Divining Desire: Focus Groups and the Culture of Consultation

Divining Desire: Focus Groups and the Culture of Consultation

by Liza Featherstone


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An engaging, accessible history of the focus group, Featherstone's survey shows how the primary purpose of the focus group has shifted from determining what we want, to selling us things we don't.

The focus group, over the course of the last century, became an increasingly vital part of the way companies and politicians sold their products and policies with few areas of life, from salad dressing to health care legislation to our favorite TV shows, left untouched by moderators questioning controlled groups about what they liked and didn't. Divining Desire is the first-ever popular survey of this topic.

In a lively, sweeping survey, Liza Featherstone traces the surprising roots of the focus group in early-twentieth century European socialism, its subsequent use by the "Mad Men" of Madison Avenue, and its widespread employment today. She also explores such famous "failures" of the method as the doomed launch of the Ford Edsel, and the even more ill-fated attempt to introduce a new flavor of Coca Cola (which prompted street protests from devotees of the old formula).

As elites became increasingly detached from the general public, they relied ever more on focus groups, whether to win votes or to sell products. And, in a society where many feel increasingly powerless, the focus group has at least offered the illusion that ordinary people can be heard and that their opinions count. Yet, the more they are listened to, the less power they have. That paradox is particularly stark today, when everyone can post an opinion on social media – our 24 hour "focus group"—yet only plutocrats can shape policy.

In telling this story, Featherstone raises profound and fascinating questions about democracy and consumer society.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781944869489
Publisher: OR Books
Publication date: 02/27/2018
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 826,050
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

LIZA FEATHERSTONE is a journalist based in New York City and a contributing editor to The Nation, where she also writes the advice column "Asking for a Friend". Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Ms., and Rolling Stone among many other outlets. She is the co-author of Students Against Sweatshops: The Making of a Movement (Verso, 2002) and author of Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Worker's Rights at Wal-Mart (Basic, 2004). She is the editor of False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Clinton.

Read an Excerpt

"It's hard but it's worth it, I think." She says, reassuring herself, but not sounding entirely sure, "It is."

Michelle, a soft-spoken young mother of two, is speaking about balancing childcare, housework, and a full-time job outside the home.

Sharon, a stay-at-home mom, says her interests are "trying to figure out how to be stress-free, being at home with the kids."

Teresa calls herself as a stay-at-home mom, too, although she actually works part-time as a waitress. She heartily seconds Sharon's emphasis on stress: "I just can't wait till bedtime."

The women, all mothers of young children, are introducing themselves to one another, and describing the difficulties of balancing work and parenthood, time pressures, and many other shared problems. Though the problems are comtemporary, the conversation evokes a bygone era.

But we're not eavesdropping on a 1970s-style feminist consciousness-raising group, with its fusion of therapy and empowerment. Nor is this a political group organizing for universal day care or pay equity. It's a focus group whose aim is to explore consumer reaction to a new larger-than-ever baby wipe: the Johnson & Johnson Head-to-Toe Wet Washcloth.

The group enthusiastically embraces the not-yet-on-the-market product as the solution to their problems. One mother of two describes how she expects to feel using it: "Relief." Others love the ease and convenience, a solution not only to time pressure? "when there's a big blowout and you don't have time to give them a full bath"—but the burden of "husbands who don't really want to do stuff."

Not a single woman fails to be animated by the conversation or the product; everyone is engaged. Some would consider the women's discussion a political one, engaging, as it does, problems of work—family balance and gender equality within marriage. Yet their conversation offers a window on how such concerns, and the pleasure people take in discussing them, can be so helpful to corporate America. "How would you imagine that?" Fullerton asks constantly, inviting the women to think creatively about how the product might best transform their lives.

"She goes like this after every meal," one mom imitates her toddler, putting her hands in her hair. "I need to give her a bath but there's not always time for that." Several women felt the Head-to-Toe Washcloth could sometimes substitute for a bath when the family is running short of time.

"What do you do now in these situations?" asked the moderator, Donna Fullerton, a warm and deeply attentive listener, who never assumes she knows what they're thinking. Fullerton is a veteran focus group moderator who has been working in the industry since the 1980s.

No bath, was the consensus.

If the baby doesn't get a bath: "Then you feel really guilty," one mom explains, to murmurs of agreement. "Because you're a terrible mother." One notes that "Some nights, before you know it, it's bedtime. You don't know where the night went. My husband and I argue, 'You're not going to give him a bath tonight.' 'No, we have to give him a bath.'"

The Head-to-Toe Wet Washcloth offers liberation from all that. The moms test and discuss several models of the product. One mom prefers the thicker one, which she feels would absolve her from guilt over not doing her job: "I know this is my own internal thing, but because it is thicker [than a typical baby wipe] I would feel more as if he was having a real bath."

"When would you see using something like this?" Fullerton asks them. Not surprisingly, given the magic powers they've already bestowed upon it, one woman says quickly, "As soon as possible."

The women's graphic descriptions of poop "blowouts" at the shopping mall, or on an airplane, will resonate with any parent and help the product make a kind of urgent sense. Yet it seems both funny and tragic how much the moms hope that the product will change their lives. The mothers, at every turn, seem to view the bath as an onerous chore, which they will eagerly circumvent with the help of Johnson & Johnson, exchanging it, in one woman's words, for "more free time."

One acknowledges, doubtfully, "Bathtime is supposed to be this nice quiet time." A mother observes that the running of the bath was a crucial signal to her toddler that the bedtime routine had begun; another agrees, "It makes 'em relaxed." They speak with pleasure of feeding time: "You just know he's calm and content. He'll pull my hair, my finger." One mom says her daughter falls right to sleep after a bath—she can't imagine that the head-to-toe washcloth could match that result; surprisingly, this last point, though most parents surely experience this, doesn't inspire much agreement. The stress level of the women in the room—and, as well, the way the focus group process effectively marshals a consumer mind-set (in which all problems are solved by products)—forecloses such thinking.

The moms are overworked—inside and outside the home. When the focus group is not discussing the product itself and its nuances, but their own lives, it does sound like a feminist consciousness-raising group. But because it's run by Johnson & Johnson rather than by radical feminists, the solutions that emerge are commercial and not political.

After much discussion, the moms at last try out the Head-to-Toe Wet Washcloth, simulating baby washings on plastic baby dolls while their real babies cry in the background (childcare has ben provided). Confronting the product's reality, the mothers are less euphoric. They find it "too wet." One complains, "it didn't smell like I thought it would." Others concur: "Get that nasty smell out!" Some want it to be "bigger," or "dryer." Others, paradoxically, feel it needs a moisturizer.

The women in this group are doing some quasi-political things. They are looking critically at their lives, forming community—even if only for a few hours—and cooperating. They are talking and listening, building on each other's ideas. The focus group taps into some of what we as social human beings do best. The focus group can also engage people at a profound level, tapping into deep desires, conflicts, and even new ideas. It harnesses our collective impulses to share, discuss, and work together. The focus group also allows us to cooperate with others, which in our rather lonely, individualistic culture, we don't often get to do.

Johnson & Johnson can't solve all these women's problems, of course. The company has convened the focus group because, no doubt, the corporate executives who run the company genuinely don't know how ordinary moms live. In order to sell things, they need to do some listening.

The focus group has been one of their favorite ways of listening for a long time.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Preface: "How Would You Imagine That?"

Introduction: Dichter's Egg

Chapter One: The Birth of the Focus Group

Chapter Two: "The Snowball Interview": The Focus Group Comes to Madison Avenue

Chapter Three: "King Consumer": Market Research is Attacked... and Industry Responds

Chapter Four: Viper, Fool, or Expert? The Consumer as a Woman

Chapter Five: "We Ask Them": Focus Groups in the Age of Women's Liberation

Chapter Six: Entertaining Joe Sixpack

Chapter Seven: "Where is the Emotion?" The Emergence of the Focus Group in Politics

Chapter Eight: "God and Coca-Cola": The Story of New Coke

Chapter Nine: "A Faster Horse?" The Entrepreneur Strikes Back

Chapter Ten: "The Decider"

Chapter Eleven: Bartender in a Lamborghini: The Professional Respondent

Chapter Twelve: "Who Are These Appalling People?"

Conclusion: Are Focus Groups Dead?


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