Good polls are the ones you can control. Bad polls are the ones that involve money and phoning 1378 men and women.
I love surveys. They’re so where it’s at. And I love believing in them. When I read that 80 per cent of men who have lost their right arm in a tragic gardening accident like to put the Marmite on the toast before the butter, I’m with them. Yeah me too, I think. I read this stuff and start nodding away. I’m not alone, I say to myself. The world is actually far smaller than the population adder-uppers would have you know.
When there’s almost no news about, you can rely on a survey to be up there with ‘Jordan reveals she’s got nothing left to reveal’ or ‘Pointless political party (eg, er, UKIP) appoints charming but pointless leader.’
I know because as an editor I’ve commissioned some polls. Good polls are the ones you can control. Bad polls are the ones that involve money and phoning 1378 men and women or people of other genders aged between three and a half and 82 and asking them for their opinions on whether Northern Rock should change its name to British Steel.
Anecdotal polls, my kind, involve asking people who know the right answer to agree with your sensible proposition.
I once conducted a poll of a few food writers, cooks and chefs about which was the Most Useful Cookbook of all time. They correctly agreed that it was Simon Hopkinson’s Roast Chicken and Other Stories.
Everyone so agreed with this poll (my kind of poll) that they went out and bought the book and it beat the latest Harry Potter book to the top of the Amazon book chart.
The poll made news. ‘Unknown cook beats well known cook in poll’ types of stories.
Polls must resonate with people in order to be effective. No editor will splash on a poll that has no interest or relevance to people.
Here’s an example of how it’s done. I have just conducted a poll down in the kitchen while my children were eating their tea.
Now for the results: ‘An exclusive poll, conducted by Spear's, reveals that food on other people’s plates tastes better than your own.
‘The survey carried out in the test kitchen of a leading food magazine (see how I did that?) showed that food, especially kids’ food, tasted better when picked off someone else’s plate while they were eating.
‘Under strict laboratory conditions, experts (always a winner) showed that if an adult ate a bit of fish finger and a spoonful of baked beans off a child’s plate, it was actually more satisfying than if the eater was presented with and made to eat a whole plate of the stuff.
‘Tests also revealed that stealing a sausage from someone else’s plate likewise tasted better than the experience of formally eating a whole sausage of one’s own.
‘William Sitwell, a leading food writer said the results would resonate strongly throughout the country. (Here an expert’s comment resoundingly legitimises the poll.)
‘”I think we’ve all stolen food from other people’s plates and had a feeling it tasted better,” he said. “Now we know it’s scientifically proven.”’
So the poll becomes fact and that fact is further hardened when columnists for newspapers and bloggs who can’t be bothered to slag off Jordan or the new political leader take a counter-intuitive stance and attack the poll.
‘The Spear's poll is ridiculous,’ they write, ‘I mean I’ve tried to use red wine to take out stains and it’s never worked for me.’
I love polls. Pundits love polls. People love pundits. It really is quite the virtuous circle.