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August 18, 2005

Gladwell Hates Two-Way Mirrors, Too

Mention the words "focus group", and every creative can feel the bile rising in the throat. We know what's coming. We'll be sitting behind a two-way mirror for a couple of hours, eating bad snacks, and watching a group of people casually trample the work that we've poured our very souls into. Once those plumbers and sales clerks take their places on the other side of the glass, they suddenly become advertising experts. And their opinions suddenly matter more than those of us who've been in the business for a long time.

But cheer up, creatives. We have a new champion who loathes focus groups as much as we do. And it's none other than Malcom Gladwell. Author of "The Tipping Point", the book that's probably on every marketer's bookshelf. And author of the new "Blink", which is probably on every marketer's nightstand.

Several of us saw Gladwell speak at the AAAA Account Planning Conference in Chicago at the beginning of this month. His opening statement was: “Focus groups are the primary institutional forum for inhibiting creativity. And Congress should enact a law prohibiting the freedom of assembly for the purpose of conducting a focus group.”

Then he launched into a one-hour rant on why focus groups lead companies toward bad decisions. His three primary points were:

1) Focus groups are biased to favor the known over the unknown, the familiar over the unfamiliar. Because creative ideas are new and unfamiliar, they will always test badly in focus groups. He gave several examples. The Aeron chair - like the ones we have at our agency - tested horribly with focus groups. They thought it was ugly. One focus group member said, "It looks like the exoskeleton of some weird prehistoric insect." The probably was, the chair looked totally different from any chair they'd ever seen before. So they hated it. But Herman Miller chose to ignore the groups and produce the chair anyway -- and it became the best-selling office chair in the history of the company. Likewise, when CBS first tested "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "All in the Family", focus groups hated both shows. It was a different style of comedy than audiences had seen before, and for focus groups, different is bad. CBS ignored the focus groups, and both shows were huge hits.

2) Asking people to explain their feelings is asking them to explain a visceral reaction - something that happens in the subconscious. We cannot understand what goes on back in the dark corners of the brain, much less explain it. So when focus groups ask people to explain their feelings, they make up stories that sound logical. They don't believe that they're lying, he said. They're just groping to come up with a reasonable explanation for something they can't explain.

3) Asking people to explain their feelings can actually change their feelings. He gave a couple of examples, including one with strawberry jam. People were asked to taste five unmarked jams and tell which one they liked best and least. Then the researchers mixed the jams up and asked them to taste all five and explain what they liked and didn't like about each one. After doing the thinking and explanation, subjects were asked to pick their favorite again. This time, a huge percentage of people picked a jam that had actually been the one they ranked as their least favorite the first time. Why? Because the first time, they'd just tasted and reacted. The second time, they overthought it - as we often ask people to do in focus groups.

Gladwell concluded with, "There are consequences to asking people how they feel or what they like. The consequence is, you'll be lead to a false conclusion, because making people think about their preferences makes them stupid."


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Joe at American Copywriter put up an excellent post today on focus groups and why they ought to be outlawed. Mention the words "focus group", and every creative can feel the bile rising in the throat. We know what's coming.... [Read More]


At the risk of using sounding like the NRA defending the right to wield an Uzi in the office (“Its not guns that are dangerous…”), the problem with focus groups is not how they are always antagonistic to good creative, but how, in the wrong hands, they are misused and misinterpreted.

Of course when you ask a bunch of consumers what they think about an ad they instantly turn into product managers. Much of the time product managers don’t have a particularly well-honed ability to judge the effectiveness of communications, so a random selection of the “target market,” stuck in a stuffy room, behind a one-way mirror, invariably lead to some quirky, and sometimes groan-inducing reactions, none of which bear any correlation with how people behave in the real world.

Having said that, as an agency/brand developer, I have personally been part of research that has allowed us to fine-tune the details of creative work to make it better than it would have otherwise been. The creative “gut” is not always reliable and it is easy to forget that other people do not react to things in the same way that we do. This applies especially to vocabulary - words that might be meaningful to us could be gibberish to others.

I believe the misuse of focus groups is a symptom of a deeper problem – one that Gladwell touches on in Blink. The typical courses in human psychology that are taught in business schools are pitifully out of date. The idea that our behavior is the result of conscious, rational thought processes is not supported by anything that neurophysiologists have discovered in the last 30 years.

When business schools start to teach their students psychology that is more realistic, then maybe we will get product managers who appreciate the finer points of the creative process, and how focus groups can be used to help creative folk come up with communications programs that are more sophisticated – and work more reliably.

BTW – your podcasts are fantastic! Thanks. (Hope you get some great new accounts – ones that are less fishy).

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