Advertising, age and the #maninthemoon

Man on the moonYou may as well try to hold back the tide as ignore the cultural message-making that surrounds the Man In The Moon John Lewis ad.  It’s still all over twitter like a cheap suit, the marketeers have plastered LinkedIn with comments pro- and anti- and newspapers with space to fill are commissioning pieces about what it says about loneliness.  So I’m sacrificing the high ground, and joining in.  Here are just some of the things I hate about the advert – as though it matters – with inspiration from the ghost of semiotician Roland Barthes, born 100 years ago this very week:

  1. The stereotypical portrayal of older people. The old man is lonely, sad and needs rescuing by a child. Undoubtedly many older people are extremely lonely, but many are not.  We could do with some positive images in adverts as well as the helpless and isolated.  Why couldn’t he have been befriended by the child’s granny?  She could be a happy, smiley woman who’s central to her own extended family. She could help the child make sense of the old man’s plight – and suggest how to help.
  2. It’s a non-solution solution to loneliness.  The present sent to the old man allows him to look in through the window of the child’s house. He’s clearly not invited to join the family for tea. This probably makes the givers (us) feel a whole lot better than the receiver who is, after all, still left out in the cold. Maybe a very long slide from the John Lewis toy department could have been extended to his lonely eerie by smiley Granny and they could have slid back to the Christmas party together in a daring whoosh of jollity, fun, and a flash of support stockings. But would bringing him into the house have raised too many awkward issues about how far we are actually prepared to go to alleviate loneliness at Christmas?
  3. Marketing trumps social conscience. I strongly suspect that, however well Age UK will do out of the ad, John Lewis will do a whole lot better. Age UK doesn’t get a name check anywhere on the advert. It will benefit from a ‘text £5’ fundraising campaign and from 25% of the sales of a mug with the campaign logo on it. There’s a range of other stuff available which is linked to the campaign, but it looks like Age UK only get a cut of the profits on the mug and a card. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with John Lewis wanting to make money at Christmas.  I just feel a bit queasy about the holier than thou tone it takes while it’s doing it.
  4. Worthiness trumps fun.  There’s not a hint of wit or laughter or real warmth in the whole 2 minutes.  Nothing to make me crack a smile never mind make me feel well disposed to the notion of Christmas shopping. Next year, John Lewis, your challenge is not to alleviate suffering or bring world peace, it’s to make me smile. Go on. I dare you.
  5. As previously stated. It’s an advert. For a shop. Designed to make us buy stuff at Christmas.  I hate it for dragging me into its self-satisfied orbit.  It needs to get over itself.

If you want to make a donation directly to Age UK, by the way, you can do it here.

Bah humbug to the man on the moon

The Essex Chronicle is getting in early with its speculation about what 2016’s John Lewis advert will look like – or possibly they’re in a such a tizz about this year’s that they couldn’t focus on proofing the headline.

Everyone else is mad for it, too.  In the time between starting to write this and finishing it the tweet count for #manonthemoon has gone from 45.6k to 47.3k – and this hasn’t taken me long to write.

The Christmas ad campaign is a brilliant piece of marketing for John Lewis (the ad itself is a piece of cynically manipulative tosh).  I doff my cap to their comms department.  But it’s just an advert.  For a shop.  Designed to make us buy stuff at Christmas.  The fact that it seems to have become a  major cultural moment fills me with despair.

A late entry at the blogging ball (reprise)

BirthdayCake.wallgator.com_.wp-content.uploads.2014.01.Happy_.Birthday.Cupcake.Picture.Wallpape.Free_.Happy_.Birthday.Cake_A small milestone. I wrote my first ever blog post on this date in 2008, admittedly rather grudgingly.  The blog was set up as an assignment for a course I was doing and I had no expectations that it would last beyond the eight weeks-worth of content we needed to produce in order pass the module.  Even in 2008 the imminent demise of blogging was being forecast. Its death has been mourned on a regular basis ever since. But here we still are seven years later and I’m rather proud. So, this post is to mark the date, to thank Richard Bailey who made me set the thing up in the first place (he’s still blogging here), and to say thanks too to all the people who have commented on, followed or shared any of the things I’ve written about.  It’s nice to know you’re there.


To MOOC or not to MOOC? What are the training options for the self-employed?

online learning

One of the things that’s hard about being self-employed is staying up to date. Doing the CPD to make sure you’re still relevant in a changing market can be prohibitively expensive when you don’t have an employer to pick up the tab.

I’m a member of a professional association – the CIPR – which offers CPD as part of membership. I’ve done a lot of their free training – sat in front of the webinars, read the pdfs.  They’re pretty good, as far as they go – which tends to be just up to the point where they’ve thoroughly covered the basics and someone with significant practical experience of a subject wants to leap off into new thinking.

The advanced stuff is there – for a price.  The CIPR offers members a discount on their training packages.  If you’re freelancing, paying what seems to be the standard members’ charge of £420 inc VAT for a workshop (not to mention the loss of fee-income for a day) can feel daunting.

Beyond the confines of your own membership association, costs get very steep very quickly.  Want to improve your facilitation skills to boost your management credentials?  A quick google search reveals a two-day training course which costs £880 + VAT. Interested in opening new doors by getting a Masters?  I found one that I’d love to do: £5,225 per year for two years. (In case you were wondering, there are no student loans for post-graduate degrees for students over 30. Oh, and your training is not necessarily tax-deductible).

I don’t doubt that the training on offer in all of those courses is terrific or that it would be a great investment in my career.  I don’t think trainers should give the self-employed training for free out of the goodness of their hearts. It’s just very difficult to find those kinds of sums up-front, out of a freelancer’s income, especially when ROI is hard to quantify and the quality of what you’re buying can’t be assessed until you’re in the room and it’s too late to back out. I would guess that everyone reading this has at one time or another sat through poorly designed, badly delivered training which felt irrelevant to their working life. That’s annoying if it’s taken time out of the day job. It’s heart-breaking if it also cost you, personally, a sizeable chunk of next month’s mortgage. Often it feels like too big a risk to take.

The cheapskate approach to training?

High quality new ideas – preferably free – is what I crave.  So I’m giving thanks to the creators of PR Stack, a crowd-sourced directory of PR tools which looks fantastically useful.  Massive open online courses – MOOCs to their friends – also seem like a possible, cost-effective alternative to the expensive training course.  I’ve just started one being offered by FutureLearn.  I’m doing it as much because I’m curious to see how the experience measures up as in the hope of learning something new.  I’ll post again when the course is over. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from fellow freelancers who’ve cracked the training conundrum: how do you do it?

Sexism in TV – an idea whose time has come?

I first posted this almost a year ago, in the wake of a conference I attended about the intersection of ageism and sexism.  The Women’s Equality Party has hit its stride since then, and with the notion of quotas raising its head again, it feels like an idea whose time may have come. So here’s what I thought last year:


Dateline: November 2014

Olenka Frenkiel’s piece in today’s Guardian about sexism and ageism at the BBC reminded me of something I really need to do when I’m Queen.

At the everyday ageism conference I was in a session about the invisibility of women over the age of 50 on TV.  “Think of some solutions”, encouraged the Chair of the session.  “The crazier the better – what’s the thing we could do that would make a difference if only we dared?”

“So what”, I thought  – slightly flippantly – “if, every time a presenter or lead reporter of a news or factual programme at the BBC retired/resigned/moved on, they had to be replaced with someone of the opposite gender? I’m not planning to sack anyone.  Just neatening up the balance by a process of evolution.

Think how different the world would look.  We could have a female economics editor, business editor, political editor, arts editor, and social affairs editor telling us what gives on the 10 O’clock News.  We could have a female chair of Question Time, a female presenter of This Week, a female-fronted equivalent of the Marr Show on a Sunday morning.  There would be female presenters on Mastermind, University Challenge, Match of the Day, Top Gear and Gardener’s World.   The General Election  coverage of 2020 would be fronted by a woman.  We’d have to concede ground on Watchdog and Antiques Roadshow.  And Great British Bake Off would eventually have three male presenters and a lone woman, but I feel it would be a price worth paying.

It will, of course, never happen.  But something needs to.  I came up with this list off the top of my head, first thing in the morning and against the clock – I’ve got a train to catch.  I bet there are lots more I could have added.  And the question I’m left with, is why does it feel so utterly normal that all of those jobs are done by men?   What if?  Why not?


Since then, of course, some things have changed. The BBC now does have a female political editor and Sandi Toksvig has single-handedly demonstrated the practicality of the scheme by handing over to a man on The News Quiz, and taking over from a man on QI.  Robert Peston‘s replacement as BBC economics editor has yet to be named.  If it turns out to be a woman, I think I’m onto a winner…

Experience never gets old – a lesson from Hollywood?

20150929060100!The_Intern_PosterI have been spending far more time than is healthy thinking about the tag- line to the new De Niro film, The Intern. “Experience never gets old”.

What on earth does it mean?

The Experience thing I get. In the film De Niro is a 70-year old returning to work as an intern – no doubt with hilarious consequences. (I haven’t seen the film, I have no idea.) He has lots of experience. You could replace the E-word with Wisdom maybe, or Maturity – although the idea that Maturity never gets old sounds even weirder.

It’s the old bit I don’t get. What does it mean? Experience is never out of date – demonstrably wrong: my experience of using fax machines in the 1990s is pretty old hat these days. Experience never goes stale – ditto.  Experience never ages – still meaningless.  I have a feeling that the subtext here is: it’s OK to be old and still go to work – look old people have things to offer too! I have changed my mind three times in the last ten minutes trying to decide whether – if that is the message – it’s a patronising or a positive one. But it only works if  the very notion of being old is undesirable – as if what they were really trying to say was Experience never has a senior moment and forgets where it put the scissors but they knew that just didn’t sound right.

“It’s only the poster for a Hollywood film” I hear you cry. “Lighten up.”

But a) in Hollywood terms I’m as old as the hills and extremely sensitive to implied ageism; and b) I’m a copywriter.  Words matter. Also, because I’m a copywriter, I know that every syllable of every word on that poster has been carefully thought about and focus-grouped by a crack team of writers, publicists and designers – none of this stuff happens by accident, or because that was just the best they could come up with before the print deadline.

So, Experience never gets old means something to someone.  But what?

Could your job be done by a robot?

march of the makers
March of the Makers

If I ever put it together, the unexpurgated version of my CV  would include 28 jobs, shared between permanent employers and freelance clients. It would cover sectors from government to relationship therapy, television to accountancy. So I felt smugly ahead of the curve when I read about the futurologist advising schools that they need to prepare pupils for a world in which they may be working until they’re 100 and will need skills to build a portfolio career.

But look at the kinds of careers he has in mind:

“You might be driving Uber part of the day, renting out your spare bedroom on Airbnb a little bit, renting out space in your closet as storage for Amazon, doing delivery for Amazon or housing the drone that does delivery for Amazon.

“There are all these sort of new sharing economy models coming through,” he said. “We need to start thinking about these things, we need to start thinking about the kinds of skills we’ll need to help people stay employable.

You’ll have noticed that none of these things are careers, in the old-fashioned sense:

  an occupation or profession, especially one requiring special training, followed as one’s lifework

They’re just ways to pay for food – and he’s assuming that we will all have houses with rooms to let, cars to use for our part-time parcel delivery/cab driving and are willing to support Amazon as it takes over the world.

So, could your job be done by a robot?

Want a life that’s more than being a part-time warehouseman for Jeff Bezos? Might be worth thinking about the kinds of jobs that can’t be done by machines. Our futurologist is gloomy on this one:

between 30% and 80% of all the jobs that exist currently will disappear in the next 10 to 20 years, as businesses increasingly invest in automation… On the one hand, we’ll be living longer. On the other hand, we’re not sure how people are going to earn the money to buy the goods and services that will largely be produced by smart software and robots,”

If this is a guide there aren’t many jobs safe from the advance of automation. Follow the link and see what your future holds: I came back with a 17.5% chance of seeing my livelihood taken over by a machine – odds I think I can live with.  If you need more security than that, it may be time to re-train as a mental health social worker (0.3% chance), or scramble up the corporate ladder while it’s still there and become a Chief Executive (1.5% chance).  Who (or what) you will be Chief Executive of, though, is open to debate.