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Out of Focus

A cancer is eating away at the American business community. This malignancy stifles creativity, strangles enthusiasm, suppresses the spirit of …

A cancer is eating away at the American business community. This malignancy stifles creativity, strangles enthusiasm, suppresses the spirit of adventure, and prevents companies from marketing the exciting new products that will rescue them from the economic doldrums. No, it is not labor unions. No, it is not jaded management. No, it is not meddlesome regulators. No, the cancer remorselessly gnawing away at the heart of the American business community is simply the most deadly, virulent, ruinous innovation of the late 20th century: the focus group.

On first inspection, focus groups may seem harmless enough, but look closer, and you’ll see how pernicious they really are. The idea behind focus groups is to present a prototype of a new product or service or to present a redesigned version of an existing product or service to a demographically varied group of consumers to find out whether the members would be likely to buy it. On the basis of their studiously unscientific, wholly subjective responses, the manufacturer of the product may decide to make improvements or modifications, or to deep-six it altogether. The focus-group members are paid a modest fee-about $25 an hour-for their participation.

It should be obvious to anyone with half a brain in his head that focus groups are the most idiotic idea since the Spanish Armada. Look at the group dynamics at work: People who come up with new products and services form the entrepreneurial or creative sector of the community. People who get paid to sit in rooms in front of two-way mirrors and test bunnyburgers and solar-powered toothbrushes form the passive or lunkheaded sector of the community. People who don’t have anything better to do with their time than to sit in dark rooms and tell strangers how much they dislike their products do not accurately reflect the tastes and purchasing habits of the American public. They reflect the habits of those whom social scientists generally refer to as flunkies, ne’er-do-wells, and layabouts.

By paying good money to solicit the opinions of the nuclear couch potatoes who form focus groups, American companies are doing both themselves and the wider public a disservice. The concept of mass marketing does not begin and end with the idea of giving people what they want; it also involves making the people want what you’re giving them. Seeing that the public is fairly myopic, conservative, and narrow-minded to begin with, the very idea of selecting a panel of the most narrow-minded and myopic members of the buying public and then asking them to respond to a new product as if they were upbeat risk-takers or can-do visionaries seems hopelessly foolish. All of the go-getting optimists in this country are in the productive sector. All of the pessimists are in the focus-group sector.

To get a better idea of the menace facing us today, imagine what the world would look like if focus groups had been consulted at critical moments in human history:

  • Walt Disney (circa 1932): “I’m thinking of building a self-contained fairyland complete with castles and draw bridges in a dredged swamp in the middle of Florida. We’ll have a bunch of nicely scrubbed college kids from Iowa dressed up as dwarves, and oh, yes, our principal attraction will be a man and a woman dressed up as mice. And people will come from all over the country and stand in line for hours to get on a ride we’ll call `Pirates of the Caribbean.'”

Focus-group member No. 1: “You’re nuts.”

Focus-group member No. 2: “You’re crazy.”

Focus-group member No. 3: “You want to run that stuff about the dwarves from Iowa past me one more time?”

Or consider this scenario:

  • Christopher Columbus (presenting the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria to a Spanish focus group in 1492): “I plan to cross the Atlantic Ocean and discover a new route to the Orient, so we can buy spices and tea and silk cheaply.”

Focus-group member No. 1: “What a dumb idea! Who needs spices and silk, anyway? Why not cross the English Channel and find a new route to Stonehenge so we can have even more plum puddings, treacle, and Cornish pasties?”

Or consider how Orville Wright might have fared when he first unveiled the Kitty Hawk to a focus group.

  • Orville Wright: “My brother and I have built this thingamajig here. It’s called an airplane, and it can fly people and cargo from one place to another.”

Focus-group member No. 1: “People will never fly. The seats will be uncomfortable, and the food will be terrible.”

Focus-group member No. 2: “What’s wrong with the choo-choo train?”

Then there are focus groups and popular music.

  • Brian Epstein: “I have four kids from Liverpool with mop-topped hairdos who sing songs such as “Love Me Do” and “Komm Gibt Mir Deiner Hand.” What do you think?”

Focus-group member No. 1: “They’ll never replace Vic Damone.”

Focus-group member No. 2: “They’ll never replace Steve and Edie.”

Focus-group member No. 3: “They’ll never be as big as Eddie Fisher.”

Focus-group member No. 4: “No one, but no one, is ever going to buy records made by a bunch of guys who look like girls, who come from a grimy city in northern England, who have a hideous drummer who can’t keep a beat, and who have named themselves after a revolting species of insect.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron’s and The Wall Street Journal.

About Joe Queenan

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and The Wall Street Journal.