Making it all up

I was accosted by an attractive woman as I made my way out of the Castle Museum in Norwich the other day. I suppose it was a small disappointment that she was involved in market research, but you can’t have everything.

The conversation proved interesting, largely because she revealed early on that she had written a book called I’m a Street Girl Now. This happened to tie in rather neatly with my conviction, held over many years, that market research is a cross between prostitution and bank robbery. I didn’t mention that to her, of course. I’m not heartless.

I should also stress immediately that the woman in question was not engaged in any criminal or even borderline activity. She was simply asking me a series of pretty silly questions about my museum-going habits, and as she was very easy to talk to – or to put it another way, very good at her part-time job – I was quite happy to answer them.

They were not her questions, of course. I don’t know whose questions they were, but I suspect some kind of machine, or at the very most a mind from which imagination had been surgically removed. It is probably the same machine or desensitised mind that comes up with all market research questions. Please don’t tell me that a lot of thought goes into it, because that would be very, very frightening.

One of the questions the Street Girl asked me was how many times I had been to a museum in the past year. I don’t know about you, but I keep no record of this sort of thing, and don’t have the slightest idea – just as I have not the remotest idea how much I spend on clothes in a year, or how much on food in a week (other questions I have been asked). I suspect very strongly that it is hugely different year on year and week on week – and no, it has nothing to do with the recession. It’s more to do with having only a vague idea how long a year is. Or a week.

I know roughly how old I am and how much money comes into my household, but that’s about all. I make the rest up. I assume that most market research victims make their answers up out of desperation, and I know for a fact that some people lie in cold blood, because I have heard them do it.

And yet marketing decisions are presumably based on this rubbish. Or is it, as I strongly suspect, that market research is done purely to give some pseudo-scientific credence to a decision that has already been made? It’s an easy trick to frame questions to give the answers you want, as anyone involved in the road safety industry knows. But why bother?

Why bother with public consultation if you know what you’re going to do anyway – even if through some bungling, the street girls, clipboards and websites come up with answers you can’t twist to your purposes? How often I go to museums may mean nothing – unless you want to shut museums, or charge more for them, or take the fun out of life completely.

Why prostitution and bank robbery? Because market research extracts large amounts of money from those sucked into commissioning it, and provides nothing more than passing satisfaction, followed by an empty feeling.

How do we stop it? Well, someone said reality is what continues to exist after you stop believing in it. So if we stop believing in market research, there’s every chance it will disappear. It is, after all, unreal. Let’s give it a go.