News Brief: Consumer Society and the Curation of Culture

Citations Needed | November 21, 2018 | Transcript

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Nima Shirazi: Welcome to a Citations Needed News Brief. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: You can follow Citations Needed on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed and support the show at Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. I’m excited for this extended interview that we are sharing with our listeners today.

Adam: Yeah, the issue of focus groups is one that is obviously very close to media criticism in general, and how we talk about perception and how the feedback loop between corporations, those in power, and the general population, how that kind of feedback loop happens. And Liza Featherstone wrote a really interesting article in The Guardian about the history of focus groups that we wanted to get into a little bit and talk about in a kind of more, a less structured more free flowing way. She also wrote a book called Divining Desire: Focus Groups and the Culture of Consultation that we had the privilege of getting copies of and we were reading it and talking about it. We thought it would be great to talk to her because I know that focus groups are interesting. They are sort of a great shorthand for kind of the lazy, drooling masses who kind of don’t know what they want.

Nima: And the kind of most disconnected way of corporate culture and marketing.

Adam: Yeah. And they’ve gotten a bad rep and sort of been countered by the Malcolm Gladwells of the world to say that actually there’s a sort of anti-focus group mentality embodied by people like Steve Jobs who kind of steamroll through the masses and sort of, they don’t ask people what they want, they tell them what they want and they’re these heroes of capitalism. And what she does is she pushes back on this and talks about that the focus groups actually have in many ways socialist origins, and have a lot of potential for democratic socialist usage in terms of how we gauge what people want and that they’re not per se bad. And I thought that was an interesting take. That was a, that was a hot take, you know, focus groups are sort of broadly seen as being bad, but what could the sort of left-wing uses of focus groups and polling, and go beyond the kind of sterile corporate assumptions about them. So I thought that would be interesting to bring her on to talk about that.

Nima: Yeah. So before we speak with Liza, we wanted to also note that the rise of focus groups happens along with this rise of psychoanalysis in the late 19th century, early 20th century. This notion that people’s motivations, people’s psyches could be understood and that the things people wanted, the way people acted, what they wanted to buy, who they wanted to be with, these all could be understood by understanding people’s minds better. And this was used obviously in a myriad of different ways, but the outgrowth of psychoanalysis was also then used by governments to, unsurprisingly, understand how better to push nationalist propaganda. And this then fused with corporate and capitalist culture to create marketing and advertising. So you see this through line from European intellectuals who are trained at the University of Vienna in Austria and you can trace their rise, the Ernest Dichters, Sigmund Freud, Paul Lazarsfeld to the Madison Avenue Post-World War II world, the kind of Mad Men world of corporate marketing. And then you get Edward Bernays along with Dichter and Lazarsfeld, who actually from doing this work in Vienna, then moved over to both the government and then corporate world in the United States.

Adam: And of course the rise of focus group paralleled the rise of mass communication and mass consumption and therefore mass marketing. And those things worked in tandem to sort of spread capitalism under this kind of quasi-legitimate, quasi-artificial concept of consensus that focus groups and polling as well built consensus and you therefore gave people what they wanted. And it was democratic of course, it wasn’t always the case. You kind of gave people what you wanted them to want.

Nima: (Chuckles.) Right.

Adam: And of course there’s always this back and forth between contrived and organic in focus groups for one of the primary overlaps of this tension between that, which is something people legitimately want and that which they’re sort of massaged by the powers that be to want them to want it. We see this, especially when it comes to war.

Nima: So the early pioneers of this leveraging sociology towards propaganda are Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert Merton who wrote a 1948 study entitled Mass Communication, Popular Taste and Organized Social Action. And what’s kind of fascinating about this paper is that they identify exactly how mass media can be used. And it’s something that we talk a lot about on Citations Needed and it goes to show that again, as we say all the time, none of this is really new, that since the advent of these systems, of media and of control and of messaging, the people pioneering this stuff knew exactly how the system worked. So for instance, in this study, Lazarsfeld and Merton write about something called “social conformism.” And they write this, quote:

Since the mass media are supported by great business concerns geared into the current social and economic system, the media contribute to the maintenance of that system. This contribution is not found merely in the effective advertisement of the sponsor’s product. It arises, rather, from the typical presence in magazine stories, radio programs, and newspaper columns of some element of confirmation, some element of approval of the present structure of society. And this continuing reaffirmation underscores the duty to accept. To the extent that the media of mass communication have had an influence upon their audiences, it has stemmed not only from what is said, but more significantly from what is not said. For these media not only continue to affirm the status quo but, in the same measure, they fail to raise essential questions about the structure of society. Hence, by leading toward conformism and by providing little basis for a critical appraisal of society, the commercially sponsored mass media indirectly but effectively restrain the cogent development of a genuinely critical outlook.

End quote.

Adam: So yeah, this is basically a roundabout way or a more sophisticated way of talking about one of the things we talk about, which is the issue of emphasis over, necessarily lies and distortion, but what you highlight and why you choose to highlight it.

Nima: And so this emphasis along with omission were known to be really effective ways of both propaganda and also as in the quote I just read, reaffirming the state of society. And so, you know, we’ve seen this where Malcolm Gladwell will talk about how great things are. We talk about how Steven Pinker can show us how the world is just getting better and better. And so there’s this concerted effort to make us not think about things maybe not being great and to reaffirm that things are constantly moving forward and that one way of doing this is also through marketing and consumerism because there’s always a next awesome new product that is coming down the line. So I think with that, it sets us up for our talk with Liza Featherstone, columnist at The Nation magazine, a professor of journalism and author of the book Divining Desire: Focus Groups and the Culture of Consultation, which was published last year by OR Books. We’ll talk to Liza in just a minute. Stay with us.

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Nima: Thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed Liza.

Liza Featherstone: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Nima: I think a good place for us to start, we talk on this show about the history of media, kind of mass communication in general, propaganda a lot and so all of this kind of is a large part of what your book, Divining Desire, is about and I think that actually a good place to start is the focus group I think is largely seen as almost this cliched example of the blandist type of corporatism or like Frank Luntz-style conservative messaging and also toothless liberal pablum. But its origins lie very far from the glass towers of Madison Avenue or even market research centers in middle America. Can you tell us a little bit about the unlikely and I think largely unknown history of the focus group?

Liza Featherstone: Yeah, absolutely. The origins of the focus group in a way can be seen in Red Vienna a experiment in the 1920s with municipal democratic socialism and the Viennese Social Democrats came to power, just in that city, not in the rest of Austria, and for the Viennese it was an experiment not only in socialism but also in democracy. So they hadn’t really experienced either one before. And the Viennese Democratic Socialists were, sound familiar? (Laughs.) We’re still waiting. But, so the Viennese Social Democrats were from the elite. I mean, they weren’t from the billionaire class as we’d refer to them now, but they were shrinks, they were intellectuals, they were from the educated bourgeoisie and they were not from the working class for the most part. So they were pretty out of touch with what the masses might think and feel. And they needed to find ways of finding out. And it turns out this is always when qualitative research is useful, is when a group of elites, whatever their politics, find themselves estranged from the masses and needing to make their project work to get their consent. So the Viennese Social Democrats had a lot of, besides economic socialism, ideas of economic equality that we would find fairly standard, they also had, really felt they needed to change the working class into the kind of people that they imagined would most benefit from democratic socialism and those people would be healthier people. They would drink less, they would abstain from premarital sex, they would play team sports, they would listen to opera instead of just soap operas and the working class wasn’t that interested in these ideas (laughing) about-

Nima: They’re like, ‘socialism sounds really, really boring.’

Liza Featherstone: (Laughing.) Yeah. It seemed like socialism was not very much fun in this vision, so as Paul Lazarsfeld, who is now thought of as the father of the focus group, he was a part of the youth democratic socialists at the time, and also a budding qualitative researcher, he would say much later ‘We had to find out why our propaganda was unsuccessful.’ So these qualitative methods in this interesting little moment in European history, that moment is pretty brief, and of course a right-wing government takes over in Austria and soon after that an even more right-wing government in the form of the Nazis, and Lazarsfeld has to leave. Not only because he’s a socialist, but also because he’s Jewish and he comes to the United States and in the United States he hooks up with another, less ambitious group of Social Democrats, the FDR government. Less politically ambitious I mean, and they’re really in a similar situation to the Red Viennese, in that they are a group of elites who need to figure out why their propaganda is unsuccessful. So again, people are definitely feeling the New Deal, it’s working pretty well, they do not want to enter World War II and make sacrifices and fight the Nazis. Once again, they need to figure out how to make the propaganda better. And in this process, Lazarsfeld uses many of the qualitative methods of listening to people that the Red Viennese developed, but it starts to look much more like what we would now call the focus group. That is they’re actually in groups, they are presenting people with a specific thing to talk about and listening to their responses.

Adam: In your research, both historically and contemporaneously, the big thing with focus groups, I guess the sort of big criticism of them, is that there’s a difference between trying to figure out what people want so you can sort of carry out the sort of populist masses, you know, wants-

Liza Featherstone: Yes.

Adam: Versus figuring out what they want so you can sort of take what the agenda already is, and tweak your phraseology, to sort of approximate what appears to be something populist but it’s actually sinister. The ladder, to me, seems to be manifestly, if not in its origins in its manifestation, seems to be what focus groups largely do, right? Frank Luntz coming up with death tax as opposed to estate tax, right? It’s an antecedent to manipulation by its very nature.

Liza Featherstone: Exactly. And you know as over the course of the 20th century, we see from its very beginnings, it was about an elite trying to get the masses to go along with its program, but as the 20th century wears on you see the agenda of elites becoming more sinister frankly and more at odds with what would be in the interests of ordinary people. So exactly right by the end of the century, we get Frank Luntz trying to sell people on calling the estate tax the death tax, and um, that’s an arguably even more cynical undertaking.

Adam: The reason why I want to talk about that is because you talk about focus groups as a kind of proxy for actual democratic participation. You write that in a society in which the expression of opinion has been dramatically democratized while the distribution of everything else that matters, like political power and money, has only grown more starkly unequal. To what extent do focus groups and other forms of sort of consumer expression channel legitimate populists desires, in that focus groups are sort of more of a symptom of a broader lack of vocalization of populist concerns as opposed to it’s cause, if that makes sense?

Liza Featherstone: Yeah, I mean, I actually don’t find focus groups such a terrible or ineffective method of communicating popular desires. I know that a lot of people do, there’s a lot of sort of hostility toward them for somehow doing this ineffectively. I mean, it’s not so much that it’s ineffective, but it’s, as you say, it’s part of the process of what I call the culture of consultation in which people are listened to all the time and we can very freely express our opinion about all sorts of subjects and yet our access to everything else that matters is not democratized at all, quite the opposite. We’re quite polarized in our access to money, power and even basic security.

Adam: So we’re sort of permitted the right to vent and to complain, but we don’t actually have to do anything?

Liza Featherstone: Yeah, exactly. I mean-

Adam: Okay. You know what, I’ll take it.

Liza Featherstone: Yeah, yeah, I mean, it’s better than not. I think that focus groups are an early and very consistent manifestation of this way in which elites have found of letting us have our say and of actually finding out what we think in order to sell us stuff. But there have certainly been all kinds of other ways. And more recently, you know, we have Twitter and we have Facebook and all kinds of ways of expressing our opinion 24 hours a day. We don’t even have to drive to some depressing office park and be paid to do it.

Nima: So I think that there’s this common stereotype of the focus group that elicits widespread, not only just sort of side eye, but maybe outright hatred (chuckles).

Liza Featherstone: Yeah. Outright hatred.

Nima: The focus group, it produces the shittiest kind of products that appeal to the most banal consumer, and that focus groups are what are often blamed for being responsible for the corporate abominations, like the Edsel or New Coke as you, as you’ve written that I know talked about before, but in your book you kind of delve into that a little bit and reveal that those products, and like what is known as focus group failures, a lot of them is part of corporate mythmaking and that it isn’t necessarily the ignorant masses that promoted these terrible things. Can you kind of unpack that a little bit for us?

Liza Featherstone: Yeah. This was something that I didn’t expect to find out and find so fascinating is, so the hatred of the focus group and you’re absolutely right, you know, you tell anybody, you mention the phrase “focus groups” and everybody will just knowledgeably say that, you know, ‘focus groups are terrible’ and ‘they always produce a worst product like the Edsel’ and you know, that’s gonna be sort of your generic like guy-at-the-airport-bar take. And so what’s fascinating to me is that, in fact those stories about, the Edsel flopped because of focus groups, New Coke happened because of focus groups, when you look into them, it turns out that’s actually not what happened at all, but that that interpretation in both cases was eagerly end vociferously pushed by the companies themselves who wanted to blame the focus groups. And one of the reasons for that I think is, um, and you can see it in the way that they express this blaming of the focus group, part of it is it’s really good Cold War propaganda to say to the American public, ‘actually, you guys are really driving this train and that’s why consumer capitalism is so great and you know what? Sometimes you get it wrong.’ (Laughs.) You know, ‘you guys are in charge’ —

Nima: That’s the price of freedom.

Liza Featherstone: ‘And sometimes you screw up’ (laughing)and that’s the price of freedom. Exactly. Like ‘we’re listening to you and sometimes you guys are wrong.’ And then, you know, it’s sort of appealing on the side of the masses because, you know, people at some level people feel suspicious of focus groups. People feel like it’s a part of, you know, corporate manipulation and has something to do with PR and propaganda and things that people are rightly suspicious of. So the idea that it’s market research to blame is very popularly appealing as well. It turns out, in neither of these incredibly well known and incredibly still enthusiastically embraced examples, the focus groups just had absolutely nothing to do with the failures of these products.

Nima: And that it was the companies themselves that just kind of pushed through something that they wanted to do anyway and that then they were just able to displace blame —

Liza Featherstone: Yes, yes.

Nima: — on to the people.

Liza Featherstone: The Edsel example I love because it’s just so, all of the propaganda for capitalism is just so naked in the fifties. So there really is all this stuff in the business press about, ‘We’re better than the Soviet Union because we have the power to make choices and, you know, buy products.’ But the New Coke example is almost more egregious because in that situation they actually, they did indeed do focus groups. But what the focus groups revealed was, in the groups, a small minority that they said a major soft drink is thinking of changing its flavor, usually in a focus group they don’t know what company has sponsored the focus group, so a major soft drink is going to change it’s flavor, they characterize that a little bit and people knew it was Coke from the way they were describing it. And the majority of people in the group said, ‘okay, you know, I’d be interested in trying it.’ And a small minority of people freaked the fuck out and said, ‘no way.’ You know, they, ‘if they’re going to change Coke, they can’t change Coke, that’s really’ —

Adam: You may as well change the Constitution or move baseball to six innings.

Nima: (Laughs.)

Liza Featherstone: Exactly the kinds of things that people actually did say when the product later hit the market like this is like ‘this is messing with the American flag.’ (Laughs.)

Adam: Exactly. (Laughs.)

Liza Featherstone: And so that minority of people in the focus groups actually convinced the rest of the people that this was a bad idea. Wouldn’t you know, when the product hits the market, that’s exactly what happened. New Coke comes out, people more or less like it, most people are buying it, but there’s a minority of people who freak the fuck out. They call the Coke hotlines, they’re crying —

Nima: Yeah. There are like protests and like near riots —

Liza Featherstone: People carry signs that say things like, ‘our children will never know refreshment.’ (Laughing.)

Nima: (Laughing.)

Adam: Weren’t this protest astroturfed though? I thought I thought Coke was like behind some of those protests like as a?

Liza Featherstone: That has never been proven.

Adam: Okay. I know it’s one theory. I figure there’s not a lot of people who like organically sit around and say ‘I’m going to go hold,’ I don’t know-

Liza Featherstone: That was a conspiracy theory promoted at the time and you know, like a lot of conspiracy theories it could be true, but there isn’t any evidence for it. At the time the Coke leadership said ‘we’re not that dumb and we’re not that smart.’ Like ‘we did not do this on purpose so that we could protest’-

Adam: Oh I definitely don’t think they fucked up the New Coke thing because some of the stuff I’ve read is that they may have, like, once they realized that they screwed up, that they like wanted to visualize how much people love Coke. When The New York Times did a retro report on that they touched on that.

Liza Featherstone: Yes, yes.

Nima: And then it kind of doubles back onto itself by being like, ‘okay look, now we’re actually also listening to the masses by pulling the product.’

Liza Featherstone: Exactly. Exactly.

Nima: So it kind of further enhances this notion of democracy that’s actually just couched in consumerism.

Liza Featherstone: Exactly.

Adam: Right.

Liza Featherstone: Exactly. ‘We listened to you in the first place and that’s how we got into this mess and now we’re listening to you again,’ you know, so it’s, it’s just like, it’s a propagandistic gesture of, you know, you the consumer is really in charge.

Adam: One of the criticisms of focus groups is that they kind of stymie the moral imagination that they incentivize the kind of feedback loop or kind of reductionism. The most famous example they teach every alpha male business guy and in business school is when Steve Jobs said, if, you know, ‘they asked me if I want to do focus groups,’ and he said ‘if Henry Ford did a focus group, you know, the people would have asked for a faster horse.’ Right? The idea being is that people don’t know what they want until you show them. This is something you see in politics too, right? The Clintons are heavily driven by focus groups and the kind of close cousin to the focus group, which is the poll.

Nima: Or like the dial test.

Adam: Yeah. And that leads to where, in 2015, if I poll people in single payer healthcare, I think the numbers were in the low thirties, but now it’s in the mid fifties because this crazy 74-year-old guy from Brooklyn came along and convinced people, right? He didn’t poll them, he told them why they needed it. Do you think those criticisms are fair? Do you think they’re misguided or do you think they have the causality kind of backwards?

Liza Featherstone: I think they have the causality backwards. So the, just a word on that Henry Ford quote, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that Henry Ford said this.

Adam: I’m sure Steve Jobs made it up.

Liza Featherstone: Yeah. It’s not quite clear who made it up, but he certainly, he certainly popularized it and there’s actually a lot of evidence that, some of Henry Ford’s own business misadventures um, could have benefited from listening more to consumers (laughs) —

Adam: Touché. Touché.

Liza Featherstone: Yeah so there’s also that. But the Steve Jobs posturing is very interesting. And, um, and was very much of its moment. So the focus group hatred changes and the criticisms come from a different place by the end of the century and the beginning of this century and at that point the criticisms of them are more coming from elite men like Steve Jobs who want to be able to sort of say, you know, ‘I don’t have to listen to anybody,’ you know, and ‘this listening to the public thing is for chumps’ and you know, we see this in, this is a posture struck by both Bushes, daddy and junior.

Nima: And “The Decider.”

Liza Featherstone: Yeah, the decider. Exactly. ‘I’m the decider’ —

Adam: ‘Tough decisions. I got to make tough decisions. No time to count hands.’

Liza Featherstone: Exactly. Pretty good imitation. And, um —

Adam: Well, I’m from Texas, so —

Liza Featherstone: Yes, (laughs) so when there are massive anti-war protests, he says, ‘I don’t govern by focus group.’ So it’s kind of a stance. And Steve Jobs is, is merely participating in and inhabiting this persona of the rich dude who doesn’t listen to people. What’s interesting though is that when you look at how innovative Apple was under Steve Jobs, it’s not because one guy at the top was so smart and having all the ideas as the sort of, this is another bit corporate mythmaking. Um, it was actually with the engineers and inventors, it was a fairly horizontal workplace. People had a lot of freedom to come up with their ideas. People were pretty collaborative in the way that they pursued them. They had a much more horizontal and collaborative environment than a lot of companies did at the time. They also very much saw themselves as the target market for things. They did not see the market place as these unwashed masses who were so different from them. They thought, you know, ‘we’d really like to listen to music on our phones, maybe other people would to.’ So they more or less took themselves as the focus group and they more or less listened to each other. So I think there’s something interesting there in the way that, you know, the sort of Steve Jobs dismissal of the focus group is taken as an advertisement for the individual genius, but um, in fact the success of Apple points us in quite a different and possibly, um, more utopian direction.

Nima: Yeah. I think Malcolm Gladwell kind of does this a lot too. He’s like very anti-focus group, you know, that like the future is in TED Talks and the elites and the experts —

Liza Featherstone: The really smart people —

Nima: The really smart people. Exactly. And that there’s a specific way to do this and to move society a certain way, whether it’s politically or economically, whatever. And yet his own posture is not, is not of benevolence. That he, that he himself actually came up through this corporate marketing model. And I just think the idea of who gets to be the elite and who gets to be the public and who actually has power there. I mean, obviously I think we’d all agree the elites have power, but you write, Liza, about how that power can maybe be rested back, maybe not through corporate focus groups, but bringing that model to a different space.

Liza Featherstone: Yeah, I mean, I think that one of the reasons that the focus group has been such an enduring method is that we do really like to talk with each other, you know, most people do. And we like to work together with other people and, you know, kind of cooperate on things and, you know, try to figure things out in a group. So in some sense it’s been, the long reading success of the method speaks to the great potential of exactly the way leftists want to reorganize the world. You know, we want things to be more collective. We want things to be more collaborative and, you know, but I think the, the culture of consultation has also been, and here I mean not only focus groups but the way that many of us now kind of live on the Internet and, you know, are sort of constantly giving our opinion, I think there is a way in which the premium on giving voice, above all else sometimes gets in our way when we think about trying to make change. Like, we can’t always be caught up in this, in this conversation and giving voice and being heard is not the same as winning things or being able to share resources. I do think there is something more participatory maybe on the horizon now. So that’s interesting.

Adam: It reminds me of when I was a kid, they have, they have the Top 40 station would have like a request line where you could call in and request a song. And I used to do it all the time. And then I had someone who worked at a radio station explain to me that at the top 40 stations are all on auto. Like they have the same 40 songs they play no matter what. But they have people who call in to request the same 40 songs, so when they play like someone calling to request a song, it’s sort of giving the illusion of democracy and just reaffirming what they were going to do anyway.

Liza Featherstone: Oh my goodness. That’s even worse.

Adam: It’s sort of like, sort of like the equivalent of the elevator —

Liza Featherstone: Pushing the elevator button.

Adam: Push the elevator button, right. And then I was like, I felt so I felt so betrayed.

Nima: So used.

Adam: I felt so used. I enthusiastically called in but there was no democratic input. What?

Liza Featherstone: Yeah.

Nima: But at the same time I actually remember doing the same thing growing up in New York, with a station in the city and being so thrilled when I actually heard my requests come up, which was for some, you know, a less often, I think it was probably like a much less often played Led Zeppelin song, (laughs) if I can assume what I would have possibly requested, um, something from Led Zeppelin III —

Liza Featherstone: (Laughs) Not “Stairway to Heaven.”

Nima: Not “Stairway to Heaven,” right. “Out on the Tiles.” But I remember feeling so heard, right? Feeling like, ‘Oh, that’s, that’s an amazing thing that actually just happened that I was, you know, I called up, I left this message and then happened to be listening, you know, a few days later when I heard my own voice and I wasn’t expecting it.’ And so to kind of hear your own voice in that I think speaks to —

Liza Featherstone: Yeah, well I think that, I mean, what you just described about calling into the radio station is so and feeling heard is, is such an important part of the pleasure of the culture of consultation. Like showing up to a focus group, giving your opinion, feeling like maybe they’re gonna use your idea is really fun. And so similarly, we get a lot of pleasure from, you know, like tweeting at the mayor or whatever. Like we feel like we’re like, ‘I’m really going to be heard now.’ And it’s not an illusion in the sense that they do really want your opinion and they might act on it. It just, it doesn’t substitute for having power. So you know, so for example, I mean something that was really interesting to me is increasingly municipal governments will hold focus groups about major decisions that are about to happen. Like they’re going to hire a new school superintendent or they’re going to do something important in city planning. You know, they’re trying to rezone something, whatever. And they’ll have focus groups to decide this and you know, people will often attend these more than they would attend like a school board meeting, for example, or like a community board meeting, whatever. Because people understand that a focus group is a situation in which you will speak and be heard, whereas like people don’t really have much faith in the ordinary mechanisms of government. But in theory the latter makes much more sense. Right? Because you elected those school board people you could vote them out. They should have some accountability to you. So to me that the fact that the culture of consultation, because it’s so pleasurable and feels so efficacious, the fact that, but the fact that it is actually often more appealing and then real democracy suggests that we have a really serious problem with the way the real thing is functioning.

Nima: Yeah. I mean I think that your focus in the book on Paul Lazarsfeld is really fascinating and that if, you know, not only in, in his kind of being the father of the focus group, but also in his own writing with Robert Merton, like Mass Communication, Popular Taste and Organized Social Action, which actually takes the idea that, oh well, you know, it’s either testing for government propaganda to get from, scary posters about Nazis that makes everyone not want to get involved, to like more of like a why we fight style and your own values and that’s, you know, that’s the American way. And moving that into the like, “I’d like to buy the world a Coke.” You know, it’s like, it’s like there’s that whole thing. But then there’s also simultaneously the same people doing that kind of work on propaganda are also completely aware of how the burgeoning, especially in mid 20th century, mass media, you know, the, whether it’s radio or then TV and then even onwards now, something that, you know, I don’t even know if what would have been foreseen with the Internet and social media, but the idea of this narcotizing dysfunction, right? This idea that there’s so much out there that you can respond to and you can absorb, but that understanding, thinking you understand the problems then substitutes for acting on them.

Liza Featherstone: Yes.

Nima: And I think that like, that’s a really fascinating part of this, especially as on this show we talk about media all the time. So, you know, it’s not just the kind of corporate communications that I think are affected by all of this, it’s also this notion of how these things enable people to actually be really passive even though they think they’re being active.

Liza Featherstone: Yeah. Yeah. No, that’s. Absolutely. That’s absolutely right.

Nima: So I kind of wonder at the end of all, at the end of all of this, (chuckles) where do we end up? What is the way the left, let’s say, can kind of harness this model, it doesn’t have to be on Madison Avenue, but like how can this be moved forward to kind of move, move culture forward in, in a different and more positive way?

Liza Featherstone: Yeah. Well, even though the focus group does come out of the left as we talked about in the beginning of the show, I do think that the world that we on the left are fighting for would have significantly less need of focus groups because they do fundamentally emerge from the existence of people who have far less access to knowledge or really resources or decision making then these elites. So, I mean, I would eventually hope that there was, you know, at least that there was significantly less need for methodologies like this just because I would hope that we would move toward a more horizontal society without elites. That said, I think that the pleasure of being heard and the pleasure of giving your opinion and the pleasure of conversation and those feelings of efficacy I think are really important to pay attention to and we would certainly want that to be part of any left politics as well.

Nima: I think that’s a perfect place to leave it. Liza Featherstone, columnist at The Nation, journalism professor, author, editor, everyone please check out her latest book, Divining Desire: Focus Groups and the Culture of Consultation, which was published in 2017 by OR Books. Liza, thank you so much for joining us today on the show. It’s been great to talk to you.

Adam: Thank you so much.

Liza Featherstone: Thank you. It was a pleasure.

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Adam: Yeah, a lot of fascinating stuff there to unpack. I’m still sort of skeptical that focus groups could ever be left-wing, but I’m open to the idea and I’m open to the idea that the um, the hard charging “great man,” you know, which is something that of course exists, not just in capitalist contexts, you know, there’s obviously historical examples of this kind of glorification of, of leftist heroes too, which can be problematic. So I think the idea of having a feedback between the people and uh, those in power is an interesting one for non-cynical reasons, for non-capitalists reasons.

Nima: Yeah, no, absolutely. I’m intrigued by the notion that something as kind of fundamentally corporatist as a focus group, something that seems so anodyne and kind of mundane and inane can actually maybe be something different, can be something more collective and break some of that top-down stranglehold on our culture. But I think it’s great to talk to Liza, her book is fascinating, Divining Desire. We encourage people to check it out and want to thank everyone for listening to this extended Citations Needed News Brief. Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Our production consultant is Josh Kross. Research assistant is Sophia Steinert-Evoy. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: We’ll catch you next time.

[Music]

This Citations Needed News Brief was released on Wednesday, November 21, 2018.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.

Written by

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.

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