FEATURE1 February 2003

Media watch

What the media are saying about market research. Compiled by Yvette Mackenzie

Poll winners

“The last general election was a disaster for the opinion polls,” according to William Rees-Mogg in The Times ( 30/12/2002 ). “They were wildly wrong. They are now again being quoted as though they were broadly reliable.”

Rees-Mogg argued that the main four traditional polling organisations exaggerated Labour’s position, thereby suggesting that there was something wrong with their methods. ICM was the least inaccurate, then Gallup, then NOP, then MORI. All predicted a Conservative meltdown, which did not happen.

YouGov, the new kid on the block, turned out to be the most accurate.

Rees-Mogg referred to a new study carried out by Bob Worcester, the chairman of MORI. MORI published the results of two separate polls it carried out – one conducted on the old basis while the other confronted the issue of voter turnout.

The second poll includes only those who say they are “absolutely certain to vote”. These figures are much better for the Conservatives, just as the 2001 election result was better for the Conservatives that the polls had predicted.

Rees-Mogg suggested that Conservative support is stable, approximately a third of those likely to vote. He concluded that because of this, Iain Duncan Smith could raise a glass to cheer in 2003.

Councils favour focus groups
“Once ridiculed as a mark of New Labour superficiality, the use of focus groups in drawing up policy has been adopted by four out of five local authorities” wrote Matt Weaver for The Guardian ( 30/12/2002 ).

According to a survey by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, councils of varying political persuasions have replaced traditional public meetings with focus groups.

“The survey, of more than 200 councils, found that 81% used focus groups last year as a way of seeking the public’s views, compared to only 78% that used traditionally popular public meetings.”

New methods of public consultation on policy making include interactive websites, citizens panels and focus groups.

The local government minister Nick Raynsford said: “It is excellent news that authorities are imaginatively exploring new ways to test whether local people are satisfied with their council’s services and political leadership.”

Focus groups for toddlers
Gill Swain in The Sunday Times ( 29/12/2002 ) investigated how children have become a persuasive influence on parents’ spending.

The piece looked at several case studies and offered commentary, but its final purpose was to illustrate how young consumers are influenced.

For example Elliot Shankland, aged five, kept asking his mother when he can go to another focus group. “He enjoyed the whole package – the sweets, the comfortable room, watching the video, and then he got paid £10 at the end… He doesn’t understand that what it’s all about is somebody trying to make a lot more money than that out of him.”

The article argues that market research companies specialise in “pester power”, giving children “diaries to scribble down the names of their favourite idols, disposable cameras to snap images they like and little dictaphones to record their thoughts, sometimes over a period of months”. It’s all about “pitching meaningful advertising to them”. British youngsters are exposed to more advertising during children’s programmes than in any other country in Europe.

David Naylor, a partner in the law firm of Morrison & Foerster, specialises in regulations governing new technology, although the volume of text messages and internet traffic makes it difficult to monitor. He raised issues concerning children and advertising.

Naylor said: “There is concern that children today are being shaped by influences over which parents have no control, that they are growing up too fast and too materialistic, and are only able to express themselves, or fit in with their friends, through the things they possess.”

Poll position
Internet surveys are a popular way of testing opinion, but new evidence suggests that on some issues they can be misleading, argued Nick Sparrow, MD of ICM Research, and John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, in The Guardian ( 09/01/2003 ). They cited the success of internet polling agency YouGov, which gained acclaim for its 2001 election predictions.

Sparrow and Curtice were puzzled by the success of internet polling. “It defies all conventional sampling wisdom. Sampling is much like taking a slice out of a cake. If the ingredients have been thoroughly mixed then a small slice will tell us what the whole cake tastes like.”

The authors added: “When it comes to the internet, Britain is still a layered society. Only half the [population] are connected, and they are very different from the half who are not connected. They are younger, more highly educated and more affluent. So how can a poll of 1,000 people on the internet possibly tell us the mood in Britain as a whole?”

Internet pollsters have tried to solve the problem by recruiting a panel of people who volunteer to respond to a survey when asked. The volunteers tell the pollsters about themselves. They then use this information to ensure that the demographic make-up of those taking part in their polls are representative of Britain as a whole.

Sparrow and Curtice think this is working on assumptions, claiming potential internet panellists are more likely to support the Liberal Democrats than other parties.

The authors believe that internet polls can be right some of the time, and measure up to other polls in most respects. However what is difficult is knowing when they are suited to a particular project.

February | 2003