A Margin for Error by Trevor Plumbly
Some things in life just pass you by without a great deal of fuss; they’re a part of the landscape of ordinary everyday events. It’s not till elderly hindsight kicks in that you realise that a huge opportunity breezed past your doorstep and you never even noticed. Such is the case with me: one tends to do a bit of stocktaking in one’s autumnal years. Now I don’t do the heavy soul purging stuff all that well; it’s not that there’s nothing there to purge, I just think regurgitating sleeping misdemeanours is a bit of a waste of time. No, my stocktake is more of a ‘what if’ nature, how my life would have taken a different course if only I had been smart enough to see opportunity when it presented itself. As I’ve previously aired my schoolboy shortcomings, most of you will be aware that academic or sporting greatness never beckoned, neither did the stage or the silver screen. I was, truth to say, destined for a place in the ranks of the ordinary.
What started this bout of reminiscing was the sudden epidemic of political polls. As is the case in election years, these things take on an importance far beyond their worth; my problem is that I failed to jump on this bandwagon when it was in its infancy. In those days, polls weren’t the stuff of meaningful conversation in the boozer, they were compiled by a body or somebody called ‘Gallup’ and seemingly aimed at politicians, eggheads or salesmen. Looking back, despite being mathematically challenged, I reckon I could have made my mark if I had only realised the potential and sheer simplicity of the ‘science’. Let’s say my client is selling ‘Splosho’ washing powder. All I’d need to do is ring up 100 people and ask them what brand they use; if 75 said ‘Splosho’ I inform my client of the good news that he’s got a 75% share of the market, pick up my fee and move on. You need a degree for that? If they wanted a broader survey, you’d just charge them extra, chuck in a couple of in-house chestnuts like ‘a margin of error of 1.65%’ or ‘this survey was conducted on a broad socio/economic basis’ to convince them you know what you’re up to. I tell you folks, it was a licence to print money and I bloody well missed it!
Rising in the Polls
Others didn’t miss the gravy train: Colmar Brunton, Roy Morgan and hundreds of minor passengers managed to get on board, sparking a growth industry that I could have been part of. In those days it would have been a piece of cake: don’t forget that the clients didn’t know much about the ‘science’ either so all I would have needed was a phone, a calculator and a bit of flash printing and I’d be on a nice little earner. I might even have graduated to the big boys’ trough and become ‘influential’, just imagine that! Trevor Plumbly welcomed in the halls of power and commerce, national leaders and captains of industry desperate to influence this month’s popularity percentages or the destination of my next decimal point. Unlike Gallup, Colmar Brunton and Co, I wouldn’t have hidden behind trends and spreadsheets counting my loot, I would have been open, a visible figure, living proof of the breath-taking beauty of the scam – all that money sloshing around out there and 95% of the population don’t give a toss about the end product except for a few media ‘analysts’ picking up a few quid for in ‘depth comments’. Who really cares if one party has slipped a couple of points or the price of coal is showing a slight upward trend? In short, nobody really, we’ve all got more important things to think about, but looking back I can’t help wondering what percentage of people wanted tickets for the Gravy Train after it’d left the station.