24 January 2010

Comedy Festival or not, bullshit's no joke

The Melbourne International Comedy Festival is a much admired cultural institution in my home town. Perhaps that's why I am troubled by what may look to others like a minor thing.

I saw an ad today for the 2010 Comedy Festival that features a "Comedy Fact":
"Those suffering ankylosing spondylitis gain 2 hours of painless sleep when expose (sic) to 10 minutes of comedy."
The "fact" is referenced to Pete Gitundu: 'Dealing with Stress' 2009.

To begin with, I know that ankylosing spondylitis is a real condition, an autoimmune arthritis mainly affecting the spine, and not something made up, even though it has a comical sound (especially to anyone familiar with the Goon Show's "Spon plague"). But that's a completely inadequate reference for any sort of therapeutic claim, so I Googled Pete.

It turns out that Peter Gitundu is "a Web Administrator and Has Been Researching and Reporting on Stress for Years" (all those capital letters are his, by the way, not mine). Sure enough, there in the first paragraph of one of Peter's 1400 online articles (!) is the source of the Comedy Festival quote:
"It has been found that two hours of painless sleep is added to patients of ankylosing spondylitis who are exposed to ten minutes of comedy. These are very interesting statistics..."
It's pretty clear that Peter isn't quoting his own research here, but there's no reference for these "statistics". So I looked a little further afield.

The trail leads back to a Canadian physician, Dr Norman Cousins, who published a personal account of the effects of laughter on his own ankylosing spondylitis in the late 1970s. Interesting and encouraging as it might be, it's a single-patient case report and does not appear to have been replicated in a clinical trial anywhere that I can find. There's no reference to a control group or placebo. And there are definitely no "statistics".

Dr Cousins may well have reported that he got an extra two hours' sleep after watching the Marx Brothers, but there's nothing to say anyone else will get the same effect from comedy (especially not if it's Two And a Half Men... just saying).

Look a bit further and you'll find thousands of references to Dr Cousins' work all over the web. Yes, it was a novel idea in the mid-1970s, and his personal account was compelling... but it didn't prove anything!

I don't want to be a killjoy, but a comprehensive review of the literature in 2001 concluded:
Few significant correlations have been found between trait measures of humor and immunity, pain tolerance, or self-reported illness symptoms. There is also little evidence of stress-moderating effects of humor on physical health variables and no evidence of increased longevity with greater humor.
It's disappointing that an anecdotal report from more than 30 years ago is still being cited - incorrectly - as "proof" of some therapeutic effect. But I find it even more disturbing that, having presumably chosen to use the first thing they Googled as a "fact" in promotion, no-one at the Comedy Festival bothered to check it anywhere beyond a ridiculously dodgy website authored by someone with no qualifications or authority on the subject.

Please understand, I'm not saying someone with ankylosing spondylitis doesn't deserve a laugh. But the Comedy Festival should be spreading mirth and merriment... not bullshit dressed as "fact".

14 January 2010

Who ya gonna call? Consumer Affairs, the ACCC and the ACMA!

The Nine Network’s A Current Affair ran a story on Thursday night about a “haunted” nursing home in Queensland. The story centred on an “investigation” by a crowd called Queensland Paranormal Investigators, whose people wore prominent “QPI” shirts throughout.

Apart from being hysterically farcical - investigator “Shane” said at one point “it feels male”, making us wonder which part of the poltergeist he was touching – the whole segment appears to have been a blatant plug. Not only was the name of the firm mentioned several times during the story, but the host back in the studio then referred viewers to the ACA website for more information.

The web story turns out to be an uncritical piece of promotion for these fraudsters, with repetition by ACA of claims like these:
  • QPI use “scientific and psychic methods”
  • QPI use “more than $100,000 worth of ghost hunting equipment to determine the strange activity including... electronic voice phenomena recorders to pick up ghostly voices the human ear cannot hear”
  • Members of the QPI team “have experience and qualifications which allow them to compile and analyse scientific, historical and psychic evidence”
  • QPI “provide their clients with full documentation on completion of each investigation”.
And, of course, there’s a link to the QPI website, where they state clearly that “we are not a Not For Profit organisation”. So they are running a commercial operation “investigating” ghosts, hauntings and other paranormal activity? “Paging Dr Venkman. Dr Peter Venkman.”

But isn’t ACA the program that chases fraudsters down the street and demands answers from those who would hoodwink Aussie battlers and pensioners with their scams? The same program that fearlessly uses hidden cameras to expose rip-off artists and tradies who charge gullible consumers megabucks to fix non-existent problems?

Non-existent problems like ghosts, perhaps?

All right, so QPI will be dismissed by most people as hilarious losers (their website makes the comically underwhelming claim that they are “the only professional paranormal investigation team in Queensland with a thermal imaging camera”).

But how can ACA risk its credibility as a "scam-busting" program by presenting complete and utter bullshit like this? Did ACA receive payment or consideration for this story? If not, why did they let QPI's claims of "scientific" method go unchallenged?

As someone who has appeared on ACA from time to time to comment on marketing issues - drawing on published studies in consumer behaviour and peer-reviewed academic literature on marketing and brand management - I actually feel embarrassed to have been seen in the same company as these charlatans.

After tonight, don't expect any further ACA appearances - ghostly or otherwise - from me.

09 January 2010

Google toilet paper: How easily could Google wipe away other hangers-on?

The amusing discovery that a company in Vietnam is apparently exploiting the fame of Google to sell toilet paper raises the question: Could anyone use the name "Google" in Australia and get away with it?

Google Inc. currently has registered Australian trade marks for the word "google" and the colour combination used in the familiar Google logo in a number of Classes, covering (not surprisingly) a range of products and services related to online search, other computer hardware and software, email and other telecommunications services, and advertising via the internet.

Perhaps more suprisingly, Google Inc. also has trade marks for the word "google" in relation to: books; manuals; notebooks; notepads; pens; greeting cards; stickers; decals; sticky notes; clothing; footwear; headgear; charitable fundraising; financial services; and payment and billing services.

While (broadly interpreted) the registration in respect of stationery might make it difficult for someone to use the Google brand for toilet paper, it would be very interesting to see what would happen if someone tried to use the word "google" in relation to (say) peanut butter, beer, a taxi company or any number of other products and services outside the limited scope of the current trade mark registrations.

Google Inc. would no doubt kick up a stink and claim that the intention of such users was to leverage the value of their world-famous trade mark. And they would probably be right. But Google Inc. can't claim that it (i.e. founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin) invented the word "google", nor that they have exclusive rights to the word it in all its forms and uses.

In fact, publisher Hearst Holdings has a current Australian trade mark (registered in 1960) for "Barney Google & Snuffy Smith" in Class 16, which includes books, newspapers, magazines and stationery. As it turns out, according to this well-referenced Wikipedia article, newspaper comic strip character Barney Google is actually the original source of the word "google" and Page and Brin's use of the word can be traced back to that source. So Google Inc. might not have it all its own way.

Astonishingly, though, an individual based in South Australia is currently trying to register the word "googler" for a range of services related to online publishing, entertainment and blogging. Once Google Inc. gets wind of that application, I venture to suggest it might be worth less than a pack of Google toilet paper.