Getting under the skin

Human complexity

Doctor Who: Consider, in 2004,  the notion of reviving the programme, years after slipping audiences saw it cancelled


I’m reading a spiky polemical book:  ‘Consumer.ology:  the Market Research Myth, the Truth about Consumers and the Psychology of Shopping’* by Philip Graves


I know… a grim prospect, is it not…



… but it worked, spectacularly





argues that the choices humans make are too complex to be understood with standard market research techniques.  We behave subconsciously and emotionally, but are asked to rationalise it consciously. It’s hopeless, he says, asking humans to explain why we do something when we have no idea, especially when we are so prone to post-rationalisations that mislead ourselves.  ‘The unconscious mind is the real drive of consumer behaviour’.

We aren’t rational people.  We are instinctive

Graves believes that a lot of market research has as much power to explain why we behave the way we do as astrology (hence the title).  It is a pseudo-science in the same way as homeopathy.

When we choose to watch a particular TV programme, we are SO susceptible to environmental influences – who we are with, the height of the ceiling (apparently), our expectations, something that happened long ago, an emotional underpinning… these really need to be explored in deep therapy and from passive observation, not in casual surveys or normal discussions.

My own interest is in time of day… that what we do depends on when we are talking about.  If you ask me how my use of the TV, the internet, and radio fit together, it all depends on when we’re talking, because the time of day will influence who I’m with and how I feel, my social and physical rhythms.

My favourite piece of audience research I wasn’t involved with looked at how our need for news is affected by whether it is morning, afternoon or evening.  It makes all the difference. And these things are subtle – our responses to something takes a long time to work through.  I went to an event recently in which the creator of the John Lewis adverts explained that they don’t pre-test their commercials. That is, they don’t risk asking people to look at the commercials, or the thinking behind them before they are signed off, in case their immediate responses lead the creative team astray.  And you can’t argue with the success of these campaigns. To test the advert fairly, you’d need to re-create the conditions in which it would be viewed and discussed, which is immensely difficult.

And it is understanding that it is so hard that makes all the craft of the audience researcher all the more interesting.

But it also helps to report audience research properly too, and in this case, Graves might want to follow his own logic by not simplifying something which is complex to the point of misinterpretation.  So, Graves looks at the decision to recommission Doctor Who:

Perhaps the most ironic example of research futurology I’ve encountered occurred when the BBC explored the idea of recommissioning a new version of the classic science fiction series Doctor Who, a programme about a ‘time lord’ who makes frequent trips into the future… The research had concluded that the program was a niche show for sci-fi geeks. Program controllers ignored the findings and produced the program anyway, and over the last five years it has been a huge BBC ratings success. The BBC might as well have asked the fictitious doctor whether people would watch him in the future… (Consumer.ology p.169)

Perfect – an open and shut case of rubbish market research wisely ignored.  The research said no, the heroic decision-makers ignored them and were proved right… But is that what happened?

Consider what Doctor Who had become by the the early 2000s.  It had disappeared from television for more than a decade, after it had been cancelled following shrinking audiences and uninspiring casting.  Fading memories of low budgets and creaky sets might have put off former fans, as well as a younger generation. Programme brands with baggage like this need to work around it, and research can guide this process. TV programmes need good writing, good direction, and good acting.  Without all of these (as well as good marketing, scheduling, timing, and a little luck of course) they won’t succeed.  Doctor Who’s successful regeneration tapped into latent interest in the programme, but successfully updated it.

Would audience research really have written it off before they started?  I doubt it.  Would research have helped guide the process of reviving it?  Almost certainly.  If anything, Doctor Who now succeeds because it has embraced complexity so well.  It really tests its audience.  (I always struggle to know what is going on).

I like the way Philip Graves approaches the difficulties we face in understanding why we behave the way we do.  He might also want to consider how better to reflect the studies he talks about. We researchers have complex feelings too.


* Not to be confused with ‘Buy.ology’ by Martin Lindstrom, which is less spiky than annoying (and the Amazon reviewers have been merciless).  My favourite line: ‘The next time you sit down for breakfast in your local diner, and the waiter sets two fried eggs with gorgeously yellow yolks in front of you, well, I plead guilty‘  Yes… Martin built that…  And the forward by Paco Underhill… oh goodness.

Monday Night – you see, we need to be specific.  I love a video with a television in it, even if they sing about turning it off.


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