Bad PR: A Peek Behind The Poll Curtain

Regular readers of the site are possibly familiar with a few reports I’ve done in the past, looking at Bad PR. I’m not sure I ever clarified what Bad PR actually is – instead I’ve just taken a headline or a story touted around the various rags of the English press, and tracked it back to the initial press release issued by some company or other – often only peripherally related to the subject of the press release – and generally banged a big grumpy drum at all of it. Fans of that, don’t dispair – I’m sure I’ll be back some other time, drum in tow, merrily – and of course grumpily – banging away for your amusement. Or something.

But for now, I’m going to put my drum away, step away from the awkward and restrictive music metaphor I seem to have forced on myself, and take you through the other side of this sorry affair that is this whole murky world of surveys, PR and the news.

You see, newspapers need content – gone is the day when a journalist can scout stories, call up sources, check facts, and do all that other good stuff you see in political thrillers, where the diligent and handsome-in-a-shabby-sort-of-way journalist uncovers some political scandal or other, and – after huge rows with his cartoon character of an editor – publishes the lot to international acclaim. Those guys don’t really exist any more. Instead, more often than not, journalists have so many column inches to fill that they barely even have the time to check what day of the week it is.

Because of this, it’s insanely easy for any PR company to hand them a nice juicy press release, a write-up of a public survey complete with numbers and percentages and opinions, topped off with a nicely surprising or sexy finding. Newspapers lap that up, and goes out pretty much unedited, which is where my big grumpy drum comes in.

But where do these survey come from? And what role do they have in fashioning said sexy or surprising findings? Well, I’m always one to put my neck on the line, so I decided to visit the charming website of my favourite pollsters – One Poll, who were responsible for finding out that people think Jeremy Clarkson is probably well hung – and I joined up as a poll-ee, which you might think is a made up word but 78% of the 100 people I asked said it was perfectly valid. See, I’m getting into the spirit already.

Being a pollee is not without it’s benefits, of course. I mean I say that, but it almost literally is without it’s benefits – for each poll you take part in, your account is credited with a generous ten pence, which is yours to do with as you please. Slight catch – you only see the cold hard cashola once you’ve accumulated £40, so unless you’re in it for the long haul, One Poll don’t have to pay you a penny. Excellent.

Of course, once you’re in, you can clearly see the importance of how the questions are asked, and indeed what options you’re given. For example, one poll I took part in asked me to choose from a specific list what issue makes me most lack confidence in bed… that I’m actually quite happy in that department thank-you-very-much wasn’t one of the options, so I had to choose an issue that didn’t actually apply to me. Feed that through a few thousand people, and hey presto! A ready made ‘blokes are terrified of xyz during sex’. I’ll point out I’ve blanked out the answer so as to keep your attention focused – it’s not that algebra or the alphabet were genuinely options on what makes we men lose confidence twixt the sheets. That would just be weird.

But this forced-choice where no answers actually fit is a recurring theme in these polls – one poll by a deoderant firm asked me which month of the year I was sweatiest or smelliest. Personally, I think my hygeine’s not too bad, but to get my shiny 10p I had to choose. Expect ‘Men stink in July’ to hit some newspaper desk in the future. The sinister part of that particular survey came in the form of Question 17: Which European nation do you consider to be the smelliest? Britain? Germany? Greece? France, Spain, Portugal, Italy? Well? Which? All the while, if you lose sight of the fact that this will be reported as news, and a national view, it’s easy to click randomly just to get paid.

Other polls were even more infuriating – take for example, as a first question: ‘Who do you prefer to work for, men or women?’ Binary choice. Go on, choose. This is followed up with ‘If you prefer to work for a man, why is this?’. Tick-box choices on offer were amazing – ‘Less likely to get involved in office politics’, ‘Easier to reason with’, ‘They’re able to leave their private life at home’, ‘Less mood swings’ and my personal favourite ‘No time of the month’. Fortunately, they’d given a box for ‘Other’, in which I merrily explained to them what sexist bullshit they were perpetrating – but I expect many chose an option, banked their 10p.

The next question was even worse: ‘If you prefer to work for a man, why do you think women make bad bosses?Bad bosses?! Question 1 forced me to choose who I preferred, now I’m suddenly labelling women incompetent! And the options? Classics – ‘they’re hormonal’, ‘they bitch all the time’, ‘they will stab others in the back’, ‘they spend too long worrying about their appearance’ and – again my favourite – simply ‘they lie’. I clicked Other, but how many people clicked at random to get through quick and bank their 10p? We’ll see, if it makes the newspapers as fact.

Trust me, you’ll remember this the next time you see a news story with an opinion poll – like, for example, packaged fruit company Florette Fruit discovering that ‘Women are Totally Bored With Life’, or that Wells Beer have found out that getting a pint at the pub is the #1 best thing about being British, or that Kwai Garlic has discovered that sex after the age of 45 is terrible and having an affair is good for your health (all genuinely in the news cycle this week).

Sometimes, it’s not just who’s asking you the questions, but it’s also exactly what questions they’re asking you. Still, there’s an opportunity here. This site gets a fair few readers – if you all sign up to One Poll, and all take as many polls as possible, answering in the most boring, or most surreal ways imagineable, and ticking Other as often as possible, then we can have an effect here, and see if we can change a poll or two in the newspapers. Who’s with me?

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  1. #1 by Stoko on June 27, 2010 - 22:22

    Just signed up, lets see how much we can mess them up

  2. #2 by NIck G on June 28, 2010 - 12:38

    I signed up a while back and was contemplating how difficult it would be be to do something like this. The only snag in this plan maybe the recent release Onepoll Iphone app: Although One poll now has 30,000 people willing to take surveys, each one only accepts about 2000-5000 respondents, meaning that they come and go pretty quickly. Perhaps we could set up a twitter feed to tweet when surveys become available?

  3. #3 by Gareth on June 28, 2010 - 12:43

    I’ve been using a site called valuedopinions for a while now which works in the same way but pays out when you reach £10. Plus it gives you vouchers to use in amazon, HMV etc.

    Most of them can be pretty interesting as the occasional few can be looking at new products months before they hit the shelves. One test got me to taste test a new beer.

    Plus the vouchers do help when it comes to sorting out birthday pressents for difficult friends.

    But most of them are boring questions. For example the last one I took was for a calculator-like gadget that would give you a random code that you would use to log onto your internet banking account. And the question was ‘Would this product make internet banking more secure?’ on a scale of 1-5

    Well of course it’ll make it more secure. So why bother asking and paying £1 for me to do it? Because i’m validating their claim. I become a part of that 9 out of 10 people that said bank will use in their promotion of said code generator.

    But the most glaring negative to this system comes after you take them for a while.

    Most of these surveys try to weed you out before the real survey begins so they are asking the right people the right questions (because you wouldn’t want to ask a guy to take a survey on feminine hygiene products or ask a woman about how many lads mags you read in a week). This can be very casual questions like age, sex, local area etc. However if you fail to qualify you dont get paid.

    So obviously you want to get your moneys worth (I’ve got alot of birthdays coming up). So if you happen to be a little less than 100% honest with your answers to make sure your giving answers they want to see then you are more likely to get paid. Which of course throws a spanner in this whole system of data collection because there is only the assumption that the answers that they get as a whole are honest answers.

    So why have this system in the first place? Because its an easy and cheap method of getting an instant conusmer opinion of a brand, product etc.

    In the exact same way that One Poll works. They get an instant reponce to a question with little or no effort and in the long run can be cheap (whats the betting you get to £39.90 and they send an email saying ‘We’re sorry we are now closing the site. Thanks for participating’).

    I’m not saying its right. But I can see how the marketing departments of various big brands can use this system to their advantage because they get the numbers/feedback they need to make the big bosses look good.

  4. #4 by Steve Andrew on June 29, 2010 - 11:40

    I’ve been taking polls at YouGov for ages (must be getting on for 2 years) and I’ve racked up a paltry £50 which should be winging its way to me imminently. I’ll admit I first got into it because I was dazzled by the promise of big money and I’m just an opinionated old bastard. But after a while it just got… so… boring…

    All those questions about my shopping habits, all those questions about whether I’d seen anything positive in the media about Norwich Union. The horror… the horror…

    (And yes, I don’t get out much.)

    I started lying in questions and giving the most ludicrous answers in some vain attempt to skew the results.

    Then, during the election I started getting those surveys that were obviously commisioned by the right-wing Murdoch press asking me what about Nick Clegg scared me the most. (Not once did I get the option “nothing.”) It was about then it became obvious these polls weren’t designed to get an objective, dispassionate snapshot of public opinion, but are there just to confirm the already-held viewpoint of the poll-commisioner. I felt a bit abused and dirty, and not in a good way.

    I think I might just give up and unsubscribe from YouGov. After I’ve gotten very drunk on that £50.

  5. #5 by Dan on July 4, 2010 - 11:40

    I signed up. All I get is “There are no surveys available to you at the moment.”

    What am I doing wrong, I wonder?

  6. #6 by Mike Boyce on July 9, 2010 - 19:38


    Same thing here at first.
    Now I get a few surveys available but most of the time, I don’t get past the first couple of questions before I’m told I’m not suitable for the survey, so I don’t get paid but I do get entered for a draw.

    More than a week after joining, I’m up to £2.70, including the initial £2.50 credit for becoming a member. At that rate, I reckon I’m in for a windfall in early 2014: I can hardly wait!

    I’ve just managed to complete a fairly long poll but some of the questions were badly constructed: they presented an “either … or” choice but the available responses were “yes” and “no”!

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