CSC: Focus Groups and the Culture of Consultation: An Interview with Liza Featherstone

CSC: Focus Groups and the Culture of Consultation: An Interview with Liza Featherstone

Cultural Studies PhD student, Amy Zhang, recently interviewed Liza Featherstone, journalist and professor of journalism at New York University on the topic of her new book, Divining Desires: Focus Groups and the Culture of Consultation. Liza Featherstone’s writing has been published in many outlets including The New York Times, Slate, In These Times, as well as in The Nation for which she is a contributing editor. She is the co-author of Students Against Sweatshops: The Making of a Movement (2002), authored Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers' Rights at Wal-Mart (2004), and edited False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Clinton (2016).

AZ: Thank you for joining us at George Mason. Welcome. We're looking forward to your talk on your book, Diving Desires: Focus Groups and the Culture of Consultation. My first question is for people who aren't familiar with this object; can you tell us about the history of focus groups? And is it specifically an American topic?

LF: The book is specifically American although focus groups are now a global phenomenon. The story actually begins in Vienna before World War II when the democratic socialists had briefly taken over in just the city of Vienna, not Austria as a whole. They were very idealistic about both making democracy and making social democracy work for the first time in that place. They were also bourgeoise, culturally upper middle class, the children of professionals; they were very out of touch with the working class and they had all these ideas about how the working class should conduct themselves. That they should stop smoking and drinking, stop having extra-marital sex, they should play sports, they should listen to opera on the radio instead of comedy--it was very prescriptive. Working class Viennese basically liked their economic agenda but didn't want to do any of this stuff. So a young Viennese socialist named Paul Lazarsfeld started playing around with a lot of different qualitative research methods, because, as he recalled later, "we wanted to understand why our propaganda was not successful." It originates in this moment of disconnect between a very idealistic group of elites and a working class that they just don't know very well as people.

Fast forward, the Red Viennese regime doesn't last very long. Not because of these problems but because a very right-wing government comes in and then the Nazis come in. The socialists were persecuted, people like Lazarsfeld especially because he was Jewish. By this time, he has academic accomplishments as well as his socialist party background and he ends up at Columbia University running a research institute. There he continues being very innovative about qualitative methods: how to ask people questions, how to find out what they're thinking about. His Bureau for Applied Social Research--that's important because they were always doing social research for some sort of practical reason—they did a lot of government contracts which was very unrespectable at that time. Now it's common that universities have military contracts and have all kinds of relationships with the corporate world. Those who are far leftist like myself don't like it but it's pretty acceptable now. But at that time, it was considered very vulgar selling academic expertise. Lazarsfeld and his researchers had a contract with the Roosevelt administration which had a similar problem to the Red Viennese. Again, they were a very well-intentioned group of social democrats and they were trying to make democracy work and figure out how it could work for more people and needed to sell social democracy to the people. But their particularly urgent problem was that they needed to sell the people on the U.S. entering WWII. Which is funny because we now think of that as the “good” war where everybody approves of it, but the idea of entering was very unpopular at the time. Particularly because the U.S. public was going to be asked to make sacrifices. It was not abstract. People were going to have to ration foods, go to work in wartime industries, as well as send their children off to fight. A lot of Americans really thought: this is over in Europe; do we have to? So the Roosevelt administration needed to find out what sorts of messages would persuade people to support going into World War II and Lazarsfeld and his coworkers hit upon the focus group. What was new about it was the idea of literally a discussion that focused on a particular thing like a particular text. They would show them the propaganda broadcast and then the participants would respond to the specific thing. It was not a free-flowing conversation, it was not a survey, it was getting people to focus on a particular thing. What was quite useful to the Roosevelt administration which was, again, very well-intentioned but detached, were the broadcast put out by what was called--this sounds creepy today--the Office of War Information.  The kinds of broadcasts they were putting out really emphasized how terrifying the Nazis were, what horrible monsters they were. They were depicted as bloodthirsty people on the theory that: of course, this will convince the people that we have to stop them. But in fact, when people were shown those images, they were less inclined to think that we should enter World War II. Because if these people were so scary and bloodthirsty and so inclined to mercilessness kill civilians, maybe we should leave them well alone.

AZ: Oh, so we they found there was cowardice in the public not a that we're good and they're evil so we better go save the day.

LF: No! People were afraid to take that on. But what they found instead—a historian, James Spiller, has noted some of this, they found that they needed to emphasize instead that we were superior to them, that our democracy is great, our values are better, they have a dictatorship and we have a democracy and we have to protect our way of life. They found they needed a positive message which is what political qualitative research often finds. So that was the context in which the focus group evolved. Eventually many of Lazarsfeld's students and people who go through his institute then went into advertising because during World War II it's really the government that needs to bridge these divides between the elites and the masses but after World War II, industry needs it. They need to figure out how to get an American public that has become accustomed to cutting back and living simply to begin consuming again. They really need everything in their arsenal of approaches to figure out what is going to work. Market research grows in this period, including the focus group. Many of Lazarsfeld's students go into Madison Avenue and that's how it enters the mainstream as we know it now.

AZ: How did you arrive at this topic? Was it through Viennese social democratic movements or something else?

LF: You would think so but it wasn't at all. A long time ago, around 2008, I was writing a lot of very short articles for a website called The Big Money, a spin-off of Slate, which doesn't exist anymore but it was fun while it lasted like a lot of things in the media. They were short, well researched, and well reported articles on interesting aspects of business or economics and I had been reading a lot of behavioral economics. I was really intrigued by it so I did a little piece on behavioral economists and political opinions researchers, how did they make sense of people's seemingly contradictory opinions about the government bailout of the banks. They were very contradictory. It seemed to depend on how you asked the question; either people really liked it or they really didn't like it; people also didn't understand it very well. People were surprisingly receptive to some kind of government action but were also very mistrustful and confused. While I was looking into this I was talking to a publisher who is a friend of mine and who I have worked with in the past and we thought this would be a really interesting time to do a project on public opinion about the government. Obama had just been elected so there was a little more of a liberal environment than there had been in a while and we, of course, like anybody would, thought, we could convene focus groups. Then as we started exploring that idea, we simultaneously came to find that focus groups are very strange and wondered how did this thing come to be? How did it become the go-to way that when you, as a coastal out-of-touch person, want to find out what “the people” think, that's what you do? I had some long discussions with a woman I know who works in market research who is a prominent character in the book. Out of these conversations and our general realization that we should ask more questions about what a focus group is and why would we want to do that, this book was born.

AZ: So, you started researching this because you wanted to do focus groups.

LF: I thought I did.

AZ: Did you ever do a focus group?

LF: No, we didn't do them. We had a half-baked idea that maybe this was something we could get funding for so we had a few conversations with people about that but as we started looking at it with more curiosity and more critically, we decided we didn't want to do that. And then, it made sense to me because so much of my work has been about the intersection of consumer culture and citizenship. My Walmart book is really about that at some level and I wrote about anti-sweatshop activism. So this is in some ways a deeper way into that tension.

AZ: I see a lot of connectivity with those topics. Focus groups can be seen as a tool to quantify people's desires much like political polling. Do you see them as similar?

LF: You're right, in terms of quantifying and trying to document people's desires and wishes, they are a bit similar. There is a very good book by Sarah Igo called The Averaged American. It's a terrific book about how polling became such a part of our culture. They are like that in the sense that they are similarly an effort to measure us and figure out what we want but focus groups invite much more participation so that the person participating in a focus group is in a conversation. They really feel like that they are, and people will say that about it. People will say to a focus group moderator that I really felt like they you were listening to what I was saying. When you ask people why they were in a focus group, they will say they do it for the money because there is a payment usually, but they will also say that they like giving their opinion. Most people have so few opportunities to influence anything so people like the feeling that maybe they're going to use my idea, maybe I will have some impact on my world. It's a different kind of project from polling in that it's much more of a ritual; it makes many more gestures toward letting the people seem to have influence and seem to be participating. 

AZ: I see that difference. Do you think focus groups now have the same function as when they originated? There was an interesting point I read about in a review of your book about how these expressions of desire, now, people do on social media. I guess that is monetized too but in a different way. That's something that must have changed dramatically since you started looking at this.

LF: Yes, so I end up concluding that focus groups are a big part of what I call the culture of consultation: the cultural situation in which the people are consulted all the time while having very little political or economic power overall but are constantly consulted. Focus groups are a very important but small window in that culture. I argue that the culture of consultation on the internet has greatly expanded and now they don't have to even pay us for giving our opinion. We just freely give it; we give away all this data. In a sense, the internet is even more effective in making us feel like we're participating, making us feel like we're doing something. We go and we post and we feel like we have had our say. In a way, it may be even distracting us even more from understanding the difference between being heard and having power. It creates an illusion of having power. Focus groups still go on but in terms of the culture of consultation, the internet is an extremely intense expansion of it.

AZ: Is it the case that present-day focus groups are an appendage of marketing used to get people to consume better or differently or participate otherwise in consumption cycles, or does it also have something to do with the original idea of governments controlling peoples’ other behaviors?

LF: It's all kinds of things. I think you can see a way in which focus groups are used, a kind of degeneration of elites and degeneration of democracy. You see it starting in these situations where the elites have some ideals about what democracy could be. Again, I'm an extreme leftist so I don't think there should be any elites. We have to recognize that all historical situations are not the same and these elites have very specific social projects and ideals that they want to fulfil. As we look at the focus group over time, we see it degenerate, the aim becomes to sell us on stuff we don't need and then to sell us on policies that are not in our interest and we see that happen particularly as we see the gap between the elites and the rest widen even more. Over time the elites have a completely different agenda from what the agenda of the masses would be. By the 1980s and 1990s they're trying to figure out how to sell us on things like the Estate Tax. It emerged from focus groups that if you call it a "Death Tax" it persuades people that it's an evil thing. You're going to be taxed even after you're dead. That's the way that it becomes used over time. It is a more cynical way of using it.

AZ: What do you think about the future of focus groups? What would you guess happens?

LF: It's interesting, being immersed in marketing and the marketing trade press I've learned that there are a lot of mythologies. Something that has been conventional wisdom in marketing for quite a while is that focus groups are dead or dying. Different reasons are cited: now we have so much data from the internet; that for various reasons there are so many cheaper ways to find people's opinions. But if you look at the data about how much is spent and how many focus groups are conducted there really is no evidence that they're dying. It's one of those things that are said in corporate circles but it doesn't seem to be true. Part of the reason that the focus groups' death is always being declared it because it feels like a very unsophisticated low-tech thing. It is just getting people in a room and talking and in the corporate world can feel very un-innovative, doing the same thing that people have been doing since the 1940s. There is a sort of a shame in that but people nonetheless keep doing it.

Another part of it which I talk about in the book, is that there is a shame around focus groups because people on both sides of the transaction are very ambivalent about it. The clients who have contracted the focus group, whether they're corporate representatives, advertisers, media--I talked to a lot of marketers who say the clients always hate the participants. The clients always think: these people are so stupid, our customers are nothing like this and part of the reason for that is, as one marketer said, "they feel they're meeting their masters." These ordinary people who aren't particularly impressive are deciding their fate; they feel vulnerable and judged by that and also that they have to confront very often that these people don’t care about their product. This translates more broadly into a general elite hatred of focus groups.

This emerges particularly in the 90s and on the Right. First George H.W. Bush and then George W. Bush would get a lot of mileage out of claiming that they didn't pay any attention to focus groups and it was sort of a macho thing: I don't have to listen to anybody. In George W. Bush's case, he was much more vocal about how he didn't govern by focus groups and he totally did. He actually used them even arguably more than past presidents did but he was giving voice to an elite contempt for the fact that you have to listen, you have to have this mechanism of listen to people because democracy and consumerism requires knowing what people want to some extent. But as elites get more and more distant from the people, they need these mechanisms more and more but they resent it because they feel more entitled. So, they feel like why do we have to listen to these people? They don't know anything. I'm the president. It really culminates with Trump. Trump said in the middle of the campaign: "Do you know where I do focus groups? Right here." (Points to his head). It was a total dismissal. And of course, Trump had his own ways of testing public opinion. He would try things out at his Trump rallies, testing if this line gets a huge applause, and if it did, he would keep running with that. He was in fact running a very direct focus group but it was important as part of an elite male posture to disavow them.

On the other hand, regular people feel ambivalent about the focus groups too. Most people like participating in them because people love having their opinion heard and most people don't have that experience often enough. But there's a lot of contempt for focus groups and focus group participants from people who are not participating. Why did you ask them? I could have told you. In gaming discussion boards, they're always incensed and will say this game was designed by focus groups what a bunch of idiots they are. In blogs and discussions about movies people will decry the "focus group ending," the corny ending that tested well. People on both sides of the transaction feel ambivalent about it. In the elites’ case, it is because they resent that they have to ask anybody. But for other people I think the hostility toward the focus groups is a little misplaced. I think that what people are objecting to is the way that things are so commodified and also that people object to the sense that those people were consulted and I wasn't and they don't deserve it.

There was an amazing moment in a televised Fox News focus group. It was mostly republicans in the focus group and one woman said, "Well I just really firmly believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim.” The moderator, Frank Luntz, could not conceal his amazement but they all agreed--all the participants. A lot of people saw that and were writing all over the internet asking: where did they get these idiots? When watching the focus groups, you feel like you're looking in on your fellow citizens and you're so appalled by them and so there's a lot of ambivalence about it on that level.

AZ: The ambivalence on that side is very interesting to me. I can imagine how the people on gaming forums or amateur movie critics, they take it upon themselves to be purists, they're invested in the medium, they want to say I know better, the narrative conclusion of this story should have been like this. 

LF: Yes, that they should have been consulted. And in some ways, everybody feels that way about consulted; that they should have been consulted instead of these other people.

AZ: If you're in that position, the self-declared critic, saying that these other people in the focus group who would fall for this or want that to happen are dummies, that's also very isolating too. That's kind of difficult.

LF: That's right. Yes, I think also the way that focus groups are now so public. That they're not only things that happen in office parks across the country behind closed doors, they do also have this performative life in public where they're on T.V.; I have come to think that some of that is a way of scapegoating the average person. Well, see, your fellow citizens are such idiots and its certainly their fault so we're going to put them on television and let you see how stupid they are and then you will direct your rage at them rather than at the elites who have an actual role in the situation.

AZ: Probably sublimate your guilt too and absolve yourself of any responsibility.

LF: Right, I think they definitely play a scapegoating role.

AZ: I'd like to ask about what kind of methods you employed for this book.

LF: I did a lot of different things. I participated in focus groups as a normal consumer. I put my name in a lot of databases and went as a participant. The book is structured like a normal book making an argument with chapters but there are scenes throughout of focus groups I observed. That lends more of a sort of literary journalism touch with the book. I interviewed a lot of people, both market research people who conduct focus groups and I interviewed people who frequently participate in focus groups. There's a category of people who are known in the industry as the "professional participant" and they're generally disliked in the industry. There's a sense that they're gaming the system, that their opinion isn't fresh. There's a bizarre dynamic to that which really interests me because I think it is very interesting how over the course of the 20th century, being very valued as a consumer is the tradeoff for the American workers. When increasingly you don't have very many rights at work and you're not very well compensated, but as a consumer, everyone is catering to you. That really comes through in the focus group because you as a participant have their full attention. The professional participants really interest me because they're like: if you so value our expertise as consumer, you're going to pay us for it. Which is why the industry is concerned about them.

I also interviewed people who have been clients of focus groups in various ways and most of them did indeed hate the focus groups. I spent a lot of time in a couple of good archives for the historical research. For Paul Lazarsfeld's Bureau of Applied Social Research, all those papers are at Columbia so I was able to spend a lot of time with those and there is a wonderful oral history project that is connected with the University Archives. In the 1960s there were extensive interviews done with Lazarsfeld and some of his associated so those were valuable resources. I also spent time researching J. Walter Thompson, a major advertising agency, that I think may be the oldest advertising agency in the United States. Their papers are all at Chapel Hill which was very valuable. It was a combination of journalistic research in the sense of participating and interviewing people, also there was a lot of time in archives and that kind of historical research. And I read whatever secondary research there was but thinking back on it, most of the secondary research I read was most valuable for context because there are only a few books that directly touch on this topic. A book by David Morrison called The Search for a Method is really the only other book on focus groups and it is a very good early history and focuses on focus groups as a method for media research. That was extremely useful. There were some other good books, Freud on Madison Avenue, and Adam Curtis's film The Century of the Self was a nice starting point for me. It gave me a good sense of the terrain and especially of Ernest Dichter himself who is an important character in the story.

AZ: To sum up, are focus groups one part of several different techniques included in what you're calling the culture of consultation? Is it the main thing, or is it is an assemblage of other things?

LF: I think there are a lot of ways that people are consulted and that make up this culture of consultation. I think focus groups are one of the main and most consistent ways. Now you see with not only the internet but there are a lot of trends. There is a trend called "civic engagement" where often municipal governments and other state actors will do things like convene town hall meetings. There is emphasis on these because we are continuing to expand this huge gap between the elites and the rest so they need to be even more creative and keep on finding new ways to connect. The focus group is still used in all of those kinds of enterprises and by groups that say they are doing "civic engagement" but you see other strategies. When Bill De Blasio took office in New York City, he had a "Talking Transition" tent. He put up a tent and you could come and write your ideas on a post-it and put it on the wall.

AZ: Oh, great, I have ideas!

LF: Yes, don't you want to do that? That's the beauty of the culture of consultation. I always say this is not what democracy looks like but sometimes this is what democracy feels like. You want to put your post-it on there.