Magazine article The Spectator

The Wiki Man: Rory Sutherland

Magazine article The Spectator

The Wiki Man: Rory Sutherland

Article excerpt

A few years ago, in the week before Christmas when supermarket sales are at their highest, staff at one branch of a leading British chain regularly did the rounds of local competitors' shops buying up their entire stock of Brussels sprouts.

It was, in its ethically dubious way, an interesting experiment. You might assume frustrated shoppers would merely buy all the other things on their list and then go somewhere else for their sprouts. They didn't. As the perpetrators suspected, spending 30 minutes in a shop knowing that you'll eventually have to make a separate trip to buy sprouts feels like wasted time -- so people promptly left to find a shop where they could buy everything in one place. Their branch, with its sprout monopoly, enjoyed record-breaking sales that year.

But here's the thing. They only did this once. Wiser heads prevailed. Perhaps the management were keen ethicists who realised that sprout-hoarding would violate the categorical imperative or (more likely, I think) they were afraid they'd get rumbled. Either way, they instinctively felt the activity was wrong.

Some people will blur ethical lines occasionally; what's rarer is when bad behaviour becomes widespread. This is what is so bizarre about the VW emissions affair. For a car company to tweak cars before measurement ('teaching to the test' as it's known) might be expected; when officially testing a car's mpg, you give it your best shot by turning off the air-conditioning and pre-charging the battery. I understand this. But to extend the ruse to a point where millions of cars carry 'defeat devices' seems astonishing.

Why did no one in the car industry cry foul? Contrary to what journalists think, people in large businesses usually span a wide spectrum of political views and opinions; Germans are high-minded about environmental issues to the point of sanctimony (remember the Brent Spar affair). …

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