Friday, September 14, 2007

Ford and JWT blur the line between marketing and research

"This is a marketing research project, and you won't be marketed to as a result of this project. And we won't use your image or words to market anything."

We say this, or words to this effect, at the beginning each and every focus group we do. Words like this appear somewhere in the recruiting script of every quant survey we do. We live by these words. And we're not the only ones -- the "church and state separation" between interviewing people for research and interviewing people to solicit marketing endorsements is a wide gap that's observed by most ethical agencies, and spelled out in the standards and ethics statements of groups such as CASRO (Council of American Survey Research Organizations).

Apparently the folks at Ford and JWT did not get that memo about the ethics of market research. A couple of weeks ago the Ford "Swap My Ride" campaign launched, complete with testimonials solicited under the guide of marketing research:

"In New York, Miami, Los Angeles and Dallas, its advertising agency, JWT, had workers pretend to be from a fake market-research firm, track down owners of cars made by Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co. and other competitors, and ask them to drive new Ford models for a supposedly impartial weeklong test." (from the Wall Street Journal, sub reqd)

Not only did JWT gather and film the research "respondents" under a ruse, they *never* told some what was really going on. Again, from the Sept. 14 Wall Street Journal article:

"Reached yesterday, Mr. Campos [one of the participants] was surprised to learn In-Home Test Drive Experience isn't a real company and was linked to Ford. 'I had no idea,' he said. He added it doesn't change his high opinion of the Focus, but that it would be better for the company to be 'more straight-forward.' "

The WSJ calls this an "aggressive marketing tactic" and seems to suggest that Ford has no choice, as the quality perception of American cars is so low among buyers of foreign (especially Japanese) cars that it's virtually impossible to get past that perceptual screen and get people to really "see" the cars and the quality improvements that have been made over the years.

“We wanted raw, unbiased opinions,” said Toby Barlow, co-president and executive creative director at JWT Team Detroit, Ford’s longtime creative shop. “We didn’t want them to think they were in a TV commercial. We needed a trick to get real objectivity and honest responses.” (from The New York Times, sub reqd)

They wanted honest responses, so they had to lie to get them? If people didn't know that their video was going to be used, I wonder if they told them that their words and images were going to end up on this Ford website?

This is a story that's just now starting to throw off a backlash (see here and here). I predict that the backlash will grow. In the end all that will have happened is that once again those of us who are actually practicing market research according to ethical guidelines will again have to defend our industry to consumers who are quite rightly skeptical. And Ford will simply come off looking desperate. People, this is not how social media works. The point of consumer-generated media is that you let the consumers generate the media, not trick them into starring in media that you generate.


Paul Janowitz said...
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Paul Janowitz said...

I guess sometimes it is too much to take the time and expertise to do research and use that to develop better products and/or campaigns that would actually engage consumers in a meaningful way? The great polling firms and researchers that have helped make market research and respected social science and tool for everything from employee management to product development (think Gallup for the best example - I used to work there and love them still) made this happen by respecting it as a science and the distinction between research and marketing that you metion Renee.

Companies that have done their research properly and used it to develop their products and campaigns are in a signifigantly different position than Ford and JWT. Who are one of these companies? Well, they would be Toyota - who just took over as the leader in the industry by sales volume and leads in quality and customer satisfaction in about every survey out there. (Again, a caveat - I worked on the Toyota customer research and Toyota Univerisity programs while at Gallup) Toyota takes customer feedback and employee feedback to heart. They build better products, facotries and employee engagement as a result. Detroit does not need to be desperate (I drive a Chevy and love it) - all they need to do is listen genuinely.