Group Thinker

I have been many men in my career as a focus-group member. For a travel study, I was a hardy adventurer who’d backpacked through Mongolia. For a deodorant group, I claimed a glandular problem that caused me to sweat profusely, no matter the conditions. On other occasions, I have grown up on Long Island, lived in southern New Jersey, suffered from long-term asthma—and, for a brief few hours, been of Italian descent.

It all began when I woke up to my status as a card-carrying member of the advertiser-horny 18-to-34-year-old, single-white-male segment of society. As such, my opinions are valuable. Focus groups pay serious money: anywhere from $75 to $300 an hour for sitting with a bunch of other guys and commenting on everything from alcohol packaging to the elastic waistband of your tighty-whities.

These “screenings” are constructed as theoretically perfect control groups, with men off the street full of fresh, unspoiled insights. To that end, most focus companies have a rule that no one can participate in a group more than once every six months. This is complete bunk. If you know how to game the system, you can do one of these a week, sometimes even more. (My record is four.)

Several companies in the city (including Great Opinions, Clinilabs, and the Focus Room) run screenings. Each one has paid recruiters who work off a master list of candidates, which you can get on through the companies’ Websites or online communities like Craigslist’s “Etc.” section. Just fill out an online survey and wait for the calls and e-mails to roll in.

Recruiters usually call on weekends to determine suitability for a survey. If they ask you whether you’ve done one in the past six months, just say no. They never check. If they ask you something off-the-wall, like “Have you purchased a treadmill in the past year?,” say yes; they wouldn’t ask if that weren’t the answer they wanted. If they ask you what brands you purchase most often, always name big ones: Sprint, Budweiser, Marlboro. They’re representing either one of those companies or a smaller one trying to figure out how to steal you away. And, most important, let the recruiters lead you. Before you answer a question you’re not sure about, pause for a couple of seconds. They’ll tip their hand every time.

Once you’re actually in the group, it’s vital to be as invisible as possible. If you’re tagged as an “outlier” who has opinions that don’t jibe with an advertiser’s research, it’s less likely you’ll be invited back. You are not a human; you are a demographic stereotype. So act manly: Refer to any pink product packaging as “feminine” or “wussy,” or mention that you’re always “tossing down a few after work with my buddies.”

In one group for Johnnie Walker Black, it was obvious the marketers wanted us to consider their beverage upscale, for special occasions. Recognizing this, I made up a story about learning my best friend was engaged and telling him, “It’s Johnnie Walker time!” The interviewer looked like he wanted to hug me.

It’s also important to be vague. During the focus group on travel, the interviewer asked me if there were any countries I might have moral qualms visiting. The correct answer was, “Oh, none at all.” But I blurted out, “South Africa,” sharing some underdeveloped thoughts I had about apartheid. The interviewer’s face sharpened, and he began to pepper me with questions.

I had forgotten the cardinal rule: They don’t want your opinion; they want you to confirm what they already think. You’re whatever they want you to be, baby.

Group Thinker