If I ran a fast food franchise affected by this kind of legal action, do you know what I would do? I’d try to turn it back around into marketing exercise with a bit of crowdsourcing!
Think about it: get your customers to take photos and send them to you. For every franchisee that uses a photo you take, you get a voucher for a free meal (redeemable at any
outlet, of course). And where it appears on the digital signage menus they all seem to have nowadays, your photo will have your name on it too.
Most submissions will be… unsuitable, of course. You’ll need a team of people vetting submissions. But for every 50 people who send a blurry picture of an unappetising bit of
sludge-meat in a bun; for every 10 people who actually try hard but get too much background in or you can see the logo on their clothing or whatever; for every 5 people that
deliberately send something offensive… you might get one genuinely good candid burger picture. Those pics get pushed out to franchisees to use. Sorted.
Now if anybody complains that you fake your photos you can explain that every one of your food pictures was taken by a real-life customer, and their name or handle is on the
bottom of each one. Sure, you get to vet them, but they’re still all verifiably genuine pictures of your food.
And you probably only have to do this gimmick for a year and then everybody will forget. Crowdsourcing as a marketing opportunity: that’s what I’d be doing if I were crowned
There’s a lot of talk lately about scam texts pretending to be from Royal Mail (or other parcel carriers), tricking victims
into paying a fee to receive a parcel. Hearing of recent experiences with this sort of scam inspired me to dissect the approach the scammers use… and to come up with ways in which the
scams could be more-effective.
Let’s take a look at a scam:
Anatomy of a Parcel Fee Scam
A parcel fee scam begins with a phishing email or, increasingly, text message, telling the victim that they need to pay a fee in order to receive a parcel and directing them to a
website to make payment.
If the victim clicks the link, they’ll likely see a fake website belonging to the company who allegedly have the victim’s parcel. They’ll be asked for personal and payment
information, after which they’ll be told that their parcel is scheduled for redelivery. They’ll often be redirected back to the real website as a “convincer”. The redirects
often go through a third-party redirect site so that your browser’s “Referer:” header doesn’t give away the scam to the
legitimate company (if it did, they could e.g. detect it and show you a “you just got scammed by somebody pretending to be us” warning!).
Many scammers also set a cookie so they’ll recognise you if you come back: if you return to the scam site with this cookie in-place, they’ll redirect you instantly to the genuine
company’s site. This means that if you later try to follow the link in the text message you’ll see e.g. the real Royal Mail website, which makes it harder for you to subsequently
identify that you’ve been scammed. (Some use other fingerprinting methods to detect that you’ve been victimised already, such as your IP address.)
Typically, no payment is actually taken. Often, the card number and address aren’t even validated, and virtually any input is accepted. That’s because this kind of scam isn’t
about tricking you into giving the scammers money. It’s about harvesting personal information for use in a second phase.
Once the scammers have your personal information they’ll either use your card details to make purchases of hard-to-trace, easy-to-resell goods like gift cards or, increasingly, use all
of the information you’ve provided in order to perform an even more-insidious trick. Knowing your personal, contact and bank details, they can convincingly call you and pretend to be your bank! Some sophisticated fraudsters will even highlight the parcel fee scam you
just fell victim to in order to gain your trust and persuade you that they’re genuinely your bank, which is a very powerful convincer.
Why does the scam work?
A scam like the one described above works because each individual part of it is individually convincing, but the parts are delivered separately.
Being asked to pay a fee to receive a parcel is a pretty common experience, and getting texts from carriers is too. A lot of people are getting a lot more stuff mail-ordered than they
used to, right now, and that – along with the Brexit-related import duties that one in ten people have had to pay – means that it seems perfectly reasonable to
get a message telling you that you need to pay a fee to get your parcel.
Similarly, I’m sure we’ve all been called by our bank to discuss a suspicious transaction. (When this happens to me, I’ve always said that I’ll call them back on the number on my
card or my bank statements rather than assume that they are who they claim to be. When I first started doing this, 20 years ago, this sometimes frustrated bank policies, but
nowadays they’re more accepting.) Most people though will willingly believe the legitimacy of a person who calls them up, addresses them by name and claims to be from their bank.
Separating the scam into two separate parts, each of which is individually unsuspicious, makes it more effective at tricking the victim than simpler phishing scams.
Anybody could fall for this. It’s not about being smart and savvy; lots of perfectly smart people become victims of this kind of fraud. Certainly, there are things you can do (like learning to tell a legitimate domain name from a probably-fake one and only ever talking to your bank if you
were the one who initiated the call), but we’re all vulnerable sometimes. If you were expecting a delivery, and it’s really important, and you’re tired, and you’re
distracted, and then a text message comes along pressuring you to pay the fee right now… anybody could make a mistake.
The scammers aren’t really trying
But do you know what: these scammers aren’t even trying that hard. There’s so much that they could be doing so much “better”. I’m going to tell you, off the top of my head,
four things that they could do to amplify their effect.
Wait a minute: am I helping criminals by writing this? No, I don’t think so. I believe that these are things that they’ve thought of already. Right now, it’s
just not worthwhile for them to pull out all the stops… they can make plenty of money conning people using their current methods: they don’t need to invest the time and energy into
doing their shitty job better.
But if there’s one thing we’ve learned it’s that digital security is an arms race. If people stop falling for these scams, the criminals will up their game. And they
don’t need me to tell them how.
I’m a big fan of trying to make better attacks. Even just looking at site-spoofing scams I’ve
been doing this for a couple of decades. Because if we can collectively get ahead of security threats, we’re better able to defend against them.
So no: this isn’t about informing criminals – it’s about understanding what they might do next.
How could the scammers be more effective?
I’d like to highlight four ways that this scam could be made more-effective. Again, this isn’t about helping the criminals: it’s about thinking about and planning for what
tomorrow’s attacks might look like.
1. SMS Spoofing
Most of these text messages appear to come from random mobile numbers, which can be an red flag. But it’s distressingly easy to send a text message “from” any other number or even from
a short string of text. Imagine how much more-convincing one of these messages would be if it appeared to come from e.g. “Royal Mail” instead?
A further step would be to spoof the message to appear to come from the automated redelivery line of the target courier. Many parcel delivery services have automated lines you can call,
provide the code from the card dropped through your door, and arrange redelivery: making the message appear to come from such a number means that any victim who calls it will hear a
genuine message from the real company, although they won’t be able to use it because they don’t have a real redelivery card. Plus: any efforts to search for the number online (as is
done automatically by scam-detection apps) will likely be confused by the appearance of the legitimate data.
SMS spoofing is getting harder as the underlying industry that supports bulk senders tries to clean up its image, but it’s still
easy enough to be a real (yet underexploited) threat.
2. Attention to detail
Scammers routinely show a lack of attention to detail that can help give the game away to an attentive target. Spelling and grammar mistakes are commonplace, and compared to legitimate
messages the scams generally have suspicious features like providing few options for arranging redelivery or asking for unusual personal information.
They’re getting a lot better at this already: text messages and emails this year are far more-convincing, from an attention-to-detail perspective, than they were three years ago. And
because improvements to the scam can be made iteratively, it’s probably already close to the “sweet spot” at the intersection of effort required versus efficacy. But the bad guys’
attention to detail will only grow and in future they’ll develop richer, more-believable designs and content based on whatever success metrics they collect.
3. Tracking tokens
On which note: it amazes me that these SMS scams don’t yet seem to include any identifier unique to the victim. Spam
email does this all the time, but a typical parcel scam text directs you to a simple web address like https://royalmail.co.uk.scamsite.com/. A smarter scam could
send you to e.g. https://royalmail.co.uk.scamsite.com/YRC0D35 and/or tell you that your parcel tracking number was e.g. YRC0D35.
Not only would this be more-convincing for anybody who’s familiar with the kind of messages that are legitimately left by couriers, it would also facilitate the gathering of a great
deal of additional metrics which scammers could use to improve their operation. For example:
How many, and which, potential victims clicked the link? Knowing this helps plan future scams, or for follow-up attacks.
Pre-filling personal data, even just a phone number, acts as an additional convincer, or else needn’t be asked at all.
Multivariate testing can determine which approaches work best: show half the victims one form and half the victims another and use the results as research for future evolution.
These are exactly the same techniques that legitimate marketers (and email spammers) use to track engagement with emails and advertisements. It stands to reason that any
sufficiently-large digital fraud operation could benefit from them too.
4. Partial submission analysis
I’ve reverse-engineered quite a few parcel scams to work out what they’re recording, and the summary is: not nearly as much as they could be. A typical parcel scam site will
ask for your personal details and payment information, and when you submit it will send that information to the attacker. But they could do so much more…
I’ve spoken to potential victims, for example, who got part way through filling the form before it felt suspicious enough that they stopped. Coupled with tracking tokens, even
this partial data would have value to a determined fraudster. Suppose the victim only gets as far as typing their name and address… the scammer now has enough information to
convincingly call them up, pretending to be the courier, ask for them by name and address, and con them out of their card details over the phone. Every single piece of metadata has
value; even just having the victim’s name is a powerful convincer for a future text message campaign.
There’s so much more that parcel fee SMS scammers could be doing to increase the effectiveness of their campaigns, such as the
techniques described above. It’s not rocket science, and they’ll definitely have considered them (they won’t learn anything new from this post!)… but if we can start thinking
about them it’ll help us prepare to educate people about how to protect themselves tomorrow, as well as today.
Wix, the website builder company you may remember from stealing WordPress code and lying about it, has now decided the best way
to gain relevance is attacking the open source WordPress community in a bizarre
set of ads. They can’t even come up with original concepts for attack ads, and have tried to rip-off of Apple’s Mac vs PC ads, but tastelessly personify the WordPress community
as an absent, drunken father in a therapy session.
I have a lot of empathy for whoever was forced to work on these ads, including the actors, it must have felt bad working on something that’s like Encyclopedia Britannica
attacking Wikipedia. WordPress is a global movement of hundreds of thousands of volunteers and community members, coming together to make the web a better place. The code,
and everything you put into it, belongs to you, and its open source license ensures that you’re in complete control, now and forever. WordPress is free, and also gives you freedom.
For those that haven’t been following the relevant bits of tech social media this last week, here’s the insanity you’ve missed:
Wix’s Twitter and YouTube responses suddenly swing from their usual “why is your customer service so slow to respond to me?” level of negative to outright hostile. LOL.
to load images like they’ve never heard of the <img>tag or something. Hell, I like WordPress enough that I used it as a
vehicle to get a job with Automattic, a company most-famous for its WordPress hosting provision. But even putting all of that aside: this
advertising campaign stinks.
I was watching a recent YouTube video by Derek Muller (Veritasium),
My Video Went Viral. Here’s Why, and I came to a realisation: I don’t watch YouTube like most people
– probably including you! – watch YouTube. And as a result, my perspective on what YouTube is and does is fundamentally biased from the way that others probably think
The magic moment came for me when his video explained that the “subscribe” button doesn’t do what I’d assumed it does. I’m probably not alone in my assumptions: I’ll
bet that people who use the “subscribe” button as YouTube intend don’t all realise that it works the way that it does.
Like many, I’d assumed the “subscribe” buttons says “I want to know about everything this creator publishes”. But that’s not what actually happens. YouTube wrangles your subscription
list and (especially) your recommendations based on their own metrics using an opaque algorithm. I knew, of course, that they used such a thing to manage the list of recommended
next-watches… but I didn’t realise how big an influence it was having on the way that most YouTube users choose what they’ll watch!
YouTube’s metrics for “what to show to you” is, of course, biased by your subscriptions. But it’s also biased by what’s “trending” (which in turn is based on watch time and
click-through-rate), what people-who-watch-the-things-you-watch watch, subscription commonalities, regional trends, what your contacts are interested in, and… who knows what else! AAA
YouTubers try to “game” it, but the goalposts are moving. And the struggle to stay on-top, especially after a fluke viral hit, leads to the application of increasingly desperate and
This is a battle to which I’ve been mostly oblivious, until now, because I don’t watch YouTube like you watch YouTube.
Tom Scott produced an underappreciated sci-fi short last year describing a
theoretical AI which, in 2028, caused problems as a result of its single-minded focus. What we’re seeing in YouTube right
now is a simpler example, but illustrates the problem well: optimising YouTube’s algorithm for any factor or combination of factors other than a user’s stated preference (subscriptions)
will necessarily result in the promotion of videos to a user other than, and at the expense of, the ones by creators that they’ve subscribed to. And there are so many things
that YouTube could use as influencing factors. Off the top of my head, there’s:
Number of views
Number of likes
Ratio of likes to dislikes
Number of tracked shares
Number of saves
Length of view
Click-through rate on advertisements
Popularity amongst your friends
Popularity amongst your demographic
Etc., etc., etc.
But this is all alien to me. Why? Well: here’s how I use YouTube:
Subscription: I subscribe to creators via RSS. My RSS reader doesn’t implement YouTube’s algorithm, of course, so it just gives me exactly what I subscribe to – no more, no less.It’s not perfect
(for example, it pisses me off every time it tells me about an upcoming “premiere”, a YouTube feature I don’t care about even a little), but apart from that it’s great! If I’m
on-the-move and can’t watch something as long as involved TheraminTrees‘ latest deep-thinker, my RSS reader remembers so I can watch it later at my convenience. I can have National Geographic‘s videos “expire” if I don’t watch them within a week but Dr. Doe‘s wait for me forever. And I can implement my own filters if a feed isn’t showing exactly what I’m looking for (like I did to
strip the sport section from BBC News’ RSS feed). I’m in control.
Discovery: I don’t rely on YouTube’s algorithm to find me new content. I don’t mind being a day or two behind on what’s trending: I’m not sure I care at all? I’m far
more-interested in recommendations curated by a human. If I discover and subscribe to a channel on YouTube, it was usually (a) mentioned by another YouTuber or (b)
linked from a blog or community blog. I’m receiving recommendations from people I already respect, and they have a way higher hit-rate than YouTube’s recommendations.(I also sometimes
discover content because it’s exactly what I searched for, e.g. I’m looking for that tutorial on how to install a fiddly damn kiddy seat into the car, but this is unlikely to result
in a subscription.)
This isn’t yet-another-argument that you should use RSS because it’s awesome. (Okay, so it is. RSS isn’t dead, and its killer feature is that its users get to choose
how it works. But there’s more I want to say.)
What I wanted to share was this reminder, for me, that the way you use a technology can totally blind you to the way others use it. I had no idea that many YouTube
creators and some YouTube subscribers felt increasingly like they were fighting YouTube’s algorithms, whose goals are different from their own, to get what they want. Now I can see it
everywhere! Why do schmoyoho always encourage me to press the notification bell and not just the subscribe button? Because for a
typical YouTube user, that’s the only way that they can be sure that their latest content will be seen!
Of course, the business needs of YouTube mean that we’re not likely to see any change from them. So until either we have mainstream content-curating AIs that answer to their human owners rather than to commercial networks (robot butler, anybody?) or else the video fediverse catches on – and I don’t know which of those two are least-likely! – I guess I’ll stick to my algorithm-lite
subscription model for YouTube.
But at least now I’ll have a better understanding of why some of the channels I follow are changing the way they produce and market their content…
It feels like most of the time I’ve spent in a car this year, so far, has been for travel related to somebody’s recent death. And so it was that yesterday, Ruth, JTA and I zipped up and down the motorway to attend the funeral of
It went really well, but what I wanted to share with you today was two photos that I took at service stations along the the way.
This one confuses me a lot. If I buy alcohol from this service area, I can’t drink it either inside… or outside… the premises. Are they unlicensed, perhaps, and so the only way they’re
allowed to sell us alcohol is if we promise not to drink it? Or is it perhaps the case that they expect us only to consume it when we’re in a parallel dimension?
It’s hard to see in the second photo without clicking (to see it in large-o-vision), but the sign on the opposite wall in this Costa Coffee implies the possibility of being an
“Americano Addict”. And there was something about that particular marketing tack that made me cringe.
Imagine that this was not a café but a bar, and substitute the names of coffees with the names of alcoholic beverages. Would it be cool to advertise your products to the “wine addicts”
or the “beer addicts” of the world? No: because alcoholism isn’t hip and funny… but caffeine addiction is? Let’s not forget that caffiene is among
the most-addictive drugs in the world. Sure, caffeine addiction won’t wreck your liver like alcohol will or give you cancer like smoking tobacco (the most-popular way to consume
nicotine) will, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that there are many people for whom a dependency upon caffeine is a very real part of their everyday life.
Is it really okay to make light of this by using such a strong word as “addict” in Costa’s marketing? Even if we’re sticking with alliteration to fit in with the rest of their
marketing, wouldn’t “admirer” or “aficionado” be better? And at least that way, Costa wouldn’t leave me with a bitter taste in my mouth.
I’ve just come across a product called SonicNotify, and I’m wracking my brain to try to find a way to see it as a good idea.
The world is just coming to terms with spatial advertising and services that “link” to their mobile devices. I’ve quite enjoyed playing with QR codes, but there are plenty of other
mechanisms enjoying some amount of exposure, such as Bluejacking: in the early days of Bluetooth, some advertisers experimented with devices that would push out Bluetooth
messages to anybody who strayed within range. Now that most Bluetooth devices capable of receiving such messages “switch off” Bluetooth after a couple of minutes, they need to be
coupled with a visual medium that says, for example, “turn on Bluetooth to get our business card”, or something, which is slightly less insidious.
SonicNotify works by having a smartphone app that passively listens for high-frequency sound waves, which act as carriers to the marketing message. These messages can be broadcast at
live events over existing PA systems, embedded in traditional media like radio or television, or transmitted from localised devices concealed in billboards or alongside products on
shelves. Lady Gaga tried it out in a concert, in order to – I don’t
know – distract her fans from actually listening to the music by giving them things to play with on their phones, instead.
Let’s stop for a moment and think about everything that’s wrong with this idea:
I have to install a closed-source third-party app that runs in the background and keeps my microphone open at all times? We’ve got a name for that kind of device: a
This app would presumably need to run the whole time, reducing battery lifespan and consuming clock cycles… and for what? So that I can see more advertisements?
Thinking about the technology – I’m not convinced that mobile phone microphones are well-equipped to be able to pick up ultrasonic waves with any accuracy, especially not once
they’re muffled in a bag or trouser pocket. I can’t always even hear my phone ringing when it’s in my pocket, but it expects to be able to hear something “ringing” some distance away?
For that matter: television and radio speakers, and existing PA systems, aren’t really designed to be able to faithfully reproduce ultrasound, either. Why would they? A good
entertainment system is one which sounds best at all of the frequencies that humans can hear. Anything else is useless.
And let’s not forget that different people have different hearing ranges. Thinking back to the controversies surrounding anti-youth alarm The Mosquito: do you really want to be surrounded by sharp,
tinnitus-like noises just on the cusp of your ability to hear them?
No thank you, SonicNotify. I don’t think there’s mileage in this strange and quirky product idea.
Something I’ve been thinking about, recently; presented in three parts, for clarity:
Part One – Polyamory and Negotiations
There’s a widely-understood guideline in nonmonogamous relationships that you should always be willing to ask for what you want, not what you think you can get away with.
To me, it feels to be a particularly valuable maxim. Like the majority of suggestions touted by the polyamorous community, it’s a tip that holds value for both monogamous and
nonmonogamous relationships… but is naturally of more importance to those which are nonmonogamous because these have a tendency to depend more-heavily on honest and open negotiation.
I’m sure I don’t have to spell out to you why asking for what you want (rather than what you think you can get away with) is important. But just in case I do, here’s the three top
reasons, as far as I see it:
When you ask for what you want, there’s a chance that you’ll get it. When you ask for anything else, getting what you want is a lucky coincidence. Don’t you want the chance of
getting what you want?
Being honest about what you want and how important it is to you – and listening to what’s your partners want and how important those things are to them – you’re in the best possible
position to come to the fairest possible compromise, if the things that you want are not completely compatible. Don’t you want the best for you, your partner(s), and your
Being open about what you’re looking for is an important part of being honest. Don’t you want to be honest with your lover?
There are times that it’s okay not to ask for what you want, too, though. Sometimes it’s hard to be sure what you want; and it’s fine to say you need time to think about it. Sometimes
we change our minds (shocking, I know!), and it’s more-admirable to be honest than consistent. Sometimes there are more important things to deal with. There’s no rush.
But it works. The more specific you can be – even to the point of “too much information” – the better this kind of communication can work, because the better your partner understands
you, the better you both can negotiate. As ‘dirty surface’ writes, “I’d like to get my butt caned by a professional Dom while you watch once
every six months or so” represents a very different commitment of time, money and emotional energy than what someone might picture when you say “Let’s hire and share a sex worker
Part Two – The Anchoring Effect
There’s a known psychological phenomenon called the
anchoring effect. In order to demonstrate it, I’m going to plagiarise an example used in this article – if you want
to see the effect in action; don’t click that link yet! Just follow the instructions below:
Now: without checking – do you think that Venezuela has a higher or a lower population than that country?
Finally, in millions, what do you estimate that the population of Venezuela is?
You’ll get the answer a little further down the page. But first, it’s time to come clean about something: when you clicked that link to WolframAlpha, you’ll have gone to one of two
different pages. There’s a 50% chance that you’ll have found yourself looking at the population data of the United Kingdom (about 62 million), and a 50% chance that you’ll have found
yourself looking at the population data of Switzerland (about 7½ million).
If you originally saw the United Kingdom and you guessed lower, or you originally saw Switzerland and guessed higher, you were right: the population of Venezuela
is somewhere between the two. But if we took all of the guesses by all of the people who correctly guessed lower than the United Kingdom, and all the people who correctly
guessed higher than Switzerland, then – statistically speaking – we’d probably see that the people who looked at the United Kingdom first would make higher guesses as to
the population of Venezuela than those people who looked at Switzerland first.
The population of Venezuela’s about 29 million people. What did you guess? And what country were you shown first, when you clicked the link? Leave me a comment and let me know…
The anchoring effect is explored in detail by Ariely, Loewenstein, and Prelec 2004, in which studies are performed on groups of people who are told a (randomly-determined) price for some
goods, and then asked to state how much they’d be willing to pay for them: those people who are given higher random values will consistently offer more money for the goods than those
who were told a lower value.
It’s not a new idea. For hundreds of years, at least, salespeople have practiced the not-dissimilar door-in-the-face technique (sort-of the opposite of the more well-known foot-in-the-door technique), in which an
unsatisfactory offer is made first in order to make the second offer – which is actually what the salesperson wants to sell – seem more desirable than it actually is.
Part Three – Hey, But That Means…
Taking the two previous parts of this article at face value can quickly lead to an unwelcome conclusion: we’re more likely to get what we want when we ask for more than what we
want – and then back down to a false compromise position. A greedy but carefully-deployed “salesman” approach has been shown to work wonders when you’re negotiating for a pay rise,
selling a product, motivating volunteers, or getting people to under- or over-estimate the value of goods and services. Surely it’d work when negotiating in a relationship, too?
“Hey, honey: it’d really mean a lot to me if I could could have a threesome with you and your mother…”
“What? No way! That’s disgusting.”
“Okay, okay, then… I suppose I could make do with having sex with your sister.”
Despite the extremity of the example above, the answer is that for the individual, this strategy can work: I’ve known people who’ve fallen victim to exactly this
kind of con. Worse yet, I suspect that there are perpetrators of this kind of strategy who don’t even realise that they’re doing it: they’re just responding in the Pavlovian style to
the “rewards” that they’re getting by continuing to act in what it – let’s face it – an unscrupulous and unethical manner.
Does it work, then? Yes, more’s the pity. But everything it gets for you is something that it’s taking away from your partner, or from your relationship. And maybe that’s the kind of
strain that the relationship can take, but there are always limits.
Me? I’ll stick to what I believe in: so far as I can, putting my hand on the table and saying, “Here’s what I’m playing with: what’ve you got?” It’s a trusting and diplomatic
strategy, but it’s the best solution to finding the best middle-ground for everyone. There are those who find that it makes them feel too vulnerable – at too much risk of their openness
being used against them – to try to say what they want so openly. And to them, I say: if you don’t trust your lover with the way that you feel, then working on that
trust that should be your first priority.
Just when I think that I’ve gotten the hang of humans, they do something even stranger than ever before.
There’s a new fragrance for men that’s about to be hitting perfume counters around Europe: Vulva
Original [NSFW]. Just… click the link, and watch the video that appears. Your first thought will almost certainly be: “They’re selling a perfume… that smells like sweaty vagina?”
Continue to explore into the site and you’ll see that this is exactly what this product is.
I agree with Alex Day: unlike every other fragrance ever marketed at
men, this perfume isn’t about trying to attract women (well duh: I’m pretty sure that walking around smelling like a vagoo will only attract a particular kind of woman,
and it’s not the kind that’ll be interested in you as a man)… this product can only be targeted at men who just want to be able to sniff the back of their hand in a crowded elevator and
pretend that they’re nose-deep in pussy.
Recently I saw a Basic Instructions comic in which the author/protagonist, Scott, weighs up his
shaving options. You can read the full comic here, assuming you don’t read
Basic Instructions already (and you should).
As the folks leaving comments on that comic quite
rightly note, the comic covers only two of a number of different solutions to shaving: disposable razors, and cartridge razors, neglecting at least three other alternatives (even if you
don’t count “just let it grow” as an option). Thanks in part of many of these comments, he’s now going to experiment with a few different options.
I’ve tried more different approaches than most gents, I suspect, so I thought I’d share with you a brief history of my shaving experience:
Surely I can’t be the only person who’s found these to be quite so useless as they appear. I’ve owned two in my time: a basic one that my dad gave me during my teen years in lieu of the
iconic father-son bonding experience that I’m lead to believe that many other boys found in learning to shave from their dads; and a second, more-fancy one given to me in a gift box
which also contained other male grooming tools (some of which are actually really quite useful: it’s just a pity that the shaver itself isn’t up to much).
I don’t hear anybody else complaining, so I’m probably in a minority: perhaps it’s the the softness of my skin… or the prickliness of my hair… or maybe I’m just “doing it wrong.” The
net result is much the same: if I use an electric shaver it cuts my facial hair down just enough to still be slightly stubbly, it’s near-impossible to make a good effort of the area
under my jaw, and there isn’t the control to be able to work around the outlines of a partial beard, as I have nowadays. Perhaps worse yet, it always feels like they “pluck” almost as
much as they “cut”. The first few times I used one I took it apart to try to work out if I’d perhaps missed a crucial set-up step, like pulling out some kind of secret pin that actually
engaged the razor blades. I hadn’t.
So I ended up using disposable razors. They’re cheap and simple and they work, right? They’re not the easiest things in the world, with their flimsy little plasticky handles and their
strange shape… Although there is the fact that they’re not actually very sharp.
You know how they say that you’re more likely to cut yourself with a blunt blade than a sharp one, because of the increased pressure you have to use? Well there’s a limit to that logic,
and the limit is when the blade is so dull that you’d be hard-pressed to cut yourself if you were trying. I don’t know if it’s an anti-suicide measure by the Bic company, but
wow are their blades ineffective. Sometimes you feel like you’d be better using the edge of the shitty plastic handle than the metal blade edge.
Cartridge Safety Razor
One day, back in in my first year at University, an unexpected parcel arrived for me. It turned out to be from Gillette, and contained a Gillette Mach3 (which had been launched a year-and-a-bit earlier). Their thinking, of course, was that as they’d given me a free razor
I’d use it and then continue to buy the blades. “The fools,” I thought, “I’m perfectly happy with my twice-a-week-if-I-can-be-bothered shaves with these throwaway plasic things!” I
planned to use the new razor ’til I’d blunted (all three of) it’s blades, then I’d just throw it away. No problem.
It turns out that giving away free razors like this might have been one of the smartest marketing promotions that Gillette has ever done, because, for me at least, it worked. A
three-blade cartridge razor is a fabulous way to shave, and it’s a huge improvement on disposables. I’m sure that over the nine years or so I used my Mach3 – even if you don’t count the
extra one I bought when I lost one – Gillette more-than made their money back in all of the cartridges I bought.
It’s got a proper handle with grips that work even when it’s wet, a funky button-release to let go of spent cartridges (and for me, at least, the blades would last a reasonable amount
of time, presumably aided by the fact that the work was shared amongst three cutting surfaces), it tilts gently to work around hard-to-reach spots… it’s just a really well-designed bit
Traditional “Double-Edged” Safety Razor
Back in the early years of the 20th century, the
removable-blade safety razor appeared to fill the demand for a razor that was easier than straight razors, which required such care and attention to both use and maintenance that many men just said “fuck it” and went to the
barber’s instead. For decades, the double-edged razor was king, until it started to give way in the 1970s to cartridge razors and electric shavers. There are two major reasons for this
change: firstly, cartridge razors are easier to use than double-edged razors – you can use them even if you’re tired, or drunk, or stupid. Secondly, cartridge razors (and, to a lesser
extent, except approaching Christmas, electric shavers) have been very heavily marketed for years and years: this makes sense from the perspective of the manufacturer, because of the
principle of vendor lock-in. Vendor lock-in, more often discussed in the context
of electronic goods and computer software, is about forcing the users of your product to continue to use your product: to remove from them the freedom to go elsewhere. It’s particularly
obvious in the marketplace of cartridge razors, because each manufacturer can manufacture blade cartridges which fit only it’s own products. An entire marketing strategy, the razor-and-blades business model, is named after
At the tail end of this hundred-year history of razors is now, 2009. I’ve gotten good use out of my Mach3, but there are a few things over the last year or so that have really put me
off continuing to use it:
Actual good-old Mach3 blades became harder and harder to find as the manufacturer began to focus production on Mach3 Turbo and M3Power cartridges, both of which cost more.
Mach3 Turbo is basically the same thing as Mach3, only a little more expensive for the privilege of “anti-friction blades”, which seems like a marketing gimmick – I certainly can’t
tell the difference, and if there’s anything to learn from this blog post it’s that I’m reasonably picky
M3Power blades are identical to Mach3 Turbo, only more expensive still(!). What do you get for your money is “even more lubrication” (yeah, right) and blades that are compatible
with the micropulse (i.e. vibrating) feature of the M3Power handle, which virtually everybody says is a scam.
As the Onion predicted back in 2004, we’re starting to see the
first five-blade razors getting serious marketing treatment: the “Gillette Fusion Power Stealth” (presumably targeted at men who like awesome-sounding buzzwords: seriously,
what do any of those words have to do with removing hair?) have five blades and a sixth “precision trimmer”. That’s six blades every time you buy a cartridge: how much does
that cost? I don’t even want to know. And someday, they’ll stop selling Mach3 blades entirely and they’ll try to force me to switch to an even more profitable razor, probably
with seven blades and a lubricating, vibrating strip that sings the blues.
Gillette’s razor blades are sold at 4750% profit. Four
fucking thousand seven fucking hundred and fifty fucking per cent. That’s like me going to Sainsburys and buying a loaf of bread (85p), a small pack of margarine (44p), and a
medium-sized pack of cooked ham (£1.64), making ten ham sandwiches, and then selling them for £14 each. For a ham sandwich. £14.
So, a month and a bit ago, I decided to escape from this trap, and go open-source with an old-school double-edged razor.
Going Open Source
Sick of the marketing nonsense and the overinflated (and rising) costs of cartridges, I bought myself a traditional style safety razor (it looks a lot like the one in the photo in the
last section), brush, soap, and a sackload of blades: and wow, blades are cheap.
It turns out that learning to use a double-edged safety razor is just a little bit like learning to shave all over again, with plenty of opportunity for self-injury along the way:
although it doesn’t take so long – despite managing to clip myself the first few times I used it (nothing that a quick application of titanium dioxide couldn’t fix, albeit in an ouchy-ouchy way). It also takes quite a bit longer than shaving with a cartridge
razor: rather than the eight minutes or so I’d spend shaving with my Mach3, I spend about 18 minutes in the bathroom with my double-edged safety razor. That’s not the end of the world,
because I only bother to shave about one day in three anyway, and adding ten minutes to the time it takes to do something so infrequent isn’t going to kill me.
It’s actually remarkably good for the extra time it takes, though: I’m suddenly all remarkably-smooth, having shaved with this scary-looking implement: better than I’d ever managed with
a cartridge or with a disposable, and far, far better than I ever got out of an electric.
So: cheap as chips to get blades for, and a better shave, at the expense of taking longer to actually have a shave. It’s a good deal in my book, and I’d recommend giving it a try,
gents, if you haven’t already. Plus, you get the same kind of fuzzy feeling you get from using Linux or OpenOffice.org because it’s just a little bit more like using something that’s
genuinely free of vendor lock-in.
Plus, it looks cool.
(I’m considering trying a proper straight razor at some point – or, more likely, one which takes snapped razor-blades in an injector, because I don’t particularly feel like
having to learn how to sharpen and hone a true razor – anybody got any experience of them?)