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The Cat and the Canary

Geoff Bayley pinpoints three misconceptions and 10 pointers for researching ads

People in advertising, increasingly Planners not just Creatives, tend to believe that asking consumers in groups for their opinions on fledgling advertising ideas is like asking a hungry Tiddles for his views on the vocal qualities of the canary - didn't the same consumer Tom cat wreak havoc on the songs of Heineken, Gold Blend et al.

I view the consumer cat as a cuddly pet so it’s a bit of a shock that some see it as a ruthless predator. Views from the advertising perch raise issues such as:

  • group discussions are so unrealistic - people see ads in lots of ways but they don't sit in a room with seven other people and discuss them?

  • whose views do you get out of research anyway, all those people don't agree so are we just getting back the views of the researcher? and if so why don't they come clean?

To take the debate further I'd like to suggest that there are three misconceptions underlying this thinking and a further 10 points of good practise that can help both Tiddles and the Canary to enjoy a happy co-existence.

To start with the misconceptions

  • that group discussions are unreal and therefore a flawed format

  • that consumers in groups are too conservative and they can't tell you what will work in the future

  • that qualitative research is a subjective exercise overly influenced by the researcher.

1. Group discussions are a flawed format?

The criticism that we don't 'pay that much attention' to ads in real life doesn't stand up to any scrutiny. The mistake arises because usually 'we don't spend much time' thinking about ads and this gets equated to 'paying no attention'.

Most things that we experience most days are instant, but we all know that incidents that are over in a flash can find us mulling over them time again without any conscious desire to do so. The amount of time we give something is not necessarily related to the amount of our attention it's taking up. This is exactly how ads work and the spontaneous conversation about ad ideas that a group discussion creates is the most effective way of bringing to the surface those taken for granted layers of attention. The important point is that the hot-housing effect gets at things that are real - the nature of our identity wrapped up in the brand experience. The group format may look like an artifice to the onlooker but to the participants it uncovers truths that they don't usually glimpse.

If it worries you, design the project to suit the 'context of consumption', move it out of the living room into the bar, car-park or football stadium, but a well-recruited, well-run group will rarely be undermined by its situation or context.

2. Respondents can't tell you what will work in the future?

It's true that some consumers are conservative and that a group can endorse ideas that are familiar and attack the unfamiliar but this is not the case for all consumers. Many people thrive on the new and different, they admire the radical or challenging. The underlying misconception, however, is that the advertising is subject to a 'beauty contest' where the 'most liked' wins the day.

In fact, an idea that polarises opinion is often the strongest contender to run with. Researchers evaluate an ad. idea in relation to 'where it's taking the brand'. Where consumers are coming from tells you something about how they'll feel about the new destination, but it doesn't mean that they won't come with you or enjoy it when they get there. Researchers listen out not so much for what people do to the advertising (praise it, condemn it, misunderstand it) but more importantly what the ad does to people, what emotions it triggers, what intuitions it matches, as well as what thoughts it communicates.

3. This brings us to the third misconception; that its all down to the subjectivity of the Qualitative researcher?

At first sight the case seems unanswerable. Running a group discussion involves responding to what people tell you and asking follow-up questions. It's about selection. The researcher is defining what's significant and what isn't.

All I can say is that it never feels like that and I challenge you to get a qualitative researcher to declare his favourite idea at the outset of a project and I'll bet that nine out of ten times it's not the one that wins. It's my contention that subjectivity is irrelevant in qual research, my personal evaluation of the ad ideas is more often than not confounded by what happens in the groups. Consumers make comments about ads that seem to come out of the blue.

They notice things, good and bad, that everybody else has overlooked. They make connections across creative media that may or may not have been intended. Further our research questions are open and not prejudging - 'How does it make you feel?', 'Tell me about it?' Respondents sense that their views count. Once the group dynamic is up and running our questions are like the game of Pooh sticks…they get carried along on a current that hardly has to adjust its momentum to accommodate them.

So much for the misconceptions, I want to turn now to the main things that will ensure that the consumer cat doesn't kill the creative canary.

I believe there are 10 tenets of good practise that we need to observe to get the most from advertising research. They span the 4 stages of a project, the Briefing, the Stimulus Material, the Discussion and the Debrief.


1) Get the Creatives to the meeting and get them to explain how they got to the idea and why they think it’s the best solution. What are they fired up about with this idea, and what if anything are they unsure about. Talk about the idea in relation to its research execution as compared to how they will develop/ produce it.

2) Get the researcher to respond personally to the creative work. It's new to him/ her and in talking about it, different angles, themes, misunderstandings will become clear.

3) Explain the Agency and Client perspective; be honest about conflicts, favourites, concerns and take the researcher into your confidence.

Stimulus Material

4) Give each idea its best possible expression, even if it means inconsistent ways of expressing ideas. Ideas don't win or lose according to the amount or cost of stimulus material supporting them.

5) Whenever possible, however else you present an idea, include a real-time length execution of it. For example, if you have a 90 second narrative, also have a 30 second real-time execution. This gives a sense of the pace, mood and emphasis within the idea.

The Discussion

6) Avoid the fixing of perspectives prior to showing new ideas that occurs by discussing the product context or competitive advertising. Get to advertising ideas as soon as group norming allows.

7) Suspend the impulse to be rational by asking respondents how it makes them feel before you ask them what they think. Ask questions like where in the body do they physiologically react to the ad. (backbone, feet, tear-duct, heart, etc.).

8) Encourage lots of different points of view and guard against retreat to the familiar by encouraging minority perspectives.

9) If you're watching, remember it’s the respondents' session too - they need space and time to engage their underlying values and, also, what's left unsaid can be as important as what's said.

The Debrief

10) Do something about this meeting. It's a staged event where research findings can become hostage to decision urgency rather than proper understanding!


Geoff Bayley
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