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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 February 2006, 17:30 GMT
Outfoxing the pointless polls
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine

Fox hunter
National icon or vote hijackers?

A project to find the icons of English national identity has been seized on by pro-hunting campaigners, who are voting, en masse, for fox-hunting. Are there too many polls and surveys?

When the Icons of England project was launched last month it had the ambition of finding the symbols that quintessentially represented the nation - putting forward examples such as red buses, cups of tea and the spitfire.

But this online poll, funded by the Department for Culture, has found itself being pursued by pro-hunting enthusiasts - with "fox hunting" currently leading the pack of public nominations.

And an accompanying message - "sticking two fingers at shedloads of badly drafted legislation" - gives a suggestion of how this vote on cultural icons is being interpreted.

Survey fatigue

The icons project says that this public vote is only going to be advisory - and as such the most popular nomination won't necessarily be on a shortlist to be unveiled in April.

Are there too many surveys and polls?
Yes, enough is enough
 52.24% 
No, ask me another
 47.76% 
9679 votes cast so far.
Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion

But the Countryside Alliance, which opposes the hunt ban - and which alerted supporters to the poll in its e-newsletter - asks what's the point of asking the public if their views are going to be ignored.

Maybe there are just too many polls. At any given time we're being asked for the best song, ugliest building, top movie or least favourite Big Brother housemate.

And public opinion polls are open to campaigners using them as lobbying tools.

Eurosceptics have already scored a polling bull's-eye this year when a poll by the BBC Radio 4's Today programme named European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso as the UK's most powerful man.

And they can also throw up downright weird results. Who is the second worst person ever in British history? The saintly Thomas Becket, according to a readers' survey from BBC History Magazine last month.

Diamond geezers

This week has already seen the feast day of the patron saint of pointless polls, St Valentine, which this year included the staggering "research" that romantic lovers were more likely to say "I love you" than married couples.

St Valentine
St Valentine's, feast day of pointless polls

Such candy-coated, his 'n' hers St Valentine's surveys often come with much tougher, commercial motives - exemplified this year by a poll claiming that men would never ask women for directions when driving.

Who sponsored this survey? A company selling global position systems.

Other big romantic surprises this week were that the best present for a woman is a diamond, says diamond retailer, and women hate beards, says razor firm.

Lies, damned lies and...

The great appeal of surveys is that they come up with clear-cut results - giving winners and losers for everyone to argue about, and helping generate good headlines.

Headstones
Two in five pet owners hold funerals for dogs, claims poll

And a mainstay of this approach is the murky world of survey statistics. For instance, taking the first example of research into how often we say "I love you".

This precisely lays out the evidence that 48% of women say "I love you" occasionally compared to a miserable 38% of men - revealing a 10 percentage point gender gap.

Except this was a survey of only 77 undergraduate students.

Such exercises are only a short step from what's known as a "straw poll", which is a technical term a journalist uses for asking the views of people sitting in earshot of them.

Sleepwalking

And statistics can raise more questions than answers. How about these bafflingly-specific numbers from a hotel survey on Wednesday? Among naked sleepwalkers, 16% will wander into other bedrooms and 23% will go downstairs. Is that a survey or a case for the defence?

A pitch for pet insurance, also on Wednesday, was shaped around the claim that 40% of dog owners hold funeral services for their pets when they die. But this isn't cheap so... sign up for the insurance offer.

But don't expect public opinion to be consistent, because invariably the opinion it's going to most closely resemble is that of the marketing director behind the poll in question.

Hence one St Valentine's survey found that only 3% of couples met on the internet, while another, published by a dating website, claimed that 87% of young people were involved in online relationships.

Too many pointless polls, you decide?

Readers who can't get enough of such futile undertakings are invited to take part in our own Pointless Poll, which appears on the Magazine index every Friday.


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

This is a tricky question. Too many pointless polls? I can't answer that. Maybe we should put it to a vote.
Chris Brock, London

I worked for a consumer PR agency for many years and we used to knock out these spurious 'surveys' every day of the week. With some authority, I'd estimate that 94% of the surveys published in the press are utterly, completely and entirely ficticious...most aren't even subject to the rigour of the straw poll mentioned in the article. Any survey that doesn't use a respected market research or polling company (and they will be named in the press release) is simply a contrived brand-building exercise for the sponsoring company.
Jim, London

Everywhere you look there's a survey. The majority of these seem to serve no purpose other than to spark a five minute conversation in the office. With so many polls... I really question the relevance.
Andrew, Liverpool, England

I used to work for a market research company driving up and down motorways to cities where I'd spend all day asking housewives what they thought of different packaging designs for frozen yorkshire puddings, on a scale of 1 to 5. I'm a systems analyst now, and 56% of me is happier because of it.
James Mahoney, Norwich

I am fed up with the countless polls, surveys and questionnaires constantly being thrown at us. We're told on a weekly basis what the nation's favourite something-or-other is, but it's not like people care! I had hoped that after the millennium, this desperate retroactive look at the world would have ended by now. It also seems like a good vehicle to parade some D-list celebs, a cheap way just to get their face on television again.
Nelson, Oxford

Thank you, BBC for bringing a smile to my day. Best of all, I am imagining the faces of American surfers and news addicts who stumble across this story. I anticipate reading their comments with glee. Americans just don't "get" irony.
Mysturji, Basingstoke

So, if people are sick and tired of polls are they likely to vote in yours? It seems to me only the people who like them will respond, therefore skewing the results even more.
Kelly, Chicago

To: Mysturji, Basingstoke: While some Americans may not "get irony" they certainly do get "generalization" and "stereotyping". How's that for irony?
Bill P, South Dakota (Ex-Glasgow)

As Vic Reeves once said "62.5% of statistics are made up on the spot"
Ken, London

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