MAD DOG: Testing: One, Two, Three

I recently had the dubious honor of taking part in another marketing focus group. This was, according to the people who put it on, "A chance to let your opinions be heard. To make a difference. To have a hand in shaping the future of Western Civilization as we've come to know it."That was, as they say in Psychology 101, a slip of the tongue. What they meant to say was: "We're going to put you in a room with seven strangers who were chosen for their sociopathic tendencies, inability to form a complete sentence, and advancing catatonia while we sit behind a one-way mirror watching you drink Diet Cokes, eat sandwiches that were rejected by fourteen airlines, and wonder what made you think it could be worth $50 in cash to miss the Jeopardy $100,000 Alzheimer's Semi-Finals ("I'll take whatever that category was for 100, Alex.").I've been on focus groups before. There was one about a new car advertising campaign (Question: "What would make you want to buy this car?" Answer: "Change for a hundred."), a radio station's image (I suggested "Less talk, more dead air."), racism ("Why can't we all learn to work together?" "Because there isn't a company large enough to hire us all.") and a travel promotion for North Carolina ("What would make you want to vacation there?" "A new car for ninety bucks, more dead air on the radio, and if we could all get a job with the same company.").The latest focus group was about CD wallets. You know, those notebook-like things that hold a bunch of CDs? They wanted to know what we liked and didn't like about them as well as what we'd like to see in a new one. Most participants said the same thing: "ZZZZZzzzzz." Once they woke up they said they wanted a wallet that would keep CDs from being scratched, would be easy to clean, and didn't cost a lot.Fair enough. But then the leader of the focus group made the mistake of asking what features would get us to buy the ideal CD wallet. One guy said, "Give it away free with the purchase of a CD." A woman suggested they give out frequent flier miles when you buy it. Me? I told them I had an appointment to polish my car keys and asked for my fifty bucks.These responses all actually happened. Except mine, of course, which I was about to say until my mind wandered to something even more fantastic, like being able to go a day without hearing about El Nino on the news.It makes you wonder about the people who screen the participants. They do this over the phone by asking such probing questions as "How old are you?", "Have you bought a new ferret within the past six months?", and "How many fingers am I holding up?".Actually, they're not that specific. For some reason only they understand, they always want the answers in ranges -- "Are you between the ages of six and dead?", "Do you live between the Atlantic and the Pacific?", and "Am I holding up between one and five fingers?". Interestingly enough they never ask the important questions, like "Do you speak English?", "When do you have to be back on the rehab ward?", and "Have you ever had an opinion in your life?"I don't know why they bother. It's not like we have a crying need for more new products. Face it, there are already too many choices. Every time I go shopping I come home with at least one wrong version of a product. Where we once had plain old mayonnaise we now get to choose from lo-fat, fat-free, low sodium, no cholesterol, caffeine-free, and clear versions. Nowadays bars are required by law to stock 172 brands of beer, and even then someone will stagger in looking for Bud Genuine Lite Ice Dry Lager and file a lawsuit claiming beer discrimination when the bartender says he has bottles and the customer wants a draft. Heck, even One-A-Day vitamins mutated into five different formulas, making me wonder if all those years I'd been popping the Wrong-One-A-Day without even knowing it?There is, of course, a simple cure for all this product clutter -- besides going into the stores and slapping radioactive warning stickers on any package that uses the word "lo", "lite", or "luncheon meat" (three of the scariest words in the English language). More focus groups.Think about it. If each of us spent just two hours a day in focus groups we'd not only be able to shape the future of Western Civilization as we've come to know it, but we'd have two hours less each day to use all these extraneous products, meaning they wouldn't bother putting them out. The only down side to this is that our consumption of Diet Cokes and bad sandwiches would go up alarmingly. Oh yeah. And the Lo-fat Hi-fiber Super Prozac Extend-Tabs in the handy pocket pak we'd be taking so we could tolerate the guy who keeps suggesting that they give frequent flier miles with every product. But that's a small price to pay for progress, don't you think?


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