Since when did focus groups become a creative advertising idea?

Lately it seems that whenever I turn on the TV (or YouTube or Hulu) I am forced to endure advertisements that feature market research as the central creative concept.

As a researcher, I find it difficult to watch these ads because they often misrepresent how and why research is conducted, which impacts the reputation of the research industry as a whole and makes me feel sad and misunderstood. While I can’t deny that having a spotlight on the industry is somewhat flattering, in the end I always come away with the same feeling: that the use of market research in ads often results in unengaging and ineffective advertising.

To illustrate my point, I have compiled some of my least favorite ads along with some of the comments and responses that these ads have garnered online.

Warning: the following ads contain cheap shots below the belt and may result in extreme brand disloyalty!

1. Research as reality TV:

The consumer wisdom on this commercial is that it tries too hard, uses too much product placement, has awkward humor, and does little to promote the product. Also, it is scary. In fact, if the comments to this video are an indication, it almost does the complete opposite of what it should:

“This told me nothing about the soda. Another waste of time commercial trying to be funny and creative but falling flat on its face.”

“I’m never trying this flavor because of this crappy commercial.”

“If a strange man walked into a room that was mostly empty except for me, and if I was a female, and if he started blocking off the exit, I would be running like mad.”

A lot of the comments to this video are about how awful the soda is, how bad it is for your health, and how scripted the actors are, including the actors themselves weighing in – not necessarily the best response.

This commercial reminds people that they are watching an advertisement from a company that is trying to make them like a product. People are savvy and they know that this is a forum to speak directly to brands… And equipped with that knowledge, they hold Mountain Dew and PepsiCo responsible:

‘How is this about soda? And if this is an ad about trying to portray a feeling you get when drinking Mt. Dew it is not a feeling that I want. Ummm Hello PepsiCo time to move on.’

Finally, it is quite scary to consider being ‘accosted’ in a focus group facility (they are strange places!) As a researcher, I rely on participants taking interest in in research – it worries me that people might not consider participating if this is what they can expect when they show up.

2. Sending the wrong message:

This next category is actually the one that inspired me to write this article. It is so cringeworthy that every time it pops up on Hulu, I click ‘not relevant to me’ in a personal effort to protect my future sanity.

Many people find the above ad confusing. There is an effort to unpick the logic but it never quite works out in Geico’s favor as viewers call out for the ‘old Geico’ ads, the ones that made them a household name:

“Why get car insurance based on the taste of a drink??”

“I don’t think this was supposed to make sense.. right?”

“All I know from this is that Geico is car insurance…or a juice product…”

“I wish their “Does GEICO really save you 15% or more on car insurance?” ad campaign is back!”

Here is a similar style from Verizon:

and in case you thought the 18-24 demographic was exempt… Well, no:

The sentiment towards these types of commercials is very clear and unsurprising considering the premise of blatant data manipulation. It was difficult to find comments from these videos that didn’t include a string of curse words. Unlike the Geico ad, the Verizon examples are called out for being patronizing and for ‘treating customers like idiots.’

“It doesn’t matter how you present it. Verizon is very pleased with themselves for no good reason.”

“That focus group sure is biased”

“I came here just say this commercial is annoying, that’s how obnoxious the people and the acting is.”

“I can only imagine how many people Verizon has driven away with this garbage.”

In my opinion, the above examples are the most damaging to a brand’s reputation because they are conceptually based on being ‘untruthful’ or intent on hiding something – in short, trickery.

By presenting this to consumers, it sends the message that companies are not interested in validity or authenticity – they are out to pat their own backs and get the answers they want no matter what. No only does this take a punch at our clients, but to researchers and advertisers alike – it is harmful all around.

3. When it works

It is not fair to say that every commercial that uses market research as a creative concept is unsuccessful – there are few examples where it works well.

Before you check out the video below (and I recommend the series that goes with it) keep in mind that these ads work because they are not posing as reality and they focus on funny or interesting people participating in the research – not the research itself.

and of course, some excerpts from the comments section:

“Ahhhh!! they are soo cute!!”

“Smarter then the models, seniors, glam rockers, guidos, surfers hahah”

“So is this everybody’s first focus group? Ha ha”

“At the very beginning of the video in the bottom right corner it says “Dramatization with actors” thumbs up so people are not deceived!”

These ads don’t try to be real, they don’t set out to boast about themselves, and they are incredibly subtle. But more than that, they are entertaining, engaging, and people want to keep watching because they are fun and the participants are the spotlights – not the research or the researcher. It even looks like fun to me – researcher approved.

Pulling the plug on this creative device:

With exception of the example above, people generally interpret the use of research in commercials as derogatory and patronizing. It can be done with success, but it happens rarely. The only way I could consider any of these ads as working is if the strategy behind them is to lower consumer expectations as much as possible. If that is the case, then job well done.

My experience in testing ad concepts is that the best ones are simple. They tap into strong emotions, or are thought provoking and as a result are genuinely entertaining. They tell stories that people can and want to connect with.

To put it plainly, market research does not work well in ads because it IS market research. While it might be fun for researchers, the majority of people actually find what we do really dull. So presenting it as something they should be interested in is a step in the wrong direction – consumers are interested in brands, products and experiences, not the research that goes into understanding all of those things.

Market research lives happily behind the scenes by helping businesses and organization understand audiences and by contributing to the development of creative ideas that speak directly to consumer benefits.


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