Measuring Up

Testing the pretensions of market research and polling.

Finding Out: Personal Adventures in Social Research -- Discovering What People Think, Say, and Do, by Leo Bogart, Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 306 pages, $27.50

Polling, Policy, and Public Opinion: The Case Against Heeding the "Voice of the People," by Robert Weissberg, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 232 pages, $39.95

On a warm, bright winter's day in Southern California recently, I was caught up in an "explosion of research."

That's how a skeptical Leo Bogart -- recipient of prestigious awards from the American Marketing Association and the American Association for Public Opinion Research and one of the first two men (with George Gallup) inducted into the Market Research Council's Hall of Fame -- describes the current market research trend of "focus groups." These are, in Bogart's apt description, "collective interviews with small groups of people unsystematically selected without reference to any randomized sampling plan."

I helped comprise a six-person focus group dedicated, it seemed, to some health insurance company's plan to reconfigure its image or selling points. (Exactly who was paying for the research and its precise aims were deliberately withheld.) Four women and two men -- five white and one black -- were shown three short statements of purpose for a health insurance provider. We were asked to restate what we thought the statements said and describe how they made us feel.

With no explanation or context, we all had to guess -- sometimes wildly -- as to what the statements were getting at and their purpose. Despite the artificiality and silliness of the situation, all of us rose to the occasion and tried to take our task seriously. (We were getting paid for our trouble, after all.) But what came out seemed banal at best.

What did we want from health insurance? We wanted security from our provider; we wanted flexibility; one of us (me) wanted to feel taken care of by our provider, as opposed to being a partner to them in our traipse through the health care system. We mostly liked the suggestion that we'd be provided with information and options. The slogan "health security" could mean anything to us, or nothing. (We were asked to react to it de novo, but we all realized that the phrase was a cipher out of context.) Our comments were not necessarily stupid but in all cases obvious, not quirky or surprising -- though my fervent insistence that I didn't want information and partnership from my health insurance provider so much as I wanted them to pay my medical bills for me didn't win instant assent from my group mates.

We were asked, unsurprisingly, to quantify our approval of the statements on a 1-to-10 scale. Can't call it knowledge without numbers, right?

In addition to our modest stipend, the facilitator managing our group and the company that gathered us were being paid as well, and probably not quite so modestly. But I have a hard time imagining what good whoever paid for the research could have gotten out of it.

Leo Bogart does too. He has been on the front lines of social science research in many different battlefields -- from the University of Chicago to Standard Oil's P.R. department to Fulbright scholarships studying communist propaganda in France to serving as the first market research director for Revlon to working for the TV-battered Bureau of Advertising for the American Newspaper Publishers Association. He has just issued his memoirs, Finding Out: Personal Adventures in Social Research -- Discovering What People Think, Say, and Do. It's a delightful book, filled with colorful characters quickly but deftly limned. It makes that most stereotypically soul-deadening middle-class postwar American role, the Marketing Man, seem intellectually vital and fun. Bogart is mostly indulging himself in this book with reminiscences of people he's known and tasks he's performed rather than rigorously arguing a point of view or defending the values and methods of his profession.

His details are frequently funny and charming, and add humanity to a potentially dull topic. He describes Earl Newsom, his P.R. chief at Standard Oil of New Jersey, as "the opposite of the common notion of what a public relations wizard should be like. He was gaunt, humorless, and withdrawn....In meetings he spoke sparingly and in an almost inaudible croaking whisper, so that all those present had to lean forward to hear him. This gave his most banal utterances an aura of great consequence."

Bogart relates anecdotes of desperately trying to reassure his paymasters at Esso Brazil of the value of the polls he was conducting for them on the very day that America's major pollsters miscalled the Truman-Dewey presidential contest in 1948; of Croatian fascists-turned-pollsters enthusiastically joining in on old partisan songs at a Yugoslavian conference; and of the chairman of Revlon interrupting an annual sales meeting to rebuke his 12-year-old son for not doing his homework.

Bogart's profession could be attacked in different ways. There is a popular anti-corporate, progressive argument that sees market research and advertising as a sinister attempt to manipulate people. This perspective is exemplified by such hip magazines as Adbusters and rooted in the theories of such popular writers as Vance Packard (The Hidden Persuaders) and Wilson Bryan Key (Subliminal Seduction), as well as the highfalutin' sociologists of the Frankfurt School.

Alternatively, the rise of market research could be seen not as threatening or malign but as a silly sign of our society's swelling wealth. That wealth allows us to indulge in what are often goofily scientistic attempts to stack up quantitative "knowledge" about men's minds. In the buzzing, blooming confusion of human choices and actions, such knowledge can be harder to pin down than many social research mavens care to admit.

The art and science of finding out and quantifying what people think and want, the basis of Bogart's profession, has an obvious political application as well. That function is explored -- and attacked -- in Robert Weissberg's new book, Polling, Policy, and Public Opinion: The Case Against Heeding the "Voice of the People."

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