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Britain’s most iconic brands, as one says farewell

Britain’s most iconic brands, as one says farewell

There are annual tables of the coolest, most profitable and most popular brands for the world, the UK, and even for market niches. The algorithms for each of the tables are proprietary, and secret (and may well involve a lot of jiggery pokery to produce the ‘right’ answer) but we seldom get lists of iconic brands.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that ‘iconic’ needs a bit of definition. The term is often used to mean ‘really, really, really very good and big and everything and like, well, so totally up there with the others’. It is naturally hard to quantify ‘iconic’ if it means that. The second is that iconicity is not particularly volatile. Iconic brands stay iconic for a generation. If they don’t, they aren’t iconic.

Actually, ‘iconic’ doesn’t mean that long sentence I mentioned. If we discount its usage for Russian religious paintings, the term refers to brands which are so widely understood that they can be used to represent other things without confusion. The ‘mail’ icon for your email programme works because it’s obvious (more or less) what it is.

With that in mind, it’s actually not at all difficult to quantify and track iconic brands. We just need to look at what writers are writing about. To the rescue, then, Google Ngram viewer — a way of searching the text of hundreds of thousands of books. Books are the way to go here, because they are much less susceptible to fads and trends, to PR and marketing, to deliberate product placement, and to reviews. If you tried the same exercise with the Internet as a whole, you would get a snapshot of how hard people are working to beat the system, using ‘Search Engine Optimisation’. Mercifully, no one has yet got a system for getting that into published books.

Because iconic brands change only on a generational basis, there isn’t a good time for publishing lists of them. Except for now. It’s fitting to mark some of the businesses or products which have become symbols in their own right because one of them will shortly be no more.

The UK top ten iconic brands

In order, the top ten brands are BBC, NHS, Post Office/Royal Mail, Land Rover, British Rail, Harrods, Lego, Rolls Royce, Marmite and Ronseal.

The UK top 10

The UK top 10

I should explain the jiggery-pokery here. All these are brands which, in Britain, are unique in their fields. Tesco is actually mentioned in writing more in 2008 than most of the others (excluding the BBC and the NHS, which dwarf everything), but Tesco is not iconic because it can’t be used as a representative type. John Lewis does nearly as well as Harrods, and is definitely on its way to iconicity, but it is not quite there yet. You can’t simply refer to ‘John Lewis’ in a piece of writing and expect everyone to know what set of ideas and feelings you are referring to. There are quite a few other candidates for iconicity which have a huge influence on our culture, but which generally only represent themselves. Cadbury vies with the Post Office for the number of times it’s mentioned, and it is clearly one of Britain’s best loved brands, but it represents a particular kind of confectionary, not confectionary as a whole.

You might argue that the BBC and the NHS only represent themselves, but they are used in such an all-encompassing fashion that it’s hard not to list them as iconic. Interestingly, they are almost opaque to non-Brits. My wife, being Dutch, cannot fathom the attachment to 1970s BBC children’s programmes for people of a certain age. The NHS, though known across the world, is misunderstood to a more or less maximum level by many Americans.

Number 3 iconic brand

Number 3 iconic brand: the Post Office

After the BBC and the NHS, the Post Office dwarfs the others— especially if you add in ‘Royal Mail’, which, on its own, does creditably.

I’ve broken out the numbers 4-10 separately, because this is the level at which you can see how things interrelate a bit more.

Brands 4-10

Brands 4-10

British Rail was abolished in 1997, and yet still manages to keep up with the others. Many people refer to British Rail as if it still existed. It may be a surprise that Land Rover is bigger than Harrods or Lego. More on that in a moment. I’ve included Lego because, although it’s a Danish company, it is iconic in its use in the UK. Meccano has the same kind of resonance, but it now languishes lower than Marmite.

Rolls Royce, of course, is the iconic brand of all iconic brands. The ‘Rolls Royce’ of any category is the premium, most sumptuous, most luxurious and most desirable thing in that category. I occasionally (rather mischievously) ask people to name the most premium brand of cars. ‘Mercedes’, ‘Audi’, ‘Ferrari’ are often mentioned, until I ask them about Rolls Royce. At that point, everyone agrees, The Rolls Royce of cars is… Rolls Royce.

Marmite has worked hard to leverage its iconicity to drive sales. I often wonder how Marmite makes a profit. I love Marmite, but a medium sized jar lasts us about a year. Who is buying all the Marmite? Someone clearly is. There was a marvellous Time Out ‘Overheard in London’ a couple of years ago: “My boyfriend says he’s so-so about Marmite. Now I can’t believe anything he says”.

Ronseal is an up and coming icon, but it is so universally used to describe other things that it deserves its place. When someone says ‘I’m the Ronseal of … — I do exactly what I say on the tin’, we all know what they mean. We also think they’re a bit of a wally for comparing themselves with varnish that dries in 30 minutes. Nonetheless, everyone knows what they’re talking about.

Apple is not on the list. Even if you subtract all the usages of the word ‘Apple’ with a capital A before the 1970s, when the company did not exist, it does very well—not competing with the NHS or the BBC, but very well. But Apple is not iconic in that sense. Apple means very different things to different people (just look at any internet discussion of it—it degenerates into a flame war pretty quickly).

The advantage of Iconicity

Iconicity can be a mixed blessing. If a brand isn’t careful, its Trade Mark degenerates into just a commonly used term, and everyone gets to use it. Public sector icons, like British Rail and the Post Office, become easier targets for sell-offs, while the BBC and the NHS are regularly kicked around as political footballs. For commercial products, though, iconic status can be a coveted prize. Many people who love cars would rather own a Morgan than a Rolls Royce, but it’s Rolls Royce which has the iconic status (if you have the money and want something which combines aspects of both, consider a Panther). Marmite’s monopoly on extremely strongly flavoured spreads is in the UK pretty much unbreakable. Marmite is banned from some countries because of its strength. In a world where modular toys are easy to manufacture, it is the Lego brand which has taught generations of parents to avoid the cheaper, off-brand brick-shaped toys and succumb to only buying Lego if it’s Lego that is asked for. Fake Lego is probably one of the biggest disappointments of any possible gifts.

One of the companies that has done the most with its iconic status in the last ten years is Jaguar Land Rover, and it is to part of that which we must now say farewell.

Goodbye Land Rover Defender

Land-Rover-Oct-13-2014-1

1982 Series III

The two millionth Land Rover rolled off the line in Coventry recently, and was sold at auction for £400,000 the Coventry Telegraph reported this week. Two million requires adding up all the Series I, II, III, Stage II and Defender models produced from 1947 to 2015—the classic ‘Land Rover’ shape. Production ends in January 2016. The successor has not yet been announced.

According to one claim, 80% of all the Land Rovers ever built are still in operation somewhere in the world. I have to say I’m slightly sceptical about that figure: there are parts from at least three Land Rovers in my 1982 Series III, and it’s the ability to cannibalise old Land Rovers for spares (as well as people’s penchant for fixing them with whatever happens to be around, including Meccano, that keeps them going. My particular vehicle was on Heathrow airport for most of its working life, which accounts for the yellow paint job and the white stripe.

Jaguar Land Rover has leveraged the rugged vehicle’s iconic status with exceptional skill over the last ten years, taking a car maker that was on its last legs to be a leading West Midlands, and, indeed, UK exporter, though it’s the posh Range Rover models which are the ones everyone wants to buy.

I’m hopeful, of course, that JLR will announce something which is more Land Rover than Land Rover when the Defenders come to an end. Even if they don’t, the lesson from British Rail is hopeful: as long as the concept exists in people’s minds, the brand will remain a British icon.

What has Doctor Who ever done for us?

What has Doctor Who ever done for us?

The Mark 2 fibreglass (Tom Yardley-Jones) Tard...

The Mark 2 fibreglass (Tom Yardley-Jones) Tardis as used in the 1980s. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Tonight is the big night. The Doctor Who 50th anniversary. Various people have been commenting that there is something fundamentally wrong with a world where the Doctor Who anniversary is getting more coverage than the Kennedy assassination. You may draw your own conclusions in either direction.

 

But.

 

What is it about Doctor Who that has turned it from a low-budget British semi-obsession into a multi-national, even global phenomenon?

 

I once lobbied Michael Grade about bringing Doctor Who back. At the time — he was in charge of Channel 4 then — he was dismissive about the series as a low budget waste of time. Six months later he rejoined the BBC and Doctor Who was shortly afterwards reinstated. I’m sure my input had nothing to do with it, but I occasionally bring out the story at parties.

 

Clearly the new Doctor Who is a much more glitzy, glamorous and high-budget affair than the Doctor Who of my youth. Nonetheless, I think there are characteristics which are true of both original and new Doctor Who — beyond just the characters — which make it stand out. Particularly, Doctor Who stands out as television, and does so in a way which I don’t think will ever properly translate to the big screen.

 

Fundamentally, Doctor Who is televisual. This was pointed out to me by someone’s review of the Stephen Moffat classic episode Blink. They said that Moffat was using the grammar of television, where the action of the angels was based on jump cuts. This got me thinking.

 

Time Travel

 

First of all, the essence of television is that it is a time-travel medium. To be precise, the shots are filmed in any order, and then reassembled into the final broadcast. This is recorded television, of course. Live television doesn’t have that luxury. It was the arrival of video tape recording that made Doctor Who possible, because even the limited special effects of the early series could not have been achieved live, and also made it inevitable. How long can you work on a VTR deck before you start wondering what would happen if you put the events in deliberately the wrong order. From there, time travel as a fictional device becomes inevitable.

 

This is somewhat different from film, because of the way that television and film evolved separately. Film has always been about shooting and editing, even back to the very early films. The surrealists used film extensively to construct strange visions of the world. Television, by contrast, began as a live studio medium, and, even today, much of television is live broadcast, though all of it is now taped as well. Doctor Who — born three years before I was, by the way — put things that couldn’t possibly be happening on your screen right after the news and before live entertainment.

 

Televisual effects

 

What happens if you point a TV camera at a screen which is hooked up as the output of the camera? With a digital camera, as almost everything is these days, the result is you get the equivalent of parallel mirrors, with an image inside an image inside an image, and so on, until it drops below the pixel threshold or becomes too dim to see. If you did the same thing with the analog cameras in the 1960s, you would get a scary black and white set of interference patterns. It was by exactly this method that the really quite terrifying original Doctor Who title sequence was created. If you go back and watch some of the early Doctor Who’s, right into the Jon Pertwee era, you see this. The look of it gradually evolved, taking us to the digitally created travel-through-the-vortex that we have today. Somehow, it doesn’t quite deliver the same thrill of some kind of ill-advised tampering with the unknown.

 

Again, this is a televisual effect. It can’t be accomplished at all with a film camera. The makers of Doctor Who understood their craft, their tools, and how to use and abuse them.

 

Radiophonics

 

The other stand-out aspect of the original title sequence was the strange, eery music produced by the BBC Radiophonic workshop, using equipment which today cannot be reproduced. Nobody had ever heard anything like it before, and the subsequent theremin-based Star Trek music simply could not touch it for out-and-out science-fiction scariness. I always regretted the later attempts to tamper with it, jazz it up, add drum tracks and so on. Still, the spirit of the original score is still with us. Radiophonics were present throughout the early shows, where the BBC’s radio-based expertise in making things sound like other things gave a high measure of credibility to what were often quite dodgy graphics, certainly by modern standards. For some reason, sound has a much bigger impact on our belief when watching television than the actual picture does.

 

Regeneration

 

Television has a problem which film does not: what do you do when the main actor of a popular series dies, or when they don’t want to play the part any more? Aside from Plan Nine from Outer Space, where the director decided to replace Bela Lugosi with an entirely different actor when he died during shooting, film has generally solved this problem by either cancelling the project or reshooting the entire thing. TV can’t do that, as a number of episodes will already have been broadcast, and may even be repeated. In Bewitched, the lead male actor was famously replaced after a few episodes, and the captain of the Enterprise in Star Trek was not the same captain as in the pilot episode.

 

Doctor Who’s solution, like so much else it did, was to make a virtue of the necessity. The regeneration of the Doctor was an entirely new thing not only to television but to science-fiction in general, and it is so distinctive that it has not been adopted as a feature in any other series.

 

Bigger on the inside

 

Continuity is an enormous problem for television where budgets are so much smaller than film, and where production timescales are so much shorter. Just like the unintentional time travel problems that the TV editing process can produce, it’s all too easy to have someone walk into a place and end up in an entirely different place. The genius of Doctor Who was to take what is normally a continuity error and make it into the series’s defining special effect.

 

It’s hard to find any other special effect in science-fiction film or television which is so disorienting, so distinctive, and yet so easy to create.

 

Education

 

The BBC exists to inform, educate and entertain. Doctor Who was constructed in order to achieve all these purposes in one go. One of the primary motivations for making it about time travel as well as space travel was so that the Doctor could educate his companions on history as well as science. The presence of the companions, too, was an opportunity for the Doctor to explain how things worked.

 

This has gone off the boil a bit in the new Doctor Who. Science seems to be a little lacking. In the original series, though, it wasn’t just scientific facts, but the scientific method which was showcased. Tom Baker complains about Professor Kettlewell’s failure to write up his experiments properly in Robot, Jon Pertwee is always conducting experiments in his UNIT laboratory. Doctor Who expected a lot of its audiences in those days: the climax to Full Circle is when Tom Baker’s Doctor understands that the DNA of the swamp monsters is identical to the DNA of the settlers, thereby demonstrating that they are not the original colonists, but the descendants of the monsters who supplanted them. How many American broadcast networks would take the chance that their audiences would understand that level of scientific abstraction, or even be interested by it?

 

Storytelling

 

Possibly less strong in today’s Doctor Who, the storytelling and plotting of the early series was absolutely superb. Like Scheherazade always finishing one story in time to start another, which she would break off at a moment of tension, Doctor Who always managed to deliver a climax at the end of every episode, as often as not characterised by a scream which would still be penetrating even on the dodgy audio technology of 1970s television sets. Although it worked within the four or six episode format, Doctor Who never became formulaic in the way that Star Trek did.

 

As an example, a typical Star Trek episode (original series) involves an attack on the ship while a landing party is simultaneously facing danger on a planet’s surface. This was a convenient way to stop the might of the Enterprise being deployed against an otherwise innocuous population, but it also meant that the shape of almost every episode was the same. Doctor Who, by contrast, managed to deliver intellectually different plot structures. The Face of Evil, for example, has the epiphanic climax when it turns out that the Face of Evil itself is the Doctor’s own face. The series that followed it, the Robots of Death, is an Agatha Christie style murder mystery in a confined space. No attempt to put plots into categories can ever cope with Blink, my second favourite Doctor Who episode of all time. By contrast, my all time favourite, Genesis of the Daleks, begins by telling the viewer exactly what is going to happen, and finishes with the Doctor unable to complete his mission because of conscience, which we knew would happen right from the beginning anyway. It is, nonetheless, a master example of that kind of plot.

 

The Real World

 

Traditionally, Doctor Who was on after the news. Unlike almost all the other science fiction which ever made it onto television, the BBC constantly made Doctor Who topical. The Green Death came at a time of pit closures and rising fear of pollution. The Ark in Space appeared at the very height of the Cold War, when many people were convinced that nuclear weapons would make the Earth uninhabitable. To rewatch old Doctor Who series is to be reminded of the times in which they were made.

 

Like the very greatest science-fiction, Doctor Who was ostensibly about a fantasy world out there, on the limits of our imagination, but really about this world, right here, right now.

 

Long may it continue.

 

Why the BBC should do grown-up science-fiction

Why the BBC should do grown-up science-fiction

Arthur C. Clarke

Schrödinger is stopped by a police officer while driving. Suspicious, the officer opens the boot (trunk, if reading in American).
“Mr Schrödinger,” he says. “Are you aware that you have a dead cat in your boot?”
“I am now,” says Schrödinger.

This joke divides the world into three groups of people.

  1. If you laughed out loud, or chuckled, or determined to tell the joke to someone else or post it on Facebook, then you probably either have a science degree, or have read at least one science-fiction story, or consider yourself to be well-informed on matters scientific.
  2. If you sort of got it, which is to say you recognised that Schrödinger has something to do with dead cats, then you probably watch the Big Bang Theory, or listen to Radio 4 science programmes, or generally swim within the milieu of post-modern society.
  3. If you have no clue about why this is supposed to be funny, then you are probably still in Modernism where the distinction between arts and sciences is sacred and you decided long ago that you weren’t on the science side. Alternatively, you may just not have much of a sense of humour.

The problem for the BBC and other makers of TV shows is that there is an endless tension between informing, educating, and entertaining. The assumption is that ‘proper’ science-fiction is for science-nerds who religiously listen to the Infinite Monkey Cage (or irreligiously) and enjoy articles pointing out the technical inaccuracies in Skyfall.

Since this is only a small sector of the population, your chances of getting the 6 million plus viewers that you need for a successful series are pretty limited. That which commands low viewing figures also commands low budgets, and the prospect of low budget science-fiction sets BBC commissioners quivering with fear and distaste.

Recent experiments with semi-proper SF, such as Outcasts, have not been encouraging. It began with 4.4 million viewers, but dropped to 2.6 million and was moved to a Sunday night slot. On the other hand, Doctor Who which picked up 9.87 million UK viewers for the most recent Christmas special, now contains virtually no science whatsoever.

The rot started some time ago. Back in the 70s Doctor Who was ablaze with science — the Green Death, Genesis of the Daleks, the Giant Robot and many others were about scientists doing science. Of course, to be science-fiction, the science had to be ramped up into fictional levels. Nonetheless, the scientific method and the doing of experiments to answer the show’s crucial questions was an established part of the trope.

We could put the blame on the 21st century Doctor Whos, but in reality the show stopped being about science somewhere during the Tom Baker era. This was not such a great problem, though, because an even more grown-up SF series, Blakes 7 (sadly without an apostrophe), devised by Dalek-creator Terry Nation, came onto the screens. Not long afterwards the magnificent SF spoof The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy started on radio, positing all kinds of logical and philosophy-of-science questions to the intelligentsia who listened to. Later they made it into a TV series with most of the science stripped out, but, hey, nothing is perfect.

The grown-upness of Blakes 7, and the earlier Doctor Whos, was not because it was about any kind of serious science you could do at home with your chemistry set or even with a fast breeder reactor or an ID pass for CERNE. Rather, it was that many (but by no means all) of the episodes turned on logic bombs which were set off near the beginning, and which the viewer could follow until they exploded at the climax of the episode. The premises could be as wild as you like — giant maggots that turn whatever they touch into other maggots, metal that could grow and repair itself, teleports — but it was the fact that they were taken through to their logical conclusions that made the fundamentals of the show scientific rather than merely gizmological.

Gizmology, sadly, has become rather the order of the day since then. Arthur C Clarke once posited that any technology, if sufficiently advanced, was indistinguishable from magic. A later wag suggested than any technology, if sufficiently advanced, was indistinguishable from a convenient plot device that got the writers out of trouble. Despite some noble exceptions — Blink, Asylum of the Dalek’s, the Doctor’s Daughter — a lot of the resolutions of recent Doctor Who episodes could be rather unkindly described as “press the button marked ‘foil the enemy’s plans’ and stand clear”.

Cross the pond for a moment and things are even bleaker. Lost and Heroes were both billed as Science Fiction, despite having essentially no science component. Babylon 5 and SyFy’s ‘re-imagined’ Battlestar Galactica are on the surface more traditional space-SF fare, but they, too, had virtually no science content. American space fiction, it seems, is really all about ‘what would the military be like if they were running a space fleet?’ The reboots of Star Trek and the like underline the point: knowledge of military discipline and military protocol is what you need to follow them, not an interest in science.

Why Nick Griffin keeps trying to associate himself with Christian issues, and why he should stop

Why Nick Griffin keeps trying to associate himself with Christian issues, and why he should stop

BARKING, ENGLAND - MAY 07:  Nick Griffin, lead...

Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party (Getty Images via @daylife)

In a not-unexpected court ruling yesterday, a judge ruled that a Christian Bed and Breakfast owner was in breach of the law in refusing to give the same treatment to a homosexual couple that she would have given to a heterosexual couple. Her case was backed by the Christian Institute.

The case itself was an important continuation of the debate about to what extent the rights of one group should supersede the rights of another. As a matter of law — if all the training I’ve been on about discrimination is correct — the ruling was the only ruling possible. The Christian Institute’s underlying argument was that the law is wrong.

It is entirely appropriate that debates of this kind take place, and right that lobbying groups like the Christian Institute continue to make their case in the public arena.

However, the proceedings and the verdict have been overshadowed by the intervention of Nick Griffin MEP, of the British National Party, who tweeted the address of the couple and appeared to urge his supporters to organise a demonstration outside the couple’s house.

This is not the first time that Griffin and other BNP members have tried to insinuate themselves into debates and news issues which have a Christian tinge. In a separate issue the BBC reported yesterday on peaceful protests in Northern Ireland relating to a Mari Stopes clinic which were mainly led by Christians, but which the BNP had decided to attend, despite having no elected presence in the province. Earlier in the year their attempt to attend an Orange rally prompted a sharp rebuke from the organisers.

Griffin’s own comment is revealing. Mr Griffin told Sky News: “I was very angry in the way in which left-wing political activists and a minority of gay activists are working with left-wing judges to use the Human Rights Act to persecute ordinary people, especially Christians.

It’s the “especially Christians” bit which is revelatory. Why Christians? Griffin has no known link with an established church, does not attend church regularly, and has never made any pronouncements outside of a politics which have a Christian flavour. His comments were immediately denounced by the Christian Institute, and Christians — including myself — have frequently highlighted the disparity between what he believes and the teaching of the New Testament, including ‘love your enemies’, ‘do good to those who persecute you’ and ‘do not judge others’.

From his published oeuvre, Griffin’s only interest in Christianity is in trying to harness it for the promotion of his own political agenda. Of course, he would not be the only person doing this. At a General Election debate I was once baffled by one of the candidates who professed that all of his actions were motivated by love, because he was a Christian. I wouldn’t claim to be able to judge the thoughts and motivations of anyone else, but I have never met anyone else — including some very saintly people — who would go so far as to claim that everything they did was motivated by love. Interestingly, he only said that at that particular debate — which was the Churches Together debate. He never mentioned Christianity at the others. I don’t doubt that he sincerely meant it at the time.

The difference, though, between some other politician trying to pick up a few Christian votes at a Churches Together debate and the BNP is that Griffin actively tries to wade into areas of Christian concern, and does so in the most unChristian way possible. He was censured for the way he described Irish Republicans recently, using an expletive in his tweet.

What we must understand before going any further is that Nick Griffin’s view of ‘Christian’ has nothing to do with Jesus Christ. Griffin has never shown any public interest in Christ’s teachings. The notion of forgiveness is something that never appears in his policies.

Rather, for Griffin, ‘Christian’ is short-hand for ‘Anglo-Saxon White traditional English intolerance’. Not that Griffin wants anyone to realise that when he uses the word. He wants the resonances of the word ‘Christian’ to galvanise those who feel warmly towards Christianity, but don’t actually practise it themselves. The 70% or so who say they are ‘Christian’ in surveys, but probably don’t go to church more than at Christmas, at weddings, and at funerals.

A few years ago we picked up a BNP leaflet in Yardley, Birmingham, which claimed that Muslims from Stechford were attempting to close down Yardley Old Church, a well known landmark which dates back to the Anglo-Saxons. Nobody who actually attended Yardley Old Church would have believed it for a moment. No church in Britain has ever been closed down by pressure from Muslims (though, sadly, historically churches have been closed down because of pressure from other churches). If there is a threat to Yardley Old Church, it is non-attendance by those who reckon to be Christians. The claim was laughable, but to those who did not attend but liked the idea, it may have had some resonance.

A couple of years later a friend of mine picked up a leaflet from the BNP. It talked about the importance of the family, abortion, traditional morality, and such things. Over tea she told us that was impressed with the leaflet and would even consider voting for them. Her husband — was was black — gently pointed out the incongruity of this. Put this down to political naivety, but there was nothing in the leaflet that hinted at racism or intolerance: it had been carefully constructed to appeal to people like her, and to conceal what the BNP is really about.

If you are a Christian reading this, then I would urge you on every occasion that Griffin attempts to link himself to Christians, or presents himself as defending the rights of Christians, to immediately repudiate it, and make clear to anyone listening what the difference between Christianity and the BNP really is.

If you are Nick Griffin reading this, then let me urge you: read the New Testament, join a church, attend an Alpha course, find out what Jesus Christ was really about. You may decide that it’s time you stopped trying to link yourself to Christians. Or, better, you may decide that it’s time to follow a radically different way, and renounce the BNP and everything it stands for,

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