Bad PR: How NOT To Play The Sex Card

By now, followers of Bad PR should be well-acquainted with the tell-tale signs for spotting nonsense PR strong-arming it’s way into the pages of our most-loved newspapers and websites. And by most-loved, I tend to mean The Mail, The Sun, The Telegraph and all of the other bastions of bullshit we skeptics force ourselves to sift through on a near-daily basis, ever on the hunt for untruth. So it’s a fairly loose use of the word ‘loved’, if you’ll grant me it. Still, as I’ve covered before, sometimes spotting poorly-designed pseudo-news it’s as easy as following a simple checklist:

  • Does it involve a survey?
  • Are the results surprising, shocking or a bit sexy?
  • Is it actively about sex – predominately how to get more of it, or how to make what little you get of it better?
  • Is there a company name in the fourth paragraph?

Those are some pretty simple, rule-of-thumb guidelines for spotting Bad PR. Now, here’s your starter for 10, from the Daily Star (I won’t give you the link just yet, it’ll spoil the fun):


Right away, that’s one or two ticks on our checklist. Let’s take this paragraph by paragraph:

Heading off on holiday is an even bigger turn-on for women than sex.

OK, we’ve still got two ticks I think. And I should have clarified – by paragraph, remember this is the Daily Star, so 14 words can reasonably pass for a paragraph, just as bullshit can comfortably pass for news.

A trip away topped a poll to find the most exciting things in a woman’s life, followed by becoming a mum.

Tick! There’s the survey angle covered, and we’re only in paragraph two. What’s particularly nice is that, only two paragraphs in, we’ve dismissed all women as being most content only in being taken abroad, or when breeding. Now I’m not dismissing that for a large number of women, having a child (which I think is a better way of terming it than ‘becoming a mum’ – as if a ‘mum’ is a radical and overwhelming identity shift, caterpillar to butterfly, pinnacle of achievement) is indeed exciting. I largely don’t dismiss that based on the fact that for a lot of men it’s pretty damnably exciting too (I note those men aren’t covered in this survey, though presumably they would favour ‘boobs’ or ‘cars’ or ‘footy’ or ‘beer’ or ‘anything which helps us escape the crushing inevitability of tabloid stereotyping’ over a holiday).

I would however question the ranking of exciting events – if we accept that, as successful Darwinian evolvers and products of natural selection, breeding does rank pretty high on our bucket list, it’s then wildly surprising/unlikely that it’s topped by a simple trip to the Costa Del. I suspect (although I stress I’ve no evidence of this, this is just conjecture and poll-taking-experience) that those options were picked from a very short list of choices (more of which later), or even that they represent two lists conflated. Certainly I’m sure psychologists would consider the excitement of holding your progeny in your arms for the first time is in a different category of joy than first stepping off the plane in Ibiza. As I say, layman here. Let’s press on:

Romping with a loved one was third, followed by a pay rise and…

OK, I know I’m a tease to stop that sentence unfinished, but:

  1. I couldn’t get past the tabloid use of romp without comment (I’m positive nobody who has had sex in the last 60 years has ever done so after describing the act or issuing the invitation using the r- word) and
  2. What follows next is something you’d NEVER guess. Ever. In a year of Sundays.

Not even in a year of eating ice-cream-sundaes, on sunny days, with the 80s/90s indie band The Sundays, on a Sunday. Go on, guess.


Here’s what the Star/regurgitated press release placed 5th in the poll:

Romping with a loved one was third, followed by a pay rise and backing a winner on the horses in fifth.

That’s right, your lovely, holiday-goin’, baby-lovin’, loved-one-rompin’, pay-rise-earnin’ girl loves a flutter. Apparently. Or, indeed, if, unlike me, you are a girl – then gambling on the gee-gees is 100% your 5th favourite buzz. It is.

Or, it’s bullshit. Now, were I privy to the poll (alas, this time I wasn’t, as OnePoll has gender restrictions on polls, so my y chromosome exempted me from peeking behind this particular curtain) I’d be able to present you with the almost-inevitably leading question which produced this crowbarred equine outcome. However, all I can work from is the rest of the top 10 – which is stated to be made of ‘romantic nights away, their wedding day, Christmas Day, a girls’ night out and passing the driving test.

In this company, does a flutter on the races really stand out as being the fifth most exciting event in a girls life? I suspect that if we were able to examine the numbers, we’d see the first few options would take care of a very sizable chunk of the respondents, with women asked only to choose their top option. From those not hoovered up by those incredibly common responses (I mean how many of us wouldn’t be excited by sex, on a holiday we bought with our pay rise, to celebrate the birth of a child? Hang on, maybe I misread that…) I can imagine the remaining percentages were much of a muchness. Add to that the ability to influence respondents with the wording of the question (the exact text of which we’re not given) and the overall survey itself (again, not available) and I can imagine engineering an unusual result wouldn’t be too difficult, especially amongst pollsters eager to quickly bank their 10p payment.

Still, as I say, this is just speculation from experience, and I’d be more than happy if OnePoll (who I know, interestingly, have staff members who read this very blog due to my past criticisms of their work) would email me with the raw data from the survey. If this happens, I’ll not only update or correct this article, but I’ll also praise them to high heavens. We’ll see.

So, now, to paragraph 4, and those of you with good memories will know that this is where the last checkpoint can be, well, checked. Is there a company name in paragraph 4? Or ‘Marsh’s Fourth-Paragraph-Reveal Law‘ as all the cool kids (OK, just me then) are calling it? Well…

Horseracing promotion body Racing For Change carried out a study of 4,000 housewives.

Bingo. Or, more accurately, Horse Racing. This playing-the-sex-card survey was all in aid of promoting the idea of gambling on horses, and a website which offers such an option. Next up, the obligatory quote from a spokesman to show that the company really cares about the results of the survey, and didn’t just commission it in order to generate a weird, sexy headline to whore their, erm, horses:

A spokesman said: “We wanted to poll women to find out what in life most excites them, and we’ve found that it’s a whole range of things.

“From sex and pay rises, to winning money on the horses and romantic nights away, there’s lots to excite the lives of the nation’s women. But escaping the humdrum of daily life and relaxing and sunning yourself by the pool on holiday topped the list.”

And then top the whole thing off with a couple of other data-mined platitudes from the results you received:

Seven in 10 of those polled agreed that “the best things in life are free”.  But a whopping 83% admitted that they could do with more excitement in their life.

Textbook, and one of the most unusual and cack-handed playings of the sex card I think I’ve ever seen. But then again, when it comes to Bad PR, the next ill-judged crow-barring of sex to sell a product is only ever over the next fence.

QED: Question. Explore. Discover.

Get your QED ticket now!

For what it’s worth, and almost inevitably, the whole piece came from a OnePoll survey, released in their press archive. The release is pretty much exactly as appeared in the Star (minus a few obvious stylistic additions from the Ooh Aah Daily Staah), but it does include the full quote from the Racing For Life spokesman, which resolves the general interest in the findings into something a bit more predictably self-serving:

We’re not surprised that a flutter on the horses can be one of life’s big excitements. When you pit your wits against the bookies and win big money then it’s a great thrill. Royal Ascot starts this week and is a favourites’ graveyard so there’s no better race meeting for big priced winners that can take the bookies to the cleaners. With five days of fabulous racing and high fashion, it’s just the place to get Lady Luck on your side.

Bad PR – the best worst-use of the sex card you’re likely to ever see.

Daily Star Online – apparently written by ‘Jack Bellamy’
Daily Star in print – apparently also written by ‘Jack Bellamy’
OnePoll press archive – not written by Jack Bellamy, but uncannily like Jack’s article

, ,

  1. #1 by B on September 9, 2010 - 14:27

    “Royal Ascot starts this week and is a favourites’ graveyard so there’s no better race meeting for big priced winners that can take the bookies to the cleaners. With five days of fabulous racing and high fashion, it’s just the place to get Lady Luck on your side.”

    Umm, this statement is disingenuous. Bookies get hammered when favourites win. Why? Because those are the horses most likely to win, and consequently that most people want to bet on. Therefore, the bookies give the shortest odds on these horses to minimise their losses should the favourite win. Bookies offer longer prices on outsiders because they’re less likely to win and to attract punters away from the favourites. The odds on outsiders are seen as better ‘value’. Now, one person may bet £100 at 100-1 and win £10k (a £1 bet at these odds is more likely), but that isn’t going to clean out William Hills et al, as they gets to keep all the bets on the favourite, which lost. So, you have fewer people betting on outsiders, at lower stakes because they can win more money per stake. Also as the horses are less likely to win, and the return be higher, punters stake less. If a favourite is 2-1 on, you need to stake £2 to win £1; so there isn’t much point risking £5 to win only £2.50. So the individual stakes become higher, and there are more bets overall. Remember as well that the bookie returns your stake plus you winnings.
    If a flood of bets came on a 100-1 horse, bookies would respond by cutting the price. It wouldn’t make a difference if the horse was still a nag, bookies would ‘follow the money’ and cut the price to protect their profits.
    The bookies want you to bet on outsiders as they are more likely to make money on these bets, rather than those on favourites.

    Bad PR indeed, and only likely to take in mugs or people with no understanding of how bookmaking works, but then that would cover a LOT of people.

  2. #2 by B on September 9, 2010 - 14:34

    One other thing, bookies have a maximum payout per shop – even Ladbrokes et al.
    And finally, gambling debts aren’t recoverable in law – unless the law has changed. It’s not a criminal offence to not pay your gambling debts. Even the big bookies have refused to pay out in full on recent bets, leaving the punter with little recourse under the law.

  3. #3 by Stu on September 13, 2010 - 12:38

    I’m trying to arrange transport to London on Saturday for the Protest the Pope demo. If anybody is going from the northwest I can come and meet you. I’d be happy to contribute to Fuel costs.


(will not be published)