Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Testing, testing. Is this on?

I've worked in advertising for more than 30 years. I've worked for good agencies, bad agencies and one agency that was pure evil, selling poison to children.

So I've seen my share of focus groups. Believe me, they're not pretty. Focus groups gather average people in a room and ask their opinions of an ad, movie or TV show. Then, based on their average opinions, the ads, movies or TV shows are changed or even killed completely. I've seen some really good work go down the crapper because some out-of-work drywall guy didn't like the shirt a guy was wearing.

I hate focus groups.

(By now you're probably wondering why I put a painting by Monet up there. I'll get to that. Just hang in there, baby.)

Last November, WNYC's RadioLab did a show about choice. You can listen to it here. About 45 minutes into it they talk about a study Tim Wilson of UVA did with students. One group was offered a free poster. Another group was offered a choice from the same selection, but they had to write up a paragraph explaining why they picked what they did.

The choices were either posters of impressionist paintings or these hanging cat posters.

Six months later the researchers called the students and asked if they were still happy with their choices. By a wide margin, those who had taken the free poster without having to explain their decision said they were happy. Those who had to write the paragraph were not.

And here's where it gets interesting. The ones who had to write the paragraph overwhelmingly chose the hanging cat. The ones who did not went with the impressionists.

The researchers concluded that if you ask people to explain their choice, they'll go for the least sophisticated option.

Explains a lot of television, doesn't it.

As the program tells us, TV shows like All in the Family, Mary Tyler Moore and Seinfeld were focus group failures. But someone with balls said, "Fuck the focus group findings. I like it."

And that's the point, really. The reason I think focus group research is still with us is that few corporate suits have any balls. They don't want to take a chance on being held accountable for a decision. So, if a project fails, they can point to the research and say, "See, the focus groups were wrong. I didn't fuck up. It was the focus groups that fucked up."

Think of it as a failure of intelligence.

I'm convinced that if Casablanca had been tested, Ingrid Bergman wouldn't have gotten on that plane.

Arnold Advertising out of Boston put together this bogus focus group for the annual Hatch Awards. In it, they show an animatic of a spot Apple ran in 1984, now considered one of the greatest ads ever produced. None of these people had ever seen "1984." They are not actors, just normal people that would form a focus group.

Take a look at how they did.

And if you haven't seen "1984," here it is. It's damn good, even 25 years later.


norby said...

I remember thinking that was great ad when it came out, and I was only 13. We discussed it in my advertising class eight years later in college-it still stands the test of time as a great ad. Too bad ad agencies rarely follow that example.

Have been reading the backlash over the Whopper Virgin ads?

eviljwinter said...

An impressionist painting vs. cat poster? No contest, and I'll gladly write a line or two as to why.

Now, an impressionist vs. Dogs Playing Poker... Decisions, decisions...

JD Rhoades said...

If you try to analyze anything, even something you really like, it suddenly seems a lot less great. Try explaining why your favorite joke or your favorite Seinfeld episode is funny. You'll never laugh at it again. that's why the focus group concept is intrinsically flawed. People start thinking and analyzing, not reacting. You want people to react.

redtreetimes said...

Hey, groups of people always suck. The Klan. Nazis. Juries. Rotarians...
That's why I, too, prefer anything with chimps...

John McFetridge said...

Advertising, eh, have you ever read the novel, Palladio by Jonothon Dee? You might really like it.

The blurbs trying to explain it, as Dusty says, won't make it sound very good.