The Public Can't be Trusted


I’ve always lied to market researchers. With a clear conscience, I’ve made some tidy cash messing with their heads. I consider it my patriotic duty. And I’m far from alone.

Most market research is a lie. Even the "research" label is a misnomer that demeans real, rigorous scholarship. As Professor Gerald Zaltman, author of How Customers Think: Essential Insights Into the Mind of the Market notes, people often lie in market surveys. They either say what they think they should say, or, like me, they say something in an attempt to push an agenda.

There’s been some noise recently about the futility of joining Australia’s Do Not Call Register. Apparently 2.4 million people are now registered, but like me, they continue to receive calls from those good folk (or at least recordings of good folk) itching to tell them they’re in the running to win something.

Why do marketers still pester those of us who’ve registered? Because some of us lied, according to Slate magazine: "Because the marketers realise that what consumers say they want and what they actually do are not the same: Those who don’t want to be called actually buy from telemarketers when they are called… The correlation between stated intent and actual behaviour is usually low."

There is evidence, reckons the author, that the same is true of focus groups. But what isn’t mentioned is that the focus group facilitators tend to lie right back at participants.

Here’s an example from my own experience. In spite of the fact that my name was on the Do Not Call Register, the phone rang. A pleasant female voice asked if I wanted to participate in a market research focus group. Not really, I said. Seventy bucks cash for an hour after work with refreshments, she said. Okay, I answered.

When I arrived at the venue a cheerily officious woman — let’s call her Verity — ushered me in to join the group. As eight of us pogged free snacks we were asked to fill out a questionnaire about ads we’d noticed. Most of us lived and breathed brands, but I suspect the dour woman on my right was, like me, there to take the money and lie. Asked what her favourite advertisement was, she primly announced that she didn’t watch commercial television. "That’s fine!" Verity laughed. That was Verity’s first lie.

Her next was in explaining why we were there. It was so Verity’s client could offer us the very best, and communicate it in the best way for our needs. In the end we’d all benefit: it would help us get the best products for the best prices. Altruism at its noblest. Democracy at work.

For an hour of my precious time, I insist on more than 70 bucks if I’m going to tolerate being treated like a mug. Had Verity been upfront about her client’s aim to move more stock and increase shareholder profit; had she mentioned her client CEO’s stratospheric wage and the real market value of its 70-buck investment in our hearts and minds, I mightn’t have lied back.

But maybe I would have — it’s a national sport, after all. By which I mean a patriotic sport. Many Australians have heard of that sinister practice of "push-polling", a technique in which a company or political party sets out to influence respondents’ opinions while pretending to conduct a poll. I figure if I’m going to donate or sell my thoughts to profitable or political enterprises, I may as well do my own push-polling right back at them.

Not, of course, if they’re causes I support, like ABS surveys or health research (a disclosure: I’ve worked in the latter). But I’ve made a sport, for example, of telling whoppers to Online Opinion surveys, run by ex-Liberal Party strategist Graham Young. Since Graham’s a fervent freemarket champion, I figure he really doesn’t deserve my heart and mind gratis. If I’m going to give him intelligence for free, I may as well mess with his head and do my bit for Australia in the process.

I especially enjoyed lying to Graham at election time, when I told his survey I’d always, always voted Liberal until refugees were imprisoned and David Hicks was locked up without trial and Mohamed Haneef was persecuted and the Gunns pulp mill got support, and consequently I swung to Socialist Alliance and the Greens.

I know many others who perform such mischief on political surveys: apparently a trend is starting.

Why do folk like us lie to pollsters like Graham? Because we understand that participatory democracy and conviction politics don’t equate with marketers’ common-denominator poll stats. Many scholarly studies show that market surveys often influence the very behaviour or opinions they purport to document.

And it’s not simply sly survey designs or push-polling that can shape results, but the reporting itself. Some election outcomes are found to be influenced one way or the other by poll results. So are retail trends, in which shoppers generally flock to back a winner.

The Sydney Morning Herald‘s Malcolm Knox has documented the market consequences of publishing ‘top ten’ surveys of bestselling books, which actively influence sales. Newspaper readers see what’s popular and then buy it; booksellers respond and order more stock, displaying it in their windows and giving it more shelf space, further marginalising the books that didn’t make the list.

The same cascade effect can be found with finance market reports. Two RMIT academics, Cathy Greenfield and Peter Williams, have found that finance journalism doesn’t simply report market trends, but participates in them, "actively shaping public attention and categories of thought".

By actively shaping marketers’ attention and categories of thought, I feel I’m doing my small bit to introduce some fair play and alternative ideas into the marketplace. I lie to market researchers because they lie to me, and for so many reasons besides. I want them to think I never noticed that offensive ad, so they remove it altogether. I inflate my disposable income so political parties and advertisers take my opinions as seriously as they do more moneyed citizens, or so they support the publication I subscribe to.

Just as Alan Jones wields power over politicians with a smaller audience than the ABC’s Gardening Australia, I seek smoke-and-mirrors people-power.

I told the cheerful Verity some whoppers that evening, and collected my 70 bucks with a clear conscience, in the knowledge that I’d done good work for Australia. Because the way I see it, the more these Verities know about us, the worse off we citizens really are.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.