Category Archives: History

Values need Context: #LestWeForget

A Comment on Christmas TV Adverts and a lesson for NGOs.

Monty the Penguin - the John Lewis Christmas Ad arrives with rueful knowing.

Monty the Penguin – the John Lewis Christmas Ad arrives with rueful knowing.

After watching Monty the Penguin, I felt a little teary; after watching Sainsbury’s World War I Truce ad – I felt a little nauseous.
Both appeal to socially responsible values, endearing us to a world of friendship and love; but context is key.

Yesterday, I attended a workshop on the use of “values” in communications.

Conducted in the name of the “Common Cause”, the good folk of PIRC brought to our attention the idea of the intrinsic-extrinsic values map. Using research from social psychologists worldwide, they explained how appealing to certain sets of values is more likely to result in certain behaviours. (The work is fascinating and can be read about in depth on their website here) .

Common Cause Values Map. Find out more at

Common Cause Values Map. Find out more at

The major take-away message for social do-gooders is that to encourage socially responsible action, communicators need to appeal to related values in their work, e.g. inner harmony, social justice, equality (see green areas in map).

What’s more, it is noteworthy that these “universal and benevolent” values are much more frequently considered important by all sectors of society. So connecting with such value sets in most communications is a good idea, especially if you want to truly engage the viewer and encourage generous behaviour.

And indeed, while us not-for-profit lot were eagerly scribbling away, drinking green tea and talking about moral responsibility, the British retailing big-boys were releasing their TV ads. And as usual, they’re ahead of the game. Yet the results are unsettling.

Penguins vs The Trenches
If you watch the Christmas TV ads from either Waitrose, John Lewis or Sainsbury’s you will see that all of them feed into the idea of love, friendship and belonging. They’re activating those universal values, as even FOR-profit organizations realise that activating these values is more powerful than those associated with individualism.

But while some adverts can be considered successful, others seem to be in terrible taste – highlighting the importance of context.

#Monty the Penguin is an all-time favourite. Watching little boy Sam tenderly care for his best friend, a viewer can’t help but engage all those intrinsic values related to universalism and benevolence(see map above) – for example, loyalty, equality, love, friendship, unity with nature, broadmindedness, a world of beauty. The end message of the advert is that the boy’s faithful and unfailing love of his penguin is mirrored by YOUR love of your own children – a love that can be demonstrated by purchasing a nice present from John Lewis.

Nothing too offensive in that – and indeed, something we can all rationally choose against if we so wish.

Sainsbury's WWI Truce Advert. Appropriate?

Sainsbury’s WWI Truce Advert. Appropriate?

The Sainsbury’s advert is, on first comparison, a similar, if not more powerful, emotional roller-coaster. Depicting a fairytale vision of the front line, this exquisite short film tells the true story of human connection breaking the barriers of war on Christmas Day in 2014. Compassion and love triumph barbed wire and bombs. Those lovely intrinsic values of universalism and benevolence are activated once more in the on-looker at home. Moreover, wider group values relating to national security and social order. The end result is a feel-good montage of “BEING PART OF SOMETHING BIGGER” – a message which chimes with Sainsbury’s family focused Christmas campaign last year.

But while I’m a fan of both Monty the Penguin and Sainsbury’s Family advert (I watched the full 60 min montage a NUMBER of times over), this WW1 Truce leaves me reeling.

The reason  = context.
Sainsbury’s, John Lewis and the rest of the corporate gang are clever. Very, very clever in getting ahead on communications territory which by rights, should be the preserve of those trying to serve the public good. They understand that:

  • 1) Viewers want to be told a story.
  • 2) We want to feel that other people feel what we feel (similar values).
  • 3) We want to become the people we want to be by following a certain action (e.g. buying a present, shopping in a certain store).

Yet, despite their canny knowing, they don’t seem to have grasped the idea of social sensibility.

Using the events of World War One is frankly sinister. Sure, there’s some reference to a charitable chocolate bar – and yep, they’ve worked in partnership with the Royal British Legion. And don’t get me wrong – I certainly think that this is a beautiful piece of film about WW1 which if used for the purposes of the Royal British Legion alone would have been glorious.

Royal Lancashire Fusiliers treating a wounded comrade in the Somme during the summer of 1916 during the First World War (c) Nigel Blundell.

Royal Lancashire Fusiliers treating a wounded comrade in the Somme, 1916 (c) Nigel Blundell.

However, is it not cynical to use the deaths of 100,000s of people, fighting for democracy, to sell turkeys? This of course, let’s not forget,  is ultimately the aim of this advert. If you asked those men that died how they’d feel about their story being used for the supermarket retailer to buoy flagging sales – I’m not sure what they’d say.

The result is a tangible feeling of disconnection on viewing the advert.

It should of course be noted that the vast majority of people commenting on message boards, Twitter, Youtube and Facebook, have had v. many positive things to say about Sainsbury’s. But I’m not sure that they’re aware of the reality of Sainsbury’s aims in creating this advert. They want to increase the shareholder value of Sainsbury’s. The Royal British Legion is a secondary CSR detail.

Lesson for Not-for-Profits?
Values are important. Storytelling is important. Having viable actions for viewers to follow up on is important. But so is the frame within which you’re communicating your message.

Us not-for-profits have a long way to go. And we need to learn more quickly, and implement more expediently. But let’s try to remember the lessons of our corporate route-masters. These guys have got they’re first, they’ve created amazing pieces of artful communication, with more panache and style than many of us. Much of their success is due to healthier budgets, but some is due to professionalism.

But as this proves, corporates haven’t  retained the moral high ground. They’ve been scrabbling for it, as the recent retailers’ “War on Values’ was declared, with Sainsburys & Tescos scrapping about bananas. Sainsbury’s CEO Mike Coupe even went onto do a little piece about the “value of values”.  But there’s nothing substantive for them to talk about. The truth is that their values can be found on a spreadsheet in numerical form, where as civil society’s are held within our collective sense of right and wrong.

Let’s capitalise on that and let’s move ahead – using values and frames to make an unashamed moral difference.


Aldo Leopold making conservation make sense in 1939

“When land does well for its owner and the owner does well by his land – when both end up better by reason of their partnership – then we have conservation.

When one or the other grows poorer either in substance or in character, or in responsiveness to sun, wind, and rain – then we have something else, and it’s something we do not like”

From Aldo Leopold’s “The Farmer as a Conservationist” American Forests 45 (939): 206-12.

What’s in a “country”?

As Monti and Papademos set to making their nations’ balance sheets, well, balance -its got me thinking, why do we still have countries?

In our current, globalised set-up, countries are hardly the geographic “containers” for one people, one culture, one religion. As reported by The Economist this week, there are more Chinese living outside of China than French in France; 22 million Indians scattered across every continent (much to my benefit…); and a 40% increase in first generation immigrants since 1990. We are a-MIXING! Much of this movement is an easy rather than difficult choice, arising from better education and jobs abroad, not atrocities at home. And the internet has eased the way, connecting loved ones daily through skype and social media, rendering the single Christmas phone call a 9 minute chat from the past. So geographic nations aren’t the boundaries for “peoples”.

MaccyOMoreover, we’re now much less likely to do the traditional warring and land grabs, for which “countries” were previously the foremost protagonists. Dragging myself through Machiavelli’s “The Prince”, although the principles of political manoeuvring still seem relevant today, the applications of power do not. Fortresses and sieges are very last season. Since the world wars, coalitions of super-powers mean that wars are rarely fought one-country-on-one. Nations have always looked to one another for partners in crime – but now so more than ever. And considering this, what is the point of our unitary division? Moreover, Greece, accordingl to Stefano Manos (an ex-finance Minister) has property worth £200 billion ready to dispose. This would account for more than 50% of its debt. Yet the notion of Greece selling this to Germany is laughable. Isn’t it?

Wular lake

Wular lake - over-exploited water resources in Asia

Perhaps more importantly than land and war – is trade and the environment. The interlinked nature of our world has been laid bare by our dependence on resources, both monetary and natural. We’ve all been waiting with baited breath over Italy as everyone knows that the repercussions could be worse than an end to parma ham and balsamic vinegar. Even through the trade links between Europe and the US aren’t that great (the US only sends 13% of its exports to the euro zone), America is still fearing a crisis that could top Lehman Brothers.  China, whom everyone considered immune, is suffering a lending shortage and the Euro zone has resorted to technocracies ruling with fear. One crisis affects us all – globally. Likewise – the environment. What can I say – we’re in for a tough time! Natural resources don’t respect boundaries. Rivalries over rivers in Asia, land grabs in Africa and energy in the West are daily reminders that we operate across borders.

Having said all this – it seems important that we act on a scale which returns both the benefits and problems of any action to the primary actor; only then does the real cost of any process become apparent and accountable. But this scale is not necessarily as large as a country – in fact, in today’s world – its not bound by geography, but by accountability. And that is the crux of the problem – country’s are no longer accountable.

(c) guardianMonti may be mopping up after Berlusconi, but Italy’s not going to be only ones who suffer. Likewise, the West has been belching carbon for decades, but its those living on Pacific Islands, suffering from African drought and dying in India’s intensifying heat waves who are going to pay the price.

Are countries accountable anymore – and is it worth having them?

Occupy Wall Street – harsh but fair?

Posh kids on iphones, no concerted message, and a public dressing down by Jon Snow – Occupy Wall Street: the protest we love to hate. But is there something in it?

After managing to read the whole of Time AND New Statesman on the train this weekend, I’m as educated as I’m ever going to be, and my conclusion is – there may well be. The protestors’ rally against a tide of rising inequality rings true, even if the groups’ modus operandi are bottom-clenchingly cringy.

Occupy Wall Street protestor David Graeber explains: “We are the 99%”. Graeber’s referring to the 99% of Americans whose average yearly income is $54,792, compared to the other 1%’s average yearly income of $1,530,773. Now while $54,792 may not seem that bad (yes please) – the point is that the money (and power) to control the 99% of peoples’ lives is held by the top 1%. The vested interests of the few are supposedly trumping the disparate wants of the majority. A view that is harder to disagree with when we learn that between 1979 and 2007, the share of total income for the top 1% increased from 10% to 20%, at the expense of a falling share of the income for the other 99% of the population.

The idea that an elite hold the reigns of our lives is supported by a recent analysis of the relationships between 43,000 transnational corporations (TNCs), which shows that a relatively small group of companies, mainly banks, hold disproportionate power over the global economy. To be precise, the study has found that there was a core of 1,318 companies with interlocking relationships, which had a tie to at least two other companies (on average, to twenty). Between them, this core represents 20% of global operating revenues, as well as control (through ownership)) of the majority of the world’s large blue chip and manufacturing firms. Even more powerful was the “super-entity” of the top 147 interconnected firms which controlled 40% of the total wealth of the network.

But it’s not just the wealth and relationships of TNCs which highlight this disparity. China’s increasingly restless populace is rocking the boat too. Widening income gaps are part of the reason for the dramatic increase of “mass incidents” of protest in scary waryChina, rising from 74,000 in 2004 to 180,000 in 2010. Australia, Canada, Irelandand the UK have also seen a rise in income inequality – in the UK, the gap famously widening more under Tony Blair than under Thatcher. And with the global population due to hit the 7 billion mark any day soon, the effects of income inequality are going to become more exaggerated. For example, experts (from the UN Population Reference Bureau) believe that the economic crisis pushed an additional 64 million people into extreme poverty. With 8 billion looming (by 2025), that’s an awful lot of inequality.

On the other hand, while OWS has a point (i.e. we need to tackle rising inequality) it needs to be more intelligent about the way it proposes change. It seems that their primal reaction is to lynch the people “at the top” – those evil, nasty bastards who are making all the money.  Hence the occupation of Wall Street. And this is a reaction which has been given credence for a while now. After the banking crisis, much public anger was directed towards the individuals packing up their cardboard boxes, walking out of the great glass towers; personal anger which is still holding strong years after the financial crisis as shown by Joris Luyendijk’s anthropological study of bankers. Companies at the top are considered greedy giants (Nestle), and the people who consume their goods soulless mignons. Louise Mensch’s views on theOccupy Wall Street protestors who drank Starbucks Coffee (as voiced on HIGNFY) exemplified this well.

But isn’t this all a bit too easy; a bit too George Bush – vilifying the top, private businesses and interests, and martyring the middle classes with their student loans? I feel it may be. And it seems that the problem is with the system, rather than those particular firms, banks, lobbyists and politicians at the top.

Common sense alone will tell you that of COURSE, all businesses, both large and small are going to operate in a way which maximizes every chance of success. If they didn’t they’d fail. Following any principle other than their own continuation would be madness/the end for most private firms, and we’re all happy to publicly lament the closure of a factory and the removal of jobs.  Even not-for-profit organizations are often driven by the need for a “surplus” and we shouldn’t kid ourselves that the third sector provides a viable alternative to the capitalist system. There are some rare and beautiful exceptions such as the clothing company Patagonia, who has asked their customers to stop buying their products in an effort to control their environmental impact. But for the most part, we’re all just trying to make ends meet.

And in the current system, “making ends meet” means growth, which means making a profit. And profits can only be achieved when a margin is generated – something from nothing, often achieved through economies of scale. Economies of scale require size, and size + profits=power.

So what can we expect? Occupy Wall Street is right – 99% should not be living under the jurisdiction of 1%. On the other hand, what practical, applicable solutions are there which we can invoke to change the way our world works? The system needs to be changed fundamentally – so if the protesters (and the rest of us) are serious about putting things right, I think we need to put our collective thinking caps on, rather than wailing around the place feeling sorry for ourselves.

Harsh but fair?

Winston Churchill Wisdom

“It is as well to remember that the stomach governs the world”

Lib Dem Glee Club – rooted in the Land

Serious political discussion

Unless you’re a Lib Dem conference goer, you’re unlikely to have ever heard of the Liberal Democrat Glee Club – a surprisingly well attended sing song event held every year by the party faithful  (apparently tradition dictates that Paddy always makes the same joke and Tim Farron always does a rendition of “That’s not my name”-it’s that sort of party).

But intriguingly, it transpires that one of the most well-known and well-loved renditions is “The Land Song”. Over a century old, the song’s words pay testament to the historic sway of land, agriculture and food over the political landscape.

The words  (sang to the tune of “Marching Through Georgia; Henry Clay Work) are below. And if you’re a real glutton for punishment, you can listen to my partner and a couple of friends singing it on Radio 5 Live here (41:50 in).

Sound the call for freedom boys, and sound it far and wide,
March along to victory for God is on our side,
While the voice of nature thunders o’er the rising tide,
“God gave the land to the people!”

The land, the land, ‘twas God who made the land,
The land, the land, the ground on which we stand,
Why should we be beggars with the ballot in our hand?
God made the land for the people.

Hark the sound is spreading from the East and from the West,
Why should we work hard and let the landlords take the best?
Make them pay their taxes on the land just like the rest,
The land was meant for the people.
Repeat chorus

Clear the way for liberty, the land must all be free,
Liberals will not falter from the fight, tho’ stern it be,
‘Til the flag we love so well will fly from sea to sea
O’er the land that is free for the people.
Repeat chorus

The army now is marching on, the battle to begin,
The standard now is raised on high to face the battle din,
We’ll never cease from fighting ‘til victory we win,
And the land is free for the people.
Repeat chorus

Well who would have thought?! For more history on the song, check out  . I may have been wrong about party conferences…

Public Interest in Private Goods: Food and our Forefathers

Goats in Crete

Ello ello

Holiday reading this year was the stirring “Stuffed and Starved” by Raj Patel; a gripping analysis of our modern global food system. Of particular interest was the idea that our public food distribution service, once upon a time the responsibility of government, has been handed over to the private profit interest. Examples of this happening everyday are not hard to come by; an idle Google search alone reveals a World Bank document, “Considering the future of the Iraqi Public Distribution System”. Even in the first few paragraphs, the authors state one of the Bank’s major recommendations as “increasing the role and capacity of the private sector in the PDS”.

But why is this handover such a bad thing?  Patel argues that the move from public to private control is a politician’s pact with the devil. The industry is making money, while squeezing farmers and producers (often to the point of suicide) and limiting the choices of the consumer. These are the same limited choices that are resulting in a recently announced 48% obesity rate predicted amongst men in the US & UK by 2030. Surely, the only way the public interest can be served is through a public system, rather than the misaligned interests of the private sector?

After all, the history of such public food distribution services stretches back through the ages. One of Rome’s most reforming leaders, Gaius Gracchus imposed the Grain Laws in 123 BC, which distributed cheap corn to citizens.  During the middle kingdom of ancient Egypt (2055-1650 BC), one of the major roles of the Pharoah’s deputy, the “Vizier”, was to control the supply and distribution of food. And even further back than that (2300 BC), the Sumerians were storing food for public distribution in Mesopotamia.

But today, politicians seem to have handed control over to those few organisations which can achieve economies of scale across international boundaries – the multinational corporations we all love to hate, yet find ourselves buying their products (Diet Coke, instant coffee anyone?).

This warped system is something that institutions such as The People’s Supermarket are trying to address. The mantra of the organisation is to “offer an alternative food buying network” to the big supermarket chains, by selling food locally produced at affordable prices. Crucially, cheaper prices can be accessed by “members” of the market – i.e. people who pay a small subscription fee per month and volunteer for four hours a month (more details here).  By imparting control to all members, the supermarket is literally by the people, for the people.

While certainly an excellent initiative (the completed membership form is in a stamped envelope on my kitchen table), the onus must be on government to provide citizens with the right choices.  Food is so crucial to our biological existence, let alone well-being, that government would be daft to continue to neglect its distribution to market forces – even in the era of the Big Society. So with conference season now upon us, let’s hope we get some substantial debate from the peoples’ representatives on this issue.

I hate being negative, but I have a sneaking suspicion we won’t…