Sunday, June 18, 2006

Are consumer surveys, focus groups, etc, too much promoting commercialism?

I'm wrestling with a conflict between money and my values. I have a strong distaste for advertising and commercialism-- so is it wrong to involve myself with them to make money?

I really don't like advertising. I mean, I don't like consumerism and materialism period, so it's logical that I wouldn't like the advertising that promotes it. But it's more than that. Advertising tries to make us dissatisfied with our lives and ourselves, and then tells us that buying things is the solution. Advertising works very hard to create new desires for us and convince us they were there all along. Advertising tries to convince us that our love for the important people in our lives should be expressed by giving them material items. Advertising inundates us with racial, gender, and other stereotypes (it's obviously not the only culprit). Advertising helps perpetuate class inequality by pushing products as status symbols. Advertising helps damage body image and self-esteem. Frankly, I'd be glad if there was no advertising whatsoever, and we relied on sources like Consumer Reports and

So, given my feelings on the subject, I'm thinking I must be a hypocrite for supporting advertising in the ways I do. (I probably feel more strongly about it than most people, so I'm not saying there's anything wrong with other people doing the things I do!)

I do Pinecone surveys. I was pondering the ethical implications of this before I signed up, but in mid-ponder, one of the signup links showed up. Knowing from various pfbloggers that Pinecone's are the best surveys out there, and that signup links only show up occasionally, it seemed the prudent plan was to sign up first and debate later. So I've been rolling the issue around in my mind ever since, even as I fill out surveys and get a couple $5 checks a month.

I don't know. I mean, I wonder how the surveys I fill out are used. If they use my responses to adjust the products to help suit my interests and preferences, that's no bad thing. If they see that I think that it's important that their food be healthy and they decide to make it healthier, that's great. But if instead they keep the same product but adjust their advertising strategy to suggest it's healthier than it actually is, that's really problematic. I don't want to help companies do that!

Another thing I've done is focus groups-- well, one, anyway. It seemed like an awesome deal: $75 for less than two hours of my time. But after I arrived and realized that the product was a particular soft-drink, I started to panic as I tried to remember whether it was a Coca-Cola beverage. See, I try to boycott Coke, but I do a bad job of keeping track of all the various drinks associated with Coke (Sprite, Minute Maid, Fanta, Dasani water, etc). It turned out that it was a Pepsi-affiliated drink, but my relief was muted by the fact that it could easily have been Coke and I wouldn't've known until I got there. It turns my stomach to think that I could be helping a company I disagree with so strongly.

But on the other hand, if it had been a Coke-related focus group, what an opportunity! My simple act of boycotting Coke products is virtually invisible to corporate HQ; but what if I said in a focus group, "Sorry, no, I won't be drinking Coke beverages until you start taking accountability and working with employees in Colombia, community members in India, and other people who your decisions have hurt"? I'm not saying it would change everything, but it would sure get a bit more notice. On a similar note, in one of my Pinecone surveys recently I got asked how important it was to me to buy products from a company that treats animals humanely. I was proud to answer that question and send a message. If people like me avoid these sorts of endeavors, that perspective won't be represented.

Or is that just a good escape hatch for me to justify the fact that I like making a little easy money this way? I don't know.

(Then, of course, there's the ads I voluntarily place on my blog. I guess I figure that they're so simple and unobtrusive that it's really innocuous. But again, maybe that's just justification.)

So, I've gone through the arguments and I'm not much closer to resolution than when I started. I think I'm leaning towards stopping... it's a relatively small amount of money, and it does make me feel strange. But I'm still wavering (largely due to the whole "representing the ethical consumer" thing). Any thoughts?


Kira said...

I do Pinecone too, and I am always amazed by what the companies come up with that they think we "need". I've been doing it for years, and I have often been relieved when a product that I thought was particularly stupid idea never shows up in commercials.

I think in general the consumer goods corporations can keep churning out as much stuff as they want, and show as many ads as they want, but it is the responsibility of each person as to how much of the consumer culture they absorb. And really, to what extent you are willing to let what other people think about something cloud what you think about it, or keep you from ever forming your own opinion about it.

In a way I kind of see my participation in Pinecone and focus groups to be guiding the corporations towards things I actually want. There will always be things produced that we want, and somebody has got to make them. Somebody's got to bake the Nutter Butters. =) The thing that I think gets hold of most people is that they lose the ability to discern what it is that they want, and what commercials and advertising have told them that they want.

Tiredbuthappy said...

Hey, Penny, what a great anti-advertising rant. You verbalized so much of what I feel about advertising but haven't ever really examined. That's why I don't have a TV. I don't want to absorb all that advertising crap, and I really really don't want my son absorbing it.

And yet I do those stupid paid-to-click email ad programs, so that I'm basically being paid to be advertised at. And I do surveys. The surveys don't bother me ethically, and neither do the focus groups I've done. I do think it's important to show that progressive folks have a choice which products to buy. We are paying attention, and we will spend according to which companies have a positive impact on the communities they work in. (Er, except that I do buy Dasani water. And I actually went to Walmart the other week for the first time in years. But hopefully other progressive folks are more consistent than I am.)

So anyway, I think you should keep doing the surveys and the focus groups and be loud and be proud about your values. Those folks in the board rooms are not hearing you when you walk by their display cases in the stores without buying anything.

But they are hearing you when the focus group results they paid for come back with your values and your message embedded in them.