Naked in the pursuit of truth is a finn way to do focus groups

Lord Lamont is right about one thing: focus groups are a waste of time and money.

When Lord Lamont was just plain Norman and just a plain Chancellor of the Exchequer, he became famous for three things: he ejected, with some difficulty, from his basement flat in Notting Hill a tenant operating under the pseudonym Miss Whiplash; he acquired a black eye, allegedly at the hand of a jealous husband; and he sang in his bath on the day the UK withdrew in disarray from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. But, taking a tip from the poet Tennyson, he has risen on the stepping-stones of his dead self to higher things and now applies his mature and questioning mind to matters of public interest and concern.

Only last week, the searchlight of his intellect swung on to the topic of focus groups, dispelling beneath its glare confusion and darkness. Focus groups, he declared, were – and here I paraphrase – as good as useless. Among his criticisms were that the methodology was unsound, the samples too small, and the results fallible. “If focus groups really worked,” he added, “no product would ever fail and their promoters would be sitting on a Caribbean island.”

For once, Lord Lamont has hit upon a subject on which I, as a layman, feel able to comment. I have never harboured in my basement a recalcitrant dominatrix; my eye has yet to be blackened by a spouse with a grievance; and, though from time to time I have sung in my bath, the impulse arose quite naturally and was not driven by an external economic event. But on the matter of focus groups, Lord Lamont and I are as one.

Focus groups are artificial, so it is unsurprising that they produce artificial results. How could it be otherwise, when some eight or ten strangers are paid to assemble in a small room with a two-way mirror on one side, and are led in a discussion by another stranger?

Professor Gerald Zaltman of Harvard Business School says that, contrary to conventional wisdom, focus groups “are not effective when developing and evaluating new product ideas, testing ads or evaluating brand images”.

They fail because they cannot penetrate the unconscious mind, and it is there, deep below the surface, that most of the thoughts and feelings that influence behaviour occur.

“Unconscious thoughts are the most accurate predictors of what people will actually do,” says Zaltman. “In the space of five or ten minutes in a focus group, which is the average airtime per person, you can’t possibly get at one person’s unconscious thinking.”

And, he adds, echoing Lord Lamont, 80 per cent of new products or services fail within six months when they’ve been vetted through focus groups. Hollywood films and television pilots – virtually all of which are screened by focus groups – routinely fail in the market.

So why do these plainly fallible qualitative methods of gauging opinion remain so widely used? There is more than a suspicion that their true purpose is to offer reassurance to the people commissioning them. In marketing, focus groups are used to evaluate products, services or ads into which much money and effort has been invested. Fortunately, it is a noted feature of groups that they tend to be eager to please, to say what they think the moderator wants them to say. Not only is there a gap between what participants in focus groups say and believe, but also between what they say and do. “The correlation between stated intent and actual behaviour is usually low and negative,” says Professor Zaltman.

In politics, focus groups have become a substitute for leadership. Instead of determining policy on the basis of rationale, conviction or principle, politicians are led by the inchoate views of small groups of people who, by a monstrous extrapolation, are deemed to speak for the nation. So, in the recent General Election, politicians dealt in platitudes such as clean hospitals, discipline in schools, safe streets and the like – all bromides courtesy of focus groups.

But if focus groups are useless, they are here to stay, and might as well be fun. According to George Silverman, an American market researcher, the Finns have the right idea: “I am told they hold focus groups of mixed men and women, in saunas, naked. Talk about getting them to let it all hang out.”

By accident, such a group might find itself hitting upon matters of topicality. In this country, it would be a fortunate participant who did not confront in all its rolling, subcutaneous horror the epidemic of obesity that so perturbs the nation. Amid the steam and heat and flesh the drowsy participant might muse in a dreaming and troubled sort of way on the mating tribulations of the hippopotamus. Lord Lamont, of course, would burst into song.

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