david aaronovitch

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The Independent Online
Look across the breakfast table and answer this question: if your partner were a vegetable, which vegetable would she or he be? Such is the basis for an old undergraduate game which I had nearly forgotten until this week. In it, one person leaves the room, and those remaining agree the name of a mutual acquaintance. The absentee is then invited to return, and has to establish the mystery person's identity with the aid of queries like: "What kitchen utensil would X be?" The reply, whether a clogged pastry-brush or an old chopper, would give associative clues to the seeker.

This all came back when Thursday's newspapers reported that one advertising agency, Barker and Ralston, has used this parlour game (which it has renamed "sensory edge") as the basis for a serious study into political attitudes - a study it claims is more reliable than conventional polling. "The man in the street will give you the answer you want to hear, rather than what he really thinks," the agency opines perceptively, whereas "sensory edge finds out what people really think of a brand". The responses were fascinating. The Conservatives smelled of pipe tobacco, changing rooms, stale cologne and "old farts". They sounded like retired colonels snoring, felt like old leather armchairs and tasted like cream teas. Labour was men sweating, brass bands, chips and (homage to the transformation wrought by Mr Blair) "fresh breath". Paddy had to make do with flowers, bell ringing and Crimplene.

At last one feels the authentic hot breath of Britain's 35 million voters on the back of one's journalistic neck. The Tories are comfortable, if boring; Labour is outdated; the Liberal Democrats are wimpish. Mr Ashdown will be particularly discomfited by the reference to Crimplene, given his own attachment to woollens.

But what is to be done with this information now that it is available? In these days of spin doctors and poster campaigns you can be sure that sharp-suited young women and pretty young men will be hard at work attempting to gain benefit from it.

And their first question must surely be this: "What would the optimum sensory-edge profile be?" Well, I have the answer. A party that smelled like newly baked bread, tasted of smoked salmon, sounded like a Mozart chamber work and felt like being massaged by Alicia Silverstone. You'd bloody well vote for a party like that, wouldn't you?

The problem for the image makers, though, is substantial. It is one (albeit difficult) thing to alter the perception of your policies. You ditch the old ones, get new ones, then tell everybody. But how do you engineer sensory edge?

The first step must be to remove old associations. Thus the rulebook for all local Conservative organisations must include the injunctions: "no snoring, no farting, no colonels". For Labour, only southern women, wearing proven anti-perspirants, will be permitted to stand for Parliament (actually, I gather this particular policy is already in force). The Lib Dems merely have to avoid blooms, churches and man-made fibres.

Establishing association with the new target virtues will not be quite so simple, however. Is every shot of Cherie Blair to show her baking bread for her family, and indeed for the entire shadow cabinet? Must Brian Mawhinney hold all his press conferences from beside keep-nets on the banks of the Usk or Dee? Will Charles Kennedy be required to release his own sensual massage video, to complement a series also including Menzies Campbell's advanced love techniques and Liz Lynne's guide to eastern eroticism? On the answer to these questions may depend the future of this nation - and the time is short.