Tagged: social class

The Eton Scholarship Exam Paper

An exam paper has been making the rounds on social media – the scholarship exam paper for Eton. It has generated some notable Twitter buzz, equal parts curiosity and controversy.

The focus is on question 1C,  which follows an excerpt from Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’:

“The year is 2040. There have been riots in the streets of London after Britain has run out of petrol because of an oil crisis in the Middle East. Protestors have attacked public buildings. Several policemen have died. Consequently, the Government has deployed the Army to curb the protests. After two days the protests have been stopped but twenty-five protestors have been killed by the Army. You are the Prime Minister. Write the script for a speech to be broadcast to the nation in which you explain why employing the Army against violent protestors was the only option available to you and one which was both necessary and moral.”

[full exam paper PDF]

Eton  has educated 19 British Prime Ministers. There were sustained riots on the streets of London the year before last. As such, the question does not seem as hypothetical as it might. Instead it holds a kind of allure, that of an accidentally far-too-candid view backstage into the mechanics of “how things really work”; that is, the methods by which the elite trains its young to hold power.

eton reactions

1. It is significant that this question was asked

The question could have been asked elsehow, and it matters that it wasn’t – as Tim Maly of Quiet Babylon ably demonstrates.

The student is asked to make objections to Machiavelli in question 1B – and then ignore these in his answer at 1C. “We are looking for candidates who can see both sides of an idea and express them clearly”, says headmaster Tony Little. Flexibility of mind and the ability to argue is what’s sought – one’s ethical opinion one way or the other is irrelevant.

The exam paper is in that sense amoral. It is searching for the pupil’s ability to first identify and then manipulate a set of logical principles from the specifics of the excerpt given. Playing with hypotheticals is entirely the point – yet, this quest for this particular type of “cleverness” is culturally specific and carries with it a certain set of values. About abstraction & logic versus empiricism, phenomenology or experience; about abstraction versus empathy. (I abstract here, myself.)

Exceptionally few 13-year-olds have the educational privilege or the cultural heritage to be able to argue in this way and at this level.Yet there is little point arguing that this exam question should not be socially exclusive or exclusionary. It is for a school that costs £32,000 per year, and moreover it is a scholarship exam designed so that all bar a dozen will fail; elitism is exactly the purpose.  Instead, what we might better criticise are the habits of mind such an exam (and wider curriculum creates). We are afraid the young scholar will grow up into a sociopath.

2. The social media reaction to this exam paper

The reaction has been such because the exam paper feeds back to us (the Twitterati and the left) what we want to believe about Eton, the training ground for Britain’s political elite. It does really rather too neatly – Machiavelli? Nietzsche? Justifying the army’s suppression of protestors? As some people commented, it’s beyond parody – you wouldn’t make this shit up.

But that’s why this exam paper has come to our attention: exactly because it stands out enough to be discussion-worthy. We should note this, and be careful not to assume it is typical.

This is the 2011 exam paper. The other ones are available here. And as the headmaster pointed out to the Huffington Post, “A similar question on the previous year’s paper is about a community without any government.” Indeed it was – though the attentive reader may  note that the question does in fact asks candidates to consider the problems with such a  state, following excerpts from Hobbes and Locke…

But  in 2009, General Paper 1 asks questions about Ogden Nash limericks and, following Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’, to discuss the nature of conceptual art. If this were our dataset, we would draw quite different conclusions about the kind of school Eton was. But of course, this was not the exam paper brought into public debate.

The use of the part to express the whole is a figure of speech – that of synecdoche. Effective use of figures of speech is part of the study of rhetoric. And rhetoric, as Aristotle put it, is “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.”

So to read the 2011 exam paper as a microcosm of the British political system is a rhetorical act – one designed to persuade in a certain direction. It’s to read too much into it – and to read with conclusions already in mind (amorality, nepotism, corruption). Rhetoric can be sophistic – it is easily deceptive. Synecdoche presumes that the part is representative of the whole – it doesn’t provide any proof this is true. And thus rhetoric may obscure as much (about Eton, about politics, or about power) as it may reveal.

3. What kind of social object is the Eton exam paper?

We do better, I think, to examine the Eton scholarship exam paper as a totemic object or hypersignifier – something that means too much; something that means multiply, and cannot be resolved to a single sign. It is, variously…

A vehicle for a 13-year-old boy to demonstrate his intellectual ability and win a scholarship

Through the existence of a scholarship and an exam to award it, an indication of belief in intelligence as competitive, and hierarchical. That is, meritocracy

An illustration of Eton’s particular reputation for cultivating elegance of expression. Note question 2D: “marks will be awarded for originality and sophistication” – of a sentence written in the made-up language of Jangli.

A statement that Machiavelli, Nietzsche and intellectual wordplay are the intellectual values of the age.

A text that also epitomises the flaws in the perceived intellectual virtues of our age – that it is word-play and not sincere; that cleverness can be slippery and facile; the ability to pitch any argument while believing in none

A demonstration of the ‘covert curriculum’ at elite schools – how leadership is inculcated into the rich as a natural right

An illustration of how politicians are trained

Just an exam paper that’s not even typical of other Eton exam papers

It is a social media catalyst, one that activates the “Twitter mob” and the social event that is a good outrage. “Horrifying!” we tweet, with delight

Media fuel – end-of-week Twitter diversions now become national news stories:


Social currency, something worth sharing with others as a way of demonstrating one’s own wit or value. Highly retweetable:


An object for left-wingers to define themselves against – a hundred tweets saying that “we” would have instead asked the scholarship boys to imagine themselves in the shoes of the protestors, the bereaved, the subaltern.

And perhaps elicits a certain quiet longing from some who found themselves led briefly to wonder – what if I had had an education as imaginative and challenging as that?

It’s a very interesting exam paper.

Now, how to express that in Jangli? [3 marks]

What #WaitroseReasons Reveals About Why People Talk About Brands

First published here on the FACE company blog on 9th October 2012

Did the #WaitroseReasons Twitter promotion snatch success from the jaws of disaster – or the other way around?

Three weeks on, marketers are still talking about it: it’s clearly made impact on one group at least! But to us, as social media researchers immersed in hundreds of comments every day about how people talk about brands, much of the analysis seems naïve, based on an overly superficial understanding of what people are doing when they talk on social media. A hint: they’re not really talking about your brand…

But before we explain why, a summary of the Waitrose kerfuffle:

On 17th September, @Waitrose asked their customers to share their reasons for shopping at Waitrose, using the hashtag #WaitroseReasons. They got a lot of responses – probably not in quite the style they expected… Instead of an outpouring of brand love and affirmation, Twitter became a torrent of snark:


Oops. The runaway Twitter discussion produced a corresponding surge in digital industry & marketing press and blogs trying to make sense of the situation.

This followed a classic dialectic trajectory – first, the stern claims that “Waitrose was asking for trouble”, followed by enthusiastic rebuttals that all publicity is good publicity, and all ‘engagement’ is a sign of brand affection. But this hasn’t culminated in synthesis, but rather name-calling: specifically, Mark Ritson in Marketing Week arguing “Why marketers are socially stupid”. A bold claim: let’s examine it.

Ritson begins by making a very important point: situating Waitrose’s social media tactics in the context of their overall brand strategy:

“The ultimate purpose of Waitrose’s social media strategy is not to start conversations or increase the number of followers the brand has on Twitter. The purpose of Waitrose’s social media strategy is to build its brand and increase sales. Waitrose has had a successful strategy to do just that, built around two approaches – first, getting existing shoppers to shop more frequently at Waitrose and second, attracting new shoppers into the stores.”

This is really important, and not often enough done. We entirely agree – volumes of mentions or retweets are not a meaningful end in themselves, and social media metrics shouldn’t blind researchers or brands to the real goals.

What we disagree with is his next claim:

“But this campaign inadvertently positions the supermarket as posh, snobby, overpriced and reserved exclusively for the upper classes. That’s terrible news for Waitrose, because it has spent the past four years positioning its brand away from these stereotypes and towards a more accessible, value-based position to drive market share gains.

[…] Existing shoppers at Waitrose, the middle-class segment it targets, will feel sensitive and perhaps a little less enthusiastic about entering the store now, and store traffic will decline. Potential converts to Waitrose will have had their stereotypes confirmed and be less likely to consider the switch in future. Perhaps neither of these impacts will be huge, but they will be negative and they were self-inflicted.”

What’s Ritson’s thesis – that people will take the “butler” and child-called-Orlando comments literally, and conclude that Waitrose is not a place for people who don’t have these things? This is suggesting someone’s “socially stupid” – but not the marketer: the Waitrose shopper. Twitter might allow only 140-characters, but we argue there was a lot of social nuance encoded in those tweets.

Defining features of British humour and culture: self-deprecation. Sarcasm, irony. We refuse to take ourselves seriously, and we’re somewhat keen on a bit of understatement. As a result, every international guide to British culture puzzles over the way we never seem to say what we mean. “Your report was… quite good”, says your boss with a wince. Rosie Huntingdon-Whitely “scrubs up alright”.

“Put the papaya down, Orlando!” has to be read through this lens – understanding its meaning through considering what is implied, what is inverted, and the shared tacit knowledge that’s referenced. This includes:

  • Orlando is a slightly silly & pretentious name for a child – and giving children slightly silly & pretentious names is a middle-class social trend
  • Recognising this shows familiarity with this class, and suggests the speaker is of this background or close to it – so it’s also a self-deprecating joke (which aren’t aggressive but rather inclusive – inviting recognition)
  • Recognising buying exotic fruit like papayas as another signifier of middle-class identity…
  • …and moreover the behaviour of talking loudly about specialist foods in order to demonstrate and assert middle-classness
  • Using irony and sarcasm to show that you’re not “taken in” by the brand’s marketing – (you believe) you’re subverting it
  • And by the way, the kind of person who does all these things would typically shop in Waitrose.

In fact, this is what almost all the #WaitroseReasons tweets were doing: making observations that demonstrate the author’s familiarity with and membership of a specific segment of the more comfortably-off middle class.

It went big on Twitter, because it was a way for people to talk about their favourite topic: themselves. The discussion around the hashtag wasn’t really about Waitrose as a retailer so much as a way for people to start talking about that great British obsession, social class, and where we fit into the hierarchy. It was a discussion about belonging: people were collectively & collaboratively playing with the boundaries of belonging to the middle class.Waitrose was just a signifier – a particularly rich and meaningful one, a national treasure whose meanings are owned by its customers (not just its marketers).

In fact, it mightn’t be something marketers want to hear, but people don’t really want to have relationships with brands as such. If you think about it, it’s pretty weird – a passionate love affair with the nexus of meanings encapsulated in your shampoo bottle? No: as Mark Earls argues in ‘Herd’ (and we discuss in Augmented Research), “We talk of the relationships consumers have with our brands as if they were primary, but consumers’ most valuable relationships are not with brands but with other consumers.”

#WaitroseReasons was a chance for people to demonstrate their social tribe allegiance and how witty & clever they could be – two very desirable social markers, hence the massive participation. It’s basically #MiddleClassProblems with a brand attached. Was this Waitrose’s strategy? It’s not clear. It certainly was Alan Sugar’s, though, who invited people to share #TheWayISeeIt for the launch of his book – gaining 390,000 tweets, celebrity involvement and major press coverage from giving people a chance to share who they were.

But what about Mark Ritson’s second point: that #WaitroseReasons was exclusionary, that it was sending too many people a message of “not for me”?

There’s a grain of truth in this. What Waitrose did was bold – it wasn’t an ‘everyman’ strategy but rather spurred discussion about group norms. As such, this is necessarily a “boundary policing” activity, one that defines who’s the “us” who share these norms, and by logical extension who’s the “them” who doesn’t. And yes, for some people kids called Orlando and fruit like papayas are pretty far from their lives.

But brands have to do this – they have to define their audiences and target markets, rather than hoping to be all things to all people. Waitrose is a middle-class brand, its locations, pricing, product range and marketing all make this clear. Its value strategy is merely about trying to appeal to a more budget-conscious middle class shopper who might have moved away – they were never staking their claim to Asda’s demographic. It’s about consolidating loyalty.

By participating in a discussion about social norms, then, Waitrose strengthens its identification with this middle-class group. By being able to “take a joke” and “keep their chin up” during a hazing ritual, Waitrose comes out of a social media pasting showing they can demonstrate English middle class values too.

And connecting social activity back to brand strategy, then hopefully we’ve made it clear that this isn’t just a win on awareness. No: it’s also a complex but powerful statement of identification – and thereby brand loyalty. And brand loyalty gets feet through the door and keeps the tills ringing.

Macro trends: black box algorithms & the end of the middle class

A couple of days ago I was thinking through the question, what’s important now? Or rather, what is now – what are the currents shaping the way the world is going over the next 10 or so years?

Perhaps this was inspired by Jon Henley’s article on September 11th, which argued that it wasn’t actually the “day that changed everything”, and many of the geopolitical events seen as consequences of the attack may have happened regardless.

One key trend is clearly black box algorithms:

In a speech at the technology conference TEDGlobal this summer, computer scientist Kevin Slavin argued that a profound shift is taking place: maths is undergoing a “transition from being something that we extract and derive from the world to something that actually starts to shape it”.

The maths Slavin is talking about, and Harris is writing about, is algorithms. We are, he says, living in an “algo-world”. If Slavin is right, algorithms are shaping everything from the goods we buy to the value of the money with which we buy them.


The thing is, as systems of algorithms get more complex and take control of ever greater areas of everyday life, concerns are being raised over how much we’re able to track what they’re up to. The answer is: not all that much. As Slavin puts it: “We’re writing these things that we can no longer read.”

[Welcome to the algoworld, Sam Leith, Evening Standard, 12th Sept 2011]

Second, and bigger point – the stagnation and decline of the middle class standard of life.

Take a story that appeared in the Wall Street Journal Monday. The tale is nominally one about marketing strategy and it looks at how giant firm Procter & Gamble sells its household goods to its customers. But the picture that emerges is terrifying. P&G, it transpires, is cutting back on marketing to the disappearing middle classes, instead selling more and more to either high-income or low-income customers and abandoning the middle. Other big firms, like Heinz, are following suit. The piece reveals there is even a word for this strategy, helpfully coined by Citibank: the Consumer Hourglass Theory – because it denotes a society that bulges at the top and bottom and is squeezed in the middle.

The story contains some scary figures, such as the fact that the net worth of the middle fifth of American households has plunged by 26% in the last two years. Or that the income of the median American family, adjusted for inflation, is lower now than in 1998.

Or look at a story in the New York Times Tuesday. It starkly shows how the plight of the American working person has worsened. Solid jobs that once provided a secure grasp on middle class aims (a house, college for the kids, a retirement) have changed to become low-wage ones. It looks at the situation of some Detroit auto-workers, pointing out that new hires can find themselves working opposite long-term colleagues who do similar jobs yet earn twice as much. The system is called a “two tier” wage structure.

Perhaps that system can be justified as an emergency measure to keep Detroit’s auto-industry alive and help it survive the current tough times. But, like the Consumer Hourglass Theory, it actually looks far more like the permanent shape of things to come. American society is bifurcating, squeezing the middle class out of existence. The ranks of the poor and low-income earners are growing and the rich are doing just fine – and no one is talking about it, much less doing anything about it.

[The decline and fall of the American middle class, Paul Harris, Guardian, 13th Sept 2011]

More thinking on these later…