Media X: Garbage Out

I read about a study designed to discover the causes of anxiety in 7-to 11-year-olds. There were three groups researched: anxious kids; non-anxious kids with anxious parents; and a third group in which neither progeny or parents were anxious. The researchers said that the third group was "surprisingly hard to find."

Clearly, these were academics, not businesspeople, because the latter would not be so startled. Advertisers and agencies are all too familiar with the neurotics that pass for citizens in this country. It's astounding, really, that it took this long for major marketers to question the methodology by which they determine what these twitching blockheads think about anything.

So I was heartened to read in Ad Age that the Advertising Research Foundation, Procter & Gamble and Unilever don't think traditional Q&A consumer surveys can survive another five years. Now, we all know how often a prediction like this actually comes to pass, so let's not hold our breath. But at least it's a start.



Consumers are half-crazy. All of them. And they lie to you. About everything.

Turnabout is fair play, I guess. But the point is that they never tell you what they really believe. Older consumers are desperate to please. Younger ones are gleefully screwing with you.

Anyway, the death of Q&A surveys is not entirely good news for ad and media shops. They need this kind of misleading and useless marketing data to convince their clients that they're not as clueless as the clients themselves. But it's even worse for public relations.

If the world's largest PR agencies are still doing what they were doing when I worked for them or was regularly pitched by them, this will be a crushing blow. The PR shops constantly used quickie Q&As fielded by third-tier vendors that asked basic questions designed to elicit trumped-up data as evidence for whatever asinine thing the shops wanted to claim on behalf of their clients. Then, they pitched the results to the media.

This is just one small example of how persuaded communications is as intellectually bankrupt as its paid communications cousins. (I'd add the Democratic Party to the list, but they are in a class by themselves when it comes to ineptitude.) And I applaud the ARF and the packaged-goods empires for looking for research tools that actually reveal something. But I fear their solutions will cause more harm than good.

Inevitably, they claim that they will attempt to mine marketplace wisdom from digital media--including, one presumes, such gushing fountains of verity as crowd-sourcing sites, blogs and social networks. Which, as we all know, encourage consumers to be paragons of honesty and open-mindedness.

So you know where this is going to go.

Older users will try to be helpful. Younger ones will gleefully screw with the researchers. YouTube videos will create a viral whirlwind of ridicule for the companies that fund the research. Nothing that is learned will be true, nothing that is tried will work, and a university study will reveal that, to its great surprise, every kid in America is riddled with anxiety.

Especially the ones whose parents are marketing executives.

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