Sex, scandal and sales

Steve Hall


She was variously described as a model, a dancer and a showgirl. A topless showgirl.

He was a peer of the realm - a Viscount, one down in rank from Downton Abbey's Earl of Grantham, one up from a Baron and a long way up from the thankfully now defunct Australian "Sirs" and "Dames". Prior to inheriting his title he had been a Member of Parliament and Parliamentary Private Secretary to the First Lord of the Admiralty.

Picture2He lived on his family's 375 acre estate, Cliveden, on the Thames in a stately home that makes Downton Abbey look like a bed and breakfast. He was a confidant of the prime minister, a friend of the monarchy, a member of the House of Lords, rich, powerful, famous. He was very much a somebody.

She was a nobody.

One of her lovers was a notorious slum landlord. Her flatmate's ex-lover fired shots at them through their front door. They lived hand to mouth and relied on the generosity of men. In a test of credibility, his word against hers, it was no contest.

And yet she demolished his credibility - and his reputation - with five simple words.

"He would, wouldn't he?"

The background

At the height of the Cold War they didn't go in much for Orwellian euphemisms like "Defence Minister". They said it like it was - so Brigadier John Denis Profumo, CBE, 5th Baron Profumo in the nobility of the kingdom of Sardinian was proud to bear the title of Secretary of State for War when he met, and began an affair with, Christine Keeler.

Conversely the GRU was rather attached to euphemisms. As the largest Soviet foreign intelligence agency, then and now (the KGB was dissolved in 1991 after aiding a failed coup against Mikhail Gorbachev) they believed that putting "spy" on business cards could be, perhaps, somewhat counterproductive. Naval attaché sounded so much more diplomatic.

So when the British press learned that Miss Keeler was simultaneously enjoying affairs with the Secretary of State for War and Yevgeny Ivanov, a Soviet "naval attaché" there was a fair degree of angst in the corridors of Whitehall.

The pesky opposition asked questions in the House of Commons about the national security implications. But, not unlike a recent helicopter-related scandal, the government establishment rallied around its own. John Profumo made a carefully crafted - but untrue - statement in parliament categorically denying any impropriety with Keeler.

When this turned out to be false he had no option. Under the Westminster system that demands the resignation of anyone caught lying to parliament he had to go. His career was ruined.

If only we still followed that system in Australia.


Mortified at the ruin of one of their own, the establishment looked for revenge.

Stephen Ward was the obvious scapegoat. Ward was a fashionable osteopath who had befriended  Christine Keeler and her friend, Mandy Rice-Davies and who allowed them stay with him on occasion. It was he who had introduced them to various society friends, including Profumo, Ivanov and Viscount Astor.

So he was prosecuted for living off immoral earnings, on the rather dubious grounds that Keeler and Rice-Davis had contributed to living expenses while staying with him.

During Ward's trial it came out that Mandy Rice-Davies had had an affair with Viscount Astor. This revelation did not go down well with Viscount Astor - or his barrister.

The barrister

Avid TV watchers from the 80s and 90s have a vivid representation of Viscount Astor's barrister, Charles George James Burge QC, because he was the inspiration for John Mortimer's "Rumpole of the Bailey".

Imagine the scene. Horace Rumpole, or his doppelganger, rises to his feet resplendent in his silks and booms in his deep baritone;

"Miss Rice-Davies, are you aware that my client, Viscount Astor, is a peer of the realm and the Secretary of State for War?"


"And you are.." (pauses for effect and to consult his notes) "a model and you have worked as a topless showgirl?"


"And are you aware that my client, Viscount Astor, denies any impropriety with you. In fact he denies that he has ever even met you."

Mandy Rice-Davies, pretty, blonde and obviously enjoying being the centre of attention, giggled and rejoined briefly but devastatingly;

"Well," (giggle) "he would, wouldn't he?"

The aftermath

Mandy Rice-Davies' retort punctured the barrister's bluster and destroyed Viscount Astor's credibility. It made her famous and it was later listed in the Oxford Book of Quotations. It is still used on the internet in abbreviated form as MRDA (Mandy Rice-Davies Applies) whenever someone says something you would expect them to say in the circumstances.

She enjoyed her notoriety, married well, wrote her autobiography and lived a prosperous and happy life until her death in 2014.

Stephen Ward was convicted on flimsy evidence in spite of most of the charges being thrown out. He committed suicide before his sentencing.

Christine Keeler sold her story, posed for famously provocative photos by Australian photographer Lewis Morley, went to prison for perjury in an unrelated case, spent most of her money on legal fees and has struggled for much of her life.

The Profumo affair inspired a movie, "Scandal", in 1989 and an Andrew Lloyd Weber musical, "Stephen Ward the Musical" in 2013. It is believed to have been one of the primary causes of the downfall of the Conservative government of Harold Macmillan, who lost the 1963 election to Harold Wilson.

As the British Labour party decided soon after not to join in the Vietnam war I personally have much to thank John Profumo, Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies for.

John Profumo resigned and worked cleaning toilets at Tonyboo Hall, a charity based in London's East End. He remained there for 40 years, doing "quiet good works" and eventually became its chief fundraiser, soliciting large donations through his many contacts in politics and the nobility. His wife remained loyal and also worked for many charitable causes. Both of them lived off his inherited wealth.

In 1975 he received an Order of the British Empire (CBE) for his charitable works. He died in 2006 aged 91.

The lesson

It's a fascinating true story of sex, scandal, power and corruption - but what has it got to do with sales? It's all in those five words - "he would, wouldn't he?" Or in what they imply.

They have been often misquoted as "He would say that, wouldn't he?" and they can also be paraphrased as "that's what they all say" (as in Meatloaf's "I bet you say that to all the boys").

The point is that, when we tell someone what they would expect us to say it lacks credibility - because we would say that, wouldn't we? If we try to make something that everyone else says a point of differentiation it doesn't work that well - because that's what they all say.

Those phrases "He (they) would say that, wouldn't they?" and "That's what they all say" form half of my Message Effectiveness Tests - tests I run against any sales or marketing message to evaluate its effectiveness.

And we use them all the time, don't we.

  • Our product is the best. Well, you would say that, wouldn't you?
  • We care about our customers. That's what they all say
  • We have 30 years combined experience. That's what they all say
  • We have a professional and friendly team. Well, you would say that, wouldn't you?

Developing an effective sales or marketing message isn't always easy. But it's pretty easy to see what isn't effective using a few simple Message Effectiveness Tests (METs).

I'll share the others in my next article. But for now I'll give you a tip about effective messaging - no matter how good your message is, it needs to be simple and it needs to be based on the truth.

That's what made Mandy's response so devastatingly effective. It was simple - and true.

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