Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Power of Focus Groups

Everyone hates negative attack campaign ads, mudslinging, candidates who focus on the faults or perceived faults of their opponents and not on their own qualities and strengths. Everyone hates the incessant commercials, the unwanted recorded phone calls. Yet every election time we get them and in great quantities. Despite overwhelming dislike and even revulsion at the political process, all of the above continue unabated.

By the time Halloween is over, Christmas decorations and advertisements start appearing. As Thanksgiving approaches, so do the "holiday" commercials and TV specials. "Rudolph" is airing this year on Novermer 30th. They're not even waiting till December! There is Christmas merchandise already in every department store and drug store and we're still two weeks from Thanksgiving. Do people really begin stocking up on Christmas merchandise this early, and would retailers lose significant money by waiting? Everyone complains about the early commercialization of Christmas and there's not a soul out here who enjoys hearing Christmas Carols before the jack-o-lanterns have been thrown out. Yet the shopkeepers, the ad companies, the TV networks and the rest of the nations retailers persist in this practice.

Speaking of TV networks, for the last five years or so we've been subjected to an increasingly bizarre array of "Reality shows" on television. While Reality shows have been around for years, ranging from Candida Camera to Real People to the more recent COPS, only recently has the trend taken off to reach epic proportions. At the beginning of this cycle we had Survivor, Big Brother, and of course The Real World. But since then we've endured more and more outlandish versions of the same concepts, either a group of people are forced to live together under unusual circumstances or unmatched couples are paired up in some strange way. Each season brings shows with less and less taste, and for the most part the American viewing public is a bit sick of the whole concept. Yet every few weeks, a new one starts up on one channel or another.

And then, even under persistent evidence to the contrary...some people in Nashville continue to be Vanderbilt football fans. That's a real headscratcher. But I digress.

All that to say, why do campaign strategists, ad companies, TV executives etc. continue to assume these things are what the public wants and is clamoring for? While less a case can be made for the lessening popularity of Reality shows (the ratings are still up - people are still watching them and making advertisers happy) I can't imagine if you polled 100 random people on the street even one would admit they think the current level of extremely negative campaigning is a vital part of the election process, or that Christmas decorations and advertising starts at just the right time. Not one. So why does it persist, in the face of such widespread disdain?

Somehow, somewhere, small bunches of Americans are pulled together in Focus Groups and their brains are picked. More informally, people are polled and surveyed twenty degrees from Sunday. The results are tabulated, calculated, formulated and prognosticated and the resulting conclusions create the state of politics, advertising and programming we see today.

But that's not the only indication that these practices work. In numerous situations, the candidate to sling the most mud subliminally creates the impression that his opponent does not deserve to be elected. And it will sometimes work. While we hate the Christmas stuff being up already, how many of you have bought a Christmas-related item already? How many of you continue to tune into My Cousin Married A Castaway on Fox?

If you want these things to go away, resist them. Resist the temptation to vote against one candidate - instead find reasons to vote for a candidate. If you hate commercialization of Christmas, don't put out your lights until December. And for God's sake, turn off the intelligence-insulting Reality Shows.

Don't become a one-person focus group.

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