Reasearch is good. No it isn't

By The Drum, Administrator

November 18, 2004 | 5 min read

I love research. Research can tell you many wonderful things: how we behave, when we are at our most receptive. It can help you explore strategies, fruitful territories, hone your tone of voice, back up your argument. Used well, it can be a real asset and make the communication process a whole lot more enjoyable for everyone involved. Including the most important person of all, the consumer.

But when you come across lazy research, I hate it.

One of my main concerns is the use of focus groups in deciding whether ads live or die. (How embittered am I?) A focus group is a false environment. In no way does it reflect how we receive communications, how we process them and how we filter them.

But first of all, let’s have a look at the real world.

“A. Bloke” is woken by his Philips radio alarm clock playing the Real Radio breakfast show. Two snooze buttons, a Carphone Warehouse commercial, a great day out for the family at Blair Drummond Safari Park commercial, a Daily Record commercial and a weather forecast sponsored by Kwik Fit. Later, he gets up, washes with Dove soap. Brushes teeth with Aquafresh. Flicks on GMTV, sponsored by DFS. Flicks off TV set, which is made by Bush (no, not that one). Gets dressed in M&S boxers, trousers and shirt from Next, jumper from ASDA (but don’t tell anyone) and jacket from USC. Leaves house. Just misses First Bus first bus. Gets second bus with a picture of a scary dog on the side of it. Gazes out of window, sees car on a poster, and another car on a poster, and another car (oh, for a car account). Arrives at HBZ leading law firm. Walks through reception, stopping to glance at headlines from the Herald, the Scotsman, the Daily Record (“what radio commercial?”). Gets to his desk. Turns on Dell computer, stares at the Microsoft Windows 98 thingy. Catches up on early e-mails, deletes the ones from easyjet, Expedia and Sky Sports. By this time, sponsored by Accurist, it’s only just after 9 a.m.

And that’s the frightening thing. It’s only just after nine o’clock in the morning and already this poor bloke has been bombarded with all these brands and messages. By the end of the day he will have had over 3000 messages/brands thrown at him (research tells us that). But which of the 3000 messages competing for his brain space can he remember?

Not many, I bet.

And that’s my point. How do focus groups replicate the highly competitive environment in which people consume messages? The answer is, they don’t.

To illustrate, let’s send our bloke to a focus group. He goes along and finds himself sitting in a group of other like-minded individuals (that is, they’ll do anything for thirty quid). The warm-up act involves questions like “Which advertisements do you like?”, “What makes them memorable?” and “Can anyone remember anything other than ‘those funny ones with Peter Kay in them’?”

Then comes the main act. (For argument’s sake, four ads.) The focus group is shown each ad slowly and methodically. They are asked to ignore the dodgy drawings “because, if they were to run, they would be photographs”. They are asked what they like about each ad, what they don’t like, they have things explained to them ... hold on a minute, what the hell’s going on? In the morning, did anyone stop and explain anything to our bloke? Did they hell as like.

Communication has to work in a snap second. And the reaction to it has to be spontaneous. To get any sort of reaction in the first place, you have to do something a little different for it to get noticed. Something unexpected.

And this is the problem with focus groups. Everything is expected. Your radar is in “on” mode. You are expected to look at something. You are expected to respond. And if you see something out of the ordinary, a little different, the reaction is not spontaneous. It is analytical. Which can’t be right.

At Family we fully endorse the use of research. (Some of our best work has come about from research findings.) But focus groups nowadays just seem so primitive; a very leaden way of gleaning information. As a result, the information you gather has to be treated with great caution. And that is why interpretation is so important. Thankfully, our planning director at Family, Ben Leonard, has got this down to a fine art.

But we’re on a mission. Just as some of the best ads have not been written yet, some of the best research techniques have not yet been discovered. And we’re going to find those techniques. With better research, we get better ads and, ultimately, our clients get better results. It’s exciting. Originality and striving for better in every part of the communication process is what should drive us all. And that is what we should focus on.


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