Give the People What They Don't Want

Rejecting the tyranny of the focus group

Sure, five out of five dentist-approved tooth-care commercials recommend an ever expanding panoply of technologies to fight that invisible bacterial foe, plaque. But would you like to know the dingy truth? There's no such thing as plaque! Plaque is as fantastical as the tooth fairy, invented by the multibillion-dollar dental hygiene industry to get you to spend more money on mouthwashes, toothbrushes, floss, prebrushing rinses, Water Piks, and higher-priced blends of the same old sodium fluoride, hydrated silica, and sorbitol.

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OK, I just made all that up.

But what do you think of it as an opening to the column? Do you strongly like it? Somewhat dislike it?

If you're anything like the nine people who recently attended the two mini focus groups that "strategic brand activists" P.S.L. Marketing Resources recently conducted on my behalf to help determine the direction of Your Ad Here, then you think it's a great lead -- exactly the kind of thing this column has been missing, in fact.

Unfortunately, this installment of Your Ad Here is not about the evils of periodontal hucksterism. It's about market research -- focus groups in particular -- and how what isn't said in such groups often tells you more than what is.

A lively blend of theater and democracy, focus groups epitomize the marketer-consumer relationship. A small group of consumers discusses a product while its marketer surreptitiously watches from behind a wall-size one-way mirror. The marketer's goal? To learn so much about those consumer delegates that the product, like the mirror, reflects them perfectly: They look toward the marketing, but all they see is themselves.

While focus groups are intended to elicit candid opinions, an element of artifice colors the proceedings. The participants know someone is watching. They're also aware -- courtesy of the mirror -- of their own performances.

If this limited my groups' candor in any way, then I'm glad for it; their assessments were harsh enough as it was. Various participants described my writing style as "egotistical," "above it all," "folksy," and "boring." Such blunt feedback was not the worst of it, however. My larger concern was the fundamental indifference -- even antipathy -- that so many participants exhibited toward advertising and marketing in general.

Indeed, even when participants "somewhat liked" or even "strongly liked" the column, their feelings about the subject matter didn't necessarily correspond. "I hate being pitched to, and I don't want to know how people are trying to figure out how to get me to buy something," exclaimed an environmental biologist who had given the column a favorable rating. "I'd rather read something about round-earth construction." Other participants expressed interest in the subject matter, but called for a more adversarial, muckraking tone. They thought columns about the "marketing of religious fundamentalism" or "how toothpaste companies convinced America that we have plaque and need to get rid of it" would make Your Ad Here more compelling. This was especially true of the nonsubscribers, who generally associated Mother Jones with left-leaning, Birkenstock-wearing, union-championing political activism.

And while some participants liked the "to be continued" aspect of my ongoing saga, as well as the idea of a marketing novice stumbling his way through the thickets and byways of contemporary brand-building, others doubted I could sustain the enterprise much longer. "You wonder how much mileage [he] can get out of it," said one man. In addition, many participants thought the column's self-referential tone resulted in a fundamental irrelevance. "For light, stupid reading, I go to other places," said another.

Luckily, after three hours, it was all over. While I was understandably disheartened to hear about the column's shortcomings, Laura Klapper, the groups' moderator, assured me that there had been a lot of positive feedback as well. The next step was for Klapper and her colleagues to write up a report detailing how I should incorporate that feedback into my ongoing efforts as a columnist.

Three weeks later, the report arrived via FedEx.

"For this very limited research sample, the overall concept of this column within Mother Jones does not appear to be aptly targeted," it stated. Current and target readers were not particularly interested in the subject matter, the report explained, and even if they were interested, my approach was "too objective given their inherent cynicism about the subject." Also: "While the everyman, self-referential approach effectively 'sugarcoats' the subject and draws in these readers, the column always will be fighting an uphill battle to build or sustain interest."

Had I market-researched myself out of a job?

Somewhat halfheartedly, I started researching the plaque conspiracy (there doesn't appear to be one, alas), and even consulted back issues of Mother Jones in the hopes of stealing some tricks from former columnist Paula Poundstone, whom two members of the subscriber focus group named as their favorite part of the magazine, even though her column ended five issues ago.

Then a fortuitous event occurred: I ran into one of the focus group members at a party. Wanting to make sure the drastic changes I was about to make were, in fact, what he desired, I approached him. And even though there was no wall-size mirror separating us, he was surprisingly willing to continue playing the part of a focus group attendee.

It turned out his thinking on the column had changed since he left the group: "At first I thought it was too objective, that your column really didn't have much of a perspective on advertising one way or another, so it all seemed kind of incidental. But then I started thinking that you have to take that approach if you want to get the cooperation of the companies you're working with. And in the end, I think it's better that way. You put the information out there and let the readers decide."

This was the point I had been struggling with since I had received P.S.L.'s report. I just couldn't get over the fact that if I wrote the kind of columns the focus group participants had suggested people wanted -- "Advertising's bad! Here's how you're being ripped off!" -- then I wouldn't be telling them anything they didn't already believe.

In other words, while it was reasonable of P.S.L. to conclude that my target audience's cynicism and lack of interest implied I should change my direction, there was another way to look at it: These people needed to be educated! They had an alleged aversion to advertising and marketing, and yet they were participating in focus groups -- many of them repeatedly.

Contradictions such as these are what inspired Your Ad Here in the first place: I wanted to address all the different ways we obliviously interact with advertising and marketing. I decided that offering readers expose-style articles would be wrong; it would be the easy way out. If I started writing that kind of column, readers could simply keep complaining about how they "hate being pitched to" without ever acknowledging that the process is far more subtle than that. I'd be submitting to the very adcult hegemony to which the focus groups showed such antipathy.

In the end, I learned quite a lot from the focus groups, even if I had to read between the lines to arrive at their central message. And their antipathy toward the advertising theme had an unexpected utility as well. ...

"So where's your column?" my editor asked when she called. "It was due three days ago."

"I know, I know," I replied. "But you've got to cut me a little slack. Don't you know I'm fighting an uphill battle here?"

Next time: deep into the heart of anti-advertising.

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