Clinical strength solutions

How do you gain consumers’ trust? By listening to them and knowing exactly what they want. And by turning this knowledge into innovative and compelling products.

(Beiersdorf, brands overview)

The thing about jetlag in America is that it leaves you stranded in the middle of the night with nothing to do but watch middle-of-the-night American TV. And so last night I learned about “stress sweat”, which is apparently a much worse kind of sweat than the regular kind. To protect yourself (and others, as it turns out) you need a very special deodorant. Keen to know more, I hopped on line and found that research shows it’s also called “emotional sweat” and women are 30 times more prone to producing this when we’re upset or doing mental arithmetic. But happily, research also shows that clinical strength deodorant has got us covered, to the tune of being exactly 4 x more effective than regular deodorant at saving us from ourselves.

So, you know, that’s all right then.

By now crazy with jet-lag and not a little sweat anxiety, I wanted to know who had done the research that showed all the things. And of course, the answer is what you’d expect: research in this exciting new field is done by the companies who make the products that fix the problems that their research discovers. Neat.

Cheeringly, there are quite a few sceptics out there. Take a look at Creativity Online’s “Stress Sweat and Other Problems You Never Knew Existed“, for example, for a trawl through claims made about products that will solve the problems of aging hair, ugly armpits and invisible laundry stains that hadn’t really troubled us until we were told about them. Yup, read that carefully again: there’s a laundry detergent that will remove the stains you cannot see—which surely means they fall below the commonsense standard for a stain.

The manipulation of anxiety about intangible problems is a sign of hard times in the cosmetics industry. With consumers turning more and more to supermarket cosmetics or bulk online ordering of everyday items, companies have to work harder to find new niche problems that new niche brands can fix. As beauty-industry consultant Suzanne Grayson spells it out in the article: “”Everyone is looking to consumer research for ideas. It’s desperation time. Even companies that never were heavy into research like the upscale department-store brands, are using it, looking for kernels of disappointment [they] can latch onto.”

It’s marketing that escalates this disappointment into panic. The social crisis caused by stress sweating can’t be avoided, so there’s only one solution: the product that research has shown is four times more likely to save you from being sluiced right off the bus (or out of the boardroom, or wherever you are when disaster strikes) in a torrent of your own emotional sweat.

Nuts as this sounds, it’s not a world away from the overheated language in recent higher education reports. In Australia we had the Ernst & Young report that promised to outline our prospects as a “thousand year industry on the cusp of profound change” despite the fact that most of us in Australian higher education work in buildings that were thrown up in the 1970s. This week a UK think tank with uncomfortably close ties to Pearson suggested that we’re up for an avalanche and a revolution, all in one terrorising (if confusing) title: An Avalanche is Coming: Higher education and the revolution ahead.

Ferdinand von Prondzynski points out calmly that the report advocates very little real change, and its recommendations effectively endorse many of higher education’s standing inequities in resourcing and rank.  David Kernohan describes it more bluntly as paid advertorial for Pearson. Michael Barber, lead author and Pearson’s Chief Education Advisor, certainly takes a starring role in the report itself, popping up throughout in the third person, a bit like Shane Warne talking about himself:

One evening recently, Michael and his wife were trying to recall the names of the three Karamazov brothers. Needless to say, within minutes they had resorted to Google – much easier than getting the book itself from the next-door room.

It’s all very chatty, and in the end comes across as op-ed based on the narrow personal experience of the three authors: “Whenever Katelyn inserted an example from Duke, Saad responded with one from Yale. ”  Hooray!  But does anyone really think this amounts to coverage of the diversity and volatility of higher education’s global business activity, let alone its core functions in teaching, research and community engagement?

Very little in the rest of the report contradicts the awful impression this comment creates. The report’s main function seems to be to alarm elite institutions who haven’t cottoned on to stress sweat (“Yale, at any rate, does not appear to see an avalanche coming. Or if it does, it does not feel threatened by it”) and then console them with the promise that in the unbundled future, the signal strength of globally strong brands will still be important. So they’ll be OK, because in the end their “best professors” will be safely broadcasting MOOC TV from the ski lodge while the rest of us are swept away.

What kind of opportunity would such a purging of higher education represent to companies like Pearson, or any of the other edtech vendors and venture capitalists who have already invested heavily in the education market? The IPPR’s report recommends that after avalanche has reshaped the mountain, we will have reorganised ourselves into four university types—elite, the mass, the local, and the niche—and something called the “lifelong learning mechanism”.

At the heart of this two-tier system of elite university providers and mass university markets will be unbundled digital delivery of content, online platforms, locally supported tutoring and proctored testing.  And Pearson are standing by with the clinical strength solutions to all the problems. So at the very least, this report is a strong case for higher ethical standards in research and analysis of educational markets by vendor stakeholders. Pearson have an extraordinary conflict of interest here, which is a very weak basis on which to try to gain our trust.

And it’s not a radical proposition: it’s a reheat of every argument being had everywhere about MOOCs, college tuition, university branding, ranking and funding, graduate employability, the emerging Asian markets (which is truly an awful way to think about individual students), young people and technology, the campus experience, the global superstars. The whole minestrone.

What’s missing is a vision for change that any of us would be proud to be part of.

4 thoughts on “Clinical strength solutions

  1. The thing about a proprietary product solving the ‘problem’ (stress sweat or whatever) is that the solution so strongly shapes the problem. In order to use the solution, academics and students would have to reshape the challenges of early 21 century HE to fit the tools on offer.

    Again I pull out the old favorite of mine – the robotic vacuum cleaner – promised for 2000 back in 1975 or so. They are in the shops according to the advertising for big appliance stores that land in my snail mail box at home. BUT … and here is the connection to stress sweat and false IT solutions … They are round disks that seem to operate like children’s toys bouncing off walls to clean in another direction. The really hard vacuuming jobs still have to happen unless the user lives in an open plan, minimalist space. With the rest of us left with dust and spider webs in the narrow space between the china cabinet and bookcase or between the bed leg and the small beside cabinet, to say nothing of stairs.

    Really I wish the promotion of change allowed for the time the is required or was honest about the chaos and stress that follows ‘revolution’.

    Oh well…

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  2. I can’t tell you how much I love this example — I’ve sat and watched the TV commercials and thought: that’s nice. And then realised that nothing about this gadget would actually work in my home, for exactly the reasons you describe. What the proponents of revolution (all of whom are safely tucked away from the actual melee of revolutionary praxis and its effects) completely overlook is that revolution often takes a long time to settle into being able to cope with individual needs, experienced in the here and now. So it’s very tiring to be goaded by what looks like a class of professional agitators who really will be nowhere to be seen once all the things are broken, especially including the current contracts of care that bind us to the welfare and futures of individual learners.

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  3. Short version (been on twitter way too long this morning): solutions that don’t work. That’s most of them & still a long hard slog when they do. Necessary compromises are a sticking. It reminds me of an old Loriner comment in H&H about the Pelham (bit, of course) being a compromise, defined as the solution that dissatisfies everyone equally.

    Useful timing as I’ve been trying to finish a post on change. Whenever I see a light at the end of the tunnel, it turns out to be a new changes hurtling down the tracks accompanied the shrieking of colleagues.

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