I did my last conventional focus group in 1989. I think. I have done so many that sometimes they return in my dreams as if they were yesterday.
In these dreams I am often trying to get an art bag full of concept boards, so heavy it can barely be lifted, through a narrow door. The opening is too small and the concept boards will not go through, sweat is breaking out on my brow as I struggle. I hear the corners of the boards bashing against the doorframe. Meanwhile the client behind the mirror winces with displeasure and the respondents in the group room look on reprovingly. Finally I rip through into the room and the concept boards spill out on the floor around me.
No-one appears the slightest bit interested in me or them and one or two pieces of scrap art fall off as I pile them up and stand them in a corner. I feel momentarily clumsy and mumble something about “We’ll look at these later,” as I flop down into a chair. Within milliseconds I realise I have left my briefcase outside and I must make another exit, this time hopefully with some grace and cheer and I lever myself to my feet again saying,
“Would you excuse me for another moment. I had no idea the traffic would be so bad!! Is it always like that?”
The Dream continues:
When I return I realise that I do not know any of these people. I have to create some form of relationship that will bear fruit, except at this precise moment I have forgotten precisely what kind of fruit I’m looking for. I am too busy coping with my own anxiety and feeling a fraud to have room in my mind for much else. But the tapes are rolling, the show must go on.
So I venture an introduction and as I do so I can hear a voice in my head commenting on my words and the situation,
“Hello, my name is Roy and this is a focus group.”
“They know that stupid. They’ve probably been here more times than you have.” Says my inner voice.
“Thank you very much for coming. Are you all local?”
“Jesus, what a dumb question. You’re already 10 minutes late, now you’re going to have to listen to everyone’s ‘where I’m from and how I got here, story’. Better take charge.”
“Well never mind that for now. (Looking at watch) I realise I’m behind and we need to get on. I’m sorry, let’s do names instead. Who wants to go first?”
I can hear the ticking of the clock on the wall. The mirrored wall gleams blackly at me. Elsewhere, silence.
Apparently nobody wants to go first. The only sound in here is the voice inside my own head. Is this a doomed group? Meanwhile, my inner voice has reached hysteria:
“Oh no, they’re teenagers and you sold yourself to the client as the guy who could get through to the young – feel the beat of the street. What’re you going to do now. They want to be COOL. They are students of COOL. They do not speak unless they can think of something COOL to say. Not speaking is in itself COOL. They are not going to talk to anyone who manifests UNCOOL. The way you came in was a perfect exhibition of a paid up clown. You are in deep shit. For Christ’s sake think of something that a Beat of the Street Man would say.”
“Look lads, I’ve made a bit of a fuck up of this – if you’ll excuse my French! Have I got us off to a bad start!”
“Where did that ‘excuse my French’ come from, you sound like someone from a Bygone Era!! They probably say the F word thirty times before breakfast – loosen up! Can’t you try to sound a bit more COOL?”
Opposite me, a black youth, reaches in his pocket, pulls out a cigarette ( or is it a joint!) and leans back to light up.
“Don’wurryboudit”, he says.
“I’m sorry but this is a no-smocking environment.” says a skinny white guy on the end. He is covered in spots and flushed with embarrassment.
“Smocking – what in God’s name is that? What is moderator policy on smocking?”
“Dasfinebro’, cos you int smokin.” says the black guy with a smile.
“OH NO, a fight’s going to break out any moment, in front of the Great Teenage Moderator. What shall I do now? “
From somewhere another voice starts up in my head, a sort of cool voice rather than a panic- struck one. “Just deal with what is…stop worrying about what should be.” I’ve gone into a sort of Zen dissociative state, there is no way back from here.”
“Let’s check in. How many smokers do we have in the group?”
Silence. “Christ they’re not even going to let on about whether they smoke or not.”
“Again, how many smokers?”
Three hands rise.
“So it’s a minority, lads. “Why do you keep saying ‘lads’ you sound like a vicar or a football manager?”
I suggest we make this a no smoking room and take a break in 20 for anyone who has to smoke.
“OK. For Goodness sake, move on, get onto the topic. 20 minutes have gone by and you haven’t even introduced the subject yet. What is the subject? Where is the discussion guide?”
“Now we’ve asked you here today to talk about personal hygiene products. You know, things like shampoo, deodorant, hair gel, toothpaste.”
To be continued…