Bunhill: Direct marketing - my idea of fun

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The Independent Online
So the novelist Will Self has been taken off the election trail, sacked by the Observer over allegations that he took heroin on John Major's campaign aircraft. Well let's get him back on to it because if his bizarre but acute observations on business are anything to go by, we'd all be much the wiser about our political leaders.

His novel My Idea of Fun , for example, introduces us to a direct marketing database broker who "can mash lists of prospects together to produce delightfully implausible juxtapositions: exercise-bike owners who take educ- tional holidays to Ukraine (there are only seven in London); lepers with a penchant for Janet Reger lingerie (surprisingly, several hundred in Roseland alone); Liberal Democrat Nintendo enthusiasts who are also Wagner buffs (not as many as one might have hoped for)."

So what's he on, then? Nothing, necessarily, because Mr Self's vision of market research is not far removed from reality. While we might think that "junk mail" firms are good at launching bombardments but awful at hitting targets, the process of selecting people for promotions is now a refined art. Companies don't want to waste time and money selling sky- diving trips to vertigo sufferers so instead they turn to "lifestyle" database firms which can build up accurate customer profiles from all those surveys and adverts we answer.

This data crunching can produce connections we might never have made ourselves. As Tony Lamb of Conduit Communications, the relationship management consultancy, says: "If you ride a mountain bike, you might well drink more Lucozade." Or if you've ever answered a "customer satisfaction" survey at the end of a windsurfing holiday, you might get a mailshot for a mountain bike. And while Liberal Democrat Nintendo enthusiasts may be stretching it, if you're over 40, wear wellington boots, like cooking and listen to rock music then someone's got your number: stand by for promotions for garden seeds, onion peelers and Oasis records.

So what kind of strange vision would Mr Self dream up for the election? A campaign involving chickens and dogs? Now that really would be beyond belief.

It's been said that Britain and America are two countries divided by the same language. In which case, let's send the Plain English police across the Atlantic on a fact-finding mission. For while we might laugh at American euphemisms like "negative life function" (dead), "accommodator" (cleaning woman) and "retrofitting" (sacking people), we have to admit it: they know a good company name when they see one.

Among recent inspiring titles are Crazy Woman Bank Corp (presumably for ladies with more money than sense), the Ponce Bank (which I hope loses something in translation) and Hoot Owls (a restaurant chain that was gobbled up by the Rattlesnake group).

All of which is in stark contrast to the litany of arcane acronyms chosen by British businesses for their monikers. I suggest we punish such poor imagination by adapting another idea from the other side of the pond: "zero tolerance". Let's get these bad names off the streets.

Virtually reality

We've had Fantasy Football, Fantasy Rugby League, even Fantasy Politics. Now for "Econorama" - the economics board game that leaves nothing to chance. As the diagram below illustrates, this is a game that is entirely faithful to real life. Whatever fate has in mind when you roll the dice, don't assume that's your lot; as surely as a burglary follows a lottery win, and a whacking insurance payout follows a burglary, so good news must give way to bad news and bad news means the good times are just around the corner.

The starting point for the game is the unsustainable legacy of the late 1980s: high inflation, falling unemployment and low interest rates. Throw a 1 and you land on "rates rise" - go straight to "record bankruptcies". Throw a 2 and it's "unemployment rises" - move on to "negative equity". Get a 3 and you're stuck with "social security claims rise" - skip along to "taxes rise".

But what goes round comes round in Econorama and, as Tony Blair would say, things can only get better: "negative equity" will lead you to "rates fall", as will "high street sales plummet" and "output drops".

All this assumes, though, that you don't have to pick up chance cards. These are malevolent forces that presage death and destruction. One card reads "diverge from Maastricht convergence criteria, go back to rates rise"; while another says "economy booms, go back to start".

While it's accepted that when Wall Street sneezes the rest of us catch a cold, it's also true that when someone gets a job, Wall Street runs a temperature, stays up all night coughing and ruptures a cruciate ligament. So it is with Econorama: every piece of good news on employment and business growth must lead straight back to "rates rise".

You may have noticed this is a dismal game that goes on forever and in which you can never win. But that's what happens when you leave economic policy to the experts.