Focusing in on Focus Groups

In the past few years, focus groups have shifted from not only a marketing research methodology, but also an actual marketing tool. We’ve seen the Chevy “Real people. Not actors” ads; one, for example, parodying a focus group of millennials discussing what they want out of a new car, and the stereotyped results that follow. Just recently, Athleta released its “Up For Anything” ads, which show women who believed they were participating in focus groups being challenged to do things they never thought they could do. Ads like these experiment with the focus group format while also playing with what we ask participants to do and the kinds of results we might get from them.

So what do we really get out of focus groups? How did they evolve into what they are and how we use them today? Coming out in February of this year, “Divining Desire: Focus Groups and the Culture of Consultation” by Liza Featherstone should give us a thorough and interesting account of the role focus groups play in American consumerism, market research, politics and more.

According to the book description, “Divining Desire” will cover a history of focus groups in the United States. This includes their origins in gaining a better understanding of political discourse, to their shift to market research and consumer insights. The author also discusses how focus groups play into people’s distrust of “out-of-touch” CEOs and politicians, questioning whether focus groups are a good way to deal with these issues. The book promises a critique of the pitfalls of focus groups, and what true benefits they have. Ultimately, the text may be asking us “are focus groups really about democracy?” Are focus groups about giving people a voice, or are they about making people FEEL like they have a voice?

So what is the future of focus groups? Featherstone’s book may give us a hint, but for now, it’s up to us in the industry to make our own innovations and decide where we want to go.

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