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Focus Groups: Advertising's Dirty Little Secret

Updated on February 14, 2011
wait a minute, is that turkey?
wait a minute, is that turkey?

Ad Execs Love Lies and Money

Focus Groups: online or in person, I've been a member of these groups, and I've worked for advertising and branding companies that think they're a vitally necessary and integral part of branding, learning about usability of sites or indications of customer satisfaction. I believe medical trials, which could be considered focus groups, are in fact very legitimate ways to gain information, but the branding ones are a joke, as are most online surveys/focus groups. Especially if you are looking at online survey work as a revenue stream that's worth the time and effort, at least in my experience.

But back to the real-time, live and in-person focus groups. First off, advertising and marketing agencies love to bill clients, and focus groups are a great way to do that. They can bill the client several hundreds or thousands of dollars, and pay the group members a small fee and hand out turkey sandwiches or a slice or two of Domino's pizza in return.

As written in New York magazine, an acquaintance of mine (who soon became my idol) Will Leitch "outed" the world of focus groups by exposing all the people of different demographic groups that he had pretended to be as part of market research. Basically, he had participated in focus groups for asthma sufferers, people who grew up in Long Island, travelers who had backpacked in Mongolia, Italian men, Scotch drinkers, and sufferers of profuse sweating, to name a few. And he fit into not one of those categories. But, bogus feedback or not, he got his 200 dollars cash and a turkey sandwich after giving his opinion around a conference table for an hour or two. He faked his way through--talking about the products that the marketing people were interested in, having no experience with the products whatsoever.

And the ad/marketing/branding account people videotaped him and his fellow focus-groupers, and then went back to the office to craft an ad campaign, branding revision, or marketing strategy based on what they learned from behind the two-way mirror they sat behind so as not to influence the "real opinions" from the consumers.

The money? For the most part medical trials usually pay well. Some only pay for travel time and some offer only free health care and assessments. Big-time ad or branding agencies pay quite well, as mentioned––it sounds like Leitch practically supported himself on them and this was in New York. A focus group in a small town or college town can get away with paying next to nothing.

Of course the Marketing Research Association got their panties in a ginormous wad after the article was published. Poor guys. Egg on your face and their potential money-making "consumer feedback" scheme down the toilet.

I lied and did it myself when times were tough. And once you get on the list of the people that focus group companies call, you're golden. The recruiters even steer you in the direction to get you to lie and qualify. They need heinies in chairs, and they've got a deadline. I know lots of people who have sucessfully been less than honest when applying as a focus group candidate; it's not that hard.

So yes, I myself pretended to be a Hummer owner, a connoisseur of $400+ bottles of champagne, someone who had given a watch as a gift that retailed for more than 7000 dollars in the past year, and someone afraid to access my storage unit in the dark.

My favorite though was a focus group asking opinions about the comfort of bras–what we looked for, how many we owned, preference of underwire versus soft cup. I swear to God, there were two transvestites in the group. Not pre-op transexuals, they were guys that had no breasts. And yet, there were advertising people behind that mirror writing on their legal pads and taping a few girl's--and two men's--feedback about bra comfort, that they were going to take very, very seriously. And the transvestities probably gave more feedback than anyone else. I wonder how well that advertising campaign did?


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      Ed 3 years ago

      Wow this hub is hilarious especially about the bra focus groups with the transvestites in it. Wow...just wow. I haven't participated in any that crazy before. Ones I participated in have been just the basic food/drink kind of focus groups. I LOVE participating in these paid market research studies! It such a great way to earn some extra cash in your spare time. Here's a useful resource I use to find paid focus group listings-

    • breakfastpop profile image

      breakfastpop 7 years ago

      Loved this piece. It's true and hilarious. My husband is always getting calls from professional focus groups. He can't ever participate but if he had the time they do pay well!

    • Taylorwise profile image

      Taylorwise 7 years ago from Austin, TX

      Do it! Make the extra cash at the expense of soulless marketing weasels...I wish you luck.

    • profile image

      Nightweaver 7 years ago

      Oh lol, your experience with the transvestites giving feedback on brassieres is fucking hilarious. Thanks for sharing this, this is a pretty informative article.

      As a student, I might look into focus groups to make some extra cash.