To err is human. We all make mistakes.

The adjective ‘unintentional’ is very often attached to the word ‘mistake’ – a notion that is challenged by some. I remember well getting quite riled when challenged, by a therapist leading a group that I was attending, as to why I wanted to be late for the start of the session. My protestations that there were delays on The Underground held no validity for her. Though she didn’t explain herself to me at the time – the conversation being one more of ‘I ask the questions, you give the answers’ – she might have expounded a theory that covers the notion “every unintentional error is evidence of unconscious valencies” that I unearthed when researching the concept of ‘unintentional mistakes, for this piece. The article goes on to describe 3 sorts of valencies:

  • Correspondence: making a wrong connection
  • Coherence/Inconsistency: an error of planning
  • Decidability: the taking of a wrong choice

So for the author, the brilliantly named James Reason, and my therapist the ‘Cock Up Theory’ clearly doesn’t hold much water.

On a recent extended C-19 walk, I encountered the above sign. After an initial “Err, what!”, my thoughts meandered as to how such a mistake could have come about and, possibly more significantly, how this not-without-cost piece of signage continues to be in public view. “Well”, I thought, “perhaps English was not the native language of the basement occupants who, in the flush of excitement at their new home, commissioned the misspelt engraved metal sign”. So possibly not an unintentional error but a ‘coherence valency’? But what about the engraver/metal sign supplier? Another recent arrival on these shores or someone not brought up with the English language or, possibly? More likely, a case of ‘not my job’ to spot corrections. Not a mistake then but a ‘decidability valency’; a wrong choice as a correction would surely have been appreciated, with the accompanying potential for further business recommendations And what about all the visitors who have visited our residents but did notice (surely not?) or chose not to point out the error. Not sure what kind of valency this was: not wanting to embarrass? Possibly, the error was pointed out but the residents couldn’t give a monkey or were not prepared to fork out for another sign. So there you have it a “mistake’ that had possibly many potential opportunities to have been corrected but was allowed to remain.

As a Mad Man, I first encountered the concept of ‘The Man On The Clapham Omnibus’ – that notional person whom one should have in one’s mind’s eye when creating an advertisement. Implicit in this notion was that our Clapham-bound target was ‘an average chap’ and one who shouldn’t be talked down to or up at. Related to this credo was the marketing-speak of K.I.S.S. – Keep It Simple Stupid, which according to Wikipedia “a design principle noted by theĀ US Navy in 1960 .. (which postulated) .. that most systems (and designs) work best if they are kept simple rather than made complicated”. I’ve never liked the ‘Stupid’ bit of the original, and much prefer the second ‘S’ to represent ‘Short’. Indeed, it is a sad truth to us scribblers who labour away at copy, that all the evidence points to the fact that most consumers will, at best, only recall or bother with the headline and the visual elements. Or in the case of a commercial, the jingle, the situation or the celebrity endorsement – viz. famously: “the one for the drink that Leonard Rossiter spills on Joan Collins”. (BTW: it was Cinzano not Martini!)

Effective communications, in my book, then has four key elements:

  • defining the right audience
  • understanding their mind-set(s)
  • gaining their attention
  • having an understandable & compelling core message

It follows that the broader the audience, the more the need for simplicity & clarity. In saying this, I have great sympathy for what the government is trying to achieve with its communications strategy. The naysayers will moan about being talked down to and/or the tediousness of repeating the message over and over. However, in the end, it is the government’s job to make difficult choices in a complex situation. This is not the time nor the place to critique the government’s reactions or strategies with regards to the Coronavirus epidemic. However, as a marketing brief, it is a monster. Those motivated by fear will be the most compliant but the psychographics as one moves away from that core will display varying, and often diminishing, responses and attention levels. In the immediate aftermath of the lockdown, the attention to government messaging was at its height, but now we are evidencing a divergence of behaviour as fear dissipates and complacency spreads. I expect some adjustments to the government’s marketing strategy going forward. I’m sure there will be criticisms but I’m not expecting any unintended spelling mistakes or unconscious valencies!

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