Out of focus

A peep through the one-way mirror at that great American institution, the focus group, reveals a glittering lineup of cheaters, repeaters and sad sacks who wash their hair with Jell-O.

Published April 23, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

About a month ago, Mad Dogs & Englishmen, the advertising agency for which I work, set out to do some focus groups on the topic of personal grooming. The groups were convened at the request of a client whose company offers spa services to men and women, and who wanted to gauge the level of interest in a separate, premium-priced tier of treatments. In San Francisco and New York, we had little difficulty convening four groups of affluent, spa-hopping females. But now we had to horn in on a more elusive target: the high-maintenance male. We were looking for the scrubbers, the buffers, the exfoliators and extractors. The kind of guy who values his pedicurist as much as his portfolio manager. Where was he? Who was he?

Our San Francisco market research firm said it could help. It designed a phone questionnaire, known as a "screener," intended to roust our quarry out of his saunas and his treatment rooms and into our facility. There, we would delve beneath his polished surface to discover his inchoate needs and cravings, his unredeemed hopes, his price ceiling for a Dead Sea mud wrap.

At that point, our market research firm commenced what I assumed was an exhaustive survey of the citizenry. To pass muster, respondents had to be receiving at least some of the following services: hair coloring, massage, tanning, teeth-whitening, liposuction, hair implants and laser hair removal. They also had to answer "yes" to such questions as "I am very concerned about my appearance" and "I often read magazines like GQ, Esquire, Men's Health, and Vanity Fair." Respondents who passed through the screen were asked to show up for a focus group on "personal grooming services." In return for their participation, they were told, they would receive dinner and a $60 honorarium. If a respondent disdained dermabrasion, eschewed GQ, or otherwise fell short of our lustrous ideal, the phone recruiters were instructed to "Thank and Terminate."

A week and a half later, as I sat behind a one-way mirror and watched the group in progress, it occurred to me that our trusted research firm had not quite delivered the gleaming phalanx of golden-boy financiers we'd had in mind. "Do any of these guys even have jobs?" wondered the CEO of the company, distractedly flipping through the bios of the respondents. "'Motivational speaker' 'numerology and intuitive work' 'unemployed paralegal' 'spiritual readings' ... What the hell is this?" She pointed to a tall, pale man, rawboned and strained, sitting with his fists tightly clenched. "Look at Frank," she said miserably. "Frank just put his mother in the wood chipper."

The client's consternation was understandable. She had asked for "vanity consumers." She had gotten slackers and grunge mavens -- a strange, sullen sample of atypical respondents, more interested in downtime than in upkeep. Watching from the other side of the mirror, we could only wince as our panel guffawed at the notion of spa treatments, preferring instead to exchange survivalist grooming tips. "I just wonder about shampoo," mused one participant. "I hear if you use too much, then it's going to damage your hair. So I've been using lemon juice to wash my hair. And I guess that's it." Another participant confessed he'd recently traded in his facial soap for dishwashing liquid with sugar in it. "First I realized I could wash dishes with it. And then I realized I could clean my face with it." When a third panelist confessed he used hair gel, the other panelists promptly jumped on him. "You should try flavorless Jell-O," suggested the respondent we had nicknamed Lemonhead. "It's really stiff -- but it proteinates your hair."

The client, to her credit, accepted the debacle with good humor. "That's OK," she called out, tossing a leather backpack over her shoulder as she fled the facility. "Next time, though, let's remember to add another item to the screener. 'All respondents must bathe at least once a week.'"

In his 1927 autobiography, "My Life in Advertising," star copywriter Claude Hopkins boasted of his proximity to the "common people" -- "gardeners, village folk, laboringmen, housewives" whose homely truths held the key to efficacious campaigns. Each time he devised a new ad, Hopkins wrote, "I submit [it] to the simple folks around me who typify America. Their reactions are the only ones that count." Seventy-five years after Hopkins first empaneled his gardeners and fishwives, the focus group has gone from market-research tool to pop-cultural commonplace. Advertisers look to them to transform the fortunes of brands. Authors such as Stephen King rely on them to gauge readers' reactions. Urban lonelyhearts even use them to improve their odds in the brutal singles market. The New York Times recently reported that for a small fee, a Manhattan firm, Focus Suites, will convene a caucus of hardhearted beauties to appraise a client's failings and frailties, as the luckless bachelor sits behind a one-way mirror, munching pretzels and jotting down notes.

In "The Hidden Persuaders," (1957), sociologist Vance Packard derided the focus group as a sinister instrument of mass persuasion, an "awesome" tool by which marketers hoodwinked us into buying "cake mixes, cigarettes, cereal -- even ideas!" But in our age of packaged politics, in which President Clinton's pollster canvasses the citizenry to determine whether he should lie or come clean about his relationship with an intern, it's not surprising that focus groups are now seen as just another means of self-improvement, a clever instrument for burnishing our own brands. Like subliminal movie messages urging us to eat more popcorn, they have lost their veneer of exciting awfulness, and have become ripe for parody.

But if focus groups are no longer uncritically regarded as mystic diviners of the popular will, they are still the tool of choice among qualitative researchers in search of fuzzy data. "The most widely used market research tool in America, by far," says Thomas Greenbaum, president of Groups Plus Inc., in Wilton, Conn. To be sure, their shortcomings have become the stuff of legend. The automatic teller machine was rejected in focus groups (too impersonal, the respondents said). So was the Sony Walkman, Absolut's clear bottle and the "Seinfeld" pilot (needed a stronger supporting cast).

All the same, focus groups are cheap, easy and, on occasion, yield actual, projectible insights into the vagaries of consumer behavior. Several years ago, after the Revlon Corporation launched a new line of shampoos and conditioners for African-American women, it hired Kirshenbaum, Bond & Partners, an advertising agency, to see how its new products were going over. The answer: not too well. "African-American women buying Revlon's Creme of Nature products perceived Revlon as a big white company," write Jon Bond and Richard Kirshenbaum in their new book "Under the Radar." "The Revlon name on the Creme of Nature product was actually considered a detriment." But all ended happily, as the company hastily moved to delete its name from the product. This decision, Kirshenbaum and Bond write, "was met enthusiastically by consumers because it demonstrated that the company respected them enough to try to understand them and their needs."

In the end, what may doom the focus group is not its failures but its unbridled success. As these corporate-sponsored encounter sessions grow more ubiquitous, with facilities spreading like kudzu across the strip malls and office parks of America, the whole enterprise seems in danger of succumbing to a phenomenon that sociologists call "reflexivity." This is what happens when an object of study becomes self-conscious about his or her status as a piece of research stimulus, and begins to appropriate the language of the observer. And so, just as sociology must adapt itself to take into account a population that uses words such as "role" and "society," and just as psychoanalysts must come to grips with the patient who trawls his own dreams for Oedipal tidbits, so too must the focus-group moderator learn to deal with the respondent who sweetly inquires whether he or she represents the client's "target market."
"As recently as five years ago, you would go to these groups and see a lot of virgin respondents," says Kathy deThorne, executive vice president and director of planning at Leo Burnett in Chicago. "Now, with more and more groups being done, and more and more facilities cropping up everywhere, you have a lot of what I like to call professional respondents. It's a pastime for them. They get to pontificate a little bit. They get to throw around words like 'brand' and 'strategy' and 'repositioning' and 'line extension.' They tend to get very boisterous, and to want to lead the discussion. They're clearly there because they enjoy doing it."

The account planners I spoke with identified two categories of rogue respondents -- cheaters and repeaters. Repeaters, who also rejoice in the name of "panel whores," are considered the more benign of the two. "These are respondents who go from one company to another, each time registering under a slightly different name, simply because they enjoy the process," sighs John Gerzema, director of planning at Fallon-McElligott in New York. According to Gerzema, these all too conspicuous consumers tend to defend the practice when caught. "They say, 'Hey, I know the routine, I'm much better able to relate to the marketing stimulus; I'm an extremely valuable respondent for you.'" In fact, says Gerzema, "they're not all that valuable, because they're just not as pure a respondent. It's, 'Oh, if it's Tuesday, it must be Oreida, and the week after that, it'll be Bounty, and the week after that, it'll be Mitsubishi, and I'll morph into whatever you want me to be.' It's aggravating, because they're not sincerely your consumer. They can't be if they're morphing into all these different roles."

Even more dreaded than the repeater is the cheater. "These are people who are, for the most part, unemployed, who somehow get on the market research circuit, using various names, and who try to make an income out of participating in focus groups," says Bill Weylock, president of Weylock & Associates in New York. "We are talking here about a bunch of unscrupulous imposters. These are folks who actually misrepresent their buying patterns to the recruiter, just so they can get onto one of these groups." Remembering the old joke about Israeli voters, who tell the truth to the pollsters but lie in the voting booth, I ask Weylock how he knows that these demographic poseurs are not actually telling the truth to the market-research firm, but lying at the cash register. "Oh, they lie to us!" Weylock says. "They lie about their age. They lie about their income. They basically figure out the drift of the screener and just say, 'Uh-huh, uh-huh, that's me,' just to get onto a group. It's very unfortunate and unpleasant."

Thinking of our recent focus group, and the stubbly slackers who had impersonated our target market, I couldn't help but agree. If only our moderator had possessed the iron will of moderator Marvin Schoenwald, famed in focus-group circles for his ability to weed out charlatans. "I call them ringers," Schoenwald tells me. "They're ringers because they're trying to be someone they're not." Schoenwald gives an example of what he is talking about. "Like the other day," he says. "We had a group which is obviously high-tech. Here's one guy who makes a statement which shows he is obviously not qualified. He claimed to be an engineer. He's really an out-of-work actor! I had to throw him out of the room."

Physically throw him out? "Well, not really," Schoenwald admits. "That might alienate the rest of the group. What I usually do is, I go out and talk to the facility hostess. She waits a few minutes. Then she comes in and tells the guy, sir, you have a phone call, and, oh, by the way, bring your coat and bag."

There is, though, a consolation prize for these lost souls of consumerdom. "They get to nosh a little bit," Schoenwald says. "That guy on Friday, he grabbed a whole handful of leftover cookies." As long as he stays away from the flavorless Jell-O.

By Ruth Shalit

Ruth Shalit is an account planner at Mad Dogs & Englishmen, a New York advertising agency. For more columns by Shalit, visit her column archive.

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