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Psyched Out

Occasionally, I get an invitation to participate in focus groups or marketing studies of various kinds. My wife got on a list for these activities some years ago and I got myself on one, too, after substituting for her once. One also gets paid for doing these things, but they are too short and infrequent to make much money. Sometimes, they want participants to handle some piece of equipment, say, a digital camera, and give feedback. Or there might be a whole bunch of cameras and they want participants to compare them.

Another type of group in which I participated about a year ago and again today is called an auto study. The cars are said to be pre-release (in this country) vehicles or prototypes. The people running the study provide a bunch of cars with all identifying marks blanked out and have participants look them over, guided by a PDA that gives directions and asks questions. Participants look at the vehicles in turn, outside front, back and side, inside front seat, back seat and rear door (SUVs). Throughout the procedure, participants answer questions and associate words with various aspects of the cars.

When I first started doing these groups, I naively thought that I would be giving some kind of input into the creation process for new products. Wrong! While the participant responses might, at some future time, get into the hands of product designers and the technical folks who implement new features, I infer from the process that the real recipients of the data are the people who want to twiddle with the words in advertisements to make one product look better than another, even if it isn’t.

Psychology seems to be the principal activity going on, instead of gathering real information about form and function (although there is some of that). It’s the word associations that tell the tale. The participants (I tried to find a shorter, handier word to use; the synonym that jumped off the screen at me was accomplice – oh, dear!) were given words like aggressive, athletic, powerful, contemporary, edgy, high end, flexible, smart, adventurous, stylish, refined, and a few more. I forgot to mention that there were no overall guidelines given as to how the study participants were to interpret any of the instructions or the words used. The only suggestions were to proceed quickly and go with the first answer that comes to mind.

Working my way through the study, I had to deal with a lot of ambiguities, and was never sure on which side the study designers wanted us to go. When asked if a certain car’s interior was associated with the word “smart,” were they intending for me to mean that it was really smart looking, you know, sharp and elegant? Or was the psychology reversed: did they want me to tell them that the look of the interior would make others think that I, the owner, am smart, i.e., intelligent. If I supply the word “flexible,” am I saying that the vehicle is flexible because I would have both a car that seats a bunch of people and, with the seats folded, a truck that will hold a lot of cargo? Or do I mean that others will judge me as a flexible person for buying such a vehicle? And “powerful,” do I think this vehicle has a big V8 engine, or do I want to portray myself as a powerful person that makes bold, significant decisions?

For each of those choices, I suspect that the study designers were looking for the second choice, but since they had given no indications, I supplied the first, being a logical and science-oriented person. Some of the words, such as “contemporary,” “athletic” and “edgy,” were clearly aimed at young, hip types. Not being in that target group (thank goodness!), I could do nothing with those words. I always gave them the choice which best represented null, zero or doesn’t apply. I wasn’t trying to screw anything up; that’s just the way I am, and they chose me! I mentioned these ambiguities to my wife and her comment was that these studies aren’t really designed to be taken by smart people. (Yes, her comment sounds elitist, but it’s probably true.) The ideal participants in such groups are probably folks who wouldn’t be troubled by such alternatives. They would just answer the way a lifetime of advertising has conditioned them to answer.

I don’t much like reverse psychology, and I don’t respond to it. I’m not conditioned properly, I guess. I haven’t listened to a TV commercial since the mute button was invented, and only see them when there’s a commercial on both channels that the “Last” button on the remote control brings me to. I don’t feel cheated at all.

My wife and I have been watching the new TV show Mad Men. The soap opera aspects of the program aside, it tells an important story that relates closely to the study in which I was an accomplice today. It clearly shows the advertising industry consciously applying psychological techniques on the public to make people feel certain ways about various products or institutions. The show’s characters consider the agency’s research studies, as well, created by someone with a strong Goebbels accent. I assume the show is supposed to depict the period when this type of advertising practice was just hitting its professional stride in the late Eisenhower period (1960), and the clients were just discovering how much power they could have over the consuming public.

Now, forty-seven years after the time in which Mad Men is set, it is evident what the results of such a long period of continuous advertising are. Marketing/advertising studies, such as mine today, are absolutely ordinary. There are no real instructions to the participants because none are necessary. By now, the designers know for a fact that the techniques will work and will supply the desired results. And not only will the study show what the public’s buttons are, pushing them will get the the product sold. (As the corporate honcho said in the movie The Electric Horseman, “Don’t try to apply logic to advertising; it will only confound you.”)

After all of this, will I keep participating in these studies? Of course! And I’ll do my best to be as honest as possible. Where else can one see the products of the future and have some input into them? And where else can one get such mind fodder to consider and analyze? Also, where else can one get a couple of free tanks of gas for 90 minutes work?

August 25, 2007


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