Focusing on the tissues of the day

Winston Churchill thought democracy was the least worst form of government on offer, but that was before focus groups.

Strange how the bons vivants thinkers of Hampstead blame advertising for all manner of bogus ills – from creating false wants, to putting up prices, to withholding information, to picking on the vulnerable, and much more besides – yet miss the single instance in which it, or rather its maiden aunt marketing, is genuinely, albeit unwittingly, culpable.

The focus group is the creature of marketing. It sprang from an understandable desire to hear the voice of the consumer, and reasoned that such piping wisdom as might be obtained from this source was best elicited through the cosy chatting among small groups of people, prompted and steered in their musings by a skilled researcher. All perfectly harmless, and possibly quite useful, when applied to topics such as the softness of lavatory paper and the taste of curry-flavoured noodles.

What transformed the focus group from a benign marketing aid into a cop-out for the half-witted was the dead hand of politics. Convinced, mistakenly, that Saatchi and Saatchi won elections for Margaret Thatcher, New Labour threw itself enthusiastically into the hurly-burly of marketing and discovered to its amazement and wonder the focus group. Here was the Rosetta stone, the key that would provide a party yearning for power with the answer to the only question that mattered – “What will make people vote for us?” Now the Conservatives, convinced, mistakenly, that focus groups swept Labour into power, are adopting the same tactics. Almost nightly, somewhere in Britain, a group of people are gathered around a table, as in a seance, participants in poor Mr Hague’s quest for inspiration, which in truth might be better obtained from the other side and through the medium of a long dead Red Indian Chieftain (or Native American chieftain, as they prefer to be known in the spirit world).

Not one to miss out on a trend, the BBC, too, is a zealous convert to the focus group. The new-look Six O’Clock News owes everything, which admittedly is not much, to the preferences of viewers as divined through intimate group discussions. This, however, is harmless since it brings the focus group back to its original function of discussing the inconsequential. Running a country, however, is a different matter from determining the hair style of Huw Edwards. There is something to be said for the old-fashioned notion that governments should lead not follow, and be guided by principle not pushed by popular fancy.

The weaknesses of the focus group ought to be plain to anyone willing to see. Now, thanks to a report from the Government itself, they are evident even to those who would prefer to avert their eyes. According to the Department of Trade’s latest Home Accident and Leisure Accident Surveillance report (yes, they really have spent your money on this), trousers cause an “estimated 4,440 accidents every year”. Estimated in this case means, of course, that the figure is pure guesswork. Even so, it is an alarming thought that, thanks to the focus group, government policy may in part have been determined by people who cannot be relied upon to pull on a pair of trousers without falling over. While it is true that poor physical co-ordination is no barrier to a cogent political philosophy, it cannot be denied that one is more likely to take seriously the views of a man who can use a zipper without inflicting a partial self-circumcision than one who cannot. Yet there is nothing in the selection of participants in focus groups that rules out those many individuals in whose hands a pair of trousers become a health hazard.

The statistical risk of choosing such a person to take part in a focused discussion on the war in Yugoslavia might at first sight seem slight. But now hear this. A further 6,586 accidents each year are caused by socks and tights. As with trousers, says the report, sock accidents often involve serious falls. Puzzlingly, knickers and underpants do not feature in the statistics. This would suggest that either the injured parties are adept at pulling on nether garments but, that task completed, find their powers of co-ordination and balance temporarily exhausted, or, knowing their weakness, dispense with knickers and pants altogether and charge hell-bent and without parachutes into the trousers. Either way, would you trust their views on the desirability of further European integration?

It gets worse. Every year there are 520 serious ice-cream incidents, 680 cake or scone-related hospital accidents, 500 injuries caused by toothbrushes, and an estimated 12,170 vegetable-related accidents. Ah ha, I hear you say, here surely is a valuable component of a focus group discussion of genetically modified foods, namely the victims themselves. But alas, these many hundreds of vegetable casualties arise not from the consumption of tomatoes force-fed with DNA but, in many cases, from “the insertion of portions of vegetable matter into the body, for example up the nose”.

There can be no greater condemnation of the focus group than that it might contain among its number an individual who pushes parsnips up his nostril, whether by accident or design. It is one thing that such people should have the vote, but quite another to listen to their views on the great issues of the day, such as, do you like that nice Mr Blair?

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