Welcome to the Focus Group

The first rule of Focus Club is – you do not talk about Focus Club.

Sitting around a table with strangers and snacks provided me with a glimpse of the higher levels of emotional pollution we live with today.

Before focus group attendance required a reference and the best paying research firms became fodder for Yelp, back when the topic of extra cash was still “light” conversation, my school-teacher mom enjoyed bragging about the extra $40, $60 or $90 she’d nabbed just for sitting around talking cars or cooking utensils. Her exaggerated enthusiasm made my brother and I feel like idiots if we failed to grab our own piece of this windfall. So I signed up.

Phone interviews asking after household budgets, TV time, annual electronics expenditures and so forth were the first step. Screeners frequently came off like car salesmen –as if the only thing between them and a three-day weekend was filling a late afternoon quota– but it was difficult not to play along. Answers that were a degree or three off elicited a disappointed sigh and a more “accurate” response.

As long as you were semi-articulate, a lot of leeway was given. It felt like lying your way through a job interview. You were rewarded for talking like a big spender. I once said I’d just purchased a periscope. The person on the other end ate it up.

Being invited to sessions where clients watched from behind mirrored glass and where compensation could exceed $200 for 90 minutes was a real score. Why not agree you frequently bought scuba crap? Of course, you flew first class, especially if it meant your cell phone bill could get covered in one visit.

You learned to game your annual income, too. Most of the time, $70,000 a year seemed right. Going too high risked betraying the working-privileged persona they were seeking, or the chatty retiree type for whom the whole apparatus seemed built. Sometimes, though, you needed to say you drove a Range Rover, like when your screener dropped hints of the coming crème de la crème of focus groups: Financial Services. Even hot-air artists had a difficult time being accepted to those panels. But at $300 dollar an hour, it was worth the embarrassment of them finding out mid-session that your financial literacy really came from late fees and layaways.

Besides, the going-through-the-motions vibe extended well past the phone screeners to fatigue-afflicted receptionists, assistants, supervisors, and the potatoes hired to moderate the groups themselves – actor burnouts, the disbarred, the newly sober, someone who got deputized once. Not even chipper handwringing, tour guide voices, and Payless Shoe Store magnetism could mask the fact that no one really wanted to spend 40 hours a week in front of two-way mirrors. 

As a participant, you were also promised coffee and sandwiches, but such pledges were subject to oversight, like cleanliness on an airplane. At morning sessions, you might score a continental breakfast, but more often “refreshments” turned into stiff-cornered cheese trays and Chewy Chips Ahoy. Might as well have been crockpot hotdogs. Kinda’ insulting after an hour of traffic, and not exactly an inducement to help you help them.

But visions of your cash-filled envelope recharged that increasingly false smile and encouraged you to numbly parrot what they wanted to hear. By the time you were expected to comment on an expensively produced commercial promoting the philanthropic arm of Campbell’s Soup, you yourself were going through the motions like a champ. You laughed, winced, and you thoughtfully tapped your chin on cue with the confidence of knowing your TPS reports had been filed on time. Meanwhile, you wished for something to shake things up, say an epileptic seizure or a King Henry VIII-sized fart, but you nodded and agreed enthusiastically that your dream vacation would be to a Sandals® Resort.

Lip service at its finest.

Those research firms may have sold their corporate client dupes “honest” answers from real people, but the procurement of such data was irretrievably poisoned by organizational bare minimums, catatonia, and patronizing encouragement. Still, that going-through-the-motions vibe extended upward as well. Companies seemed satisfied by the appearance of getting their money’s worth. And as long as the research firms pleased the people behind mirrors, they got to keep the taps open, the managers got their orderly cattle calls, and the session hosts never had to return to dinner theatre. Even the receptionists and assistants got to put out the Ritz crackers and call it “good enough.”

But then something shifted. Looking back, I believe we’d glimpsed the future.

It was one thing to become invested in an outcome because for once you’d been asked to consider a product you really did use. I recall being presented once with a new design for bottled water, its plastic so flimsy and thin that the crinkle noises it made were unbearable. I was vociferously against it and convinced my superior argument would sway the manufacturing of two billion bottles of Arrowhead. Ha! Today it’s a standard, capped off by an equally ludicrous oral squirt-top. I won’t touch the things.

But not long after that, I noticed that people –myself included– were starting to care whether they were being heard regardless of their having an actual stake in the product. Once a participant made a good point or offered a pertinent zinger, the others felt compelled to one-up it. If the host started to take Laker Jersey seriously, Stroller Pusher sat up straighter. If Buick Driver started taking notes, Wallet Chain grabbed for a pad and pencil. People started squirming to be more relevant than their fellows.

On more than one occasion I found myself side-eying the two-way mirror as I spoke eloquently about cloth vs. paper restaurant napkins. Sure we’d come for the Benjamins, but we stayed for the boasts.

Now it was all about how much more your opinion mattered than anyone else’s. Verbally jockeying for a host’s attention –and of course upping your perceived value to the unseen mirror people– was what counted most. Who cared if you had to interrupt someone or come off a little catty in the process. You were channeling your inner Lydia Rodarte-Quayle in under an hour.

By the time you were thinking, “Pick me! Pick me!” they had us all right where they wanted us. Everything was out the window except for our ridiculous, blathering viewpoints, which we gave and gave and gave. Duh! It was our egos they were after. We were bwoking chickens.

Giving it away was justified by the cash being waved at us in exchange. Today, however, “they” already have our consumer perceptions and opinions. Focus Club is increasingly obsolete.

At least back then, when it was over, it was over. We were given our envelopes and returned to the normal world, the world before the epidemic of narcissism , before trolling, and distorted perceptions of unfairness.

But maybe the $200 for 90 minutes was just an excuse. Maybe we were the forerunners of a world in which turning on each other to inflate our own egos is the new normal.

No need for a focus group to tell us how well that’s working out.