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

Nothing sounds as phony as paid-for enthusiasm

Share

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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Solution Architect - Contract

£500 - £600 per day: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Solution Architect is requir...

360 Resourcing Solutions: Export Sales Coordinator

£18k - 20k per year: 360 Resourcing Solutions: ROLE: Export Sales Coordinato...

Recruitment Genius: B2B Telesales Executive - OTE £35,000+

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The largest developer of mobile...

SThree: Talent Acquisition Consultant

£22500 - £27000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: Since our inception in 1986, STh...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The old 1,000 Greek drachma notes and current 20 euros  

Greece debt crisis: History shows 'new drachma' is nothing to fear

Ben Chu
David Cameron leaves Number 10 to speak at Parliament  

Tunisia attack: To prevent more bloodshed we must accept that containment has not worked

Patrick Cockburn
Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
Paris Fashion Week

Paris Fashion Week

Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
A year of the caliphate:

Isis, a year of the caliphate

Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

Marks and Spencer

Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

'We haven't invaded France'

Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

Remembering 7/7 ten years on

Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

They’re here to help

We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

What exactly does 'one' mean?

Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue
E L James's book Grey is a reminder of how the phenomenon of the best-seller works

Grey is a reminder of how the phenomenon of the best-seller works

It's hard to understand why so many are buying it – but then best-selling was ever an inexact science, says DJ Taylor
Behind the scenes of the world's most experimental science labs

World's most experimental science labs

The photographer Daniel Stier has spent four years gaining access to some of the world's most curious scientific experiments
It's the stroke of champions - so why is the single-handed backhand on the way out?

Single-handed backhand: on the way out?

If today's young guns wish to elevate themselves to the heights of Sampras, Graf and Federer, it's time to fire up the most thrilling shot in tennis
HMS Saracen: Meeting the last survivor of a submarine found 72 years after it was scuttled

HMS Saracen

Meeting the last survivor of a submarine found 72 years after it was scuttled
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Martine Wright lost both legs in the attack – she explains how her experience since shows 'anything is possible'

7/7 bombings 10 years on

Martine Wright lost both legs in the attack – she explains how her experience since shows 'anything is possible'