Those of us here in Bunker, always on the lookout for anything research-related, have taken note of a trend in television commercials. It seems that many commercials now feature focus groups as a setting. In some cases, the focus groups are fictional, as in these lighthearted spots for Pepsi Max and Snickers:[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KfmXYmoCElY] [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6e0Gsn4khss]
In other cases, most notably with an ongoing campaign for Domino’s Pizza, the commercials feature actual focus group footage. This trend inspired some discussion here within the Bunker, and in the end, we decided that we had mixed feelings about these new, trendy market research ads.
First of all, we like the fact that one of the tools of our trade is getting some exposure. Many people who work in market research have been asked by someone in a social setting what they do for a living. Oftentimes, “focus groups” is one of those terms that causes people to respond, “What’s that?” (Or, in many cases, to look perplexed, say, “That’s nice,” then quickly change the subject.) If more people in the general public understand what focus groups are and what they are for, that can only be a benefit to those of us who use them.
That benefit extends beyond the general public to potential clients. There are many businesses, especially small ones that have never used focus groups and may not fully understand their uses. They are another group that might feel more comfortable with the methodology after being exposed to it through TV commercials.
In particular, we think it is a positive development that the commercials (especially those from Domino’s) reinforce the idea that focus groups engage consumers as part of an overall process of product improvement or innovation. If people understand that their opinions are important parts of the process, they may very well become more willing to participate in focus groups.[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IgwPw59iqhw] [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t23sgF4Bl7c&NR=1]
Our main concern about the trend is that it might create false or unrealistic impressions about focus groups among the general public. For example, as much as the Domino’s campaign sends a great message about how focus groups can be part of product improvement and innovation, Domino’s has taken things to such a dramatic level, the public might not understand that focus groups do not always (or even usually) lead to immediate, highly visible changes in products or services. I have seen focus group moderators caution participants that just because an idea might be well received in the session, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will become a reality. We can’t help but wonder if Domino’s is creating the impression among potential focus group participants that their individual feedback has a high likelihood of causing a company to completely reinvent itself.
We also can’t help but wonder if the spots may cause participants to start expecting the walls of our Syracuse, NY focus group facility to come sliding off to reveal a farm. (For the record, we think while that might make for a dramatic TV moment, doing that in a real live focus group might prove a wee bit disruptive to our data collection efforts.)
Of particular concern to us were the spots where Domino’s actually followed up with focus group participants after they had made product changes, by showing up at their door with a camera and inviting them to try the new and improved pizza. I, for one, might be hesitant to agree to participate in a focus group if I thought it might lead to people on my front porch months later with TV cameras. (Yes, I know that nobody would end up in a commercial like that unless they agreed to it, but the way the spot is shot, makes it look almost like an ambush.) I suspect that at least a segment of the population would also be put off by that idea.[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-SwLn8ZPcUk&feature=channel]
The hard-sell aspect of all the Domino’s spots is a little unsettling. They, along with the Pepsi Max commercial with its Pepsi signage and product displays, make the focus groups look more like sales pitches than legitimate research. One barrier we struggle with focus group and survey participation is that people are wary of being subjected to a sales pitch. This is a challenge that researchers have faced for some time now. These new focus group commercials may blur the line between sales and research to the point where the public will become even more skeptical.
Another negative, and this is more of complaint from the perspective of a general marketing consultant rather than a researcher, is that I’m not sure that the focus group setting really resonate with the general public. Focus groups are certainly part of the world of the people who buy and produce advertising, they along with any form of market research, probably seem like an arcane abstraction to the average person. I’m of the belief that advertising should communicate benefits and speak to the way products and services will actually be experienced by real people. Showing a focus group speaks to the way products are experienced by marketers. In that sense, such campaigns feel a little too insider-ish – like the advertising people are talking to each other rather than to the general public.
Those concerns aside, we here in the Bunker do believe that the increased exposure of focus groups through commercials is a net positive development. To the extent that they help educate viewers on what a focus group is and how it plays a role in product development, that makes our jobs as market researchers easier.