Saturday, February 18, 2006

Biting the hand that feeds me

The other day, one of my (three) faithful readers asked me why oh why I never write about the industry that feeds me; that is, advertising. The simple answer is because I would like to continue being fed. However, my reader's curiosity inspired me, so from now on I will run the risk of utter destitution and I will start kvetching about the hand that feeds me. Should be fun.
Having said this, I believe marketing is evil. Focus groups are superduper evil. It gives me the heebie jeebies to go to research meetings and hear the Orwellian way that research people have of talking about "the consumer", as if "the consumer" was not quite a fully human entity but just a creature of enormous unsatisfied wants. People are categorized as "scent seekers" (I'm one of those: I sniff everything), "early adapters", "young urban males" (that's Black to you) and who knows what else. To me, frankly, the most apt descriptor would be "mongoloids", to judge from the people present at my focus groups, ready to disembowel our hard work in one fell swoop, for the sum of fifty dollars, the promise of tepid free soda and an inflated ego.
I respect research that attempts to understand how people use and perceive a certain brand. That kind of research actually helps marketers and agencies create better ads. But I have never fathomed why storyboards are shown to ten strangers who sit around a conference room table (something that gives most human beings a very distorted sense of their own power) and are asked to criticize commercial ideas rendered in little drawings.
Despite the fact that it is well documented that there are professional focus group goers, and that people tend to talk out of their ass, and that the dynamics of focus groups do not even remotely resemble reality, marketers listen to these morons as if they were the Delphic oracle.
Do you usually watch TV with ten strangers sitting around your kitchen table? I doubt it. So why are we supposed to believe that this is how people will react when they see an ad at home? In almost every focus group I've ever been to, there is always one nefarious wiseass who likes to intimidate the rest of the group. Or then you get people who say what they think you want to hear. If you don't have a moderator that knows what they're doing, people like that can hijack the proceedings. Therefore, as science, focus groups are totally bogus. Every single person who sits behind that mirrored window for twelve hours eating m&m's, farting quietly and taking "notes", will interpret and spin what the murgatroids say according to his or her agenda. So the clients hear one thing, and the agencies another and the moderator will chime in, too, hoping to get hired again. It is an utter waste of time, money and effort.
One academic study came to the conclusion that the only reason focus groups exist is to save corporate ass. Nobody wants to trust their instincts and make a decision. Brand managers are afraid, so they pay the murgatroids to do it for them. Agencies agree to focus groups because if their ads tank, they can blame "the consumers" who picked them out of a lineup.
Consensus is highly overrated. Experts are paid big bucks to make decisions and stand by them. Focus groups and consensus have become ways in which upper management deflects their responsibility unto their subordinates, which range from the assistant assistant account executive to the janitor. Have some backbone and defend what you believe in. Put your MBA to good use. That's why they pay you the big bucks for, no?


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