Consider the following imaginary train of thought from an fictionalized character in an, as yet, unpublished novel about the advertising industry. The scene is a candle-lit table at a middle-brow bar in a major city:
The standard line about the value of market research? It’s been repeated so many times that…what’s that saying? Oh yeah, “it attains the status of truth.” And let me tell you, that’s in spite of the fuzzy logic and waffley “results.” You ask me, any market research finding that can be found to be true can be teased out by common sense without spending thousands of dollars.
On the other hand, any finding that’s later proven wrong? Those guys will blame anything except their own so-called methodology. Trust me, they’ll blame the moderator, the media, the weather or, more often than not the “obvious” flaws in the creative. And this from a bunch of nerds who can’t write a headline to save their lives!
Now, surely, the previous two paragraphs sum up an outrageously distorted POV about the profession of market research, as dished out by a curmudgeonly personality who perhaps exhibits the classic symptoms of Oppositional Defianct Disorder. I’m told the character comes to a bad end in Chapter 27.
And yet, as I listen to the literal way market research data are often interpreted, I can’t help wondering if that same urge to generalize at all costs—just for the sake of achieving a tidy assessment—is the sole provenance of cranky nut cases with an axe to grind about scientific marketing methods. Hang out in the more data-driven agencies and you’ll hear some variation of the follow phrase at least once a week:
“This [headline, message, photo, illustration style] tested very well in research.”
…dripping with the unstated assumption that, of course, the element in question should appear word-for-word or pixel-for-pixel in each and every audience outreach from here on out. That is, of course, until the next round of market research yields a different response.
Definitions gone wild.
The problem with such a literal approach to interpreting market research data? Let’s start with the unexamined premise that information collected in a focus group meets the definition of “data” used by, say chemists, astrophysicists or even the current generation of science-savvy chefs. The data of hard science is numerical, measurable, repeatable.
By contrast, the survey responses and focus group voting we’re pleased to call data in market research is subjective—not only at a fundamental level, but also because we have no basis for knowing whether respondents are sharing their true feelings, or merely spitting out an answer that supports a cherished self-image. Market research methodology, we’re told, works around this issue by asking the same question from different angles and then checking for discrepancies.
Trouble is, people just aren’t so stupid that they can’t see this coming. Nor can we be scientifically certain that a question asked in a different way isn’t, essentially a different question, the answer to which has no relation to any quantifiable norm.
Truth, like fire. Heartwarming, handle with care.
No matter how you slice it, market research data is therefore interpreted for you, before you receive it—once by the participants and once by the researchers.
All the more reason not to treat it literally, but to continue the process of interpretation within the scope of your own discipline. Much as I value learning that consumers value products and services that give them a balance of freedom and control, I would never recommend a headline dominated by the words “Freedom” and “Control”—as I was required to produce early in my career— for two reasons.
First, the words themselves are generic, capable of almost universal application and, as such, brand neutral. Second, doing so ignores an important aspect about human nature: the need to save face. There are, in fact, many things about ourselves we know to be true, many of them are not things we’re ready to acknowledge out in the open. Instead, we need a buffer zone which, in the case of advertising, or PR or, dare I say, guerrilla marketing, means an approach that evokes our self-knowledge rather than slaps us in the face with it.
Contrary to the cowboy marketer’s mandate to put “the point” on stilts and showcase it in the most lurid colors available, my own unscientific research tells me thousands of people are turned off by unrelenting sales pressure. All the more so by unrelenting sales pressure that so obviously seeks to manipulate them by dragging their innermost thoughts into the spotlight.
Rather like the phrase “you know you want to” in a very different context, this kind of literal use of even the most spot-on observational analysis is doomed to failure.