Category Archives: Health

Pomp versus pyres: ways of saying goodbye

This past couple of weeks have brought stark reminders of the huge disparity between the lives – and deaths – of the privileged and the poor in different parts of the world.

It’s said that Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, wanted a simple royal ceremonial funeral rather than a state funeral, with a minimum of fuss. But, as we know, when he died at the age of 99 on 9th April, the event triggered a period of wall-to-wall broadcast, print and online coverage and the implementation of Operation Forth Bridge. This was a pre-planned programme of activities leading up to and following his funeral, which took place on 17th April at St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. Despite Philip’s wishes that his funeral be a quiet, family affair, the combined forces of traditional royal pomp and circumstance together with massive media coverage prompted many of the viewing and reading public to query whether a single individual’s death could really merit such an all-consuming tsunami of global attention.

Philip certainly led a privileged though distinguished life, amongst innumerable other roles serving as a Royal Navy officer in the Indian Ocean during World War II, while India was still under British rule. Lord Ivar Mountbatten, the last governor of India, was Philip’s maternal uncle. In this photo, a boy from India watches the funeral of Prince Philip.

Boy from India

And it was India that became the next main focus of attention for the world’s media shortly after the Duke’s funeral, as the Covid-19 pandemic raced like wildfire through the country. Major political rallies had been allowed; mass religious festival were celebrated with little or no concern for social distancing or other protective measures. Religion and politics took priority over people’s lives. All too soon, hospitals were overwhelmed. The situation became so bad in Delhi that workers were forced to use public amenities such as public parks and car parks outside hospitals to build makeshift funeral pyres as a way of disposing of thousands of bodies.

For over a year, the British public had been presented with nightly pandemic updates with charts showing the latest data, always qualified with the aside that “no death is just a statistic; every one represents a beloved family member”.

And maybe it was this tragic background of suffering both in the UK and around the world that threw the Prince Philip media blitz into sharp relief? If all deaths are tragic in a world soaked in grief and anguish, does it feel right that one man’s death should be projected so powerfully into our homes?

Well, it turned out that many thought not. Thousands voiced their annoyance as nearly all British broadcasters switched to wall-to-wall coverage of the man, his life and times and his funeral, with the BBC receiving a record 110,000+ complaints about its scheduling. All BBC TV and radio channels were completely turned over to various slants on the subject, whether news-based or historical, for two or three days.

TV audiences plummeted. People compared the BBC’s approach with the kind of brainwashing output that might be expected in North Korea and Russia. Although some rushed to the defence of the Corporation, most people seemed to feel that most media had got it wrong. On BBC Radio Four‘s Feedback programme, a gentleman called John Bains called to make a related point: “I’m sure the Duke would have been embarrassed by the [ … ] sycophantic gushing that he would have abhorred”.

What are we left with? Maybe the Duke’s life will be to an extent remembered in terms of the over-the-top media focus it was subjected to? Or maybe not. For in reality how will he be remembered as the decades and centuries roll by? Times have changed so much in this age of mass media and digital archiving. History may not be a good guide to how prominent people will be assessed in the future, whether by historians or by curious members of the public.

By coincidence I was reading a piece by the eighteenth century essayist, poet, playwright and politician Joseph Addison (1672-1719) recently. Unlike me, Addison was quite religious. But I can identify with his attitude to nature, when he says ” … though I am always serious, I do not know what it is to be melancholy, and can therefore take a view of nature in her deep and solemn scenes, with the same pleasure as in her most gay and delightful ones”. He goes on …

addison“When I look upon the tombs of the great, every emotion of envy dies in me; when I read the epitaphs of the beautiful, every inordinate desire goes out; when I meet with the grief of parents on a tombstone, my heart melts with compassion; when I see the tomb of the parents themselves, I consider the vanity of grieving for those whom we must quickly follow; when I see kings lying by those who deposed them, when I consider rival wits placed side by side, or the holy men that divided the world with their contests and disputes, I reflect with sorrow and astonishment on the little competitions, factions, and debates of mankind. When I read the several dates of the tombs – of some that died yesterday, and some six hundred years ago – I consider that great day when we shall all of us be contemporaries, and make our appearance together”.

 

 

Image credits

A boy from India watching the funeral of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh on 17 April, 2021: author UkShah2004 – https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=User:Ukshah2004&action=edit&redlink=1

Joseph Addison: public domain

 

 

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Heard immunity: time for the media to probe a little deeper

To my knowledge, there have been no TV interviews with advertising professionals querying the communications effectiveness of the government’s Covid-19 strategy, despite the fact that it’s clear – judging by case numbers and deaths – that a significant proportion of the population is immune to the messages they’ve heard. If communicating a simple message effectively is just a matter of standing in front of a lectern and repeating a three-part slogan day after day, why do advertising agencies bother with all their expensive visuals, voiceovers and music – and research – when selling products?

We found out early on in the pandemic (from charts presented by the experts) that statistically the USA had more cases than we had, here in the UK. This must have been a huge shock. Then it occurred to some of us that maybe that was because the USA has a somewhat bigger population than the UK. It was only a matter of six weeks or so before we began to see “cases per 100,000” population figures being quoted. This was reassuring. I thought I detected the first signs of some statistical expertise being brought to bear.

And, sure enough, the charts eventually became more detailed and informative. But nowhere is there any statistical information about the effectiveness of government communications. I’m sure that behind the scenes questions such as the following are being asked, as they would be by any ad. agency worth its salt:

  • in terms of percentage measures, what levels of unprompted awareness of key safety messages (Hands – Face – Space, for instance) are being achieved?; how do they vary by demographic – age group/region/income level/etc.? how many people are fully cognisant of the lockdown rules applicable to their area?;
  • what are people’s attitudes to different messages? how many would like to see more detailed information (and of what kind)?; how has credibility been affected by events such as ministers’ infringing the rules?; what proportion of people would be happy with a stricter lockdown – and again, how do these attitudes vary by demographic? does everyone understand concepts such as ‘bubble’ and ‘Tier 4’? which of the communicators perform best in terms of getting the messages across?
  • what do we know – statistically – about how the virus is passed on?; what do those who’ve recovered have to say about how they think they caught it (some may be wrong, but patterns should emerge)?; how should such information modulate the weight, nature and targeting of government messaging?

But it seems there is very little interest amongst the media in wanting to see a mathematical measure of any of this. For communicators, these measures are the equivalent, for scientists, of developing vaccines. They should be utilised to set objectives and provide a means of making decision-makers accountable. Research results almost invariably challenge assumptions. Changes in awareness and attitude levels drive public perceptions … and actions. Advertising agencies and their marketeer clients spend over £20 billion each year, and consequently many millions on detailed measurement of these and other parameters, using the data generated to make subtle, or sometimes radical, changes to their ad. campaigns for myriad products and services.

Advertisers see the value of such statistical research in sales and profits. To my knowledge, they rarely call in scientists or politicians to advise them on how to launch a new brand or create high awareness of their product’s benefits. Many, many decades of research, both published and proprietary, inform their decisions.

We see all too clearly what is happening to people’s bodies. But what is going on in their minds?

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