Politicised discourse – is Market Research Attuned?

Protest ImageThe post below is a guest post from Edward Appleton, Director Global Marketing at Happy Thinking People, based in their Berlin office.


We live in unsettled times – Brexit, Trump, opinions polarising and splintering… more and more aspects of life seem to becoming politicised. Whether it’s fake news, cultural appropriation, safe zones – public discourse is often charged, filtered.

This “politicisation” – oblique or direct – is happening faster than we think and is pretty pervasive. Some examples:

  • US retailer Nordstrom became part of a storm following its decision to de-stock Ivanka Trump’s fashion line
  • The Budweiser 2017 Super Bowl TV ad sparked a wave of protest following what was perceived as a politicised, pro-immigration message.
  • Consider what the use of capital letters on Twitter can easily suggest.

Are we ready for this in market research? The filter bubble is a familiar concept in social media, but what about the interaction that goes on in a Market Research Online Community? Or a mobile chat? Groups? Do we capture authentically how peer-to-peer communication really happens – or are we “shut out” as external observers?

The hypothesis is that people become more inhibited in expressing their true views, with multiple social pressures encouraging more “acceptable” responses – if honesty is likely to offend, then why open up?

There are various elements of a MR project that could be affected, including:

  • Participant engagement mode: I’d say the increasingly heated climate of “won’t say, can’t say” suggests we need to accelerate our adaption of non-verbal measures – eye-tracking and facial coding have been around for a while, the use of emoticons seemingly more prevalent, body language is an area to explore further, plus thinking through how we can game up research more.
  • Recruitment: this area may look a bit old-fashioned if it remains limited to traditional classifications – sex, age bands, family status etc rather than reflecting the blurring nature of identity and personality targeting.
  • Visual Output Analysis: maybe it’s time for semiotic specialists to be involved more broadly, in all sorts of projects with a visual output, where photos are augmented, maybe turned into a meme – to catch the social undercurrents, sub-group relevance.

The backdrop is likely to be “business as usual” of course – speed and cost driving change, but maybe this area is something we need to sit up and think about.

Brand owners will be engaging with their Advertising agencies regularly – how to respond to a politically changed, charged atmosphere, without meddling in things that can backfire, or coming across as out-of-touch. Online campaigns are a wonderful area to explore and test alternative content approaches at speed.

Qual in particular is potentially well placed to react – let’s rise to the challenge!


By: Edward Appleton, Happy Thinking People 07.04.2017

2 thoughts on “Politicised discourse – is Market Research Attuned?

  1. Hi Edward,

    Thanks for a thought-provoking piece.

    I speak as someone who a) has suffered the affront of being ‘unfriended’ (on Facebook only, not in real life!) by a friend who was supporting Brexit, and b) who is a member of the famous ‘secret’ Facebook group that has been active in galvanising support for Hillary Clinton. The very fact that this group has to be secret would seem to indicate that you are right: opinions are so polarised that we try to lead separate lives and to shield ourselves for the unsavoury views of others so as to be able to express ourselves freely.

    However, if I take the long view, it is also obvious that we now live in a world where a huge diversity of opinions is not only acceptable but almost taken for granted. Social norms are much more relaxed than 50 years ago. Women can have views and express them. Young people are afforded a huge amount of time. The normative power LGBT people enjoy has changed dramatically; they can live freely and express their experiences as they wish. Older people will tell you that 70 is the new 50 – a shorthand for claiming their space as full and active citizens who should also continue to have a say. So we have a strange mix of greater openness and greater constraint, it seems to me.

    The implications for research are many.

    1. We need to continue to give an ever-larger group of people a say in research – both market and social. We need to reach beyond the ‘usual suspects’ (people who are registered on panels, live in large cities, are better educated, are unusually outspoken, are early adopters, etc.) and to include a broader, more representative group of citizens and consumers in research.

    2. We need methods where it is possible to express views in private as well as in public, where participants can be free to disclose what they feel because they have control over the degree of confidentiality they want in relation to particular topics or questions. Focus groups are pretty bad at that because people who are less confident, or more weary of being seen as dissident in a group, typically either shut up altogether or dominate the conversation. Even a very experienced moderator is likely to struggle.

    3. We need to be more creative in our use of elicitation techniques to make sure that we do tap into more complex, latent, non-conscious (if not, ‘unconscious’ in the psychoanalytical sense), emotional, spontaneous, situated feelings, thoughts and behaviours. But let’s not get rid of rationality, thoughtfulness, reflection just yet. People have not stopped thinking! We can and should invite research participants to be thoughtful.

    4. We need to demonstrate our skills and expertise as qualitative researchers, able to put everyone at ease, to create a non-judgmental environment, to foster respect, to ensure that everyone has a say and, ideally, feels enriched by the experience of taking part in research. I am uneasy about abdicating responsibility as a qualitative researcher. I certainly would not want to defer to softwares (facial recognition, etc.) whose validity is far from established…

    Online research communities – because they eradicate the barriers linked to geography and make it cheaper to reach further, because they allow both individual and group interactions, because people can select to answer in private or in public, and because they support an limitless number of projective techniques and other approaches to dig deeper into people’s lives – have the potential to overcome many of the issues we are grappling with. I think that the market research industry has yet to make full use of that potential.

  2. Hi Marie-Claude,

    Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts – I agree to a point on the ability of Online Communities to overcome social inhibitions, by switching from private to public… but how likely is such a community of say 32 People likely to cover the broad spread of people-types you rightly refer to in Point 1? Would an online community have managed to anticipate the social media storm surrounding the Pepsi ad starring Kendall Jenner that was pulled recently? The “very vocal” have a much greater role in SM influencing even if they are potentially fewer in number. Not sure even if a typical sample size of a quant. pre-test would likely cover enough different “voices” and “attitudes” to highligh potentially sensitive issues that SM will surface and amplify? Often Clients define their target audiences according to pre-determined segments, and layering on an element of “social and political sensitiviy” might pose challenges. Maybe the answer is in investing in more qual-quant iterations – with the subsequent timing and cost implications. Curious as to your views.

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