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The Focus-Group Fraud

12:00 AM, Oct 14, 1996 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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It was one of the two or three oddest developments of the presidential campaign, if anyone is still keeping track Suddenly, sometime around mid- April, Bob Dole uncorked a new bit of rhetoric. "If something happened along the way," Dole announced at a campaign rally, "and you had to leave your children with Bob Dole or Bill Clinton, I think you'd probably leave your children with Bob Dole."

The infelicity of the candidate's thought experiment was immediately apparent In the upbeat atmosphere of a campaign rally, with perky cheerleaders and brass bands poised to go giddy on cue, it's usually considered unwise to muse aloud to parents in the audience about what would happen if they croaked and theft kids were left alone in the world. . . .

Dole was asked to explain his reasoning in a TV interview. "It's what a couple of people have told me who had focus groups," he replied. Was he impugning the president's character? "I'm just repeating what focus groups said -- liberals, men, women, Democrats, Republicans, conservatives." Did it mean that Clinton's not a good person? "You'd have to ask the people in the focus groups," he replied "I wasn't in the focus groups But I think it indicates that people trust Bob Dole."

Actually, it doesn't. It indicates that those people in those focus groups who said they would leave their kids with Bob Dole probably do trust Bob Dole. And that's all it indicates. It tells us nothing about the public at large. Indeed, before you could say "Gotcha!" the Washington Post commissioned a poll showing that 52 percent of Americans would prefer Clinton as foster Dad; only 27 percent chose Dole.

But why be pedantic? There's no reason to pick on Dole alone He was making a common error, another symptom of the latest disease to afflict the world of politics: focus-group hysteria. "They're the hottest research mechanism going right now," says Mark Mellman, a Democratic consultant. "We've done more focus groups in the last month than we did in the entire 1986 election cycle. People think they're extremely fashionable and sexy."

As recently as twenty years ago, focus groups were an obscure technique used by researchers in the field of retail marketing A group often to fifteen consumers sharing some characteristic -- middle-aged housewives, teenage girls with disposable income, suburban men with young children -- might be selected through a phone survey and brought together to taste a new breakfast cereal, compare proposed ad campaigns, or judge the new logo for a box of Goobers. Their responses are solicited by a moderator and recorded on video or audio tape. Sessions last as long as two hours, after which the lucky participants will be paid $ 40 or $ 50 for their time. In the end the client has a more complete understanding of the tastes and preferences of his potential consumers.

The result is called qualitative research, to distinguish it from quantitative research, which refers to the raw data gleaned from more conventional public-opinion polling. Polls draw on a large, randomly selected group of respondents, who, according to probability theory, will present a statistically accurate picture of the public as a whole. Polls are useful, indeed indispensable, for a market researcher, but they have their limitations. If you're about to come out with a new cereal -- say, chocolate soyflakes (yuk) -- it would be too expensive to gather a randomly selected group of a thousand cereal eaters in a single place and force-feed them your bad idea. But you can, with relative ease and little expense, bring a focus group around a table to gauge their reactions to chocolate soyflakes. And when they all reach as one for the air-sickness bags, you'll know you should probably stick with Fruit Loops.

No product is brought to market these days without extensive focus-group testing; moviemakers have even been known to reshoot the endings of their movies when focus groups have found the originals unappealing. (In the most famous example, Glenn Close's character committed suicide in the original climax of Fatal Attraction. When focus groups objected, the ending was reshot so Michael Douglas's wife could kill her. But everyone agreed, then as now, that Glenn Close is annoying.) TV news anchors are often chosen or dumped based on focus-group research. And no one doubts the usefulness of focus groups in the testing of consumer products. But their utility in political campaigns is more controversial.