You did what now?

Microsoft wanted us to know that unlike those poncy pretentious iPhone types, Windows Phones are for regular types of people who like regular types of things, such as football. But they couldn’t just come out and say “our phone is for people who like football” because talking in broad generalities like that sounds weirdly vague and non-committal. People having real conversations don’t say “I like food”, they say specific things like “curry is my favourite,” or “cucumbers are the work o’ the devil” (which is true).

No, you have to bring things to life somehow. So here’s what they came up with:

Bad

Their marketing people thought this one through. If you must pick a specific team, then West Ham is a pretty safe choice; a premier league side with a storied history, who also haven’t won anything recently enough to piss off any rival fan bases. If you zoom in on the poster, you can see they even thought through the details:

Worse

There’s plucky little West Ham defeating perennial juggernaut Manchester United. Who doesn’t love an underdog?

It was all going so well for them, right up until they sent copies out into the world to be plastered up in public. I took this photo in Manchester, a handful of miles from Old Trafford, the hallowed home stadium of Manchester United. That makes this roughly the equivalent of posting an imaginary score of “Lutherans 1, Catholics 0” up in the Vatican, alongside a smiling face, a thumbs up, and your brand logo.

North Americans might think this juxtaposition of sport and religion is odd, but English people won’t; Football is held here in many of the beating hearts of this country, as the deepest, dearest, and most eternal of the verities… higher even than orderly queuing and deep fried sea food. Thou shalt not cross one’s team.

A story of stories

In the news, a story we like, but for the wrong reasons:

model Vicky Antonia… has spent £20,000 dressing her eight-year-old son Zack in top labels.

This story’s editors know that this sounds crazy, and they play this angle to the hilt, piling on the prurient details – He has 200 shoes! She spends up to a thousand on clothes a week! His toys take up two whole rooms!

It’s a story that appeals to the little whisper deep inside many of us, quietly insinuating that whatever our own vices, at least we aren’t that bad. Our mind spontaneously, probably subconsciously, measures ourselves up against Vicky, and happily finds what social psychologists call a “downwards social comparison” – the kind that tends to make us feel pretty good about ourselves.

While the world is surely in need of more feel-good news,  this is unfortunately one of the less noble varieties of it. What I like, though, is that it illustrates some of the little stories we tell about ourselves.

For starters there’s the one we’ve just discussed: news readers implicitly constructing a proto-story about their own moral superiority, ironically oblivious to the morality of doing it at someone else’s expense.

Or take Vicky herself. She is apparently aware that this amount of spending looks crazy, and she has an explanation:

The 31-year-old said: ‘I know it must sound like I am spoiling him but I just want him to look his best. What is wrong with making your son look good?’… ‘Because he is so young I don’t think he even understands the fact that he has all this designer gear,’ .

She’s not trying to buy his affection, she says – he doesn’t even know she’s doing anything special for him! No, she is aware that money can’t buy love (the Beatles tell her so), but money sure might be able to express her love.

She admits she sometimes regrets her spending but believes her shopping habit stems from almost losing her son as a baby. He was born after just 27 weeks and spent two months in intensive care after contracting bacterial meningitis. ‘As far as I am concerned, he is my wonder child and I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to want to treat your son,’ she said.

This is, obviously, a much better sounding story than the one that most of us were spontaneously painting in our minds, though the ultimate wisdom of it is perhaps questionable. There is plenty of academic research showing that strong extrinsic concerns (i.e., on topics such as status and physical appearance) are consistently associated with lower levels of happiness and satisfaction with life, whereas the opposite is true for intrinsic ends (i.e., topics such as interpersonal caring – see Kasser & Kanner’s 2003 book: “Psychology and consumer culture: The struggle for a good life in a materialistic world”). Vicky appears to be trying to tell a very intrinsic story about caring for her son, to explain a set of behaviours that have a very extrinsic ring to them. So what are we to make of this?

Maybe something, but first, two caveats:

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