Don’t Worry, We’re Listening

Liza Featherstone

The focus group was invented by a socialist, nurtured by corporate America — and revolutionized the relationship between elites and the masses.

Focus group participants at the Social Innovation Competition in Amsterdam, March 11, 2013. Kennisland / Flickr

Interview by
Kate Wagner

From their early uses in war propaganda to their ubiquity in Hillary Clinton’s campaign, focus groups have been a tool for elites to glean the sentiments of the masses without ceding any power to them.

Liza Featherstone’s new book Divining Desire: Focus Groups and the Culture of Consultation takes a critical look at the history and methodology of focus groups and their place in political and cultural life. In this interview with Kate Wagner, Featherstone explains how, whether in politics or in advertising, listening and empowering are two different things.

Kate Wagner

Can you tell us a bit about how focus groups came to be?

Liza Featherstone

At every turn, focus groups have been developed or further perfected to bridge a vast divide between a group of elites and the people they want to convince. We find this just as much with left-wing elites as with our current depraved ruling class.

In fact, the focus group was developed during Red Vienna, a period when the city, despite a very conservative national government, was run by socialists. The Viennese socialist leadership was very much a cultural elite — they were the intellectuals, the psychoanalysts. They had ideas about what socialism should be but were very out of touch with the working class. These elites held a lot of socially conservative views, like the working class shouldn’t have sex outside of marriage or drink, they should play team sports and listen to classical music. The working class wasn’t particularly interested in those ideas, so there was this disconnect.

Paul Lazarsfeld, a young socialist activist, became what we now call a sociologist. He explained that Red Vienna’s leaders “wanted to discover why [their] propaganda was unsuccessful.” That’s very important.

Flash forward a couple of decades to World War II. Lazarsfeld traveled to the United States as an exile, because Vienna was first taken over by a right-wing government and then by the Nazis. Since Lazarsfeld was a Jewish socialist, he obviously left the country. He formed various research institutes in the United States, the most permanent of which was at Columbia — the Bureau of Applied Social Research.

Lazarsfeld and Columbia contracted with the somewhat creepily named Office of War Information, which was the arm of the US government trying to convince Americans to support World War II. Today it’s commonplace for university scholars to contract with governments and corporations, but it was very unusual back then. Lazarsfeld was very entrepreneurial and on the cutting edge of all that.

Just like in Vienna, the Roosevelt administration needed to discover why its propaganda was unsuccessful. Americans, contrary to the sentimental ideas we now have about “the good war,” were quite uninterested in getting involved in this faraway European conflict. So, Lazarsfeld and his colleagues tested government propaganda to discover why that was.

In that process, they began to use groups. The notion of “focus” is actually more important in this moment than the idea of “groups.” The innovation was that you find out a lot by getting people to focus on a particular text or object, in this case a radio broadcast or newsreel.

When they showed people propaganda detailing how terrifying the Nazis were — that they were brutal and particularly cruel to civilians — this didn’t make people want to fight the Nazis. In fact it made people really scared. They said, “Well, if that’s the case then maybe we should just stay home, stay far away from these terrifying people.”

They found it was much more effective to appeal to Americans’ higher nature, to say, “Look at these irrational and terrible and authoritarian people. We, by contrast, are a very enlightened democracy. We need to fight and assure our better way of life.” It was about rational messaging.

Shiny Political Robots

Kate Wagner

How do politicians use focus groups today?

Liza Featherstone

Gerald Ford was an early user of focus groups, but once the Democrats caught on, they really used them, and they use them much better than Republicans.

One possible explanation for that is that Democrats have a lot more of a divide to bridge. They are trying to convince ordinary people to vote for them while they are generally funded by and working largely in the interest of elites. So they have a lot of rhetorical and narrative gaps to fill.

Republicans can get up there and say, “I don’t listen to focus groups,” and their base is going to be fine with that — even applaud them for it. It aligns much more with the ideals of conservative masculinity.

Kate Wagner

How did this play out in the 2016 election?

Liza Featherstone

Hillary Clinton’s campaign was an incredibly conventional campaign by the standards of recent history. It was extensively focus grouped. She constantly brought up the concept of listening: “I’ve been listening. I’ve been listening to what some people have told me.” She said that over and over. And yet, her entire career has been devoted to policies that serve elite interests at the expense of ordinary people.

And then the political aesthetic that focus groups produce — Hillary Clinton is almost a joke when it comes to that. She’s very stiff. One Reddit commenter I quoted in the book characterized her as a “shiny political robo[t] built not to offend.”

In contrast, Donald Trump played the completely traditional conservative politician in his blustering, macho rejection of focus groups. He took it further than most in that he didn’t really use them. Most Republicans say they don’t use them but actually do. But Trump would point to his temples and say, “I do focus groups up here.” It’s such an emphatic “I only listen to myself.”

And people applauded him for that, because there’s so much hostility to focus groups. People love to hear that you’re rejecting focus groups no matter how anti-democratic and narcissistic the terms of that rejection are.

On the other hand, the people I spoke to in the Sanders campaign said that he did not find them useful. They did a few in the very beginning, and he hated it. He didn’t make any big statements about that. The rejection of focus groups was not a part of his image; the campaign didn’t try to reap political hay from it.

But Sanders talked about politics in a way that was very much against the grain of the culture of consultation. He would say things like, “Electing me is not enough. You have to keep organizing; you have to participate.” There was this constant insistence to be civically more involved than just participating in focus groups.

It’s interesting, given that Trump was elected and Sanders is now the most popular politician in America. These are very different ways of rejecting the culture of consultation, but they obviously both have some traction.

Hidden Persuaders

Kate Wagner

Even early on, people objected to the focus group. They saw it as manipulative, as a kind of corporate mind control. How has this anti–focus group sentiment changed over time?

Liza Featherstone

We hated focus groups almost immediately, but the reasons why we hate them have shifted. In the 1950s, focus groups moved from academic and governmental uses to Madison Avenue. Corporate America discovered how useful it can be to listen to consumers.

This triggered a backlash, as the public became more aware of market research, which dovetailed with a growing awareness of advertising and the great anxiety during this period about consumer society in general. A lot of the concern is that advertisers are using market research to manipulate people into buying stuff they don’t want — which is almost certainly true! But the concern takes very interesting forms.

Some of it is quite sexist, assuming that the female consumer is stupid and led astray easily. Some of it assumes that the female consumer is endlessly libidinal, that her appetite for consumer goods can’t be contained. We see a lot of interesting and intense psychosexual concern in the rhetoric around this.

The most famous critic of market research from this period is Vance Packard, author of The Hidden Persuaders, which became a massive bestseller in 1957. This guy was a successful journalist, he made a lot of money from his books, he had a nice house in Connecticut, but this book was kind of insane. He was concerned about subliminal messaging —

Kate Wagner

Like mind control.

Liza Featherstone

Exactly. It’s not a prudent, sober look at the situation, but it’s fascinating.

And the reaction to it on the advertising side is quite interesting because the advertisers started making these proto-feminist arguments. They say, “Women are quite capable of making up their minds. One of the reasons we have to do all this market research is that it’s really hard to get women to do what we want because they’re so smart.” It’s a funny debate about the intelligence of women, about underlying rationality: are consumers fundamentally stupid? Are they fickle? Are they critical?

Two different strains of criticisms emerge when focus groups become completely ubiquitous in the 1990s and 2000s. A lot of these criticisms come from the elites — or the people who speak for them. They complain about anyone listening to these stupid ordinary people in the first place.

When you read these rants against focus groups by people like New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell or from film directors, you assume they’re coming from some kind of leftish anti-corporate place like Vance Packard in the ’50s. But what they’re really saying is, “People are very stupid and don’t know what they think about things. Why are we even asking them?”

We see this in the way certain business icons get extensively praised for not using focus groups, like Steve Jobs. There’s this worship of the macho-ideal, this dude who doesn’t have to listen to anybody.

You see it politically, too. Criticism of focus groups comes much more from the Right during this period. That makes sense — conservatism would be about protecting elites and having them not have to listen to anyone. But it’s not limited to the Right — all kinds of liberal-leaning people, Malcolm Gladwell for one, make this same criticism, and you see it play out on shows like Mad Men, where Don Draper is idealized for throwing the focus group report in the trash to show how edgy he is.

The Culture of Listening

Kate Wagner

But focus groups are also connected to social movements, specifically second-wave feminism and the New Left, which created a “culture of listening.”

Liza Featherstone

Ernest Dichter, a very well-known market researcher from the mid-century, shared his research with Betty Friedan while she was writing The Feminine Mystique. It’s such a good idea to look at a market researcher’s insights into how women felt in this period. He finds a lot of ambivalence about housework, hostile feelings about how women spend their days, boredom with household tasks. All of this goes into The Feminine Mystique and provides a pretty solid empirical basis for that book.

One reason focus groups are so intertwined with second-wave feminism is because they’re so concerned with women, women consumers specifically. Women, thought of as being in charge of the home, are therefore in charge of a lot of consumption, a lot of household purchases. But also — going back to the idea that focus groups bridge divides between the elites and the masses — women don’t really participate in elite decision making during this period. There are a few — more than are represented on shows like Mad Men — but they’re not really there. So, the corporate decision makers have to use these methods to find out what women want. They also learned a lot about gender roles and about how women feel about things, and Betty Friedan makes wonderful use of that.

Focus groups continue to spread in this period because there’s an emphasis on talking about things in groups. In the ’50s, there’s an explosion of interest in group therapy. In the ’70s, we see “consciousness-raising groups,” and there’s a lot of overlap between that phenomenon and focus groups. We see an increased emphasis on sharing experiences and listening. Corporations gave a lot of lip service to that idea: “We listened to what people were saying.” What they mean was that they listened to the focus groups.

But this affects other areas of the culture as well. The New Left and feminism start to be dominated by these practices of “giving voice” and listening. There’s a real emphasis on listening and being heard, sometimes at the expense of thinking strategically about politics and taking action.

I don’t want to exaggerate that — sometimes real actions grew out of the consciousness-raising groups, and it’s obviously important to share ideas and listen. But the critic Russell Jacoby used the phrase “endless talk” to describe the New Left, and that is where the culture of focus groups has led us — into this culture of endless talk.

Kate Wagner

The larger critique you make is that communication between the elites and the masses is not the same as having a say in the outcome. By pretending to listen, corporate elites give people an illusion of power or participation. Still, do you think that focus groups are populist or democratic in any real way?

Liza Featherstone

The “culture of consultation” is not democratic. We have substituted being listened to for having power. But it’s better for the elites to listen, which is why I’m critical of some of the harshest dismissals of focus groups because I think they come from people who don’t want regular people to have a voice at all. What I object to is how that kind of consultation has really taken over the culture, and that takeover has so paralleled the complete loss of political power for most ordinary people.