Why Tony Blair is like a tea-bag: Values Research can be used to sell us anything from ice-cream to a prime minister. Helen Fielding reports (CORRECTED)

CORRECTION (PUBLISHED 6 NOVEMBER 1994) APPENDED TO THIS ARTICLE

A LARGE American with a curiously Simon Batesian fashion look - silver aviator specs, blue blazer - is pointing at a pattern of little dots projected on a wall. 'When you've satisfied one set of value-driven needs, the next starts kicking in. And the next is very much about empathy, creativity, environmental action, sexuality, androgyny. Yeah. These are the coming values.'

We are sitting in an office with grey Venetian blinds and a yucca plant in the West London suburb of Ealing. A side table sports an array of consumer products and two empty glass human heads. The cluster of dots Pat Dade is pointing at is, apparently, a 'value map', each of the dots representing a different value of British society: 'hedonism', for example, 'authority', 'inertia', 'sexuality', 'decor'.

These are the offices of Synergy Brand Values, a British company of which Dade is director, formed two and a half years ago. It specialises in market research, based not on class, demographics, wealth, or status but on values, beliefs and motivation.

The closer the value dots are to the centre of the map, Dade explains, the more important they currently are to the British populace. Dots in the bottom right hand corner - your androgynys, excitements and sexualities - are the ones which are 'coming through'. The ones opposite, in the top left hand corner, things like authority, puritanism, familism and security, are the ones which, to continue the vaguely scatological terminology, have 'been passed'.

The meeting is unnervingly reminiscent of one I had with a fashion forecasting company some two years ago. It was predicting that ecru and other shades of beige would be 'coming through' as the big new fashion trend for Summer '94. It was also explaining how fashion trends grow out of a mass of global influences: politics (in ecru's case, environmental concern and the Gulf War), films, technical devlopments, happenings on the catwalk and the nightclub scene, and the efforts of manufacturers and marketing people to spot an embryonic trend and reinforce it.

Ecru coming through is all very well, but values? The whole idea of values, some might say, is that they are solid, deep-rooted, timeless, dependable things, with a truth and raison d'etre of their own, not fads which drift in and out of fashion like pointy bras. I mean really darling, kindness is kicking in, but for God's sake don't start being honest, it's so bloody late Seventies.

'Certainly it is true that people are devising value systems of their own now, and have different value systems at different stages of their lives, ' says Mr Dade. 'Within the last 40 or 50 years, we've seen a breakdown in religion, in community, the end of the industrial paradigm, and an enormous increase in information. People are not taking their beliefs from an external authority any more. Values have become an evolving thing. They are dynamic, a product of the culture.' And an excellent means of shifting other products, so long as you understand them.

Synergy Brand Values advises manufacturers such as Lyons Tetley, Golden Wonder and Homepride and the advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty. But within the last few months, Dade tells me, Synergy has also been talking to the Liberal Democrats and to senior figures in the Labour party: 'We're talking the very top. We're talking Gordon and Tony.'

Whatever you're trying to push - parties or party food - it helps to know what's going on in the heads of the populace. Dade's colleague, David Anthony, explains how values helped Haagen-Dazs persuade a whole new group of consumers to buy posh ice-cream. The old-style ice-cream buyers, he tells me, had top-left-hand corner values: familism, authority, rigidity. 'It was ice-cream round the table with the in-laws after Sunday tea. We encouraged Haagen-Dazs to appeal to values coming through; sexuality, hedonism, excitement, androgyny - there are no clear sex roles in the advertising.'

The campaign has had, as we know, spectacular success and captured a whole new market of ice-cream eaters.

The value of values to manufacturers, advertisers and politicians is clear.

The complex and fluctuating mindset of the populace is less easy to pin down. And thus, over the last 20 years or so, beginning in America, the field of values research has been flourishing.

There is no thrilling originality in the methodology. It's based on asking people questions. But the questions and their interpretation are more complicated than asking people how many cheesy snacks they get through in a day or how often they have sex. Synergy Brand Values, for example asked people how easy they found it to decide whether they preferred to 'think about things which can be proved' or 'which cannot be proved'; and to precisely what extent they agreed or disagreed that we have the capability to channel energy from the spiritual world. They were asked to imagine they were a colour - what colour would they be?

The questionnaires were presented by interviewers knocking at doors in randomly selected locations. The interviewers started the questioning off, then left people to complete a booklet of 364 questions. The 2,000 who managed it were rewarded with a pounds 10 Marks and Spencer's voucher.

Values research was pioneered in this country in the Seventies by Dr Elizabeth Nelson of the Taylor Nelson market research company. She was one of the founders of the International Research Institute on Social Change (RISC), a trans-European consultancy body which advises multinational organisations like ICI, British Airways, Unilever and all the big car companies. A separate major research project, co-ordinated by the University of Mannheim in Germany, is currently studying 'Shifts in value orientation amongst the population in Western Europe,' and will publish its findings next year under the working title, The Impact of Values.

An important area of research then, but one which until a month ago lurked way beyond the public gaze. At the end of September however, Demos, the think-tank, published a booklet, No Turning Back, based on Synergy Brand Values' survey, and 20 years of previous research. This brought the whole business into the public domain.

The author, Helen Wilkinson, reported dramatic differences in values between the generations. She spoke of a 'genderquake' amongst the 18- 34s; of a new generation of women valuing autonomy, work and education more than a family or parenting; of the feminisation of the workforce; of the failure of many men to adapt to change. She identified value shifts towards 'androgyny' (interchangeable male and female roles), 'complexity' and 'excitement'.

Wilkinson makes the point that advertisers have done a lot better than politicians at keeping up with changing values, rather than trying to impose the values of the past on a populace which has lost interest in external authority.

But during an evening's TV viewing, it's interesting to consider what values do emerge from advertising. Those in the business stress that adverts don't dictate values, they merely reflect them. But as they do so, they reinforce.

So what are they reinforcing?

It's easy to think of adverts which grab at the up and coming values on Synergy Brand Values' chart. Androgyny or interchangeable sex roles - the Diet Coke ad, which had female office workers ogling a lithe youth out of the office window; excitement - the Pepsi Max ad showing chaps parachuting off the Grand Canyon; sexuality - Haagen-Dazs.

But what about the things we have traditionally thought of as values, and old-fashioned 'goodness' - altruism, honesty, integrity, kindness? Last night, I picked out just one ad where a girl sang, 'When this great, wide world starts turning cold, promise me you'll be there for meeee, and always care for meee . . . ', but this seemed to be based on inter-reaction between her and a cup of Lemsip rather than another person.

To what extent is this a product of value research? On Synergy Brand Values' map of 46 value dots, only two of them - empathy and environmental action - seem to relate to other people rather than the individual's own needs. Why did Synergy's research not throw up more about being altruistic, and 'good'?

'Is it good to be a good person?' was Mr Dade's response. 'Yes. Everyone's gonna answer yes. It's an apple pie question. It goes right in the middle and it turns out to be a non-question,' he said; a baffling non-answer.

I suggested that if everyone was going to agree that you should be altruistic - and given that charity appeals such as Live Aid generate such a dramatic and positive response - you might think that advertisers could play much harder on altruistic values. They could promote rosy, positive, 'apple pie' values, alongside the androgyny, complexity and whatever else is 'kicking in'. And the Labour Party, for example, could successfully promote paying higher taxes as an altruistic act. 'Could well go that way, could well go that way,' said Mr Anthony.

Ben Cutler of RISC threw a little more light on the matter by explaining that there are certain large, key questions - like the ones about being good and kind - which are tough to get at in value research because people are so deeply conditioned to answer 'yes', regardless of whether or not this relates to the way they behave. Nevertheless, according to RISC's research, traditional altruistic values are quite definitely 'coming through'.

'There seems to be a greater top-of-mind awareness of things like honesty and altruism,' says Mr Cutler. 'In the Eighties, people were aware of these things but prepared to soft pedal them - it was a time of extreme individualism. Most of the problems people are concerned with now cannot be solved on an individual basis. They are re-examining those morals which are based on inter-reaction between people within a community.' Kindness, it would seem, is coming back into fashion.

Values respond to circumstance. And no doubt the recent excitement in the Conservative Party will do more than any Back to Basics campaign to get integrity kicking in amongst the non-Paris-Ritz frequenting sector of the populace. We had better make the most of it, before the winds of change start blowing and bring with them a hot new value trend for - what? - serial killing?

CORRECTION

MR TONY BLAIR

IT is now clear that, contrary to remarks made by Mr Pat Dade (Real Life, 30 October), neither Tony Blair nor members of his office have had discussions or meetings with Synergy Brand Values.

(Photograph and graphic omitted)

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