Opinion: On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: Tim Healy writes from Dublin: Dear Jeremy, I read your column with great interest every week.

So much of what you have to say is of as much value to researchers as it is to advertising agency people and their clients. Like so many research projects, your recent advice on the issue of where observers should sit for a group discussion not only answered many questions, but raised a few too. By "single, trusted reporter", did you mean the researcher or the observer? Is it bad manners on the part of those behind the mirror to watch customers undetected and never introduce themselves? Should those behind the mirror take into account that respondents may behave differently in this artificial environment? Do you believe that the moderator of the group discussion behaves and performs differently in a viewing facility or with an observer in the room than if they were left on their own with the group?

A: Dear Tim, many thanks. As readers will long ago have noticed, this column is heavily dependent on bluff. The further the subject strays from good old-fashioned advertising, the greater the injection of bluff required. I just about got away with one answer on group discussions (focus groups?) but I'm funking this one. So I called, as expert witness, Judie Lannon, who knows more about the subject than just about anyone.

Judie writes: "The single trusted recorder: I'm assuming you're referring to the researcher; no (involved) observer will be truly trusted by everyone.

"There is no such thing as a 'natural' environment. All research situations are artificial. Before viewing facilities were invented, I trudged around the country lugging recording machinery to be installed in the recruiter's living room - where else? These living rooms were variously attractive, hideous, comfortable, desperately uncomfortable, light, dark, quiet, noisy, chairs all of a different size (dominant individuals always headed for the big chairs), physically small people get squeezed into sofa corners. Viewing rooms are clean, ventilated, comfortable, light and conveniently located.

"Manners: very tricky. In front of the mirror, best practice is to tell the truth: that the group is being observed behind the mirror because there are 'many people interested in what the group has to say - too many to fit in one room'. Respondents these days find this quite normal.

"Behind the mirror is dodgier territory. The fantasy is a quiet, dedicated small group of people gazing and listening intently with the respect of anthropologists discovering a lost tribe. The reality can be much more like what you describe in your answer. Also, observers, unheard by the respondents, can be both rude and sniggeringly cruel. A delicate challenge for the manners police - particularly when the offenders are clients."

Tim: Hope that helps. Please don't ask me to comment on the reliability of aggregate level research purporting to evaluate the total brand impact of all brand touchpoints. I wouldn't know which friend to phone.

Judie: Many thanks.

Q: Should bloggers be allowed to be anonymous?

A: There's no way of stopping them. And thank God for it. But that doesn't mean that all anonymous bloggers are admirable. As I may have mentioned before, most anonymous bloggers remind me of those little boys who ring the doorbells of fragile pensioners and then hide, sniggering, behind the fence. It seems to me indefensible to malign the vulnerable while cowering behind the fence of anonymity. Power without responsibility, Stanley Baldwin said, is the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages. I've never understood the harlot bit, but to exercise power without responsibility is exactly what bitchy anonymous bloggers do. It's an act of despicable cowardice.

Anonymous pieces in named media are different. The writer may be anonymous but the editor isn't. Private Eye is not immune from counterblast or Carter Ruck.

But the reason we should be pleased that bloggers can't be prohibited from blogging anonymously is because for the first time in the long history of injustice, whistle-blowers can now blow their whistles for all the world to hear; and still expect to live. Those anonymous Iranian Twitterers are not being cowardly; they're being heroic.

Q: Is it a good idea to recruit "celebrities" into key roles in government?

A: I suppose it rather depends on what people are celebrated for. If there are people celebrated for their probity, financial acumen and mesmeric leadership qualities, I'd be all for recruiting them as soon as possible. But I'm afraid I can't think of any.

- "Ask Jeremy", a collection of Jeremy Bullmore's Campaign columns, is available from Haymarket, priced £10. Telephone (020) 8267 4683.

Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@haymarket.com or Campaign, 174 Hammersmith Rd, London W6 7JP