It is a strange thing to find yourself agreeing with a piece of investigative journalism, but that is exactly what happened a while ago.
New Star's billboard campaign extolling the merits of its burgeoning fund range has caught the attention of the media, but I suspect not in the way it was hoping. Its canny campaign was criticised in a recent Sunday newspaper investigation. It highlighted the following quartile rankings: first, first, fourth, first (with “quartile ranking” in very small print at the bottom).
The journalist positioned himself near to the advert then canvassed various passers by. Surprisingly, they were all totally confused – every one of them thought it was first, first, fourth and first place.
To me this was a real eye opener as I thought it was crystal clear. The trouble is I spend all day looking at this sort of thing and I know instinctively this type of result is a quartile ranking. But to consumers who are totally immersed in their own lives and worries it is patently not clear at all.
Now I do not believe for a moment that New Star intentionally set out to fool people into thinking it is better than everyone else. It knows full well IFAs have it under the microscope and we would not fall for such a cheap scam. After all, it no doubt employed the use of consumer focus panels to make sure the message was clear, unambiguous and effective.
It could not possibly be playing on the school of thought that claims the investment world is largely driven by sentiment and by pretending they were first all the time, people would come flocking. It could not be hoping that a hyped image of brilliance would draw people lemming-like, into its management, could it? Of course not.
It is similar to an internet card trick I was recently sent. The idea was to look at five cards shown on the screen and to focus on one as hard as you could. Then you clicked to reveal the same hand – but minus the one you had been thinking of. Amazingly, it worked every time. The website claimed it was extra sensory perception or something.
As is often the way with these sorts of things, they then asked you to leave your views on how it might work – and that is when it got really interesting. Hundreds of people left suggested solutions ranging from alien intervention to weird mathematical theories. Some volunteered their educational status in life, presumably to add weight to their possible solutions. Worryingly, most were normal, well educated, sane-sounding members of society.
This got me thinking as to how so many people could be fooled – for indeed it was a scam; the first hand was simply similar to the second, minus one card. Most people did not think to check the two sets against each other – as they looked the same at first glance, their suspicions were not aroused. Clearly, we still believe what we see, even if it is nonsense.
These two visual aberrations highlight many interesting points. We obviously use a rarefied and jargon-cluttered language. We use it so much and so often that we forget mere mortals out there have no idea what we are going on about. We start to believe that what we are saying is understood, just because it is second nature to us.
Let me give you a couple of examples. Scottish Amicable's pension range a few years back – Inde, Flexi, Maxi and Omni. Even now I have to think twice which one is which. I wonder if it realises how many people have been tormented and confused over the years?
And Standard Life's “Flex”. We just about get used to its equally profound “One” range and it chucks in a spanner and confuses us with Flex. That really narrows down exactly what it says it does on the tin.
I wonder if this suggestion is a good idea – how about calling products something like the “Standard Life Personal Pension Plan”? Or the “Clerical Medical Personal Pension Plan”? Simple, effective, and will guarantee that in generations to come, we will all be able to tell within seconds what on earth we are looking at.
It might then be possible to start teaching clients what to look for and how to understand what they have, rather than giving up before we even start.
And if they say it was all cleared beforehand by a focus group, how come they can get it so hopelessly wrong – take Consignia or Aviva to name just two recent own goals?
Tom Kean is compliance officer at The Analysts