Thursday, June 11, 2015

On Being a Focus Groupie

Focus Groupie

Perhaps it started when I was a kid at the mall with my mom and grandparents, pleading to let me sit on Santa’s lap.  So Santa leans in with his “Hey little boy what do you want for Christmas?”  Programmed to truth by hardworking Midwestern parents, I whisper, “but Santa, I’m Jewish.” “It’s ok, so am I” hushed the big red fake gentile.  

The takeaway: JewSanta got paid and thousands of children enjoyed Christmas.  Was this a turning point in my life suggesting that lying is ok?  Perhaps.  Bigger picture: role-playing has its advantages.  Since 2001, I’ve slid into over 100 focus groups in several cities.  I’ve been an alleged consumer of alcohol, banking products, jeans, laptops, watches, websites, cars, cellphones, cameras and condoms.  I usually say I’m an attorney when a market research company asks what I do for a living but I’ve diversified professions to keep it interesting and stay on the lam.  I’ve played a High School Gym Teacher, Investment Banker, Masseuse, Senior Housing Developer, Solar Panel Salesman, Sommelier,  and of course a typical New York Actor / Waiter.  I’ve feigned professions, exaggerated salaries, bragged about ownership of multiple vacation homes.  My mom calls me a focus groupie.

Initially I did focus groups because I needed more going-out money when I lived in New York yet they quickly became part of my starving artist’s variety hour.  It’s common knowledge that people lie in focus groups and some make a living this way.  For me these groups became the closest I could get to being someone else, without the jail-time or community service.  This was safe, compensated thrill-seeking during unemployment stints.  Focus groups are the Wild West for any gunslinger with an overactive imagination.  A friend called it “guerilla theatre” and asked if I ever considered acting.  I said stage fright and my intense fear of public speaking precludes me from acting – yet nobody knows you in a focus group.  They’re an unscripted playground, they’re real life - I’m the actor / writer / director all in one.  The part-time megalomaniac in me thinks perhaps I’m the greatest character-actor ever.   Step aside Giamatti.  

In one of my first groups in New York, I walked into a room where seven men in collared shirts and pleated khakis sat starring at my jeans and black t-shirt.  So I said, “Some putz at Starbucks spilled his coffee on my khaks and he didn’t even offer to pay for dry cleaning!”  A chorus of khaki-ed men harrumphed in commiseration.  Calling them “khaks” fortified my lie.  I deep-fried that lie by saying I rescheduled a job interview that day because without my favorite khaks I’m shit outta luck, followed by my diatribe about how the ubiquity of jeans and “informal-wear” as a major reason for the inevitable decline of the American empire.  It was a Dockers group about men who love khaks. I haven’t worn khakis since 5th grade when my mom said this is what the smart kids wear.

My therapist insists we explore the psychological roots of my “fetish“ as she calls it.  She lovingly scolds me for being a liar and manipulating people for my own personal amusement.  She’s partly right, but I never lie to family, friends, or lovers.  Sure, it’s admittedly self-indulgent, but I tell her it’s like being a prize fighter - I only battle in the ring.  Do I feel guilty that I’m knowingly polluting the results of a marketing enterprise designed to improve consumer products?  Certainly.  But it’s complicated.  Whoever I claim to be in these groups, I never lie about my opinions and I genuinely intend to better the product.  Do I need to own an electric car, the newest HDTV, or a pair of khakis to know what’s best for the product?  Not entirely.  The caveat is that I’m speaking as someone else.  Who said that someone else has to be a liar?

There’s a sense of power in duping a company into thinking I’m someone else.  A clandestine coup.  But let’s be honest, no one is locking me up for embezzlement or insider trading.  We’re talking petty larceny at best.  Though I’m no early adapter of every new consumer item, I enjoy seeing products in their gestational stages before the rest of the world.  I take pride in feeling I somehow contributed to their greatness. Perhaps it was a critique I made, an insight into a slogan, a question I asked or the bungled joke I made about how one cellphone looked so phallic and vibrated so effectively that my girlfriend might just let it ring for awhile then go to voicemail.

Sometimes I feel like a consumer warrior fighting back at a system that ultimately persuades the public into purchasing often unnecessary products or appealing to consumers’ inadequacies to lure them into an acquisition.  Advertising agencies and market research groups are hired by companies that manufacture products to find smart, clever, effective ways to get the public to say “YES I need that in my life.”   We’ve seen Mad Men, we know how it works.  Sure, it’s a laughable paradox that I’m in these groups helping them improve the product yet still feel like I pulled one over on the system.  Either way, I have fun and get paid.  Jury is still out whether Don Draper would hire me immediately or put cyanide in my scotch.

In these groups, creating the backstory is key.  Who am I when I walk in the door?  If it’s a group on high-end banking products, my pastel-colored sweater is wrapped over my Yale-educated shoulders and I shan’t forget boasting of my glory days as a kickass coxswain on the rowing team. 

Although backstories often involve bowing to stereotypes, inverting them is more thrilling.  In an all-male group about beer, the moderator showed a poster-board depicting two men drinking in a bar.  One participant said he would “never be get caught dead in a fag bar” as another participant added “homos drink appletinis or something fruity like that.”  I’m heterosexual, but my hand shot up.  “I’m a fag.  I love beer, rock’ n’ roll, kicked ass as a strong safety in high school football and could probably drink both you pricks under the table anytime!”  They felt so uncomfortable that the moderator had to awkwardly switch topics.  After the group, the shmucks apologized and told me they each had a gay friend.

In real life I tend to be a soft-talker, but in focus groups I can transform into an opinionated lion.  So when moderators tell participants to ignore the one-way mirror where company sponsors sit and observe, out comes my signature move as I lean back in my chair, fold my hands over my head and look into the mirror with a well-oiled smile & wink combo and declare what I believe is the company’s next brilliant slogan.  Seating so comfortable why move to the bedroom” for Volvo’s new luxury sedan however wasn’t such a hit when I got reprimanded by the moderator for needing too much attention.

With the ladies I can be a bit shy occasionally, but once this adorable brunette with a face I wanted for my new alarm clock sat next to me in a group on flavored vodkas.  We tasted several vodkas and my “trying to get me wasted on our first date?” joke somehow landed.  During the tasting I stood up and toasted “to new beginnings and first dates.”  After a perfect first kiss hours later at a bar down the street, she predicted our glorious future together but first she has to dump her 6’8” bodyguard for a famous rap star boyfriend.

Sometimes creating a temporary fake identity brings responsibility and unexpected guilt.  I still owe Diane a call from a year ago because she thinks her 23 year-old daughter would be a great fit for an internship at my successful civil rights boutique law firm.  She approached me after the group about her daughter and then again in the elevator on the way out and I felt awful lying / denying the opportunity saying that civil rights just aren’t the hot legal market they used to be.

I’ve also learned that despite the fun of lying for sport, honesty has unexpected benefits. I once got into a group on smartphones when I owned the beta-max of flip-phones.  This sexy female moderator asked our all-male group what we want in life.  Most of us said a great family, wife, job, money.  Standard.  The last guy said, “duh, a threesome.”  Everyone laughed.  He got the moderator’s number when the group ended.

And the food, oh the food.   It’s nothing Sam Sifton or Thomas Keller need to know about but I love anything complimentary.  Some people are shy about accepting the food in focus groups.  I shamelessly feast.  I’m a big fan of continuing to eat throughout the discussion, often getting up a couple times to get another sandwich or something.   I interrupt the discussion to ask if I can get anyone anything.  Another cookie?  Top off your coffee? 

There is some crossover as I run focus groups in my personal life.  I poll friends and family about decisions big and small.   I recently purchased a pair of man-boots with the creative assistance of some females.  So much to learn just by asking.  Who knew that Anna thinks men who wear heels are effeminate but flip-flops are manly? Erika threw me for a loop when she suggested something red or purple because men who take risks are more desirable.  But thanks to my mom who validated my ultimate man-boot selection when she confirmed that with the Wallin Bros. Amsterdam boot, I could easily go Friday night fancy restaurant, dive bar, or last minute Bar Mitzvah.  Well done ladies.  

The truth is I still enjoy lying for sport - only when it’s a victimless crime.  It’s the getting away with something that gets me off.  Through the years my addiction has grown stronger, but unlike most junkies, there is no methadone in the land to quash my fix.  It’s much more difficult to qualify for groups these days, every focus group is a new experience, a bump in my wallet, another reason to thank JewSanta.  Having recently moved to Los Angeles as a single guy, it’s possible I could meet the love of my life at the next co-ed group for small business owners who use energy-efficient light bulbs.

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