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Questionable Tastes

Confessions of a Professional Guinea Pig


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"Do you prefer chunks or bits?" asks the inquisitor. Microphones hang from the ceiling, and we're told there are video cameras behind the mirror. "Do you associate quality with chunks?"

We're being interrogated, and we're selling out. Selling out to the ice cream industry.

This is what's known in the world of market research as a "focus group." A friend got me into the racket about a year ago. "Do you want to make 40 bucks for eating cookies?" he asked. "Call this number. Tell them you have kids and do all the shopping. If you answer the questions right, you'll see me at the survey. But remember, you don't know me."

I answered the questions right, and I've been hooked ever since. I've tasted experimental cookies, munched prototype cheese. I've passed judgment on TV commercials, tested laser printers. I've even been in mock juries for asbestos lawsuits. Most of the time, though, I lie. I lie to get in, and I lie when I arrive.

I'm not the only one. There's a community of professional market-research subjects. We often look up from our questionnaires and wink at each other. We're not that hard to spot. We're the ones who have obvious aliases on our name tags. We're the ones who look like we're 40 years old in a room full of teenagers testing video games.

Today, in the middle of the ice cream focus group, I stick out. Way out. We're supposedly people who eat at least three ice cream bars a day, and I'm the only one in the room who doesn't seem on the verge of a diabetic seizure.

The inquisitor senses this. He doesn't trust me or ask me many questions. Instead he focuses on the woman I'll call Beth. The video cameras behind the mirror are probably zooming in on her too. She's the industry's mother lode, an overeater who does the shopping. She ought to be getting professional help. Instead she's getting encouraged by the inquisitor.

"Good, Beth. Go with that. Why would you pay more for chunks?"

"I hate chunks," interrupts Larry. The inquisitor isn't all that interested in Larry because his wife does the shopping. But Larry demands to be heard. He's not here for the money. He's here to have a voice. There's a Larry in every focus group--someone who senses that the only real citizen in America is the citizen consumer. Larry normally doesn't express his political views, but he has a thing or two to say about ice cream bars. The packaging is all wrong. The picture on the carton is too "faggy." And there aren't enough chocolate chips. If these Madison Avenue types would only wise up, he implies, they'd hire him to head their marketing campaign and "dump this whole chunks thing."

Beth is offended. She extemporizes on the je ne sais quoi of chunks. For once in her life she feels proud of her eating habits. Her cravings mean millions to important men in important suits. "Excuse me, Larry, but there's big money in chunks."

The inquisitor starts to backpedal. He's trying to avoid a meltdown. Meltdowns occur whenever the subjects become too self-conscious--they argue, mug for the camera, hit on each other. Anything other than an animal response to the product will taint the survey.

I was once in a focus-group meltdown that was so bad a man actually came out of a door in the mirror and yelled at the inquisitor, then told us all to go home. We didn't get paid. Now it looks like we're headed for just such a disaster. Beth and Larry are facing off like a couple of sumo wrestlers.

"Opinions," says the inquisitor. "It's not about being right or wrong. We just want your opinions."

"No," says Larry, "it's about selling as many cones to as many people as possible--and chunks ain't going to do it."

"What do you know?" retorts Beth. "You don't even do the shopping. We should be talking to your wife."

The inquisitor starts making frantic gestures. A door opens in the mirror, and a woman comes out carrying a tray of ice cream cones. Free samples. Beth and Larry are distracted. The cones are limp imitations of the pictures we've been looking at, but they still taste good. I kind of like the chunks, and Beth and Larry seem somehow relieved.

We are placated. We know that these cones were not made for us; they were made for the masses. We know that when they make the ad campaign it will not speak specifically to us as much as to our generic desires. Yet we are comforted to know we are not ignored. As long as we have money, there will always be men in suits who care deeply about our preferences.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Armando Villa.

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