Books: The clues in your postcode

Sam Gosling clearly loves his job, rummaging through an individual's effects to learn more about their owner. Peter York discovers a soulmate in nosy-parkering.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Snoop: What your stuff says about you
Sam Gosling
Profile Books £15.00

Geo-demographers have a party trick. They perform it like mediums doing a public demonstration and getting spirit messages for random individuals. They ask audience members to shout out their postcodes. The GD then goes into a very swift trance and rattles off a stream of observations on the likely household structure, occupational status, car ownership and even political affiliations of the dweller at that postcode. As with the medium, it'll be indrawn breath all round. But, unlike the medium, they are likely to be right.

Geo-demographics is based on the entirely reasonable idea that birds of a feather flock together and that if you classify residential neighbourhoods down to very precise levels you'll be able to use postcodes as meta-clues and cues to all sorts of understandings that are commercially and politically useful. So, for instance, you can analyse any home address list and quickly understand how these people are likely to feel/behave/vote.

It's a sobering lesson about stereotypes too, as geo-demographic profiles successfuly indicate either Wayne and Waynetta Slob in areas of poor public housing or Rupert and Caroline in established high-status areas. In their measured neutral descriptions, they confirm stereotyping's usefulness. Free spirits may want to avoid the boxing-up process of market segmentation by saying it doesn't work - for them, at least. But if it didn't for most of the people most of the time, nobody could plan anything, trains wouldn't run, sewers wouldn't flow and the world wouldn't work.

And market researchers would be out of a job. And market research, in its quiet way, has been the fastest-growing of the marketing-speak business strands. While marketing uses the language of New Agey individualism in advertising and all its public statements, in practice it relies on the idea of the absolute scientific predictability of human beings.

In as much as I learnt anything real in my early working years as a boy executive (apart from how to get an expense account and access to perpetual taxis, how to decode business language, etc), it was market research, its theories and practice, its roots in statistics and social psychology and its applications to business. But most importantly, for people like me with heightened curiosity, I learnt that it was a licence to snoop.

Sam Gosling's Snoop is all about the art and science of snooping - and the fun of it too. His focus is on things and the clues they provide to their owners' real identities. Gosling is a professor of psychology at the University of Texas and he's interested in those aspects of identity you might expect, especially personality - extraversion/introversion, caution/risk-taking, etc. Gosling, a transplanted Brit, has also started in the media party-tricks game. The first chapter of Snoop describes in loving detail a TV on-camera demonstration of his ability to show 'what your stuff says about you'.

It's about a mystery box, 'brown and about the size of a shoebox, but squarer', which turns out to contain objects taken from someone's bathroom. His job is to tell the camera what they say about the owner. They are: a small tube of skin cream; a CD of dance music, slightly scratched; a brown plastic hair-brush and a Polaroid photo of the owner's sink area.

On that basis, Gosling says the owner is an Asian male in his mid to late twenties and quite possibly gay. Thereafter, Gosling launches into an excitable description of what he does when he's left alone in people's houses.

He actively scans the books for clues to their owner's secret heart. He looks at their photos; and scans the CDs to see where they belong in the sensibility segmentation. When he goes to the lav he goes through the medicine cabinet to check out their fears and vanities.

In other words, he does a more extreme form of Through the Keyhole wherever he goes. And everything that follows confirms the suggestion that Prof Gosling has chosen a career path that combines work with pleasure. He loves it.

Snoop is all about decoding the clues in objects, in people's houses, offices, and in their cases and their handbags. And it's fascinating for me, because of our shared compulsion and overlapping experience. It's fascinating where he confirms familiar ideas and where he introduces new angles. For instance, he describes how houses yield up their meaning to an expert snooper, no matter how many false trails people lay. A highbrow life-of-the-mind book prominently displayed is revealed as a transparent false claim if it lacks corroboration elsewhere (eg, if the remaining books are entirely chick lit). And a tidied room is radically different from a genuinely tidy one, based on good habits rather than a frantic clear-up.

In an office, check whether the semiotic clues - the family photographs, university line-ups and uplifting posters - face the owner, meaning they're there for spiritual support, or the visitor, meaning they're there to tell an impressive story about trophy wives, gorgeous children, impressive education and right-on sympathies.

On he goes, writing better than American social psychologists usually do - because he's a Brit - through 11 chapters with the cutesy titles ('Belgian sleuths and Scandinavian seabirds') you get in this kind of book, the academy of the airport bookstall.

What you don't get - I'm conscious of your interests, dear reader - are any direct vulgar conclusions about commercial applications. But you can see how it could help hugely in recruitment decisions if you could lure candidates away for a couple of hours and get a key to their empty houses.

- Peter York is CEO of brand strategy consultants SRU. He co-wrote Cooler, Faster, More Expensive: The return of the Sloane Ranger (Atlantic Books, £19.99).

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