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July 12, 2010
The Focus Group Has Decided the Focus Group Is Dead
Have you noticed the many “deaths” in advertising in recent years? An unofficial tally includes “the death of print," “the death of the traditional agency model," “the death of the 30-second TV spot," "the death of the long-running campaign,” and “the death of Don Draper.” I’m kidding. I’m kidding. I’m just excited for "Mad Men" season 4.

May I nominate one more fatality to the death count? I think it’s time we declare the death of the focus group. It’s time to take it behind the barn; give it a loving scratch behind the ears; aim squarely between its sad, tired eyes; and slowly squeeze the trigger. Bang.

I can see how focus groups were necessary in the golden age of mass media. How else did we really know what real consumers (American stay-at-home women, mainly) were thinking and feeling when they saw a commercial about Dawn, Lux, or Pepsodent? How do what they know what they’re thinking when they see a print ad in Ladies' Home Journal or Life? The focus group told us so. Agencies and clients listened carefully. Focus group participants brought home some extra cash, and it gave people with free time something to do. 


Flash forward to the Internet age where feedback is instantaneous. We have comment boards. We have blogs. We have Twitter. We can gauge popularity quickly and accurately. There’s no wishy-washiness or hung juries online. People are honest about what they like and dislike.

When you’re alone in front of your screen, there’s no succumbing to groupthink, a big inherent flaw in focus groups. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen people change their opinion to match the dominant personality in the room. That dominant personality took many forms: men, women, young, and old;it also has killed more campa
igns than any creative director or client I know.


Focus groups ask for people’s honesty in an artificial environment. This is a problem. A small group of people is gathered for their opinions on new products, advertising, etc. They are paid to discuss topics ad nauseum, more than any human being would do outside a sanitarium. Tell me, when was the last time you talked about mayonnaise and mayonnaise advertising, for three to six hours?


The result is listening to people exploring parts of their brain normally left for other things, like dreaming and hallucinogenic drugs. I say this because I have seen and heard some crazy stuff fly out of the mouths of people in focus groups. Add bongos, and it would be beatnik poetry. Behind the two-way mirror I’d sit, mouth agape, sitting next to account teams and clients, who would be scribbling down every word as Larry, the Prophet of Paramus, New Jersey, delivers his sermon on breakfast cereals, and why you can’t find a certain brand of milk that hasn’t been available since 1972.


And people will say things despite their own real opinions. I’ve witnessed people say, “I thought the ad was entertaining and informative, but I didn’t like it.” And “I love the ad, except for the headline, photo, copy, and, oh yeah, I don’t like this brand of [whatever].” How is this useful to anyone? 


For those who claim focus groups are valuable for research’s sake, let’s have a look. A focus group consists of a select few gathered in on geographic location, who may not be telling the truth, versus Internet-based research, which allows for a larger group in many locations who most likely will tell the truth because there is no dominant personality they feel they have to please. Score one for the Internet.


I realize focus groups aren’t likely to die anytime soon. Clients find them comforting and familiar, like newspapers, another soon-to-be obsolete area of our business. There are companies that love focus groups and can present binders upon binders of research showing how there’s no better way to test a product. Plus, there are free snacks! I suppose some companies will be holding onto this old model as long as they can. Besides, for those with the time, there’s no better way to bring home between $75 to $200 by talking about denture cream, Geritol, and the Rascal scooter than the focus group. That’s the way people like it, and what else is there to do in South Florida on a Tuesday afternoon?


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Brad Mislow is a New York-based ACD in both traditional and digital media. He has worked on Citibank, Toyota, AT&T, Mercedes-Benz, the U.S. Army, American Express, Hershey Foods, Unilever, DHL, Kraft Foods, Kodak, Amtrak, Miller Lite, and Post Cereals. For a look at his work and more articles like this one, go to bradmislow.com.

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