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PR Women PR master PR cookery PR at the age of PR 55: PR survey PR

2012/11/21

Where do I even start with this?

Women only become perfect cooks when they hit the age of 55

So says this article on the Telegraph website. The article reports the outcome of a survey of 1000 women, which it calls “research”. But what can we actually take from these results? Well, not much. We can’t tell how reliable the survey was. Unfortunately, unlike in proper research, we have no way of knowing what questions were aked, how they picked the women they asked, whether anyone decided not to answer the questions, etc. So if we want to try to work out exactly what is meant by “mastering cookery”, to see whether it fits with what we might otherwise think it means (I really have no idea)… we can’t.

Admittedly, we get a bit of detail:

Women who have reached their mid-50s have a repertoire of more than 15 meals they can quickly rustle up, have mastered the timings for a roast dinner, know how to produce a thick gravy, and can make bread, ice cream and pasta from scratch. Half said they never used sauces from jars or packets and always made their own, and three-quarters said they regularly baked cakes and biscuits.

But were these spontaneous answers to open-ended questions, or were they multiple-choice? If the former, how were answers grouped together? If the latter, how did the people who carried out the survey establish the lists of possible answers? We have no way of knowing. Well, we could ask the journalist, the newspaper, the people who paid for the survey (see below) or those who asked the questions, but something tells me that wouldn’t get us very far. (Call me cynical all you like.)

And what news article about new research wouldn’t be complete without a comment from an expert? We are not deprived here:

It stands to reason that it takes time to master cookery, and confidence comes with age. And there is some truth in the fact that you learn from your mistakes – so women need to endure dinner disasters and mishaps in the kitchen before getting everything spot on. The real sign of a good cook is one who doesn’t panic when things do go wrong, instead finding a solution to the problem or even admitting to those she is cooking for that dinner has gone horribly wrong. Although we reach cookery perfection in our 50s, it’s interesting to note that most women reach their big ‘milestones’ on their culinary journey in their 20s.

Aha! Confirmation! Although… who said this? None other than Co-operative Food’s head of marketing. Ah. Hardly an independent expert, then. In fact, the whole survey was commissioned by the Co-op in the first place. So this is an advert for a food shop, masquerading as news about research.

One of the problems with this kind of public-relations survey is that they have a veneer of truth and sciencey-ness about them. Intuitively, it makes sense that people generally get better at doing things over time, and practise makes perfect.  In fact, if you ask the right questions, of the right people, in the right way, you can get them to say pretty much anything, making the results meaningless.

This stuff is rife. I only picked out this particular example because someone happened to send it to me in response to some other, tangentially related point of conversation. There are plenty more cases out there. Newspapers today are no longer restricted by page size – the costs of publishing online do not go up as you increase the amount of content you produce, but the revenues generated by advertising do. So dashing off quick’n’easy articles like this one becomes more tempting. Sad face.

Incidentally, at what age do men become perfect cooks? Or does that question not fit with the Co-operative’s and Telegraph’s vision of reality? Does that narrative not tick enough PR boxes?

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7 Comments
  1. Tobias Allen permalink

    I don’t think this is everyday sexism. It’s a survey that targeted only one gender group. I don’t think anyone would deny that if men were included in the survey the results would be wildly different. What’s wrong with only looking at one gender at a time? What if that’s what you want to know? Your comments about the lack of robustness of the market research stand true, but consider this from the Co-op’s point of view

    1) Currently, in the UK, there are more women in domestic roles than men (sad but true)
    2) With more women making decisions about food, their advertising ought to be more targeted towards women
    3) They will want to know to what women of different ages relate in order to make their advertising better reach demographics. For example, using an actress/model who appears to be in their 20s struggiling with cooking their first roast and one who appears to be in their mid 50s shunning jars of Dolmio and taking advantage of the 2-4-1 offer on cans of tomatoes and fresh herbs.
    4) They only have a limited budget so can’t actually do peer reviewed publishable research. They have to make do with surveys such as these
    5) It was probably the Torygraph who read the research, not the Co-op who sent it to them, that got this story. Advertising space in nationals is hugely expensive, even on their online outlets. If the co-op wanted to advertise they’d have a better format than this.

    This is not scientific research, this is market research and it serves a purpose to inform retailers on how to better reache their clientelle. You complain about not having access to the data to see what questions were asked, but I ask you, other than reading journals, when DO you get all this sort of information. Reading the Economist, National Geographic, The New Scientist, Scientific American, etc. you’ll get a bit more information about the study than from this article but not the level for which you seem to be advocating. These magazine will still use such terms as ‘research shows’ ‘a study by Harvard informed’ ‘ said.’ The expert here was the head fo food marketing. For a huge chain of stores like the co-op he WILL be an expert in how to reach out to consumers, what demographics prefer what products and why.

    You’re seeing ghosts where perfectly ordinary economic and business principles and practices can explain that it’s just a trick of the light. Chill, Maulder, Scully’s got this one.

  2. sTeamTraen permalink

    Does the article discuss what age *men* become perfect cooks at?

  3. I agree with pretty much everything you said. I’d also like to add that if the survey shows anything, it’s just that older women know more about cooking, not that women “mature” into cooking. The “results” could very easily be the result of women taking less of an interest in cooking (or domestic affairs generally) than they did a generation ago.

  4. LJS permalink

    ‘One of the problems with this kind of public-relations survey is that they have a veneer of truth and sciencey-ness about them.’ Agreed. Can I go one step further and suggest that the same is true for quite a lot (not all, trolls) of ‘social science’ research as well as market research, @ UG and even some @ PG level? Full disclosure: I work in a Soc. Sci. school… It’s b/c we all loooooooove The Science That Is The Source Of All Truth.

    In a parallel universe, instead of tapping into age-old stereotypes about who does the cooking and at what age we are wise to our selves and our societies (and I’m not completely convinced you’re seeing ghosts, Mulder) and representing advertising repackaged as news through the medium of Science, we’d have…. Well, it would be unrecognisably different, like an investigative journo piece on actual news like the current ground war in the DRC, something that *doesn’t* claim its validity through association with The Science and in doing so reproduce a bunch of sexist assumptions but that *does* report on events in the world that people should know more about.

    Actually in my parallel universe I’ve done away with the Telegraph so we can all go read Cracked or Jezebel or something.

  5. D'Lo permalink

    If you want to see some real non science in the form of surveys, read this: http://www.cherwell.org/news/2009/05/28/exposed-oxford-sex-laid-bare

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