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Focus Group


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It's not a job and there's no future in it, but it is some of the easiest money the average person can make. The more average the person, the better. If you're thinking, "Easy money? I'm as average as the next guy--how do I get in on this bonanza of dollars?" you may be able to turn even your bad habits into bucks. First: Get on a list of people who are available for market research surveys. Second: Get a phone. Third: Answer some questions. Then: Go to an office, drink a soda, eat some Cheetos, answer some more questions, and pick up your pay at the desk. Cash. In a plain white envelope. All you have to do to qualify is fit into a focus group.

You say you're a 30- to 35-year-old male, married with children, who orders pizza from one of the big chains at least once a month? Or you say you're not married, don't have children, you're 22, female, you don't order pizza from one of the big chains at least once a month? No problem. Just say that you do. Can you spell pizza? It doesn't matter. Before they spend ten million bucks on an advertising campaign targeted directly at the middle-American consumer, before the first McPizza is sold, ad agencies need information.

Finding individuals to fit certain focus groups isn't always easy. I was called for a survey recently that they were having a hard time filling. They needed smokers. More particularly, they needed smokers who smoke Winstons, sometimes. There were several openings at $40 for an hour and a half. I had a spare hour and a half, so I took my butts on down. Forty bucks buys about 15 packs nowadays.

In an ongoing survey of my own, I've reached the conclusion that cigarettes and alcohol go well together, so I stopped at a bar two doors away from the market research company. I'm not sure what the policy is on drinking just before a survey, but my guess is it's frowned upon. If they smelled liquor on my breath, what would they do? Fire me? They might not pay. So I drank vodka. It's not quite true that vodka has no smell, because if you drink enough of it it will stain your breath as badly as any other booze; but two or three aren't really noticeable.

After two or three, I was about five minutes late for the survey, but I didn't think it mattered much. The elevator opened directly into the reception area, and I stood facing the receptionist. I could tell by looking at her that she'd had a bad day. Too many focus groups, too little time. She had bug eyes, sunken cheeks, puffy lips, she was as thin as a stick figure. She seemed to be on the verge of hysteria.

Eight men sat on gray couches around a coffee table in the waiting area, just to the right of the reception desk. They were silent, apprehensive, as if they were about to be grilled. "Turn up the light, Morty. Now, what brand of cigarette did you say you smoked?" "W-W-Winstons, sir, s-s-sometimes"--smack! "You're lying!"

It's been said that smokers are on the defensive these days, that with our numbers shrinking, we're easily cowed. There was a stack of magazines, but no one was reading. There was one ashtray on the table but nobody smoked. I took it, certain I could light up without anyone saying anything. No one did. We seemed like a pretty average group.

After five minutes, roll call was taken and the other guys filed down the corridor. My name was not called. I was left alone with the receptionist. She explained that they usually overbook, but that it was OK, it's an even better deal. I wouldn't have to take the survey, but I'd still get paid. She asked me to wait a while in case there were any problems. What problems? I leaned back and lit up another.

Just then a bearded man with fogged-up glasses burst out of the elevator, breathing heavily as if he was winded from running, or too much smoking. Gasping, he said that he'd had trouble with traffic, was he too late? The receptionist answered that he was, and added, "You're 15 minutes late. That is well over the deadline. I can't pay you."

"What!" he shrieked. "You mean I drove all the way down here, paid for parking, paid for gas, and I get nothing?"

The receptionist displayed no sympathy. "I'm sorry sir, but the survey was called for 7:00. It is now 7:15. You are late, sir, and there's nothing I can do about it. Right now, the best thing for you to do, right now," she repeated, "would be to leave."

He stood there, put his hands in his pockets, walked around in a circle. "OK," he sputtered. "But take me off the list for these downtown surveys. I mean, I have to drive down here, traffic is terrible, you can't park..."

"Yes sir, I'll be glad to take you off the list. Everyone else was here on time"--I did my best to look angelic sucking on a smoke--"and there is really nothing I can do for you. Now, I think that you should leave."

"Just take my name off the list."

"Yes sir, I'll do that. The elevator is right behind you. Good-bye."

He stood stock-still facing the receptionist, outraged, but he eventually turned and rang for the elevator. He wiped his feet before he entered it as if he'd stepped in something. Just as the doors were closing on him, he yelled through the crack in a small, strangled voice, "Thanks a lot! Really appreciate it!"

The receptionist called out to someone hidden in a room behind her, "I'm going to lock that elevator any minute, I really mean it." I mumbled to myself, "Don't go away mad, just go away." I hadn't been paid yet. Then the door of the survey room opened and one of the eight guys stepped out. He walked over to the desk. "I was asked to leave because I wouldn't smoke," he reported. The receptionist was aggravated. She admonished him. "You were called to this group because you said you smoked. If you won't smoke in the group then you'll have to leave."

"Yes," he replied, a puzzled smile creasing the corners of his mouth, "but you see, I've been trying to quit. I only smoke four cigarettes a day now, and I've already had them."

"I'm sorry about that, but you will have to leave."

"I was just being honest," he said. "Isn't it better that I'm honest?"

"I'm sure it is, sir, now if you would, please leave."

He leaned back on his heels, silent, hurt, confused. Then he leaned forward and gripped the edge of the desk. He'd remembered something.

"Do I still get paid?"

She shook her head rapidly, "No sir, you do not. You were informed that you might have to smoke, and you would not. That disqualifies you from payment. Now really, you must leave."

Beaten and still perplexed, he called for the elevator. As soon as the door shut behind him, the receptionist jumped out of her seat, shouting to the person hidden in the back, "I'm locking the elevator!" She called me over and jammed an envelope in my hand. Strangely, I thought of my grandmother. "Take this and go."

"But shouldn't I take the survey?" I protested. "They're one short."

"Just go," she said. "Quick." She rang for the elevator, and when it came she put me in it, pushed Lobby, and turned a key. " 'Bye," I said.

What else could an average consumer do? All over Chicago groups were meeting to discuss ways of selling new products to a jaded public. Somewhere, one man wandered the streets, wondering why his honesty had failed him. Perhaps the other man went home and, kicking the dog, picked up a gun catalog. Whether they were smoldering inside or just smoking cigarettes, I cannot say. I went back to the bar. Forty bucks also buys a few drinks.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Peter Rosenbaum.

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