Friday, June 13, 2003

The Target Shoots First

Yesterday (June 12) I made $50 cash money for doing the focus group gab for 90 minutes. Not bad money really, and I haven’t had a big red in my wallet for awhile. Quite awhile ago – late November of 2000, as it turns out – I started work on an article about focus groups for National Post Business Magazine. The idea was to go on both sides of the mirror and report about what happens.

Unfortunately most companies are hesitant to let a reporter watch a focus group because of the proprietary research being conducted. I was close to getting access to a non-profit research session for a doctors group, but that fell through. Long story short, I didn’t manage to convince anyone to let me sit with the client and the story died. Eventually, Matthew McKinnon wrote a rather sharp article about the topic for NPBM called "Focus Pocus," that was published in August of 2002. It was even nominated for a National Magazine Award, but it didn’t end up winning. (He didn’t figure out a way to get behind the mirror either).

I mention this in part because I have a small file of research I collected for the stillborn article I was working on, which I will now share with you.

I did a preliminary interview with a woman named Marion Plunkett, who runs Plunkett Communications here in Toronto. She discussed and showed me some of the tools and exercises she uses in focus groups, including collages that had been constructed by participants to elicit feelings about brands. To hear Plunkett describe it, these techniques made some sense, but in the wrong hands you get into airy-fairy land pretty quickly.

Back in November of 2000, Eric Felten, in the Wall Street Journal, wrote that "Focus groups promise us a window on the public's true thoughts. What we get instead is a picture of how people behave when thrust into an unnatural environment. And it isn't pretty." He continues:

Focus groups were never meant for discovering people's opinions. The idea -- born of group therapy -- was that "focused-group" interviews could tell the researcher why people hold the opinions they do.

For example, by doing traditional "quantitative" surveys, the pollster finds that left-handed auto workers of Albanian descent prefer Schlitz Malt Liquor. So the pollster convenes a group of left-handed auto workers of Albanian descent to get them talking in the hope of finding out why this particular subgroup so relishes a cold, frosty Schlitz.

As originally conceived, the homogeneity of the group is essential for creating an atmosphere in which people will be open and honest. Old focus-group hands thus warn: Don't mix women and men; don't mix young and old; don't mix black and white. Why, then, have political pollsters been using groups in which each of the dozen panelists is drawn from a different walk of life, with nothing in common to knit them together as a focused group?

Because it gives the impression that the opinions reflect those of the whole nation. But using a focus group to impersonate a national sample defeats the purpose of the exercise, says longtime market researcher Jana O'Brien, executive vice president of Starcom MediaVest Group. "It's very hard to put supporters of the top two brands in the same group, whether the product is rental cars, fast food or presidential candidates," she says. "The loyalists of the number two brand always attack the number one brand."

Here is Bruce Philp writing in the January 29, 2001 Financial Post:

Planning's most treasured tool, and the source of all its authority, is something called consumer insight, and these insights are very often acquired at an altar known as the focus group - the crack cocaine of all research, thanks to its low cost, infinite mutability and convenient speed. It's here that agencies seek inspiration, or perhaps more often than that, permission from consumers to sell to them. Here, comfortably seated behind two-way mirrors, thoughtfully sipping Evian, we observe the mice being asked to help us design the trap.

Lesley Daw, writing in the May 18, 1998 issue of Marketing Magazine:

[The teen girls] were pretty media savvy and a little skeptical about advertising and the motives of advertisers.

Some of the teenage boys, on the other hand, were downright cynical, one referring to advertising people as "shysters." They said they thought there were laws that advertisers couldn't lie outright, but they did "twist the truth" by using small print and other "misleading" tactics. And they sounded like they knew what they were talking about, speaking in terms of "target markets" and "image advertising."

Finally, back in February of 1997, the Simpsons spoofed focus groups in Episode 4F12 (The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show). Bart, Lisa and a couple of other classmates find themselves discussing cartoons. Here are my favourite moments:

Man: We want you to tell us what you think. And, be honest, because no one from the show is here spying on you. [chuckles]

[a sneezing sound comes from a huge mirror set along a wall of the room; the mirror shakes.]

Lisa: Why is that mirror sneezing?

Man: Ah, look, it's just an old, creaky mirror, y'know, sometimes it sounds a little like it's sneezing, or coughing, or talking softly.


Man: How many of you kids would like Itchy & Scratchy to deal with real-life problems, like the ones you face every day?

Kids: [clamoring] Oh, yeah! I would! Great idea! Yeah, that's it!

Man: And who would like to see them do just the opposite – getting into far-out situations involving robots and magic powers?

Kids: [clamoring] Me! Yeah! Oh, cool! Yeah, that's what I want!

Man: So, you want a realistic, down-to-earth show... that's completely off-the-wall and swarming with magic robots?

Kids: [all agreeing, quieter this time] That's right. Oh yeah, good.

Milhouse: And also, you should win things by watching.

As for my recent experience, our moderator, unlike McKinnon’s – "Ed, with his pleated pants, open-necked dress shirt and go-go-go, wet-toothed lust for life. Ed bounces around the room like a pocket tornado…" – was calm to the point of coma. He was a grey-haired fellow in his 40s, with a bemused tone and at times distant manner. He was pretty relaxed in guiding the discussion, and at times gave the impression of merely going through the motions. At one point, he got a little testy with one of us for critiquing a slogan, asking the guy beside me, "are you a copywriter?"

The main thrust of McKinnon’s article was how unscientific and crude this particular research method actually is, quoting SFU business dean Lindsay Meredith, who compares the focus group to a chainsaw: "There’s no question, the chainsaw is one of the most useful tools I own. It’s also the one that will take your leg off the quickest if you get stupid with it."

The secondary push of the article is how often people lie to get into focus groups in the first place. It is amazing how easy it is to say what someone wants to hear. I told the recruiter I quaff 15 bottles of beer a week. Try six in a good week. Also, I was told I’d have to produce ID, to prove my age. This did not happen. Nor did I have to sign a non-disclosure form. I did have to consent to having myself videotaped, however.

What is interesting to me is that no matter how maligned they are, and despite attempts to devise other methods, companies keep deferring to them.

(See also: Italians do it better and the inner doughboy).