Philip is based in Auckland, New Zealand. He can be contacted at or on +6421689383.

Focus groups. Your Neighbour's opinion. And witches.

I was sent this article from Advertising Age the other day. It revisits an issue everyone in our industry is painfully aware of – the puzzling tendency of clients to rely on focus groups to inform marketing decisions.

I sent the article to a friend (a senior marketer) to see what she thought.   Her response was interesting.

I asked her whether it might be a little artificial to ask people to explain the rational motivation for a purchase decisions when those decisions are made without any great rational thought. She said that I was trying to make the process more complicated than it actually is and that most people are quite good at explaining why they make decisions.

I questioned her as to whether asking people with no experience whatsoever in design or communication to comment intelligently on important issues of design or communication might not be a bit optimistic.  She countered that ‘agency people’ only want to design stuff that other ‘agency people’ like and that talking to real people is a necessary reality check.

But the final comment she made was the most interesting.

She said ‘Marketers don’t buy shampoo.  My neighbour does.  So I thinks it’s useful to get my neighbour’s opinion’.

Which on the surface seems like a reasonable view to take. It's 'ordinary' people who buy stuff, so the view of 'ordinary' people should be relevant.

But the argument falls over for a few reasons (the first two alluded to above).

Firstly, most purchase decisions are emotional. Research seeks to explain them rationally.  Hasn’t neurological science established that the two processes are entirely different?

Secondly, people who buy soap aren’t qualified to design packaging or advertising for soap, in the same way that people who attend rugby matches aren’t qualified to coach players or design stadia.

But I think there’s a bigger issue that I’ve always struggled to articulate.  I can’t understand why we put people we know nothing about in a room and unquestioningly give credence to their views on a very important subject (to us at least).  These are often people who, if we met them outside the confines of a meeting room, we would possibly think were less than, shall we say, credible.  The fact is we know nothing about their view of the world, but we put them in a research group and assume the capacity for sagacity.

Then I read this at the weekend.  It’s a summary of what, according to recent research, Australians believe in.

Amongst other things, 51% of Australians believe in angels - winged messengers of God sent to earth to perform specific tasks at His behest.  It also seems that 41% of Australians believe in astrology, maintaining that the position of various celestial bodies has a direct impact on your personality, the likely course of your life and, if you get right down to it, the entire future of humanity and our planet.  But my personal favourite is that 22% if Australians believe in witches, shadowy figures using sorcery and magic to demonise the unsuspecting.

So next time you use a focus group to provide an informed and rational ‘voice of the consumer’ on a significant marketing issue, bear in mind that of the six people in the room, three very likely believe that angels walk among us, at least two are concerned with the detrimental impact of Saturn journeying through their sign (but comforted by the Sun’s imminent presence in their compassion zone) and one person believes that a shadowy figure in an unfortunate hat is galvanising dark forces to challenge the natural order through the casting of spells and placing of curses.

But don’t let that impact your view of their credibility.  I’m sure their views on your advertising are completely logical and rational. They are, after all, your neighbours.

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