Too much information

People who are trying to make a flimsy case will often overstate their point because they lack the strength of their convictions, argues David Bernstein

In Barcelona last month I visited that seminal example of modern architecture, the Mies van der Rohe Pavilion on Montjuic, the site of the 1929 International Exposition. The original was demolished in 1930, however, it was rebuilt between 1983 and 1986.

The main materials, to quote the visitor leaflet, are ‘large surfaces of glass and stone, with columns of high chromium-content steel… the walls and floor are of different kinds of marble – travertine, green marble and onyx – anchored on to a metallic structure’. Yet the whole is coherent and simple.

Contained within the building is an office-cum-shop. On the desk – and the first thing you encounter – is a glass bowl of erasers. What more appropriate artefact in this temple of Less is More! I kick myself I didn’t buy a handful. I know to whom I could have sent them. I have a little list. Top of it is the perpetrator of the following: ‘My position is that I want to make our position clear. The example in Germany is just one example, for example.’ Yes, the Minister for More is Less, John Prescott.

Verbal superfluity is rife among politicians. In a recent health debate a proposal was called ‘completely and utterly absurd’. The two adverbs serve as crutches to support the adjective, but what we perceive are the crutches and an impression that the speaker’s point can’t stand up on its own. Similarly, Tony Blair and, before him, Harold Wilson have both uttered the phrase, ‘I’ve made it absolutely clear’.

Advertisers fall into the same trap, not appreciating that addition may not so much illuminate as eliminate. When British Airways introduced its version of the 747, after Pan Am, Lufthansa and Air France, it was important to differentiate. The company decided to focus on the comfort and roominess of the seating. The agency presented the concept in a headline, ‘Sitting room in the sky’. The client changed it to ‘More sitting room in the sky’, which just wiped out the metaphor so that distinctiveness was lost. Addition had become subtraction.

A showcard in my local chemist proclaims ‘An aid in the prevention of travel sickness for everyone’. Why ‘for everyone’? Is it meant to suggest that some treatments don’t suit everyone? In which case, why not say so? Or is it just an afterthought? And why go after everyone? Do so – be greedy – and you reach all superficially and none intimately. Besides, who wants to be thought of as ‘everyone’?

Did Allders’ policy of trying to be all things to all people contribute to the department store’s current predicament?

Another eraser-recipient is the football manager with his, ‘Terry always gives a hundred and ten percent’. An impossibility. What Terry can give is ten percent more than last time. But then professional football has long played fast and loose with mathematics, ever since it ceased to be a zero-sum game. Three points for a win has made things more exciting, but at the expense of devaluing the efforts of two teams locked in a draw. ‘We shared the points’, says the innumerate coach. No you didn’t, you both lost ground. As with so many club accounts, the figures don’t add up. But what can you expect when yesterday’s Division Four swells into today’s League Two? ‘Designer’ coffee chains practise the same art when small becomes tall, medium grande, and large venti.

My final eraser is reserved for the brand manager who believes in brand extension heedless of the damage it may do to the master brand. The value of strong brands, says guru Jeremy Bullmore, in a metaphor harnessing physics, is the warmth they provide their user. He reminds us of the Second Law of Thermodynamics: ‘When two objects touch, and their temperatures are different, heat will flow from the warmer to the cooler until the temperatures are equalised.

‘Whenever we ask a brand to add its lustre and authority to sub-brands, extensions and variants, we’re deliberately draining it of some of the very warmth that made it of value in the first place.

‘The master brand, the source of all our market strength, our resistance to competition, our strongest card against the retail trade and our most reliable profit contributor, gets cooler. Asking established brands to sponsor sub-brands is not wrong. What’s wrong is to underestimate the risk and the cost.’

That is a long quotation, but so tightly packed with good sense who could take an eraser to it?

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