A familiar phrase about a pot and a kettle springs to mind on
hearing the Tories are in a lather over revelations that the Government
hired an agency and a PR company to ’road-test’ its Budget plans. It’s
certainly rich for a party once so adept at harnessing the power of
advertising and marketing to bleat on about ’government by focus group
What rankles the opposition is that the Treasury used pounds 80,000 of
taxpayers’ money to commission Ogilvy & Mather and Fishburn Hedges to
discover how the public might react to key measures contained in the
They claim this is fundamentally wrong. It isn’t. And to condemn it out
of hand is to misunderstand the contribution qualitative research can
make to effective and responsive government.
Of course, an over-reliance on focus groups is as dangerous for
politicians as it is for advertisers. Politics is about having firmly
held beliefs and values and no government should always be prepared to
cut its cloth just to match the public fashion.
But it’s one thing to keep tailoring policies to reflect the latest
research findings. It’s quite another for a government to become
detached and out of step with the views of those who elect it.
Qualitative research can help ministers keep their fingers on the
national pulse, provide continual feedback on what matters most to
people and enable messages to be clearly understood.
The skill is in knowing when not to let what the research is saying
prevent a political decision a government knows instinctively to be
right. A few years ago, Whitbread trusted its gut feelings when all the
research suggested its ’refresh the parts’ campaign for Heineken would
bomb. There will be times when Tony Blair will have to as well.