Ucas: Flogging ads on the back of its access to students is just plain sneaky

Nothing sounds as phony as paid-for enthusiasm

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It’s hard being young. No job, no money and, if you decide to go to university to try to improve your life chances, you’ll spend the rest of forever wallowing in debt. And yet you have something that everyone else wants: youth. Which is why Ucas made £12m last year by selling advertising to the students who have rashly agreed to put their data up for grabs.

Young people are a deeply desirable market for advertisers of phones, soft drinks and fancy student accommodation, all of whom paid Ucas for the chance to plug their products. Students can opt out of direct mailings, but that means they also lose the chance to see course or careers information. There is no option to see the stuff they might need while not receiving any mail about caffeinated fizzy pop. Which I need, because I’m old and can’t stay awake without it. They clearly don’t, because they are 19, and routinely stay up all night like fun-loving owls.

But advertisers want what only the young can give them: an endorsement from real live people who are objectively cool (even the uncool ones) because they’re not yet 22. The rest of us, lured in by their enthusiasm, will follow their lead, and soon we’ll all be drinking something which smells and tastes like carbonated floor cleaner, and proclaiming it delicious.

Except we probably won’t, because nothing sounds as phony as paid-for enthusiasm. How long did it take the internet to sniff out that Tory strategists had been paying to advertise David Cameron’s page on Facebook, in order to win him more “likes”? About 15 seconds. And now he looks, if anything, less popular than before. Nothing smacks of desperation so much as wanting to be liked. Quite aside from making their leader look achingly needy, they also made him look trivial: is it really possible that the Prime Minister has nothing more important to worry about than Facebook popularity? I can’t speak for the rest of you, but I was really assuming he did.

The truism goes that once you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made. The trouble is that faking sincerity is a lot harder than it looks. Go to TripAdvisor for a masterclass in how difficult it is: the site is packed with rave reviews of a hotel that can have been written only by its staff. They’re balanced out by bad reviews that could have come only from a rival hotelier, or perhaps the hotel manager’s malevolent ex. Most of us have just never felt that strongly about a hotel, unless we were in the final throes of a game of Monopoly.

The problem is motivation, something that internet users are primed to sniff out. Why would David Cameron’s Facebook profile suddenly shoot up in popularity last month? Did he do anything of note? Anything? No wonder people grew suspicious. Equally, if you tried a new phone, or drink, and it was good, would you instantly take to Twitter to tell the world? I drink so much Diet Coke that I have to eat an all-cheese diet to balance the calcium it leaches from my bones, and even I don’t spend my time advocating it to strangers.

And the reason I don’t do that is because Coca-Cola has perfectly good advertisers to do it for it. Advertisers to whom it pays enormous sums. So I’m wondering if students could work the Ucas system to their advantage. If advertisers want their endorsements so much, they can pay for it. Students could form a union and agree to test products and offer social media feedback only if they’re (well) paid for doing so. They could decide on a minimum fee and stick to it. And if you’re wondering how they could share that information with other students quickly and cheaply, perhaps they might try a mass mailout, via Ucas.

A spy dog, possibly. A spy cat? Never.

The National Archives are often the source of a good story, especially the First World War material. But yesterday’s revelation – that two cats and one dog were identified as potential spies on the Western Front in 1915 – is brilliant. I realise that desperation can do terrible things to a man’s mind, but spy cats? We can only assume that whoever spotted the suspicious felines wasn’t a cat owner himself. Otherwise, he would have known that training a cat to do anything other than whatever the hell it feels like is a massive waste of time.

Even if the cats had natural sympathies with the Germans, they would have been unlikely to demonstrate that affection by trotting across enemy lines with coded messages. Rather, they would have displayed their affection by dropping a half-chewed, mostly dead mouse near a howitzer. I wonder if someone overheard a discussion about a Mauser C96, and got the wrong idea.

Natalie Haynes’s new book, ‘The Amber Fury’, is out now, published by Atlantic Books

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