ADVENTURES IN MARKETING
So, this was the deal. I'd get a telephone call from Karen. She'd have
a harried and desperate tone in her voice, and I could always hear a
twinge of guilt when she'd say something like, "There's a focus
group tomorrow. I really need college juniors or seniors majoring in
math or engineering. Can you do that?"
job was to find subjects for marketing focus groups. She'd cold call
people, looking, for example, for men 18-35 who shaved with a Gillette
razor. If you fit the profile, she'd invite you to a focus group. For
a couple hours of your time, you'd get an envelope with thirty bucks,
a ham and cheese sandwich, and participate in a discussion over the
latest Norelco marketing campaign to steal away Gillette users.
was the friend of a friend of a friend, and, though we never met, I
somehow wound up taking on a special job on her behalf, as what could
be called a "profile filler." Karen only called me when she
was having trouble meeting her quota, usually the day before a focus
group was scheduled. At the time, I was a graduate student taking out
loans to cover tuition, so who was I to turn down thirty bucks and a
sandwich? "Sure, Karen," I'd say, "Put me down as a senior
math major. Call me… Brian Taylor, would that work?" The next day,
I'd show up as Brian Taylor and be part of a focus group designed to
help aerospace companies figure out how to better recruit new workers.
what would happen during one of these sessions. I'd show up at this
warehouse that had been converted into office space along with fifty
people who really did fit the profile. We'd all wolf down sandwiches
and grab sodas before being put into groups of a dozen and led into
one of four identical conference rooms with a big oval table and one
mirrored wall. Then a perpetually upbeat group facilitator would introduce
himself or herself and explain why we were there. We were told that
there might be people behind the mirrored wall observing us, and occasionally
we'd hear a cough from behind the glass. We'd all nervously chuckle
always started off trying to do as little as possible. I didn't want
to be memorable, and besides, sometimes I knew almost nothing about
what we were discussing. But somehow, in the course of a session, I
couldn't help talking. So, you can thank me, Jeffrey Smyth, drinker
of between six and twelve Coors Lights a week, for the fact that we
now have "Miller Genuine Draft Light" instead of "Miller
Lite, Genuine Draft." Despite my vow to keep quiet I had said,
"You can lighten something strong, but if you start with something
light, how much better can it ever become?" Our group facilitator
really liked that one and scribbled down a note on a notepad. About
a year later, I saw the beer on the shelves.
maybe you think I should regret contributing misleading information
into America's marketing databank, but I thought of myself at the time
as a foot soldier in a guerilla war against corporate manipulation.
In fact, there was only one moment when I felt bad about what I was
doing. I was Sam Martin and I helped to rate my favorite and least favorite
local TV news anchors. We'd see a brief clip of talking heads reading
the news, and then be asked if we "liked" each person or not.
I knew what was going on. Years of journalism school would come down
to a question of grooming. Bad hair, particularly if you were a woman,
and your career would come to a halt.
most memorable moment was when I was Frank Griffith, regular viewer
of "Chronicle," the Boston-area television newsmagazine. We
were discussing a segment of the show called "The Byways and Backroads
of New England." At the end of every episode, they'd take a camera
crew out to interview some guy who still hammered horse shoes or the
owners of a country inn with a functioning mill wheel. People loved
this one. "It's my favorite part of the show," a large man
with a Red Sox cap had said. "You find out so much about Boston."
One woman from the suburbs added, "You know, we're all busy, so
it's great to have the show find all these out-of-the-way places you
can visit." Our group facilitator that session, a neatly dressed
woman with meticulous curly hair, thought that was great. "That's
really interesting," she said, underlining something she had written
on her notepad. "Let me ask a question. How many of you have ever
visited a place that has been featured on 'The Byways and Backroads
of New England'?" Dead silence, and a couple embarrassed looks
down at the floor. Our group facilitator, in the only dent I ever saw
in the armor of perkiness, crossed out her note in disgust. You could
see her thinking, "the only thing these people do is drive back
and forth to the mall."
it was an easy thirty bucks. Except for one night. I was Chris O'Malley,
and I was a faithful listener of "HIT98, the station you can play
at work," though the first time I listened to the station was while
driving to the focus group. This time, instead of being put in a conference
room, we were herded into a larger room with desks and handed a page
of those bubble answer sheets. It felt just like taking an exam. We
were told that we would hear six second excerpts of songs. We were to
rate each song on a scale of one to seven, depending not on whether
we liked the tune, but on how well we recognized it. So a one would
be "do not recognize this as music made by humans" and a seven
was "I will walk around humming this song until I die."
I went in with an agenda. I'd do my best to make HIT98 play music I
wanted to hear. Seven for the occasional Clash song that slipped through.
One for anything by Phil Collins. But after a while my persistence was
worn down. Song after song after song. Is a mediocre Eric Clapton tune
with a good guitar solo a five or a six? Should all Genesis songs also
be ones even if Peter Gabriel did the vocals? And what about that catchy
Flock of Seagulls tune I was embarrassed to like? Song after song after
song. Dozens, hundreds, one hour, two hours. Finally I broke down and
just started filling in patterns on the bubble sheet. 1-2-3-4-5-6-7,
end, my wrist was sore. I mumbled thanks for the thirty dollars and
left in a daze. I drove home in silence, six-second snatches of song
circulating through my brain. Su-Su-Sussudio.
O'Loughlin is the host of the Final
Thursday Reading Series (http://geocities.com/finalthursday) in Cedar
Falls, Iowa. His short fiction has been published in Friction Magazine