Governing by focus groups is just playing at democracy

Suzanne Moore on Royal uneasiness
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The Independent Online
I hope very much that I will be asked to participate in the new focus groups set up by MORI and approved by the Queen that the Monarchy are going to use in order to find out what the public really wants. I am more than happy to be observed behind two-way mirrors elucidating my finer feelings on the role of hereditary privilege in British life. I don't mind in the least sharing with my fellow citizens my tips on how the Royals might further annihilate, sorry modernise, themselves.

Alas, it will probably not be yours truly but the usual suspects from middle England who will be rounded up to give their ultra-reasonable opinions on all this. In these gale force days you don't need a weather man to know which way the wind blows, and you don't need a pollster to tell you that when it comes to the Royals the winds have changed. Nonetheless the Royal makeover presided over by the courtiers of New Labour has already brought a few cosmetic changes to this tired institution. The blindingly obvious messages have at last got through. Perhaps hunting and shooting is bad and skiing is good. Perhaps sneering is bad and smiling is good. Perhaps standing next to pop stars - if you do it with enough irony - is good, while taking yourself very seriously is bad. Perhaps annexing the Blairs as slightly groovier in-laws is good, while withdrawal from public life is bad.

All of these strenuous efforts are being made because of Diana, whose instinctive populism meant that she was always "in touch", indeed too touchy for some. That (through the aid of focus groups) the Royals should try and emulate what came so naturally to her would have surely made her laugh. They will doubtless pay MORI a king's ransom in order to learn how to appear more human. Yet the unquestioned rise of the focus group is a worrying trend.

If we can have government by focus group and monarchy by focus group, why don't we just do away with all these anachronistic organisations and be ruled by MORI with its groups of willing and self-selecting subjects. The triumph of the focus group represents both a lack of imagination and a depressing view of human nature, as well as being another sign of post- ideological politics. Focus groups ask people what is right or wrong with something; they rarely offer them alternatives or ask them to come up with something radically new. As with a jury, often the stronger members of the groups will persuade the waverers to agree with them.

At one newspaper I worked for, a focus group came up with the interesting finding that they all loved one particular columnist. Did he get a raise? No. The problem was that he didn't exist. (After one member of the group had observed that he liked his column, the others had agreed that he was the highlight of their daily read.)

What should never be forgotten is that, basically, techniques created originally to sell products are being used for a very different purpose indeed: to organise consent and minimise discussion and dissent. Doubtless the techniques currently used are much more sophisticated than those in which housewives were invited to free-associate about washing powder, but the underlying principles remain the same. Thus focus groups are excellent sources of information for those in the business of giving people more of what they are already familiar with, such as another kind of can of beans. They can tell you what consumers know they already want, but they are not set up to initiate or innovate. As many talented entrepreneurs will tell you, often people do not know what they want till you present it to them. Some needs and wants cannot be predicted by using only what is already available on the market. Where focus groups have been useful in various campaigns is in rebranding a product, moving it from one sector of the market to another. In politics, for example, we have seen how the female vote was courted both here and in America, with policies aimed specifically at women.

In other words, despite all the hype, focus groups merely tell us how to make a product more attractive; they cannot tell us how to come up with an entirely new product. One obvious result of this is the double- speak currently being used by the Government. Thus cuts are not cuts but "opportunities". However, it is clear that while focus groups were thought invaluable during the election, they are used fairly selectively; their results are themselves manipulated. Focus groups may be used to find out how to make the Millennium tent a more desirable proposition, but were they ever used to see if we wanted the damn thing in the first place?

The whole emphasis on presentation, image, spin suggests that most of the people can be fooled most of the time. It assumes that you can give people what they don't want if only you dress it up differently. It assumes that appearances are always more important than substance. Yet it continues to neglect the fact that more and more people understand these processes. We know about soundbites and make-overs, we have grown up with them, they are not hidden from us.

The myopia of those obsessed with focus groups actually suggests to me a profound misreading of public opinion. If you listen to what people say, if you attune yourself to the culture, to our various leisure activities, to our own understanding of ourselves, then what you see and hear expressed over and over again is a desire for authenticity, for something real - whether that takes the form of contact with nature through extreme sports or a hope for those in public life to be more honest. Diana was perceived above all things to have this authenticity, a quality that can never be manufactured.

Now we have the horrible spectacle of the Royals being forced into spontaneity by the findings of a bloody focus group. Can they not see that while they can tamper with the edges of their castles and ignore the other polls, which say that support for them is dying out, this whole ridiculous enterprise makes a mockery of what they represent in the first place.

Either the monarchy itself believes it has a divine right to rule or it doesn't. Asking its subjects what they think of it and then changing accordingly is playing at democracy. But then playing at democracy is what these focus groups are all about. In giving a few punters a severely limited range of choices, the pretence is that their influence will be great. Yet the power of the focus group is always a version of passive, reactive, consumer power. You still end up with the same old can of beans, repackaged, redesigned, repositioned in the market.

What if we don't want to be mere consumers of the Royal image any more than we want to be loyal subjects? Don't believe what the pollsters and the pushers tell you; all this asking you what you think is really the opposite of choice, the opposite of democracy. That's why the Royals have finally seen the light and realised that focus groups rule, even though no one ever voted for them.