The long read: Focus groups make us feel our views matter but no one with power cares what we think
In the early 1950s, the Betty Crocker company had a problem: American housewives liked the idea of cake mix, but they werent actually buying it. And so the company approached Ernest Dichter, a Viennese psychologist who had pioneered a new kind of market research, and asked him to find out why.
At the same time, the relatively new processed-food industry was determined to push ready-made food. Frozen foods had enjoyed a boost during the war because of tin rationing, and the first frozen ready meals were launched in 1952. More women were working outside the home, making the convenience of these meals especially appealing. Incomes were rising, too, during this postwar period, which gave families more money to spend on convenience items, and on trying out new dishes. Not all such products were new cake mix, after all, had been around for decades but in this postwar climate, the food industry assumed there would be a much larger market for them. And yet, cake mix sales were slow.
Dichter, who called his work motivational research, set out to answer the question using a relatively new tool: the focus group. Dichters groups for Betty Crocker diagnosed the trouble women felt guilty that they were not doing the work of baking the cake for their families. Serving prepared foods made them feel inadequate.
Focus groups, which became widespread in the 50s, could illuminate the psychological complexities that blocked womens buying habits. In one focus group from this period, a woman made a Freudian slip: Especially when Im in a hurry, I like foods that are time-consuming. Her slip of the tongue, in the context of the conversation, revealed the womans conflicted feelings about convenience foods, even though she seemed to embrace them. As the moderator, Alfred Goldman, would later recall in a 1964 article for a trade journal, that slip inspired the other women in the group to talk more openly about how guilty they felt over serving prepared foods to their families.
Dichter was creative at coming up with solutions to the problems that focus groups revealed. As Bill Schlackman, a colleague of Dichters, would recall years later, in this case the solution was to assuage the housewives guilt by giving them more of a sense of participation. How to do that? He smiled. By adding an egg. With this simple adjustment to the recipe, sales of cake mixes took off. It was an early focus-group marketing triumph.
Focus groups came, over the course of the last century, to shape almost every aspect of our lives, from cake mix to Barbie dolls. Almost nothing is launched into the world without a focus group. Since the late 1980s, they have affected even the political discussions that ultimately determine what kind of society we can have, not to mention the toothpaste we use, the soap operas we watch, the news media we consume, and the video games we play. Focus groups have also helped to create and nourish a seemingly boundless culture of consultation, in which ordinary people weigh in on just about everything, before the people in charge make a decision. Aided by social media and other technologies, the scope of such consultation has, in recent years, expanded its reach with breathtaking speed, allowing companies to aggregate the views and feelings of millions of potential customers.