A little research on the propaganda of the mega-rich

Posted on July 15, 2012 by | 2 Comments

I spotted it last week: two stories on the same page in the Guardian included the word “philanthropist”. Then I started to notice it everywhere – not just because of the mysterious Rausing case, but all over the news.

So, I wondered: was this a trend? Is the word “philanthropist” being used more now than it used to be? It’s a pretty easy question to answer – google trends gives neat graphs of both how many people are searching for a term, and how many news reports are using it. So I did a search for ‘philanthropist’.

Check out the graph. The number of people searching for the term has shot up in the last two years, and there has been a significant and steady increase in its appearance in news reports with most of the rise happening since the financial crisis.

Language is important. At a time when the very richest people are getting richer faster than ever before, the way that they tell the stories of their wealth is important. There are a few key things they like us to know about them. Amongst those is that they give lots of their money to charity (even though, on average, the richer you are, the lower a portion of your wealth you give to charity). The other is that they create jobs.

So, I did a google trends search for “Job Creator”. In the UK, the term was used so little it didn’t register. But check out the global results. For the search terms (ie what people have typed into Google, it has only started appearing recently, and seems to focus particularly around clashes over Mitt Romney’s record. But if we look at its use in news reports, there is a clear trend, starting in the same quarter – late 2008 – that the use of the term ‘philanthropist’ started to grow in the media: ie the months immediately after the Lehman brothers collapsed.

Next, let’s look at a comparison between searches for “philanthropist”, “job creator” and “billionaire” – on the grounds that billionaire is the simplest and least ‘biased’ way to describe someone with lots of money. As you see, billionaire, is still bigger by a significant margin.

Finally, let’s look at the word with which the wealthiest don’t want to be associated: banker. Of course, many of them aren’t bankers, but a significant proportion are. On both the UK and the global figures, the number of people searching for the term is notably lower than it was before the financial collapse, with the figures for the last complete year – 2011 – down in both cases from 2005 and 2006.

Of course, this isn’t as bad as it sounds. Bankers, though down, is still a much more widely searched for term than are ‘philanthropist’ or ‘job creator’. But the overall trend is clearly in the wrong direction.

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2 Responses to “A little research on the propaganda of the mega-rich”

  1. AlasdairNo Gravatar
    July 15th, 2012 @ 10:53 pm

    Without denying that your point that language is important is entirely correct, is this not perhaps just a case that we’re talking about the very rich much more than we did pre-crisis? Billionaire (and bankers) clearly increases in news reports around the same time as philanthropist, and, as you say, is the largest term by volume.

    Now obviously how we talk those people is important, and there will be plenty of people who will want to steer the language in a more positive direction for the rich, but I’m not sure we can say that they’re managing at the moment.

  2. Adam RamsayNo Gravatar
    July 15th, 2012 @ 11:03 pm

    Hello Ali,

    yes, indeed. I’m not particularly arguing a given point here – as you say, this is a thing which is now more discussed than before, and that in itself is good. It’s just interesting to see their response to the spotlight. I’m not really saying anything more than that.

    Adam

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