Democracy is fine – just not in the hands of the people

Democracy is fine – just not in the hands of the people


PERHAPS it’s because I am of a certain age; perhaps it’s because I have a known tendency to speak my mind; or perhaps it’s because I’m happy to do any number of things for $150 cash-in-hand, but I recently was invited to take part in a focus group by a manufacturer with a new model to sell. I can only presume that I wasn’t selected for the group because I might end up buying one of the said vehicles because … well, that might become clear.

'We were intended to represent the manufacturer’s target market in microcosm. If that’s true, the manufacturer’s target market is ever so slightly deranged.'

If you’ve been involved in a focus group for anything before – financial services, dishwashing liquid, cars, holidays – you’ll have an idea of the basic set-up. Six strangers, all of whom are prepared to give up two hours of their time for a modest payment, are brought together to answer questions, provide their opinions and thoughts, and to guide manufacturers on how to sell their products to consumers. 

I suppose it’s a form of democracy – letting the people choose – but I sincerely hope the manufacturer in question has run more than one focus group otherwise in the not-too-distant future you’re going to have a car advertised to you with a genuinely peculiar tagline, possibly combining the quirky appeal of East German engineering with the menstrual cycle.

All of the participants are vetted, so the manufacturers know the kind of person who’ll be in the room, if not the precise foibles of each personality. So there were no greenies, no cycling nut-jobs and no-one who wasn’t both a competent and enthusiastic motorist. 

We were, in short, intended to represent the manufacturer’s target market in microcosm. And if that’s true, then the manufacturer’s target market is ever so slightly deranged. It was a credit to Kim, the moderator, that she didn’t punch anyone, barely raised her voice, and that she didn’t throw anything.

We were asked about cars we’d owned previously. We were asked about our ideal car of the future, and opinions of electric, hybrid and good old-fashioned petrol-driven variants. We heard sets of characteristics of different cars and different manufacturers and we were asked to nominate brands that fitted particular sets of attributes. And we ended up with Kia and Lamborghini together in one group, Bentley and Holden in another, and Trabant in the same group as Porsche (I can’t resist being a smart-arse sometimes).

We were asked to assess potential advertising slogans and sort them in order of preference considering the level of rationality versus emotion in each statement, and whether a given slogan differentiated the car from the pack. For the most part, the slogans were variations on the same theme – you don’t need to be embarrassed about wanting to own something as unapologetically awesome as this car – that didn’t really work for me because I have never, ever, been embarrassed to own the very best cars I can possibly afford (and even ones I really can’t afford). 

So my responses were out of step with some of the others, especially one of the male participants whom I shall call “Michael” because he had an air of smugness about him that reminded me of Michael Douglas and made me want to give him a new round of spontaneous cosmetic surgery using my water glass.

The six of us really couldn’t agree on anything. I’m not sure if that’s an error in the selection process or simply reflects how hard it is to come up with a line that appeals to everyone at the same time. What I thought was perfectly rational Michael dismissed as emotional; what I thought was claptrap he thought was concise and succinct. He really was insufferable and before long the two of us were dominating the conversation and trying Kim’s patience as she tried to include the four others, who had disappointingly fallen somewhat silent.

The manufacturer is going to have a tough time defining a clear marketing strategy out of this particular farrago, but it did give me a bit of an insight into why so many car ads just don’t resonate with me at all. I’m not interested in price, or if it’s on sale, or if it’s got seven seats and 16 cupholders; I want to know how it goes in a straight line, how it goes around things and how it stops, and how I’m likely to feel when I’m in it. When Michael told me I had a particularly “female” attitude to cars (whatever that means) I was grateful to Kim for shutting him down before I lifted his sagging eyebrows with a carafe.

Anyway, right at the end there was the big-reveal and we learned who the manufacturer was. I can’t tell you who it is, because of a confidentiality agreement we signed on the way in. Let’s just say that even after not mentioning them by name once when given an opportunity, Michael asserted that he knew them very well indeed, and that he’d seen and really liked their ads on TV. He then went on to describe in excruciating detail an advertisement for an entirely different company. 

The people sitting behind the one-way glass (I presume there were people there) must have been tearing their hair out. But that’s what you get when you have to interact with the public – especially the Michaels.