The Musings Of An Opinionated Sod [Help Me Grow!]

Forget Moderating, It’s All About Antagonising …
April 1, 2013, 6:10 am
Filed under: Comment

So one of the things I love about my job is that I get to meet – and work with – the weird and wonderful of society and last week, I met – quite possibly – the weirdest and wonderfulest of all society.

Dr David Hulme is a professor of Chinese culture at Guangzhou University.

As you can tell by his name, he is not from China, but having lived here for 41 years, he has more insight than most.

Anyway, last week we were doing some work with him when he muttered the rather provocative comment:

“The problem with Western research methodologies is they don’t understand the boiling water principle”.

Obviously we were rather intrigued and over the next 20 minutes, he gave us a lesson that will change the way we approach research in China forever.

In essence Dr Hulme says the Western model of focus groups is broken and there is no place worse for it to be used, than in China.

I’ve written a lot about how Asia has 3 fundamental cultural values:

+ The need to continually progress.

+ The need to maintain filial responsibility.

+ The importance of group/peer acceptance.

Well it is the 3rd point of this that Dr Hulme says corrupts the value of the current focus group model.

Yes … yes … I know the whole value of focus groups is open to debate, but in a culture where people are ‘trained’ to say what they believe the peer group want to hear [rather than necessarily what their own point of view actually is] it’s even more dangerous.

In short, you can end up having mass consensus of a particular idea simply because the people being questioned believe that is what they are supposed to say … which results in a client pouring millions of dollars into a concept that was doomed to failure from the very beginning.

Sure, this situation is also known to happen in Western markets, but the difference is in those situations, the people being questioned actually thought the idea was good [either because of the way the questions were asked, the answers were interpreted or the lack of broader context] whereas in China, they may know it’s bad but feel they have not got the right to express that in a group dynamic.

So how can you get around this?

Well, you could argue ‘scrapping the use of focus groups’, however – and I agree with this – Dr Hulme believes corporations are so committed to the ‘focus model’ that any alternative will not be fully accepted.

And this is where the professor developed his boiling water principle.

Currently focus groups are moderated by people who calmly encourage the participants to express their point of view.

According to Hulme, this is wrong.

What focus groups need is an antagoniser, not a moderator.

You see his view is that China is like water … where everything appears calm until it hits it’s boiling point.

It doesn’t matter that things are slowly heating up, it is only when the water hits 100 degrees that you see a change in behaviour.

Dr Hulme contends that because of the cultural rule of peer acceptance, the only way you can get valuable information from a focus group is when you provoke the recipients to their boiling point … where their ‘calmness’ is pushed and pushed and pushed until they cannot contain their true opinion any more.

As with most insights, it all sounds perfectly obvious when you hear it but this is a massive change in approach.

Now I admit, when we watched videos of Dr Hulme basically insulting recipients until they ”exploded’, it was disconcerting … but by the same token, it was also magnetic.

In one group, he got 8 people – who had spent the previous 50 minutes claiming their pre-occupation in life was to ‘serve their family’ – admitting they felt downtrodden, helpless and hopeless. They talked about how there were times where they resented their family and felt they should be treated with greater respect … especially given the one child policy had pushed society to put all their attention and energies into their only child.

While that would be quite a revelation in most societies, in China – where family is King – this is revolutionary.

What is even more interesting is that the professor believes the Government are aware of this behaviour which is why they both limit and monitor social media to ensure they can ‘pour cold water’ on issues in a bid to avoid any potential ‘boiling points’ before they have a chance to explode.

In short, the methodology of Dr Hulme is potentially the biggest change to focus group research in China for the last 20 years … or it would be, if this wasn’t April 1st and this wasn’t a load of bollocks.

38 Comments so far
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Rob… As I read this in the Fourth Reich of Idaho, it is the 31st of March. Therefore it is not an April fools joke, let alone a load of bollocks. So, it must be true. Ergo… Be very careful of what you write, even though most of the time, it is a gargantuan load of bollocks.
Cheers/George”AdScam – I am a fucking prince” Parker

Comment by George Parker

It’s not April 1 for me either George but you have to admit, it’s pretty good, maybe because it still makes more sense than anything AC Neilsen put out on the other 364 days of the year.

Comment by Pete

Good point George. The date is whatever America says it is so Campbell is the april fool and the jan, feb, mar, jun, jul, aug, sep, oct, nov and dec one.

Comment by DH

So basically when I talk bollocks you think it is true but when I talk errrm, less bollocks, you don’t. You are even wiser than I originally thought Mr Parker.

Comment by Rob

I was nodding all the way through this. I even told Sarah she should check it out. Then I got to the last line. Damn you Rob. Not very Easter spirit of you.

Comment by Pete

Have you told Sarah the punchline? I hope not – I’d love to see if I can catch out one of the few truly great research folk. Though she might never talk to me again if I do – so maybe you should tell her.

Yes, I am a wimp.

Comment by Rob

Is this what happens when you live in a culture that doesn’t celebrate Easter? I am ashamed to say it, but I was caught hook, line and sinker which highlights my foolishness and the China’s complexity that allows things like this to sound so plausible. For my self respect Robert, can you tell me if this post was built off some truths or was I culpable of being gullible on every level.

Comment by George

I’m comforting myself with the fact he could only pull this off because he didn’t do it to our faces. He’d definitely of crumbled in a fit of giggles by the 2nd paragraph if he’d tried.

Comment by Pete

Except when he was explaining why you would only get a small payrise. He managed to keep a straight face then.

Comment by DH

Don’t worry, you’re not a total fool, some of the cultural stuff is true, but on the other hand 94% of it is total rubbish [ie: Anything supposedly expressed by fictional professor, Dr David Hulme] so you’re very much over the line in terms of losing all self respect.

For what it’s worth though, I do actually think this could work. Or at least the theory behind it could.

Does that make you feel you can look in the mirror again? Thought not …

Comment by Rob

No. Which I assume makes you feel very happy.

Comment by George

It’s easter and you write a post of pure lies? Well, I suppose the christians did it before you and you’re in advertising so I can let it pass.

Comment by DH

The funniest bit about this post is that because its easter, people will be on holiday so all of Rob’s effort to write this will be wasted. I would have missed it as well except I don’t want to spend much time with my inlaws.

Comment by DH

Yes, I know. I had forgotten it was Easter so I was a bit gutted until I remembered none of you lot have lives so you’ll still see it.

Comment by Rob

Brilliantly devious.

Comment by Rob Mortimer

your flaw is that no one comes here to read your bollocks campbell, especially the war and fucking peace length posts.

Comment by andy@cynic

Yes. That is most definitely a fatal flaw. All that hard work for absolutely nothing.

Comment by Rob

Nice one Rob. We wait for the real Prof !

Comment by asit

Very droll.

Comment by Lee Hill

Got me. Still think what you’re saying would be more effective than the typical passive moderator route.

Comment by Bazza

Are you willing to give me some money to try? Maybe the first group could be the guys who did your recent recruitment drive for you. Ha.

Comment by Rob

Nice post Rob. But being a dour Scottish skeptic at heart, your aptly namesaked professor gave the game away. That being said, as another empiricist edinburger, I’ll attest to watching China’s harmonious sauce split when the heat’s turned up. So yeah, don’t believe blog bollocks, unless it’s not.

Comment by Lewis Rosa

I’ve been putting together a presentation on how the Western research model imposed on Asia is a waste of money. However there are ways of breaking down barriers such as the use of anonymity in pre focus group online forums whereby respondents can say whatever they please and either take it into the research group or not. There’s a ton of stuff you can do in Asia that can’t be done elsewhere but I’ve written extensively about that many years ago.

Comment by Charles Frith

In addition to some of the comments on here, I’ve received a few emails telling me they were caught out by my post.

This is good.

It’s also bad.

Why? Because it shows how easy it is to get sucked in by folk who can throw terms about like Confucius and Value system even though they haven’t got the faintest idea what they’re on about.

China is a complex place. It is a living paradox struggling to find a way to let tradition and progression live side-by-side … but if people – Westerners – stopped wanting to have ‘easy and convenient answers’ and actually put a bit of effort in to understand things, blog posts like this wouldn’t get so many people nodding until the final line.

Mind you, I did base a lot of it on truth so maybe this comment has just ended up fucking with people’s minds even more.

Comment by Rob

It is reassuring to know I am not the only gullible fool. Good point about people being prepared to accept almost an POV on China, no wonder many refer to it as the wild, wild east. Which makes you the sheriff.

Comment by George

Comment by toto

Thank you. I take a bow.

Comment by Rob

You never show your hand and reveal real stuff before you’ve had a chance to use it in your work, so I was surprised, but you did get me.

Comment by Heather LeFevre

Ha … nicely noticed … though the reason I do that is more to do with not wanting to look a bigger tool when my thoughts fail than any desire to “keep things secret”.

BTW, when does your new life start, so to speak?

Comment by Rob

I fly away 17 April. One quick trip to Ireland and Sweden before I go. I’ll definitely have a guest room so you and Jill are always welcome.

Comment by Heather LeFevre

Seems your beloved nottingham forest decided to use april 1 as the day they would decide to lose after a recent winning streak. Do I hear the words karma?

Comment by DH

Karma got me. Just saw they’ve equalized.

Comment by DH

Karma indeed.

Comment by George

karma my ass. more like campbells deal with the fucking devil coming through yet again.

Comment by andy@cynic


Comment by DH

You had me too, Rob. I swallowed it hook line and sinker. April Fool it may be, but like all the most biting satire it’ll undoubtedly end up true soon. IMO focus groups are often a broken model in the West as well. Perhaps I’ve just discovered my new job title: “Chief Antagonism Officer – pissing off clients and consumers. Every little helps.”

Comment by Adam

Some would say I invented that job – and title – over many years. Ha.

Comment by Rob

Ha! I can’t believe my first contact with your blog is with an April’s Fool joke. I’ve been following you on Twitter and just came to your blog and, since I’ve lived in GZ for 8 months, this post was a natural first choice. Funny!

Out to read more. Good stuff.

Comment by Silvina JoverCirillo (@LatinaComm)

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