An English person’s home…

Researchers in glass houses

thornberry tweetIt’s nearly two weeks since the Rochester and Strood by-election and I have now stopped shaking long enough to collect some thoughts.

The final day was marked by the extraordinary events after visiting shadow minister Emily Thornberry tweeted the image on the right with the caption ‘Image from #Rochester’

The same day, she was fired by Ed Miliband who was by all accounts as angry as he had ever been.

And a large proportion of the country took leave of their senses.  The newspapers and broadcasters pronounced Thornberry guilty of snobbishness, and a week later the households on Gogglebox agreed that she had been sneering at poor people.  This seems to have become the settled view.

I can’t have been the only market researcher bewildered by the entire episode.

Because what Thornberry seemed to be guilty of was what we all do as part of our job: we look for people, symbols and quotes that encapsulate a situation and bring it to life. Far from sneering at the house in question, she was summing up a by-election which centred on England reclaiming control of its borders from Europe. The flag and van typified this feverish attitude.

As it happens she correctly identified a householder that wasn’t planning to vote Labour in a constituency which (redrawn) had been Labour until 2010, and where they were about to come a poor third.

That’s all it was.

How did we get to the point where succinctly summarising the local mood with a pertinent image gets you fired?

If there was any snobbishness I can’t detect it, but perhaps that’s because the following would be normal for market researchers covering Dan and his be-flagged house:

An attitudinal segmentation or geographic clustering exercise would label this corner of Rochester Flags and Vans, or Little Englander.

A YouGov Profiler might illustrate White Van Man with a tattooed skin-head walking a pitbull.

If Dan wasn’t in social grades ABC1 or under 35, Channel 4 might fret that if he watched E4 he would spoil the upmarket and/or youthful profile which they proudly promote.

If Dan had been over 55 and C2 or D social class, he’d be regarded as virtually worthless in most media plans, and excluded from almost all qualitative research.

If Dan wasn’t online very often, he’d be dubbed a social media laggard, or Couch Potato.

A focus group recruiter would rule him out if he sounded inarticulate in the screening process (I’m not suggesting that he would. But if).

All of these, it seems, would be sackable offences for any modern politician assessed as not displaying sufficient respect. We may not like pigeon-holing, but it happens all the time.

Fixed Rig?  Or Honest View

My favourites, the Siddiquis. But even they went with popular opinion on that tweet

My favourites, the Siddiquis. But even they went with popular opinion on that tweet

Over sensitivity to what normal people say is a problem for TV programmes which aim to capture humans being human.  Fixed rig cameras have produced some of the best programmes on TV – from Educating Yorkshire to 24 Hours in A&E – but if Thornberry can get fired and pilloried for such an innocuous tweet, why would anyone on Gogglebox risk being labelled a snob by defending her?  Or saying anything else likely to offend the easily offended.

While Rochester’s most famous resident likes to festoon his property with his patriotism, most of us are more discreet – saving our beliefs for the sofa or dinner table. It’s hard enough to tease out these attitudes in a controlled research environment – what hope is there for people appearing on TV, constantly being evaluated on social media?

I’ve watched almost every minute of Gogglebox, but if the families censor their responses, how honest is it?  The same worry now attaches to all fixed-rig programmes – they show reality, but we’ll stamp on anyone who transgresses the things on our list.

One research company, Hope and Anchor has pioneered a form of qualitative research which, through filmed re-enactments, works with consumers’ self-consciousness, recognising that many of our choices aren’t made in a bubble but based on an acute sense of how others will judge us.  But this is nuanced and subtle work, unsuited to shrill environments.

So if we can’t trust people who speak in public on social media, or people on camera, how can we understand what real people think?

By encouraging them to be honest in an environment in which they are safe, by listening very carefully, (ignoring misleading post-rationalisations, of COURSE) and by recognising where our own prejudices are slipping in.




Do market researchers speak a language in which UKIP demagoguery rings false?