Wednesday, May 05, 2004

I slept through the night last night. Hooray! Actually, I feel surprisingly ok right now. I'm not exhausted, and for once I don't feel like I'm spinning, rocking, waving, or about to blast off. I'm so rarely vertigo-free these days that I'd sort of forgotten what it feels like when my experience of the world corresponds to some sort of objective reality.

This article in Salon contains the staggering revelation that women surf the internet because it's fun, and unless that's news to you, there's no real reason to read it. But I'm linking to it because the people who brought us this startling insight are none other than Just Ask a Woman, a market research firm with which I have had dealings. During my grad school career, I’ve done a lot of things to earn extra money. I’ve worked as a receptionist; I’ve temped; I’ve worked for non-profits in several capacities; and I’ve taught a whole lot of classes. But my most surreal income-generating experiences have been participating in market research. And those experiences have convinced me that the entire focus-group industry is a farce.

I got into the focus-group game through my friend J., who hooked me up with her focus-group wrangler. The focus-group wrangler, whom I like a lot, is a sarcastic stay-at-home mother who’s clearly more invested in filling seats than in selecting participants who adhere to the companies’ specifications. We have a tacit understanding that I will mold myself a bit to fit those specifications. For instance, I’m happy to engage in some creative accounting about my annual income. I usually count my tuition-exemption as income to make it sound like I have actual disposable cash. And that’s not the only thing I fudge. We frequently have discussions that go something like this:

Wrangler: They’re looking for women who are on a diet.

Me: Well, I’m trying to eat more healthily.

W: They want women who are trying to lose between 5 and 15 pounds.

Me: Um, I guess it wouldn’t be the end of the world if I lost 5 pounds.

W: Ok, I’ll put you down.

My rule is that, while I will twist the truth to get into a group, once there I am totally honest. Therefore, the people who run the groups hate me. For one thing, they’re usually interested in advertising, and I want to focus on the products. So our exchanges go something like this:

Focus-group host: this advertisement is for low-carb cereal. What do you think about it?

Me: Is that even possible? Isn’t cereal by definition full of carbohydrates?

Host: I don’t know. Would that advertisement make you buy the cereal?

Me: No.

Host: What about this one?

Me: No.

Host: Which one would be more likely to make you buy the cereal?

Me: I would never buy that cereal. It looks disgusting. I don’t believe low-carb cereal is possible. I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with carbs. I don’t believe that any cereal can make you lose weight. And I’m pretty loyal to Cheerios.

Host: [rolls eyes] Well, would this ad make anyone else buy this cereal?

And here’s the thing. Every focus group has one or two participants who set the tone for the whole group. You can tell within two minutes who those participants will be. The goal of any focus group is to establish yourself as that alpha participant, and then to use that status to insert a little bit of feminist commentary into the proceedings. I should say that I don’t have any illusions that this will score any victories for feminism, but it sure is fun. And it’s surprisingly easy. It’s amazing how often I’ll say “is it really necessary for the model to be that skinny?” or “why can’t daddy have the power of Clorox 2?” and watch the entire room erupt in spontaneous feminist outrage.

Just Ask a Woman was an unusual focus group, though. For one thing, it’s one of the few ones that I had to flat-out lie to get into. It wasn’t just creative accounting: they wanted women who spent $2000 or more a year on cosmetics, and there’s no way to twist numbers and get me into that category. I did it because I was intrigued by the description of the group and also, frankly, because they paid a mind-boggling amount of money. And when I got there, I realized that I was going to have to lie during the group, too. For instance, they asked how often we bought cosmetics and how many items we purchased each time we went shopping. If I’d answered that honestly, they’d have known that I spend more like $50 a year on makeup than $2000. I thought about claiming that I used Crème De La Mer moisturizer (at $100 an ounce, that ought to get me close to $2000 in a year) and then answering honestly about my other cosmetic purchases, but in the end I threw caution to the wind and came up with a character who would spend $2000 a year on makeup. It was completely unethical, but it sure was fun.

Anyway, Just Ask a Woman runs unusually cushy focus groups. Usually, focus groups are not glamorous affairs. You go to some non-descript suburban office building; you and a bunch of other people sit in a conference room, usually in front of a one-way mirror; and they give you some soda and cookies while you answer their questions. Just Ask a Woman rejects this approach entirely. Instead, they strive to recreate the Oprah experience. We were escorted to a huge suite in a very fancy hotel, where we were treated to a full spread of crudités, desserts, and coffee in fancy china cups. Then we sat down in big, comfy chairs and were introduced to the cameraman, who was not hidden behind one-way glass. The whole thing was explicitly conducted like a talk show, with us as the guests. It was bizarre and, I’m ashamed to admit, really fun. At the end of it all, I got a fat check and a new mascara.

As I said, I lied shamelessly throughout the entire proceedings. And there’s some evidence that they took my opinions seriously, because a few months later when I actually saw the ads we had been asked about, they had made some of the changes that I advocated most strongly.

One of the guys in my department has a boyfriend who works in advertising, and when I told him about my little focus group racket, he got a look of unmitigated horror on his face. He said that people who run focus groups understand the weird group dynamics and that they have ways of correcting for them. But he said it had never occurred to him that the participants might be lying about their income or spending habits. He said that what I was doing was really unethical and that it was completely screwing up their research. He’s right, but I have a hard time feeling too bad about it. At any rate, whenever I hear Just Ask a Woman, or for that matter any market research firm, pronounce upon anything, I'm a tad skeptical. Based on my experience, I'm not convinced that market research is anywhere near as scientific as it proports to be.

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