End of the road for focus groups?

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The Independent Online
IT IS sometimes said that Tony Blair will not blow his nose until a focus group has pronounced on the wisdom of such a move. Now the first signs are emerging of a backlash against a technique used to canvas views on everything from vacuum cleaners to politics.

In the United States, where Bill Clinton's pollsters used focus groups to help propel him into the White House in 1992, front-runners in the race to succeed him are dissociating themselves in droves from the polling strategy.

On this side of the Atlantic, the advertising campaign for the Rover 75 boasts that it was "rejected by focus groups". The slogan suggests that the distinctive-looking car was not designed by a committee - and also pokes fun at a favoured research tool.

The technique, which relies on asking representative groups of voters or consumers what they want and then tailoring a product or policy accordingly, has been employed by market researchers for decades.

Want to know whether a new lavatory cleaner will have punters swooning in the aisles? Assemble a dozen "ordinary people" in a living room in Watford, ply them with coffee and digestives, and ask them what they think. Uncertain how a new advertising campaign will play in the shires? Show it to some punters first.

In recent years, focus groups have been adopted by organisations selling less concrete wares, such as the BBC and the Royal Family. But it is their use in politics that has made them objects of ridicule or mystique, depending on the perspective of the observer.

Labour famously used focus groups to fine-tune its policies before the 1997 election, as did Ehud Barak, the newly elected Israeli Prime Minister.

However, in America politicians are turning their backs on them. Bill Bradley, the one rival Vice-President Al Gore has for the Democratic nomination, has repeatedly criticised the notion of pandering to voters and has instead embraced a "take me or leave me" attitude.

A number of candidates for the Republican nomination have also rejected the technique, including the favourite, George W Bush, who declared: "I won't use my office as a mirror to reflect public opinion."

In Britain, doubts have been quietly raised about the value of focus groups in advertising.

According to last week's issue of Campaign, the industry magazine, there is particular concern about "focus groupies" - people who habitually attend for the fee and for the refreshments and who distort the process by telling researchers what they want to hear.

Philip Gould, Labour's chief pollster, who runs a political consultancy with Stan Greenberg and James Carville, former advisers to President Bill Clinton, says the role of focus groups in the 1997 election was greatly exaggerated.

In The Unfinished Revolution, his account of the Labour Party's struggle to power, published last October, Mr Gould wrote: "With the exception of `spin-doctors', no campaign phrase has been imbued with a greater air of non- sensical mystique than `focus groups'."

Mr Gould admits to having convened numerous such groups himself and recalls that "on one occasion two strangers seduced each other as the group was going on. Everyone pretended not to notice."

Labour still uses focus groups to test public opinion, although the term itself is said to have been banned by party apparatchiks.

The advertising industry also continues to rely on what it calls "qualitative research", according to Katie Collins, an associate director of the British Market Research Bureau.

Even Chris Thomas, chief executive of Ammirati Puris Lintas, the agency behind the Rover 75 campaign, backs the use of focus groups in the right circumstances. "They are a fabulous tool if used in developing ideas and for concept work," he said. "They are a very poor tool for evaluating final ideas."

The pitfalls of the technique are clear.

First, it may not yield a desired result. Mr Gould says when he told Tony Blair that focus groups did not favour John Prescott as deputy leader, an irritated Mr Blair told him to "refocus your focus groups".

Second, you have to ask the right questions. Coca-Cola once switched to a new flavour because focus groups liked it. Nobody asked them, though, whether it should replace the old flavour - which the company was forced to relaunch as Classic Coke six months later.