June 22nd, 2012
Generally, here at Bad PR, I’ve focused primarily on surveys with leading questions or tricksy outcomes. Go back, take a look over the rest of the site, you’ll see that I’m right. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.
However, there’s another common and very potent PR trope – which, for want of a better name, I’ll call the ‘biggest orange in the bowl’ manoeuvre. Here’s a classic example, taken from the Daily Mail (chosen partly because it’s in my RSS feed, and partly because they’re the worst culprit, of anything, generally):
When birds see red: Crimson cars get hit with more droppings than vehicles of any other colour
Bright red cars attract more bird droppings than vehicles of any other colour, according to a study.
Scientists recorded the frequency that birds left their mark on cars in five cities around Britain, and found crimson vehicles were targeted the most.
Before I explain the trick, there’s a few things I’d like to address.
First up, while the Mail insist unspecified ‘Scientists’ made this shitty discovery, that’s not a claim which appears anywhere in the original press release, issues by Halfords (who, by startling coincidence, will sell you products to remove bird crap from your car). We know this, because the press release is here, and merely speaks of their ‘researchers’ – who are essentially people paid by Halfords to document examples of shit (nice work if you can get it – I get nothing for documenting the crap which passes through this blog).
Secondly, the article in the Mail bears so similar a resemblance to the original press release that an analysis of the text actually shows it to be 80% identical to the Halfords release, meaning Daily Mail journalist Graham Smith contributed only a fifth to the story. Which is fun to know (well done, Churnalism.com).
The fact that this is a press release directly posing as news with barely a fifth of the story written by the stated author notwithstanding, we can now examine the trick behind this whole ‘research’, and it runs thus: in a closed data set, something has to be the ‘most’ in any given criteria.
If you’re looking at 1,140 cars, and your options range from 6 colours, one of those colours has to be the most frequently crapped on by birds. Just as somewhere in the UK has to be the most sexually active town, somewhere equally has to be the least, and one of the subjects at Oxford university must feature the student populace who have the most sex. This isn’t necessarily research, it’s merely common sense – at every school sports day, someone has to win the egg and spoon race, but this doesn’t mean they’re the best egg-and-spooners in the world, they just beat the other people in the race.