In defense of focus groups
by Dennis Bruce


"Analysis in wonderland" is how British adman, David Bernstein, once described focus groups. John Webster, on the other hand, embraced them. The famous and much awarded creative director of London's Boase Massimi Pollitt is on record as saying that he could not have operated without the insights they brought him.

Whenever focus groups are the subject of discussion among creative people, a lot of heat is generated. Nearly everyone has a story about how some of their best ideas were killed in focus groups.

After the tragic death of Lady Diana, it was announced that the Queen was using focus groups to try to understand the temper of modern Britain. Predictably, loud hoots of derision were heard from many quarters.

Recently, The Globe & Mail (June, 17, 1998) ran an article by Robert Fulford entitled
" Focus groups are the new religion for those lacking faith." He went on to accuse focus group moderators of deception and charged that focus groups are "founded on a mild fraud." His chief criticism is that people in focus groups lie a lot. Said Fulford, "They lie for a purpose. They lie to make themselves look virtuous." He has a point of course. But it is not restricted to people in focus groups. We all lie to look better. Even lovers lying together lie. If we ceased all human communication because people lie, we'd all be struck dumb. Politicians would never open their mouths. Neither would journalists or lawyers or doctors or teachers or preachers or actors or sports stars or you or me. Come to think of it, the world might be a much better and more peaceful place!

Fortunately, the good Lord has provided each of us with a built in lie detector. Most of the time, we know instantly when someone is stretching the truth and we work around it. You'd have to be a visitor from another planet to take everything you hear literally.

Because people occasionally lie is no reason to do away with focus groups. Only a fool takes what is said at face value. A skilled moderator senses when people are lying and is able to frame questions and challenge respondents in a way that leads to truth.

Many of you will have had some bad experiences with focus groups. It's undeniable that there are moderators who are insensitive, unperceptive or who grandstand to their clients in the back room. And others, when they are testing creative, don't really understand the material. It's unfortunate that not all moderators are equally skilled and perceptive. But then not all creative and marketing people are equally talented either.

In my experience, many focus group participants find it difficult to express themselves coherently on certain subjects. They're not deliberately lying. Often they can't find the right words to say. They need help to move the conversation from the linear and rational to the lateral and emotional. This help comes in the form of projective techniques.

I used one such projective technique to great affect when my former business partner, Marty Myers and I started working on Freedom 55, at our agency, MMBD, back in 1986.

Briefly, Freedom 55, the brain child of a client at London Life, had been on the market for three years when the client came to MMBD. Nine million had been spent in advertising to little effect. The client said to us, "We're going to give this one more kick at the can. If you can make it work, you have an account. If you can't, we'll just forget about it."

I put together a couple of focus groups of 28 to 30 year olds. That's the age when people have to start contributing if they want to retire at 55 without having to pump gas to make ends meet. The first thing they told me was that they were up to their necks in debt with new homes, babies, car payments, educational loans, etc. etc. "Besides", they said, "we've just got started on our careers. Retirement is a lifetime away. Freedom 55 is irrelevant."

As I sat there listening to them, I had a nagging feeling that something was not right. It wasn't that they were lying to me. They honestly couldn't see themselves retired. They couldn't look that far ahead. If I accepted what they said, there was no way Freedom 55 was going to get off the ground.

Then I had an idea. I asked them to put their hands on the table and close their eyes. "Do me a favour and humour me," I said. "Come with me, in your imagination, to the future. You are now 55 years old. You have a stream of income that allows you to retire and spend time anywhere you like. Go to that place now in your mind. Look around you. Are you warm or cool? Take note of who you're with. If you see something that interests you, go take a closer look. If you can pick it up, do so. Turn it over in your hand..."
I went on in this vein for a couple of minutes.

Then I snapped my fingers and asked them to tell me where they'd been and how they felt about it. In the next fifteen minutes, the whole campaign fell out on the table.

The rest is history. Freedom 55 is the best known brand name in Canadian financial services history.

Hocus pocus focus groups? Sometimes. But some of the best and most effective ad campaigns have had their beginnings in focus groups.


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