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OPINION9 February 2018

Don't blame the focus group

FMCG Opinion Public Sector UK

US academic, Liza Featherstone, wrote a diatribe against focus groups in The Guardian this week, here James Parsons responds to her claims and hopes it doesn't put people off entering the sector.

Talk is Cheap – The myth of the Focus Group is one of The Guardian’s weekly Long Reads. This one, by US academic Liza Featherstone, is long on campus conspiracy theory and short on understanding. It meanders from one ideological ramble to another supported by evidence which is often as not inaccurate, irrelevant, or both. Experienced professionals will probably take it with a pinch of salt, but it would be a shame if this kind of talk deterred young talent from exploring a rewarding career in qualitative insight or planning.

Her thrust seems to be that the focus group reflects and perpetuates a “culture of consultation”, in which “… ordinary people weigh in on just about everything before the people in charge make a decision.” Focus groups – both commercial and political – are equally guilty of creating endemic power imbalances in society, she thunders. So ubiquitous are they, she implies, that they have produced a universal illusion of democratic participation, effectively masking a critical decline in real democracy. 

But what if…” she solemnly ponders, “…focus groups have also been part of a process in which citizenship has been reduced to consumerism – a set of choices made passively, under constraint? Focus groups reveal our desires – for a better life, for participation, for power, to be heard – but do they also limit them? Perhaps it is a process through which our aspirations become much smaller.”  You’ve got to love the noirish Hidden Persuaders vibe. 

Adding an extra dash of sinister to the already muddled cocktail, she talks of the hatred clients invariably hold towards focus group participants; a hatred that stems from their elitist abhorrence of listening to people below them in the power hierarchy.

A couple of sentences later she’s berating the respondents for their no-holds-barred honesty in trashing the marketing ideas they’re presented with; an honesty that stems from their (misguided) sense of duty to participate in the dark consumerist matrix. 

Next up for an academic thrashing, it’s qualitative moderators who mistakenly “…tend to feel invested in an idealistic vision of their profession. They believe they are truly listening to the voice of the people, making the ordinary person’s opinions matter. They feel there is something ennobling about letting the people speak.”

It’s a silly article, which draws its moral indignation from a simplistic assumption that consumerism is necessarily bad, an opiate for the doe-eyed masses, complicit in their own oppression. It equates the ubiquity of focus groups of all colours ipso facto with the death of democratic participation.

For sure, politicians who develop policy based on focus groups in Middle England swing constituencies abdicate their responsibility to apply superior wisdom, to challenge, inspire and lead. But quite what part commercial focus groups have to play in such political dumbing-down is unclear.

Democratic representation is in a pitiful state in many societies, including Britain (just ask the 3.9 million people who voted UKIP at the last general election and got one MP). But that’s the fault of inadequate electoral systems and feckless politicians, not focus groups. 

Of course it’s a bit naff when viewers make rude comments about participants from behind the mirror’s protective shield, but they rarely see themselves as any more “elite” or “in charge” than the respondents. Whatever the social distance, most realise that a respectful and realistic understanding of the lives of their target is key to successful marketing strategy. Hatred is not an intrinsic aspect of these encounters.

And as for those idealistic moderators, with their righteous calling to make the ordinary person’s opinions matter … well, for the most part, they see no such calling; they’re personable characters who enjoy the buzz of human interaction, and get intellectual stimulation from translating what they’ve heard into useful marketing advice. Yes, a career instigating world peace might make your parents a bit prouder, but it’s hardly fair to depict qualitative researchers as unwitting, deluded handmaidens of the corporate stitch-up.

For sure democratic participation is in crisis, but it’s not the fault of focus groups. One hopes Liz Featherstone’s piece won’t put too many people off the profession.

James Parsons is founder of The FameWorks.

2 Comments

2 months ago

Nice rebuke James - with thoughtfully made points. Thanks for responding with intelligence!

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2 months ago

You wrote, far more articulately, what I'd been thinking. It was the most 'Guardian' article ever - increasingly anti-business and almost conspiratorial. Utter rubbish!

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