques, the theory was that you would end up doing less advertising, use up fewer trees, in order to achieve your sales target; at the same time, receiving feedback from responders, and even learning from non-responders, data that would enable you to refine your product or service, saving on waste at the production end as well.

It’s the sheer volume, rather than the concept, that I think is most annoying to people; also, there’s a lot of badly designed, badly written, badly targeted crap. (Less than 1.5 percent of mail pieces sent ever receive a response.) Having said that, the most successful mailing campaign I ever created, I deliberately designed to be as awful and offputting as possible, as I disapproved of the product (a cheap and nasty brand of cigarette…): it achieved an unheard-of 16% response.

So if junkmail didn’t work financially, they wouldn’t go on sending it. In theory.

I keep reading nowadays that the use of algorithms by large tech comms corps to gather and sort unimaginable quantities of data on millions of consumers by tracking their internet usage is a sinister development, enabling for instance Facebook to target ‘news’ stories of the kind its bots determine is of most interest, using evermore garish ‘hook’ lines, and to link-in pop-up advertising with similarly interesting themes, at an individual level.

In other words, Facebook is less a social media site than a giant advertising conspiracy to capture your very soul and turn it against your bank balance!

As I don’t have a Facebook account and rarely if ever respond to messages from companies I have not bought from before – as a grownup, I can make up my own mind about what I need to buy and how to find it – it doesn’t concern me much. I employ an ad blocker, I’m sorry if that deprives media outlets of revenue but as I tell them, I wouldn’t be spending money with their clients anyway. And as a compulsive looker-up of stuff for this, muh bogl, my Search history must resemble a bookworm on LSD. Predicting my interests from it has thus far been an abject failure!

In fact, the core principle of direct marketing seems not to have changed in any major respect since Christian Brann’s day, other than in the sheer size and sophistication of the Big Data systems involved in data capture and cross-reference, and the more accurate targeting of products and services at individual consumers rather than broader user-groups.

New industries are coming into being on the back of it, to manufacture and distribute products with maximum efficiency. New manufacturing techniques are converging on a world in which products may one day simply be spun like candyfloss in a printer, from raw materials to order, minimising wastage. The age of bulk manufacturing and mass marketing is nearly over. Soon, numberplate recognition will enable roadside billboards to advertise to individual motorists, products and services in which they have shown, or predictably ought to show, an interest; don’t be surprised when your self-driving electric car or your kettle starts selling you stuff!

Thus, it could be argued, Big Data may not be the evil surveillance machine that wraps us all in cotton-wool and informs the security services that we are thinking about destabilising an election, or are about to have an accident in the home; but it just might be the new democracy, forcing industry to respond more rapidly and willingly to the individual demands of the ‘electorate’ – the people who vote with their credit cards – and politicians to be more acutely aware of our social needs and preferences than under the old ‘party’ system, that is no longer fit for purpose.


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