Why did #callbrussels work?

Public phone for people to call into Brussels and ask how things are.

After tweeted cat pictures kept up morale during Brussels’ lockdown last year, the city’s imaginative side worked to restore its image in the aftermath.

The local tourist board, visit.brussels, invited people to call in via the internet to ask how things were – in particular, whether any bombs were exploding.

The calls went through to three telephones set up in public spaces. When these rang, passers-by picked up and answered. No, no bombs were going off, came the replies – and the waffles are good.

In the five days of the campaign, 12,688 calls came in from 154 countries. Stories on #callbrussels were picked up by numerous TV stations and newspapers from London to Washington.

There were two crucial ingredients in this success. First, visit.brussels ceded control of the message. If the tourist board had tried to reassure people that Brussels was safe again, the natural reaction would have been, “Well, of course the tourist board says that – that’s what it wants people to believe.” So people would not have been convinced.

But when the message comes unrehearsed from people without a clear interest – and when you can hear their voices and ask questions – it’s more believable. Moreover, by letting go of control of the message, visit.brussels showed confidence that everyone would confirm that Brussels is OK now. As a result the message was highly credible – one of the Heath brothers’ six criteria for the qualities that make an idea “sticky”, summarised here.

Second, the idea was original. Get normal people in the street to do the reassuring – and get them to do this by setting up public telephones, which themselves are a rarity! How bizarre! (This is another of the Heaths’ criteria for stickiness – that an idea be unexpected.)

That attracted international coverage for the stunt, so the message reached far more people than just those calling in. And the media reports encouraged more people to call in.

Could this kind of campaign catch on in other destinations suffering hangovers after disasters, from floods to violence? They’d be less surprising than #callbrussels, but there’s still a good lesson in how to get a message believed: Invite people to ask the man in the street.

National Brands Are Fine; Just Don’t Believe Them

national brands

The standout exceptions to the international commercial failure of European TV and film are Britain and Scandinavia.

A key for them both is their national brands. If you see a Danish crime drama such as The Bridge, you know you will get sleek interiors, complex plots and killings conceived by sick, creative minds. Britain often means costume dramas, boarding schools and class tension.

When they step out of these national brand categories, the results are mixed. A Danish series, 1864, came on BBC4 in 2015 and got good reviews. I didn’t watch it (probably a mistake) because I didn’t think I needed to go Denmark for the 19th century in the way that I do for stylish crime. Other Brits agreed, and it attracted a respectable audience but fewer viewers than The Bridge.

Even British dramas set in the present day often use antiquated settings or characters. Romantic comedies feature a greater number of taciturn men than you come across normally. James Bond films feed off an era when the UK played a more significant role in global security.

Midsomer Murders takes place in a chocolate-box village, and strives for an “English” atmosphere that will sell well overseas. Its producer got in trouble in 2011 when he basically admitted that the show’s characters were all white in order to create a “bastion of Englishness…that appeals to a certain audience, which seems to succeed”. He added: “We just don’t have ethnic minorities involved. Because it wouldn’t be the English village with them.”

Does this do much harm? Scandinavians do not appear to have decided that darkly conceived crimes are a good thing. The UK hosts a dynamic enterprise culture, so it’s hard to say that costume dramas have kept it stuck in the past.

Still, Britain produces so much prettified past that some of its people may even believe that it is a lifestyle option. Its national brand might at least reinforce two important mistakes the country has been making.

First, the UK doesn’t build enough homes, and many younger Britons have little hope of attaining the quality of life that they would achieve in other parts of Europe. A major reason is the desire and power of property owners to block developments, which they do through local protests and support for restrictions such as London’s green belt.

Just a bit of green belt land would make a big difference, and there’s plenty of not-very-pretty countryside that no one would miss. But the property owners justify opposition to development with arguments about heritage and the sanctity of the English countryside (whose meadows were in fact created by chopping down forests). Spurious arguments against houses are less implausible if people believe a pretty, rural past is (or was ever) a reality.

The same goes for the irrational dislike of the European Union. I’m not going to blame Downton Abbey for euro scepticism. But seeing an image of a Britain that was powerful and grand might make people bristle at the idea of losing sovereignty through EU membership, even though much of this is in technical areas, such as plastics regulations.

Actually, Europe does appear in Downton – where it is the source of a war that results in male characters getting killed and maimed. Better to keep Europe away, no?


Illustration adapted from photos by News Øresund and lafiguradelpadre.

Fear and Suspense in Brussels

fear cliffhanger Hitchcock crash collision car

The Brussels lockdown was an anxious time, and we’re all more relaxed now. That’s because we’re safe, right?

In fact, while no one has been killed in Belgium by terrorists during the recent period of alerts, 755 are likely to have been killed on Belgian roads in 2015 – about 15 a week and more than twice the rate as the UK and the Netherlands. But few people seem worried by this. Look around you and see them talking on mobile phones at the wheel, ignoring speed limits and driving after drinking.

Perhaps Alfred Hitchcock would have understood why.

Shock and surprise – such as when a bomb goes off all of a sudden – have a limited impact on us, according to Hitchcock. But tell an audience that a bomb is going to go off under a table where people are sitting in quarter of an hour, and they will be in tenterhooks.

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense.

After the terrorist attack in Paris on 13 November, we were warned that something similar might be unleashed upon Brussels. That is, we were waiting for violent, suicidal cult members to try to kill us and our children – an exceptionally nasty form of suspense.

Road crashes, however, don’t create suspense. Personal experience makes us feel safe: We’ve crossed the road and been in cars thousands of times, mostly without any problem. At the same time, people are killed on roads so frequently that crashes rarely make the news, so we are not forced to think about them much.

So when someone we know gets killed we are shocked. They, like us, had been in and around cars for years and survived till then.

When we pass a crash scene – and see mangled cars and a body on a stretcher – we are also shocked, because we’ve passed a junction like that many times before.

But when the victims are not close family or friends, the feeling of surprise soon passes, as Hitchcock understood. And we have a few drinks, get in the car, send some messages – and ride our luck.


Illustration uses image from pixabay.

Greek remedy ahead of Brexit vote

zeno dichot1

Three little words are playing an outsized role in the future of Europe.

An opt-out from “ever-closer union” – which has featured in every EU treaty since 1957 – is one of David Cameron’s four main demands for change in the UK’s participation in the European Union. For Cameron and many of his countrymen, the phrase conjures up a nightmare image of a European super state. Failure to achieve a British exemption could lead to a Brexit after Cameron’s in-out referendum – which would then prompt pro-European Scots to leave the United Kingdom.

Though Greeks have brought problems to the EU recently, one of them could have fixed this one if he were around today: Zeno of Elea.

The philosopher’s paradoxes centre on the idea that, to get from A to B, you must travel first half the distance, then a quarter, then an eighth… So, however many steps you take, you will never complete the whole distance.

This is a bit of fun when it’s used to “prove” that you can never really move: normal movements are not divided up into ever-tinier steps.

But consider EU integration. Following the big leaps – the single market, Schengen, the euro – future moves towards closer union are likely to be more granular. They’ll still each require plenty of work, however, given the larger number of member states today.

So future integration might be like advancing another half pace towards a United States of Europe, followed then by a quarter, and an eighth… Since the EU is currently many paces away from such a federation, we can have ever-closer union but still get nowhere near an EU super state.

So what’s the problem?

It could be the British education system. Zeno’s paradoxes are best understood by the study of limits and infinite series in maths.

But British teenagers have long been pushed to abandon either humanities or maths early on, so the country’s politicians have mostly given up maths at a very basic level. Could another year or two of sums have helped calm down the Europhopes?



Illustration from: Grandjean, Martin (2014) Henri Bergson et les paradoxes de Zénon : Achille battu par la tortue ?

Mario Cuomo’s Wagon Train

frame for cuomo

After Mario Cuomo died on New Year’s day, many tributes referred to a 1984 speech, in which he criticised Reaganomics and conjured up a different vision of the United States. It resonates today, because the inequalities that were rising during Reagan’s era have continued in much of the West. The speech also contains some lessons in how to challenge people who don’t agree with you.

The speech became known for its central metaphor, “A Tale of Two Cities.” Reagan often used the image of America as a “shining city on a hill” to revive a spirit of optimism in the country. Cuomo, then Governor of New York, flipped Reagan’s image with help from Dickens.


While Reagan saw just people who were doing well, he had failed to visit a part of the city full of despair – of struggling families, people sleeping in the gutter and “elderly people who tremble in the basements”. These vivid images are what the speech is best remembered for.

For me, the clever part is when Cuomo hijacks the wagon train.

Most Europeans easily accept the idea of social justice. The French talk about solidarité. Even in Britain, which tends to lean further right, it’s hard to be against “fairness”. And the EU anthem is a tune from Beethoven’s choral symphony, which everyone associates with four of its German words: “Alle Menschen werden Brüder“.

Brotherhood is a harder sell in the United States, where self-reliance often trumps social justice as a fundamental value. Conservatives such as Reagan, said Cuomo, had chosen not to see the hardship undergone by many Americans.

So Cuomo conjures up a wagon train, which symbolises the courage of the pioneers in a world of minimal – or non-existent – government. This world is normally celebrated as an environment where rugged individuals sink or swim. It was thus a favourite theme for westerns starring conservative actors such as John Wayne and Ronald Reagan himself. LINK TO THIS

But Cuomo depicts the wagon train as a collective project:

The Republicans believe that the wagon train will not make it to the frontier unless some of the old, some of the young, some of the weak are left behind by the side of the trail.

He invites listeners to choose between this cruel image and an inclusive wagon train – which respects the family, another institutoin traditionally claimed by conservatives:

We Democrats believe that we can make it all the way with the whole family intact…

And the reason Democrats think like this, and had driven ambitious reforms in areas such as education? Because, in spite of Reagan’s sunny rhetoric, Democrats are the confident ones:

Some of us in this room today are here only because this nation had that kind of confidence.

So he’s annexed the wagon train, the family and confidence – all of them representing values that conservatives cannot disagree with or dismiss in the way that they can ignore tales of hardship. By the end, the shining city sounds less like a promised land and more like a gilded fortress where the wealthy barricade themselves against the troubles of the less well off.

Cuomo was speaking to the Democratic Convention in support of presidential candidate Walter Mondale, who lost a few months later to Reagan. But 20 years on, Barack Obama used the same technique, using another pillar of American conservatism – the bible – to conjure up da progressive vision.

After Kane kills his brother Abel in Genesis, he asks rhetorically, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Obama told the 2004 Democratic convention:

It is that fundamental belief – I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sisters’ keeper – that makes this country work.

Put like that, it’s hard to disagree.



Photo: Sgt Tracy Santee, USAF