Gloria Lipschitz* was probing for creativity, and her questions kept getting harder. "Please name five uses for a single brick, other than using it to build anything," she said, with a raspy, tar-inflected voice. Bricks? I tried to think. Nothing. Shit.
A few months ago I applied for the best job in town: focus group participant. I was to be paid handsomely for delivering my opinions, sipping various spirits and cognacs, judging Madison Avenue ad campaigns, and offering my "emotional" and "spiritual" connections to workaday products like iced tea or dog food.
If played right, I heard from friends, the job could dish $600 a week or more in cash -- and I could still wake up at noon!
But what can you do with only one brick?
Gloria is an independent recruiter for several marketing companies. She's the chain-smoking lady on the phone in her apartment all day, talking to schmucks like me, telemarketing for proclivities. Her job is to file people into a database and then arrange those characteristics into a team that tests products and ideas.
She hates her job. She gets sweaty ears, a sore neck too. The one redeeming quality, she says, is that once in a while, she'll talk to an applicant who might make her laugh.
That's not me. "Keep trying, honey. You might get lucky."
Her position, however, is über-risky. In fact, it's downright dangerous.
The million-dollar marketing companies who run focus groups want ideal participants: people who've never been to a focus group and know nothing about the process.
That makes life tough for Gloria. Why call 100 people to find the right candidate for Lipton Ice Tea, when she can send the same guy to Tazo, Arizona, and Snapple in one week!
She was looking for that guy. It wasn't me.
She asked me how much money I made, and when I told her, she chuckled.
"Honey," she said. "Listen to me. You make $40,000 a year. You're engaged. You drink alcohol four times a week, twice on weekends, exercise in a gym, and you like to shop, shop, shop. . . that's what I need now, OK?"
Every night in New York, 20 to 40 focus groups are held in big, empty buildings with big, empty boardrooms, experts say. Normally, there are eight to 12 people in a group. The hostesses tend to be perky, blonde types: think sorority girl turned market "analyst." Like jail or a spooky psych experiment, the sessions are always being watched by fat cats behind a two-way mirror, and sometimes being videotaped. Pay is typically from $50 to $100 per session, though it depends on the focus.
Companies that organize this research and -- hint, hint -- have recruiting services can be found at Bluebook.org. The best way to market yourself to marketing companies would be -- and you didn't hear it from me -- to call and ask for the recruitment department. Sound naive. They will plop you into a database if they so choose. If not, on to the next company.
Be forewarned: Marketing groups all say the idea of "adaptive" people like you and me applying for focus groups and fudging our personas to make quick cash fucks up the sample and threatens the "integrity" of the industry. They loathe so-called "focus queens" -- those who've been known to invent different personalities to maximize their own market potential.
"Making money this way is just myth," says one director who didn't want to be named. "We don't want people that want money. It makes it harder for us to do things accurately."
Still -- like many unfortunate things in life -- it is done. And if you can take the dough for telling Bacardi their rum ads stink, there's no reason why someone else should.
"The job takes no effort," says a friend who gets called about once a month. "You shoot the shit, maybe meet a cute girl, then get cash. Sometimes you have to lie, but hey, that's all in the game."
A hint: You don't have to lie. The truth is always easiest to remember. And besides, many companies are looking to interview college students. They say that transient group is the most difficult in which to find good respondents for beer, jeans and "cool" ad campaigns. So you may be perfect just the way you are: hungry and horny and broke.
Another hint: Don't tell the recruiter you're a newspaper reporter.
"What do you do for work?" she asked.
"I'm sort of a ... writer."
"What kind of writer?"
"Not a very good one."
"Do you work for a newspaper or magazine or any printed publication?"
I ran fast from all specifics.
"That's a very tough field to get into," I said.
Then she popped the Brick Question. Five uses for a brick other than for building purposes.
"A piece of art?"
She sighed. "Oh, that's new."
"In a garden, garden art," I said.
I stumbled. I mumbled the word "collage." I tried to stall. I asked to call her back, and she told me not to bother. I bombed.
"Sorry, honey," she said. "We're looking for people who can articulate themselves."
Maybe you can do better.
*Note: Gloria Lipshitz is a pseudonym.
Geoffrey Gray is a contributor to the Village Voice.