Don’t be a MayBot: Answer the question

 
Elena Shalneva
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Final Prime Minister's Questions Before Summer Recess
Source: Getty

Does it drive you mad when people don’t answer your questions directly?

The Prime Minister is the indisputable master of this Dark Art. A few months ago, she told the BBC that the UK needed “strong and stable leadership” when asked about mugwumps.

More recently, when asked by Channel 4 if the critics who called her robotic misunderstood her, May droned about “getting on with the job” and “delivering for people”. No doubt this wiped the smirk right off those critics’ faces.

When people answer a specific question with an evasive declaration, it wastes your time. It insults your intelligence. It’s plain disrespectful (sort of like placing Ivanka between Angela Merkel and Christine Lagarde at the G20 negotiating table).

So when a brilliant exception to the rule comes along, it makes you very happy indeed.

Last year, I decided to register a complaint with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). Some obscure insurance firm started sending me advertisements for funeral insurance, and – in what some low-grade marketing exec no doubt thought was a touch of genius – they arranged their ads in the form of a personal email.

So one fine morning last February I woke up, opened Outlook, scrolled through the headlines and, among a few inane press releases (“ground-breaking research reveals: 75 per cent of the UK workforce consider personal development to be valuable”), I saw the following message leer at me from the screen: “Elena, plan your funeral today”.

In the weeks that followed, the insurance firm waged a malicious campaign against me – or, as they no doubt thought of it, alerted me to a valuable service. Every morning I woke up to a morose message urging me to plan my funeral.

I tried to change the settings, unsubscribe, block the firm’s email address – but in vain. Like a highly contagious disease, the funeral message obstinately creeped into my inbox.

I dreaded contacting ASA, as I imagined that the process would be mired in mind-boggling bureaucracy, but then the situation became too disturbing to ignore.

I was pleasantly surprised. Instead of endless questionnaires I thought I would have to fill out, the ASA website contained just three entries: my name, link to the advertisement and, in my own words, the explanation of why I had found the advertisement offensive.

So I wrote the ASA an impassioned letter. I told them that I definitely, resolutely, decidedly did not want to plan my funeral today. Indeed, that I was hoping not to plan my funeral for a very long time. In fact, that I did not care about planning my funeral at all, because – as much as I might enjoy the pomp and ceremony now – after the unfortunate event, these would hardly matter.

When the ASA response arrived a few weeks later, I stared at it grimly. I expected to see a blurb about unwavering commitment to consumer rights. Instead, the response contained a concrete, straightforward answer to my inquiry.

Far from being some semi-literate scribbling, the response was coherent and grammatically competent. I expected the ASA’s letter to be long and tedious – but it contained just two average-size paragraphs.

It’s a shame that the ASA did not uphold my complaint. If it was up to me, I would shut the offending insurance firm down – for rank incompetence, if nothing else. (I wonder how many customers their “plan your funeral now” campaign had brought them.)

But no matter: as the ability to answer questions goes, ASA stands alone and I applaud it.

Perhaps ASA could give the PM a tutorial in lucid communication?

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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