Michael J Cale

 The Trouble with Surveys

It’s not often that Evening Post news reports really make my heart miss a beat but this… It seems that in a survey of 1008 women, 95 per cent thought that beards were ‘a total turn-off’.

Now I’ve got a beard. I’ve faced up to the fact that old beard-hating Bob Jones may never invite me to his place for a tumbler of the old Chateau Du Neuf ‘54 and a pleasant evening of teacher-baiting. That’s OK. I never fancied Bob anyway. But when women say they don’t like beards…

Then I noticed... This survey was carried out by a company called Wilkinson Sword. Wilkinson Sword, you may recall, make money by selling devices that remove hair from faces. Wilkinson Sword, you may deduce, make didley-squat from selling devices to people that don’t remove hair from their faces. Now, I’m sure the Wilkinson Sword people are all impeccably honest when it comes to running their surveys, but you’ve kind of got to wonder how some of their questions might have been phrased. I’m inclined to suspect they may have gone along the lines of: ‘Which would you prefer? A nice, clean-shaven man who looks like Tom Cruise, dresses like Pierce Brosnan and has the style of Sean Connery? Or some horrid hairy yob with the manners of a Yeti and the breath of a Lithuanian swamp drainer? Oh, the former, eh? Yeah, beards are a real turn-off, aren’t they?’

It’s not the first time we’ve been subjected to this sort of public service announcement from someone with an ever-so-slightly vested interest. The most common example is usually accompanied by a shock-horror headline along the lines of ‘The Formal Look Stages A Comeback’. The text goes on to tell us that dressing down is suddenly passé. Men who go to work in casual trousers and – my God, do people really still do this? – open-necked shirts are behind the times and only one step away from devolving into the sort of uncouth furry animals that, according to BBC television programmes, were our ancestors 50 million years ago. But it’s OK: it’s actually not the fault of the poor chaps in question. They’ve been pressured into following this absurd departure from good taste by the sort of people who hang around kindergartens and try to persuade pre-schoolers to snort cocaine. All the while men have been suffering from these appallingly comfortable clothes, they’ve really been dreaming of wrapping bits of silk tightly around their necks and stuffing their torsos into jackets that somehow always manage to keep them cold in winter and hot in summer.

Oh, yes, did we forget to mention? These reports are also based on ‘surveys’. These ones are usually carried out by people like the Amalgamated Association of Men’s Tailors and Suit Makers, sartorial elegance and unbiased opinion-making a speciality.

Personally, I’ve been a bit wary of surveys since the day, a few years ago, when  I got stopped in the street and asked to give my views on TV advertising. The friendly lady thrust her clipboard into my face and showed me a list of programmes. I pointed to a few I watched from time to time and she smiled and placed encouraging ticks on a photocopied form.

 ‘Now, when you watch this series…’ - she pointed to the first on the list - ‘there’s usually an ad break about ten minutes into each episode.’

‘Yup,’ I nodded.

‘So,’ she said, ‘during this break, which of the following commercials most hold your attention? Cars? Washing machines? Personal grooming-’

‘None of them,’ I interrupted.

She frowned. ‘Some of them must make an impression.’

‘No,’ I explained. ‘As soon as the ads come on I change channels or turn the sound down.’

She suddenly seemed a little less friendly. She glanced back at the clipboard. ‘How about the evening news programme?’

‘Same again,’ I told her.

‘You know what companies would advertise then, though. Right?’

‘Haven’t a clue. Never watch any of it.’

She suddenly seemed  a lot less friendly. ‘You’re not taking this seriously, are you?’ She ripped the photocopied form from her clipboard and stalked off in search of more reasonable interviewees.

I’ve come across numerous other examples of the survey-maker’s suspect art since then. Even the American military got into the act. One of their surveys found that only 3.8% of listeners to the Armed Forces Network wanted to listen to the satirical broadcaster Rush Limbaugh. Investigators discovered, however, that this finding was based on a survey question which went ‘what can we do to improve programming?’ Only people who expressly replied ‘put Rush Limbaugh on’ were counted as wanting to listen to the man.

The thing that really surprises me is that the politicians don’t seem to have caught on yet. We’re told that the government runs an opinion poll before Helen Clark decides which smile she’s going to use, so when’s it going to occur to them to get a bit more imaginative? I can see the headlines now. ‘Ninety-eight per cent of men who vote National think their private parts are too small.’ ‘Alliance voters have split personalities, finds survey.’ ‘Most women think ACT voters’ private parts really are too small…’

I’ve got to admit, though, that the thing about beards gave me an anxious moment or two. It’s OK now though. I ran a survey and found that beards are fine with ninety-nine per cent of women in our street who own Burmese cats, have a husband called Colin and have recently been abducted by aliens.

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