A focus group is unpleasant on so many levels. First, it’s something that props up the foul smelling capitalist system. I’m bouncing into the realm of the advertiser. The advertiser is a strange hybrid, halfway between hipster and corporate. Slighty tighter jeans than usual but with the edges trimmed off. A tie could descent at any moment onto the thoughtfully buttoned up shirt.
While I’m sitting in reception the panel drips into the waiting room. This is my first day of Zoloft and I’m still getting used to the side effects of anxiety so my heart is threatening to burst through my chest and I imagine that if I try talking to someone I’ll either silently gulp in terror or launch into a mile a minute intense discussion about something horrendously mundane. Fortunately nobody engages me. We file into the main room, which has several tables, two mirrored walls and some sandwiches. The issues with buffets is that they tend to be overambitious. If you’re going to put red pepper in there, you need to do it properly, otherwise just stick to peanut butter. I’ll have to put the cheese and jam combo down to a computer virus in the automated sandwich creation facility.
What disgusts me most is the sympathy that people have towards brands. I hate brands. When I encounter brands in my daily life I feel revolted and angry. I have violent thoughts towards the creators and the brand itself - which is a mythical beast, it has no form except for the identity fraudulently invented for it by the aforementioned advertisers.
The topic today is electric shavers. You know that bullshit about 5 blade, rotating shaft, MicroFuckTM they plaster over various razers which are all identical except for the amount of absolute cock peddled with them. Some people buy into that. That’s not a disorientating waste of time for them, it’s an essential part of their process in choosing a product. MicroFuck forms part of their experience with the product. Who knew.
They organise us into four groups and set us a variety of tasks which involve writing on A3 sheets of paper. I’m in a suitably ethnically mixed group of four people. The first task is to introduce ourselves by way of our interests. In this stage I learn how utterly dull the entire world is including me. Here’s a tip: exercise is not an interest. New wave French cinema is an interest. Painting airfix is a hobby. Huffing marker pens outside WH Smith counts. The fact that you either do exercise or get some satisfaction from it says nothing whatsoever about you except for the fact that hold a preference against being fat and coronary heart disease. Football just about gets a pass, but if you announce it to me I will file you in a category marked ‘a lot of people I probably won’t like’ and you will become so indistinguishable to me that I will cease to be able to pick you out of a lineup.
After assessing my companions I deem it acceptable to offend them so I loosen my trousers and my tongue and let the crude jokes fly. Something else I’ve noticed about people in general from these sorts of situations is how shy people are. An extremely noticeable way to pick up on this is when people desperately feign knowledge of something that they have absolutely never heard of and couldn’t care less about. This happens to me sometimes when I talk about where I’m from. “Is that near Newcastle?” they might say, straining for some common ground, a geographic tie that will form the first of many bonds of friendship to come. My village is nowhere near Newcastle. I’ve never been there. “Yeah it’s actually sort of near… I think I might have been there … kind of similar” I’m tugging at the map in my mind, trying to will these two places closer to each other to save embarrassment. Fuck off Barnsley you’re impeding my charisma.
On the whole, people will do anything to please you. It’s only by virtue of us all being so fucking scared of our imagined versions each other that society manages to hold itself together. Politeness is why dictators rule the world. My dream is to burst from my seat and turn to the double sided mirror that forms the end wall of the room and deliver an impassioned speech about the poison of advertising, maybe borrow a directive from Bill Hicks. They’d raise the lights in their little viewing room, making themselves visible to me as they slowly nod their heads, standing up one by one to give me a miniature standing ovation. I salute them before leaping through the window onto a prepared zipline and… ok fantasy over. This didn’t happen of course, mostly due to my not wanting to offend anyone with my distasteful beliefs.
The other issue is that in my fantasies, the enemy is brutal and unremitting, they deserve to be vanquished. They’re not a human being, just a foil for my heroic identity. The other issue is that the man running the course is a visibly nervous man who starts to sweat and stumble through his words as we progress through the three and a half hours the task entails. He keeps asking about prices in euros instead of pounds. I still want to wave my revolutionary flag, but it seems unfair to impale him with it, given that he’s just an ordinary guy like me, rather than the ideological menace I’d hoped for. The other man running the course is totally silent and it’s difficult to know where he stands. He might be a comrade so I let him be.
I’ve done some interviews before for work related reasons. This is a fucking terrible way to go about it. It’s virtually impossible to gather the opinions of more than one person at a time. It can’t be recorded because there are too many people in the room - you might as well leave your dictaphone on in the office while you go for lunch. Groupthink is evident. Electric shavers are not things that people have strong opinions about (though the scant attention my colleagues pay is disturbing enough for me). The kind of preferences I have about a razor are easily swayed by a casual, “I think that having two blades is better than one”. You know what, I think that two blades are obviously superior. I always thought that, I always will. If you control history you control the present. Can you prove I ever held any contradictory opinion?
Equally, putting 30 blokes into a room together is a recipe for smut. In one exercise we’re asked to write a break up letter to our old shaver and a dating advert to seduce the new one. I say, “I think these exercises are horrible and useless” but nobody listens so I give the criticism a break and try to think of some jokes. We fill in in our A3 sheets with answers to bizarre questions that not only try to anthropomorphise hair removal tools but also equating them with something that I would want to love and have sex with. “What first attracted you to this inanimate object?” Each group gives a presentation to the rest of the group, which is entirely for the benefit of a camera in the middle of the room. Predictably this turns into a euphemism competition which all but ends in fist pumping and chest bumping. “easy to turn on… removable sheath… self-lubricating… works best in a steamy environment… has a big pair of tits….” Ok I made the last one up. But the creatives or board room execs who sit round and watch this DVD will learn very little about people’s preferences on shaving and a lot about why men should never be trusted with anything ever.
During the series of presentations - of which there are many, one after every laborious task we do. I feel like I’m supposed to care and pay attention. I feel like I’m in school and that although boring, there’s probably something I can learn from the hard work these guys put in studying chapter 4 of the biology textbook. There isn’t I realise and I look up Sir David Frost’s profile on wikipedia to see how he died. It was a heart attack.
We were asked to bring our shavers with us. During the discussion we’re asked to get them out, for reference or something. Apparently shaving has moved on leaps and bounds since I bought mine, which is the size of two cans stacked on top of each other, something for which my status within the group takes a beating. Conrad sitting next to me has something very dainty indeed, with a thin neck and a long and narrow blade at the end. Other specimens resemble alien technology. The way we grip the shafts of these beasts in front of us and discuss their relative merits makes me feel like we just ought to go the whole hog and get our penises out to compare.
I have never thought this much about shaving. I never want to again. After being invited to write on a post it note one last message to ‘the shaving industry’ we hurriedly join the queue to receive what is euphemistically referred to as our incentive. We have been suitable incentivized. There are no goodbyes in the cutthroat world of focus groups. No tearful hugs between people who have survived the ordeal, we simply file out into the busy street to continue our separate lives having granted an unwarranted amount of access to our presumably soon to be exploited insecurities.