Now, imagine gathering those six strangers into a room around the same table and asking for their opinion on something, anything. The situation in Ukraine. The shirt you’re wearing. Their favorite shampoo. The weather. And imagine coming out of the room with any sort of coherent, intelligent, useable answer.
Welcome to The Focus Group.
Just your “Average Joes.” And the average American Joe is pretty average--- the U.S. ranks 29th in the world when it comes to IQ. Behind the UK, Cambodia, and Belarus to name a few.
Follow the leaders
Audience testing is, sadly, nothing new. But it’s slowly crept into more corners of our lives. More and more, the world we live in is molded by focus groups. Random sets of people in bright, sterile rooms inventing opinions on things that, up until that moment, they didn’t give a rat’s ass about.
Billion-dollar corporations, movie studios, politicians (especially politicians) use focus groups to determine what you watch, read, believe, or vote for. James Patterson changes endings to his books according to test reader feedback. Garth Drabinsky, a Broadway producer, rewrote his musical Ragtime 20 times on the advise of a research company. Frank Lutz, the political “consultant” uses focus groups to shape public opinion--- renaming hot button terms into benign buzzwords.
Art for the Masses
Two Russian artists--- Vitly Komar and Alexander Melamid ---with the help of a research company, polled a thousand Americans a few years back. Forty-three questions to discover just the right elements for the perfect painting. The results?
The optimal size: 2’ x 3’. Favorite color: blue. Second favorite color: blue. Average Joe liked festive outdoor scenes with realistic wildlife and a few people. No abstracts. No nudity! Using these guidelines, Komar and Melamid painted a masterpiece by consensus: George Washington by a riverbank at the edge of a forest with deer and tourists.
Is it any surprise that vanilla was once again voted America’s favorite ice cream flavor?
“New ideas, anything unique and different, don’t test well,” a focus group moderator told me once She was okay with this.
Slate.com recently explained that “studies confirm what many creative people have suspected all along: people are biased against creative thinking, despite all of their insistence otherwise.” Humans, by nature, are risk adverse. Accepting new, creative ideas is a risky proposition. So, while people say they welcome new thinking, they are quick to fall back on the same ol’, same ol’.
This goes beyond movies and sitcoms. Technological innovation suffers from the same prejudice. When the telephone was in its early stages, experts felt it was “hardly more than a toy.” The television was believed to be commercially unfeasible. When the personal computer came out, reviewers wondered why anyone would ever want one. It took over ten years for the now-ubiquitous mouse to catch on.
Creative holding pattern
Our so-called leaders, in industry, politics, marketing, and entertainment have lost their ability to lead. They’ve handed that role over to the focus group. And soon Artificial Intelligence. That’s why the iPhone 15 looks pretty much like the iPhone 14. And every action movie ends in a fistfight.
Soon, real soon, we won’t need the guy in the pajama pants. We’ll let A.I. decide for us. Homogenizing everything into a big, vanilla mass.
Hm, do you think anyone will notice?