Someone to watch over me

For three days now, a man with a video camera has been filming every move he makes - but Adharanand Finn isn't too bothered. It's just a market researcher trying to discover how lifestyle dictates what we buy
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The Independent Online

It's seven in the morning when the alarm starts beeping. I reach over in the half-light to turn it off, and spot something out of the corner of my eye. It's a video camera, set up at the end of the bed, pointing straight at me. Behind it, smiling apologetically, sits a man in a baseball cap.

It's seven in the morning when the alarm starts beeping. I reach over in the half-light to turn it off, and spot something out of the corner of my eye. It's a video camera, set up at the end of the bed, pointing straight at me. Behind it, smiling apologetically, sits a man in a baseball cap.

His name is Nick, I remember, nodding to him. He's come to my house to study my behaviour as part of a three-day ethnographic research project. It involves filming my every move, from waking up to going to bed, in order to understand how we - consumers, people in general - use our time. I imagine it was a study like this that led to the invention of those breakfast-on-the-go cereal bars. Or pin-on ties. I get up and head downstairs for breakfast, the ethnographer following me with his camera.

Ethnography may be the latest buzz-word in market research, but it's not new. Its roots can be traced back to the Enlightenment and 18th-century explorers such as Captain Cook, whose retinue of scientists used it to observe and record the people of the Pacific and South Sea islands.

The same observational approach is now being applied by market research companies to find out about the behaviour of consumers. "It's not strictly ethnography," explains Nick. "The academics hate us for stealing their language." What he does, he says, is to apply "an ethnographic approach" to market research.

In the past, companies would find out about consumers by sitting them down for an hour in a focus group and asking them questions. But now, like the 18th-century colonists, they're moving in with them. With us. And filming what they see.

The thought of faceless corporations zooming in on our everyday lives has some uncomfortable connotations. But this doesn't feel like Nineteen Eighty-four.

Nick, who's from the research company Naked Eye, begins by showing me pictures of his own family. He stresses repeatedly that I'm a "participant", not a "subject". He's keen for me to feel involved in the process, and not to feel that I'm just being watched by a stranger for three days. At the end of the research, he gets me to add my own commentary to the video, explaining in my own words what is happening. "It's not what I see people doing that's interesting," he says. "It's what they see themselves doing."

Right now, I'm trying to find something to eat for breakfast. Although he has done his best to make me feel comfortable, I can't help feeling extremely self-conscious. We're out of cereal, and trying to make a decision about what to eat instead - with a camera pointing at me - is not easy. In the end, I plump for a half-eaten melon I find in the fridge. I have an overwhelming urge to explain myself, to tell him that this is not what I usually eat, but he has asked me to ignore him and just carry on as normal. So I do.

Later, in the bathroom, I seem incapable of remembering how I usually stand while brushing my teeth. I try sitting on the side of the bath, but that feels ridiculous. "Acting normal" is not as easy as it sounds.

Before we began, I was nervous about letting someone in to film my daily routine. Speaking to Nick on the phone, he said he wanted to get under the skin of how I use my time. "It's about the time pressures of young professionals and what it means for changes in their lifestyles," he said. I wasn't smiling down the phone at the prospect. Like most people, I like to at least present myself as normal. My big worry is that he will find out I am a bit weird. I mean, he's already filmed me eating a half-eaten melon for breakfast.

Nick tries to reassure me. "There's no such thing as typical," he says. Yet even he can't contain his surprise that we don't have a mirror in our bathroom. "I've never seen that," he says. I'm already thinking up an excuse for my end-of-research commentary.

All this trying to be normal raises the question of whether this type of research can ever discover anything useful. Getting people to ignore the camera is one of the main challenges facing the ethnographer.

Ethnography claims to uncover how consumers really behave, rather than how we say we behave. Other techniques, such as focus groups and questionnaires, rely on us being able to remember how we felt, what we were doing, or what we were thinking, when we used or bought a product. It also relies on us being honest. But ethnography catches us red-handed in the actual moment of doing or buying something. Unless, of course, we start acting to the camera. Nick says he has had to cancel projects when people tidy their houses up and try to act abnormally normal.

Critics also say that three days is not long enough. Academic ethnographers can spend years living with their subjects before they draw any conclusions.

So what can be learnt in three days? There's a Polish proverb on the Naked Eye website that reads: "A guest sees more in an hour than the host in a year." That's part of it, I guess. It didn't take long for our researcher to spot that we didn't have a mirror. For the record, we did have one, but it smashed. Six months ago.

"The intention is not to see and understand everything," Nick explains. "What we want is to see something that makes us go, 'That's really weird.' That's when things get exciting." He means that his clients are interested in finding something unexpected, that niche market that hasn't yet been tapped into. Look out for mirrorless bathrooms at a showroom near you soon.

The research is not confined to the house, so later, when I head out to the shops, Nick accompanies me with his camera. This is one of the highlights of the three days for the researcher. He's interested to see how I interact with the products on the shelves.

The first thing I head for is the free samples, hoping, through this action, to encourage more shops to lay on a spread of tiny squares of bread and chocolate for customers. Nick had admitted, before we began, that he would have liked to see me in the biscuit aisle of the supermarket. I guess he wanted to see my head spinning at all those gloriously-coloured packages, and watch as I selected the winner. So I hope I'm not disappointing him by heading to the fruit and vegetable section. After all, he did say that weird equals exciting.

I'm not sure what he learnt from me squeezing avocados and smelling apples. But it's what I learn about what I'm doing that's interesting to him. Watching the playback during my end-of-research commentary, I'm surprised to realise that I have a particular mode of shopping. I'm seeing myself scanning things, picking them up, smelling them, like a foraging animal. And, perhaps not so surprisingly, I end up buying more than I intended.

In the street, we get a few glances from people passing by, but not many. I had expected we'd get more attention, but Nick holds the camera low, at his waist, and does his best to look inconspicuous, as though he's just another person in the street for me to ignore. I try to oblige, but I can't help putting a bit more swagger into my stride.

As this project is about time pressures, on day two Nick films me on my journey to work. Unfortunately, for some reason I set out earlier than usual. I don't tell him, but can't help feeling that I might be messing up the research. Normally, standing at the bus stop, I'd be constantly checking my watch, willing the bus on. But today, I'm relaxed, taking my time. No pressure.

When I get home from work, Nick's there waiting outside my front door. Although I'm usually glad when he turns the camera off for five minutes to give me a break, I'm slightly miffed that when we head inside the house he seems distinctly indifferent about recording me with my girlfriend Etty and nine-month-old daughter Lila.

Seeing them when I get home from work is one of the highlights of my day, and surely says something about the time pressures on my lifestyle. Lila doesn't disappoint, smiling and pressing her fingers lovingly into my face. Nick stands there smiling back at us, his camera switched off. Despite the privacy of the moment, I can't help thinking: "Shouldn't you be filming this?" I guess I still don't fully understand what he's after. Maybe he wants me to stop trying to work it out and to ignore him. This is still not easy, even two days in.

Not all ethnographic market research is based on something as wide-reaching as time pressures. Many of our best-loved brands have used the technique at some point in the development of their products, from Colgate toothpaste to Orange mobile phones. The BBC commissioned research into how people watch television, for example, while Sainsbury's used ethnography in the development of its Freefrom range of foods for allergy sufferers.

And it's not always product-based. One transport company commissioned some research into road safety among children in inner cities. The ethnographers filmed the children on their way to and from school and discovered that a badly positioned pine tree, beside a dual carriageway, had been the cause of several accidents. Every time the children passed under this particular tree, a pine-cone fight would start and one of them would often end up running into the road without looking.

By the second evening, Nick, who is by now starting to feel like part of the family, sits down to have dinner with us, the camera propped up on the washing machine. This is obviously a relatively easy assignment for him. He tells me about his last job, filming a woman with a rare lung disease. "That's not easy," he says, "seeing what people like that have to live with."

As he's talking, I try thinking of something interesting we can do, but end up on the sofa watching football. Nick doesn't seem to mind, even filming a close-up of the television when I turn the volume down so that I don't have to listen to the commentators. I decide not to think too hard about what that might tell him about me.

The final day is a Saturday, so we are treated to a late start. Nick knocks on the door at about 10am, but by then we've already had a camera-free breakfast. Nine-month-olds don't believe in lie-ins, even at the weekend.

At the end of the last day, I get to add my own comments to the video. I've been saving them up in my head as we go, thinking of it as a chance to repair the damage done by any lapses of sanity I may have suffered and revealed.

But it doesn't turn out to be like that. After the final session of filming, Nick sets up a microphone in my living room and rewinds the video. As he plays it back, he gets me to talk about myself, what I'm doing, how I'm feeling, prompted by some gentle questioning. The whole process is strangely therapeutic. Nick calls it "co-discovery", and by the end I feel as though the whole filming exercise was set up just to give me a prompt - an objective viewpoint on myself - through which to spend an hour in deep self-analysis.

I "discover", for instance, that I have different modes for different times of the day, and that I'm constantly and unconsciously switching between them, from my "foraging for food" shopping mode, to my playful "in the park with my daughter" mode and my more relaxed and reflective "end of the day" mode.

Of course, Nick is still a market researcher, and these tapes will still end up on the desk of some marketing executive, but after the "co-discovery" session I feel more like I've been on a three-day self-help course than taking part as the subject - sorry, the participant - in some market research exercise.

As Nick leaves, heading no doubt to his next household, I feel a slight sense of relief. Although he'd be horrified to hear me say it, it's back to normality and my everyday life. The same, but different.