Focus Groups Are Used Unfairly as ‘Whippin’ Boy’

I was offended by media editor Jack Feuer’s characterization of focus groups as “mostly just exercises in creative collective lying” [A&C, Dec. 3]. Especially bothersome was the short, unsubstantiated manner in which he leveled this charge (a one-line reference in an unrelated article). It is ironic that Feuer, in his plea for advertisers to pay more attention to “individuals,” would paint all focus group research with the same broad brush.

As a qualitative researcher, I am troubled by the growing trend among certain members of the media and advertising communities to summarily dismiss focus-group research. Focus groups seem to have taken on the role of “whippin’ boy” among many: an easy target for criticism, as acceptable to attack as big tobacco or oil companies.

In defense of my field, there is good focus-group research and bad focus-group research, good respondents and bad respondents, good moderators and bad moderators. Just as in every field. It’s grossly unfair to group all focus-group research together.

Good qualitative researchers are the first to admit that consumers sometimes don’t reveal all of their true feelings and beliefs in groups. However, while Feuer labels this “lying,” I believe most respondents do not mislead intentionally, but rather that a variety of social and emotional factors—many of them subconscious—influence greatly what certain consumers reveal.

What particularly infuriates me about criticism regarding focus groups is the implication that all focus-group research is passive in nature, and all consumers’ opinions are taken at face value and reported as truth. Nothing could be further from the truth. The role of an effective focus-group moderator is to serve as a unique, dynamic filter through which consumer perceptions are viewed and considered. An adept focus-group moderator is active, engaging and challenging in group discussions, and rigorously deciphers, interprets and analyzes data in post-group reporting in order to discern consumers’ true feelings and perceptions.

I hope and believe that well-planned, skillfully executed focus-group research will remain a vital tool for all companies and agencies that care about understanding the needs, desires, motivations and values of their consumers—much to the chagrin of some.

Eric L. Johnston

Qualitative consultant

Grieco Research Group

Los Angeles