In war and its commercial counterpart, we have long lived inside a “culture of consultation.” So writes Nation contributing editor Featherstone (Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Worker's Rights at Wal-Mart, 2004, etc.) in this intriguing look at the rise of the focus group.
Focus groups, writes the author, afford “ordinary people” a chance to weigh in on all kinds of things, whether to gauge whether the president is doing a good job or a mix is easy enough to turn into a cake. Around the focus group evolved a parallel culture of social science–based “motivational research” firms, working the angles in an increasingly consumerist society, using advanced technology of the sort that we now see when the responses of focus groups are measured live on TV. Focus groups bent on persuading citizens to enter World War II revealed that the way to sell it was not to depict the Nazis as “horrible monsters,” which frightened citizens into wanting nothing to do with the war effort; instead, writes Featherstone, “American propaganda would emphasize our superior values: democracy and rationality.” After the war, psychologists and other social scientists used abstract methods to “acclimate patients to consumer capitalism,” shaping advertising to reflect the desire of consumers to buy endlessly. Along the way, Featherstone disassembles some misconceptions—the Edsel car, for instance, was not a failure because it relied too much on focus groups but perhaps because it made too little use of them (focus-group members, for example, expressed dislike for the very name, saying that it sounded too much like “weasel”). Nefarious use of the focus group continues, even though supposedly displaced by the internet, especially in political matters, about which the author observes, “when a focus group feels more like democracy than the real thing, we need to ask how well the real thing is functioning.”
A spirited critique of what Russell Jacoby has called the “culture of endless talk,” of a piece with Jackson Lears’ Fables of Abundance (1995) and Rachel Maines’ Hedonizing Technologies (2009).