JUNE 25, 2004

By Christopher Kenton

Me, Doctor Mullet, and a Market-Research Mess

As a professional marketer, how could I resist experiencing what it's like to be on the consumer's side of a survey-taker's clipboard?

I did something unethical recently. Unethical in the same way that an undercover officer lies about his occupation in the line of duty. Meaning, it's really okay to lie when it's your job. Right? Anyway, it's all Subaru's fault. So when I'm at the gates of Hell, I'll have an alibi.

First, I have to tell you that I drive a Subaru. I know 40% of Americans need a monster truck to get to the grocery store, but I just need a car that can go anywhere without breaking. My Subaru Outback tells me I'm adventurous, rugged, and environmentally friendly, and in four years it's never had a mechanical failure. I have an expedition rack on the roof to personalize my brand bio by displaying snowboard, mountain bike, and the jumbo box of diapers that doesn't fit in the trunk with the groceries. I love my car.

So when the local Subaru dealer sent me a mailer with a $100 offer to answer a market-research survey, I was stoked. It was like someone offering money to eat chocolate cake. I'm happy to talk about my car and I'm happy to take a check, but I'm really happy to be on the consumer end of a market-research survey, taking note of whatever new techniques are being used by the big guns in retail marketing. I'm just weird that way. The concept of being a lab monkey for Subaru's market research was exhilarating, so I set up an appointment with an interviewer at the local mall.

HIDE AND FREAK. I don't how many times you've been intercepted at the mall to answer a "short survey", but you can spot the surveyors from a mile away -- they're the only human beings on the planet who still carry clipboards. It's their distinguishing mark, like FBI agents with those flesh-colored ear phones. What I didn't realize is that those surveyors actually live in the mall. They have their own storefront with a small reception area that hides all the cages in the back where they conduct lab tests on mall rats in exchange for movie tickets and candy.

I check into the lab, where a nice receptionist asked me to fill out a demographic survey and a release form. She pulled the form from a manila folder titled "Subaru Test," and then quickly covers up the title when she realizes I can see over the counter. Apparently I'm supposed to be unaware that I'm taking part in a Subaru study, even though I was invited by Subaru. So she discretely hides the folder in a large tray clearly titled "Subaru." I'm also supposed to be double blind.

When I finished the form, she called to the back for my interviewer. I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting in a market researcher, but I suppose I have something professional in mind. A guy stepped into the doorway right off the set of an Eighties new wave video, complete with hair gel, dangle earring, and some kind of tunic shirt. He pulls it all together, though, with a white lab coat. He's, like, Dr. Mullet, and he walks me through a hallway, past convenience-store refrigerators filled with an odd assortment of generic products, and seats me in one of a handful of curtained cubicles containing a computer, monitor, and two chairs.

WATCH AND LEARN. My task is to watch a series of commercials. They look like real commercials at first, but I don't recognize the products.

Is this a bait and switch? Did they pull me in under the guise of talking about Subaru, when they really want to measure my response to this new product. Fine Pet Food? Good Quality Life Insurance? Wait a minute, these aren't real commercials. They're generic commercial pap, though I'm kind of frightened now that I can tell the difference.

But finally, sandwiched in the middle of a bunch of obviously fake commercials for nonexistent brands, I get the new Subaru message. A heart-pounding, adrenaline pumping commercial with Lance Armstrong riding like a warrior on a mountain bike over rocks and through streams. Is that what I look like? I do drive a Subaru, and I do ride a mountain bike. Boy am I cool! And I feel good about my choice to buy a Subaru.

PAT ANSWERS. When the commercials are over, I wait a few minutes while Dr. Mullet chats in the hall with the receptionist about a popcorn taste test. He finally pulls back the curtain and sits down to his computer to ask me some questions. First question: "Which brands do you recall from the commercials?"

Well, golly gee, let me think. I was invited to this gig by Subaru, and when I arrived I found out it was called the Subaru Test. I know I saw some vague commercials about fuzzy cats and old people. "Uh, Subaru?"

The doctor looks pleased. But somehow I'm sensing he's not happy for Subaru, simply relieved that the survey will go down easy. Second question: "How did the Subaru commercial make you feel?"

QUESTIONABLE QUESTIONING. Hmmm. With my palate cleansed by a course of happy household settings, calming music, and no discernible message, that hard-rocking music video with stunt cars and extreme sports stood out a bit. I look at Dr. Mullet and suddenly find myself feeling as clinically detached as he is. It's as if I, too, am a detached observer of my animalistic consumer responses.

"I felt. Excited. Energized," I respond. Dr. Mullet, typing at the computer, appreciates the concise responses. And at that moment, I realize why marketers like me are not supposed to play this game. As Dr. Mullet asks me a string of questions testing my recall and preference, I'm analyzing the questions, as well as my responses. I know what I want Subaru to read from my survey, and I know how the questions are designed to measure response, so I start calibrating my answers to achieve a consistent profile. Is this wrong? I like Subaru, and I like these commercials. And they obviously segmented their audience well if they're showing me images of rugged athletes. But man, I start to realize, this really is a poorly implemented survey.

As the string of questions drags on, Dr Mullet gets impatient. Now, he's reading the questions as if in a hurry, and where before he had painstakingly typed every word I said, he now seems to be abbreviating. It seems to me that he's only half-reading the questions, and I kinda suspect he's typing in his own answers. Really, Scout's honor -- although, in the interest of full disclosure, I only earned one badge in the Webelos. I'm outraged. Subaru is paying good money for this.

"CARE FOR PUDDING?" I'm contemplating whether I should call Dr. Mullet's bluff on this farce of a market-research survey when he abruptly clasps his hands and says we're done. "Thank you for your time," he says, and I smile weakly. Perhaps sensing my disappointment, he smiles brightly in return and asks if I have time to try a new popcorn flavor. I don't, but I eye all the packages in the refrigerator on the way out with interest. Pudding. Fruit roll-ups -- all signs of a mall-rat demographic. Is that my family?

The receptionist breaks away from a conversation with a young woman in a mall-store uniform to cut me a check and ask if I'm interested in future surveys. Many of them pay well she assures me. Sure, why not, but somehow the excitement is gone. Is this really how the big guys are tuning their products and messages? As I'm heading out the door she calls out to Dr. Mullet, "Hey Brian, run Julie on the popcorn test, and then do the frozen dinner with her, okay?" Julie must be the control group.