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Mark McCaw ~ twitter's @bigpicguy

Author of "Insights Inside a Mind" ~ blogging the big picture

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Let's talk about SPIN baby!

     I've had occasion to take a few highway drives over the last couple of days, it's great to get away and gives you time to think. I've been thinking, in particular, about spin. Not mere specific instances of spin, mind you, but spin as an art, nay, a science, and the various arms of its everyday existence in our lives.

     Let me say, I'm no stranger to the topic. While I left my media career behind for a more stable life after becoming a single father, I never lost the lessons learned in 16 years immersed daily in the stimulating world of advertising, promotions, and public relations. In the time since, I've continued to freelance, everything from newspaper and magazine articles to consulting on strategy, although my schedule while raising a child and transitioning to caring for a elderly, then terminally ill parent hasn't allowed me time to write as much as I would have liked. It has never stopped me from learning and thinking critically.

     Humans like simplicity. This is a fact. The more we are required to think about something the less we like it. Advertisers/Promotors/Spin Doctors understand this basic concept. You'll have difficulty remembering the content of an entire article/book/show, however in the space of 30 seconds, with one good line repeated frequently enough, I can have you as a loyal customer for years to come. In sixty seconds I may be able to remove a substantial portion of your lifetime income and you will never know it wasn't your own idea. That's why corporations will reserve multimillion dollar budgets to gamble on 60 seconds of your time during a broadcast. It's all about advancing your agenda, and we are all "useful fools".

     Advertising is not my sole bone of contention. The idea that the media will present opinion polls as proof of anything, frankly, annoys the hell out of me. At least advertisements are most often, clearly advertisements, opinion polls are presented in the media as fact. They tell people "This is your opinion", not straight up, mind you, but subliminally. By presenting the conclusions of the poll with a couple of minor details (i.e. +/- and sample size) without any discussion of the deeper methodology, leads most to trust this information is reliable, that, "the facts have been checked" as it were. It couldn't be further from the truth, but for you to get the truth they'd need to bore you with the details and you'd probably tune out. Bad for them, probably good for you.

     One only need to look at the rudimentary knowledge we have of such polls to understand why they are so misleading when presented as fact. Initially, although we will readily dismiss it (especially if the results are in our favour), a red flag should go up looking at the sample size. The idea that 800 people represent the diverse range of opinion amongst 33+ million people is a mathematical formulation that would boggle your mind. During the current elections, most have come to learn the numbers come, not only from this small percentage of population, but complicating it are factors that include, but are not limited to, only getting the opinion of those who have a land line telephone, and of those, only the opinion of those willing to answer that line. The segment of the population being asked is skewed by many factors over and above these, but where is the point you become concerned?

     To try to simplify things, unless you have a solid working knowledge of advanced statistical analysis and a clear disclosure of all of the factors used to determine the final numbers, the information from this method of reporting trends in opinion is a sham. The idea it is influential is practically horrifying.

     Think of all the things you don't know. You have no idea how many questions were asked. What questions were asked. What order the questions were asked. What order the options were given in if the question was more than yes or no. What media was used to obtain the answers, were the questions written or spoken (inflection and tone can change your answer). Those are just the tip of the iceberg. Calculations that go into "crunching" the raw data obtained require sophisticated knowledge of formulae in order to come to a final number. Unless you are aware of the criteria used by a particular polling agency to come to that final number, you cannot, in any sense, report it as fact. Most people don't even understand some of the basic calculations, let alone the more complex ones. The concept of "weighting" of answers is enough to tire the average human and that is one single factor. To attempt the simplification of the concept of weighting, let's say the population under age 25 is 50% and over 25 is 50%. If the respondents to your poll are 75% over 25 and 25% under 25 that is not a representation of the actual population so a formula must be applied where the opinion is "weighted" to come to a figure, using the raw data you have, that would seem to accurately reflect the true distribution of the population. To do so, the 25% of under 25 respondents must be counted as double and the 75% of over 25 respondents must be reduced by one third. That is just one of the myriad of calculations that go into presenting you with a "final" number.

     Sir Winston Churchill said it better than anyone: "Polls are for dogs".

     My goal is always to provoke critical thought. It doesn't hurt to learn and we have so many tools to do so. I hope I've opened your eyes a bit to peek into the inner workings of the spin cycle. Subjective things, such as opinion polls, remain subjective, even when they are presented as though they are facts. Our love of simplicity often shields us from the bigger picture. There is always a bigger picture.

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