On the Campaign couch
A view from Jeremy Bullmore

On the Campaign couch

At the Advertising Association's Lead 2014 conference, Helen Goodman MP blamed advertising for the 2011 riots. Isn't this yet another example of ignorant politicians' lazy scapegoating of advertising for all society's ills?

No. Your e-mail is yet another example of lazy and over-defensive advertising people leaping to baseless conclusions.

Those who want to ginger advertising up a bit have always liked to pick on some deeply unpleasant object, condition or occurrence and then mention advertising in the same breath. Orwell did it with his swill bucket. This is communication entirely through association: nothing is explicitly said but, simply by including advertising and leprosy in the same sentence, something undesirable is registered. (And before we get too excited about it, advertising itself uses exactly the same technique – though usually for positive purposes, obviously. In the bad old days, cigarette advertising was particularly adept in the use of wholesome, healthy associations.)

My most vivid experience of the smear-through-association technique came a long time ago in the course of a debate with the late Mary Whitehouse. I forget the wording of the motion, but it must have been along the lines of: "In the opinion of this house, advertising is responsible for much of this country’s moral decay." Unsurprisingly, Whitehouse was proposing it – and she opened by reminding us that, the previous week, a prostitute had been murdered in Portsmouth and that her murderer had been attracted to her place of work by an advertisement in the local newspaper.

Wisely, Whitehouse left it at that. Any explicit attempt to enlarge – to pin the responsibility for a murder, not just on a specific ad but on advertising in general – would have fatally exposed its absurdity. But the three words "prostitute", "murder" and "advertisement" still lingered in the air.

Goodman didn’t accuse advertising of having contributed to the 2011 riots. Indeed, in her opening statement, she specifically said: "No-one in their right mind… would begin to suggest – I mean, because it would be absurd – that advertising had caused the riots." But because she’d mentioned riots at an advertising conference, the association of the two words stuck for long enough for people like you to get all huffy about it.

She later said: "The story about the riots was really just a bit of a tease." You may reasonably conclude that she’s pretty silly but, if that’s the worst that the advertising trade has to fear from the next Labour administration, we don’t have much to fret about.

Goodman did, however, declare herself to be opposed to "excessive marketing" – just as Roy Hattersley once declared himself to be opposed to excessive advertising controls.

And who are we to be opposed to those who are opposed to excess?

Does the Heisenberg principle apply to market research and, if so, how can we be certain of the findings?

I’ve tried quite hard to understand the Heisenberg principle, but I still don’t. I bet you don’t either.

Because it’s also referred to as the uncertainty principle, it’s often mistakenly thought to mean that, even in quantum mechanics, you can’t be certain of anything. Mistaken or not, that’s how I choose to interpret it; which presumably must mean that you can’t even be certain of the uncertainty principle, which in turn must mean that sometimes you can be certain of things and sometimes you can’t, but you certainly can’t be certain of when you can be certain and when you can’t.

And that’s certainly how I think of market research, devoted enthusiast though I am.

I’ve long believed that research should not only be read but sniffed. Good research can give you an invaluable feel for things. But as Karl Popper pointed out, you should never expect your hypotheses to be validated. You may hypothesise that all swans are white and may continue to observe white swans for the rest of your life; but all that allows you to do is to entertain your hypothesis, not with certainty but with a slightly higher level of confidence. Observe just one black swan, however, and you know your hypothesis to be instantly, mortally wrong. Certainty at last.

"Ask Jeremy", a collection of Jeremy Bullmore’s Campaign columns, is available from Haymarket, priced £10.Telephone (020) 8267 4919
Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@haymarket.com or Campaign, Teddington Studios, Broom Road, Teddington, TW11 9BE