Agencies want to know what people want, what they think, and what
they think they want. The problems start when you simply ask consumers a
question and expect an honest answer.
Freud believed people lied, both to others and to themselves, therefore
their answers to questions should never be taken at face value. While
academic feminists may consider him a phallocentric misogynist,
advertisers may show a greater appreciation of his Viennese musings and
their relevance to the questionnaire. Freud drew attention to the
knotted contrariness of the human condition, which he saw as consisting
of complex motives, mixed feelings and always being in two minds.
Being conscious is not to know what one wants, or to want what one
However, when it comes to answering questionnaires, contrariness and
being in two minds are not what the market demands. Clients are
impressed by quantified results - they look and feel impressive.
While social psychologists often use questionnaires in their research,
their competitors in physiological psychology often expose the disparity
between what people say versus what their body is saying. The "lie
detector" is the most well-known example and other forms of
physiological monitoring have revealed glaring economies of truth among
people answering questionnaires.
The most pronounced effects occur when probing topics that are more
politically or personally sensitive. For example, in one study subjects
who considered themselves liberal-minded and colour blind when it comes
to race were physiologically monitored during a social gathering. Their
subconscious physiological responses told another story - their stress
and tension levels went up when black people entered the room.
Sexual desire is also riddled with deception and self-deception. The
Government believed they could get to the truth about the population's
sex lives by simply asking them. The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes
and Lifestyles "provides comprehensive and reliable information based on
sophisticated statistical analysis of the responses given by nearly
The results were intended to enable better "sexual health" and "family
planning" ad campaigns. Despite the British public's questionnaire
claims of engaging in safe, intelligent sex, their bodies appeared to
have a life of their own. Rates of sexually transmitted disease,
patterns of unplanned pregnancy and the new DNA findings that up to 10
per cent of children are secretly fathered as the result of the mother's
infidelity - demonstrated that people lie.
This brings into question the validity of the questionnaire and
interview - i.e. are they really measuring what they are intended to
when compared with other independent sources of information that ignore
what people say and monitor what they actually do?
While few questionnaires address such sensitive topics, the moral of the
story is that one should adopt a healthy scepticism of questionnaires,
surveys and focus groups promising to deliver the truth about
These methods can be highly accurate and economical - provided they
address appropriate issues and are constructed and conducted in the
In his book Attitudes and Their Measurement, Professor Nigel Lemon
observed: "The interview, and also the self-administered questionnaire
to some extent, are used within a social situation, and the observations
made within that setting are likely to reflect a number of extraneous
factors from the testing situation itself."
When considering these approaches to market research, some factors to
take into consideration are:
Choosing face-to-face or voice-to-voice interviews as opposed to
self-administered questionnaires. Will the respondent remain anonymous?
The interviewer is also an issue. Their appearance, age, sex, social
class, race and voice will in some way influence answers to questions.
Yet, good communicators - like good cops - elicit more confessions.
Structured versus unstructured interviews. One advantage of the
interview is the facility it provides the researcher to vary the form of
the questions used and to probe and follow up replies in ways that would
be impossible with the traditional form of self-administered
The organisation of the interview or questionnaire. In what order will
the questions be asked? It is thought that the most searching questions
are best placed in the middle section, where, Professor Lemon states:
"Hopefully the respondent's commitment to helping the interviewer has
been obtained, and he will be fresh enough to give the questions his
full attention. Opinion is divided as to the most suitable place for
risky or embarrassing items." However, most agree, not at the
Form of the questions. Free response, multiple choice or forced choice
Wording of the questions. In pre-testing, one can deliberately ask
several kinds of questions on the same issue in order to assess the
effects of wording on responses. The golden rules are that questions
should be clear, short and unambiguous, and neither biased or loaded in
any particular direction. However, as one academic put it, in practice,
there are no good or bad questions, "only instruments that fulfil or
fail to fulfil the purposes for which they are intended". When it comes
to manipulating the truth out of your potentially dishonest or confused
respondents, the ends justify the means.
Validity. Agencies should use their nous in deciding whether the
questionnaire is really measuring what they want it to. Does it
correspond to your gut instinct about the subject matter? Are there
other sources of information or insights that corroborate your
Often in social psychology, as well as in advertising, questionnaires
are intended to confirm - in a respectable, quantified manner - what we
Therefore one should never ignore one's own experience, instincts and
intuition in formulating and deciding whether a questionnaire will
elicit accurate, honest responses.
Moreover, when it comes to designing questionnaires, an industry of
copywriters should be in an ideal position to play with words.