Who’s claiming to be me in the census?

I filled in my census form like a good citizen – or, actually, like a citizen trying to avoid a £1,000 fine – and gave a false description of myself.

Not intentionally, you understand – phew, another fine avoided – but because of the way some of the questions were phrased.  The Office of National Statistics delivers its figures to help government in ‘the planning and allocation of resources, policy-making and decision-making’.  Well, they’ll be going down the wrong street if they’re doing any planning, allocating and deciding aimed at me.

Home sweet home?

They might want to know what sort of a house I live in, for instance.  The only description I could find that fitted was ‘terraced’.   That wasn’t quite how the developers described it when they spotted I was clutching a mortgage offer.  Now it’s hardly a stately home but it’s not a Victorian workers’ cottage either.  And, anyway, I’ve seen plenty of those which   demand rather more than the word ‘terraced’ to describe them in their updated splendour.  Just what is the term going to convey to those resource-allocators and decision-makers? 

Is this really me?

Then there’s the car parked outside and duly counted.  It belongs to the household all right, but I personally could no more drive it than walk around the exterior of my terraced abode.  Never had a licence in my life, yet I’ll now be tagged as a motorist by the statisticians.  Maybe I’ll be allocated some ‘resources’ on that basis.

Definitely not

Religion?  Well, the ONS offered me quite a few but as none of them really took my fancy I ticked the ‘No Religion’ box.  So at least I’m not a Satanist.

But it’s a bit more complicated than that.    Like most people, I’d guess, I’m not so much godless as a chap just hedging his bets.  Even ‘agnostic’ is a bit too definite for me. Yet once again I’m in the database as someone I don’t really recognise.

I know the boffins who crunch the numbers were keen to keep the questions as simple as possible.  But if I were using the research for the sordid purposes of advertising, where we like a clear sight of our target audience, I wonder how campaignable some to the stats would be.

Hang on – the post’s just arrived.

Hmm.  An invitation to drive in the European Rally Championship.   An offer to convert my outside toilet into a scullery extension.   A discount on string-backed driving gloves.  A sale of wrought iron boot scrapers.  Five anonymous prayers for my salvation.

My resources have already been allocated.

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What’s that supposed to mean?

When did railway stations become train stations?  When did ‘free’ become ‘for free’?

Why have people started answering the question “How are you?” with “Yeah”?

When did “I said” become “I’m like”?

What is it about football summarisers and the present perfect tense (“He’s turned inside and he’s got into the box then he’s gone down and the ref’s not given it” instead of “He turned inside, he got into the box, etc.”)?

"Just like that!"

Funny business, language change.  It’s supposed to be caused by a more powerful culture from elsewhere.  That’ll be the US, of course – although Australia is blamed for Upspeak, whose users say everything as if it’s a question.  Not sure about the more powerful culture bit there.

Wherever a new usage comes from it seems to be a bottom-up rather than a top-down process.  It’s insidious rather than imposed.  It sneaks in and spreads its influence until, before you know it, everybody’s saying it.

“Boom, boom!”

So does that mean you can’t deliberately influence the way people speak?  Well, what about this lot: “Just like that!”, “Lovely Jubbly”, “Am I bovvered?”, “Boom boom!”?  Yes, the comic’s catchphrase.

Every comedian would love to be immortalised that way.  They want their trademark phrases to catch on in order to boost their reputations – and occasionally it happens.

But can it happen in a commercial sense?

Aeons ago I worked at an advertising agency which was in the process of inventing the strapline ‘Asda Price’.  The phrase was accompanied by a hand tapping a bottom.  This was meant to draw attention to the money saved, safe in the back pocket.  How many people actually carried their money in their back pockets wasn’t an issue.  We were more interested in the power of the close-up of the jeans-clad bottom (and yes, it was always the female version).

Imagine the shock, after a while, to see real, normal, human beings showing their appreciation of a bargain of any sort by tapping their bottoms and mouthing “Asda Price”, usually accompanied by a wink.  They might have been talking about buying a bike, a second-hand car or a Rembrandt, but the story would be illustrated by the bottom-pat, the wink and the magic words.

In 1992 Saatchi & Saatchi produced a knocking poster for the Tories warning of Labour’s ‘Double Whammy’ – higher taxes and higher prices.  It seemed an alien phrase.  Had anybody in Britain ever used it?  Was it part of the national vocabulary? In fact it was a misuse of an American expression, something to do with giving the evil eye in double measure.   Saatchi’s poster ignored that and went for something more childishly basic: two big boxing gloves with the words printed on them.  Not very promising, I thought.  Yet today anybody talking about being hit in quick succession by two misfortunes will trot out the words “double whammy” as if they’d been rubber-stamped by Shakespeare.

Now, if you don’t wash you’ll pong a bit.  And it will have been pretty noticeable in the days before our shower-deodorant-clean-clothes-every-day lifestyle.  But how could you refer to that condition in polite society?

The makers of Lifebuoy soap came up with the answer.  They invented B.O.  The vaguely scientific abbreviation for Body Odour was delivered in a dramatic whisper to the hapless non-Lifebuoy user.  Before long, kids everywhere would be stage-whispering the damning indictment to anyone they wanted to pick on.  It lasted for years as a killer put-down, maybe still does.

At some point in the late afternoon any chap’s cheeks and chin will start getting a bit bristly.  After all, it’ll be about ten hours since he had a shave.  Nothing to get neurotic about, you’d think.  But then came the dread concept of ‘Five O’clock Shadow’.  Aaaarrrghh! Social disaster.  Only one way to head it off – use the right razor blade in the morning.  The Gem Micromatic Blades company introduced the phrase in a 1930s advertising campaign.  Result?  Fear of something you never even knew existed, and an addition to the language which now seems as if it’s always been there.

So it can be done.  It is possible to introduce something which identifies your brand into public consciousness through everyday language.   The difference now is that, with so many more communication channels and viral possibilities, a multi-million pound budget isn’t essential.  Maybe, with a clever bit of wordplay and manipulation, your message could be on everyone’s lips.  Why?  Because you’re worth it.