Don Draper's view on focus groups: ignore them

There's a joke going around PRWeek's offices that I'm obsessed with Mad Men, and I have to admit that there is some truth to it.

There's a joke going around PRWeek's offices that I'm obsessed with Mad Men, and I have to admit that there is some truth to it. Like many others, I'm captivated by the complex characters and storylines, but like PRWeek's readers, I'm also intrigued by how the show acts like a chronicle, albeit somewhat fictional, of the evolution of marketing — from Don's commercial for floor cleaner that looks like a TV show (product placement integration anyone?) to the PR stunt that Peggy and Pete pulled off in the season premiere.

And what PR or marketing professional couldn't identify with the opening scene on Sunday night's episode, where Don and Roger dealt with their insanely difficult, but biggest and therefore most powerful, client? Don “faking” a fire to get off the phone with him was pure genius and undoubtedly put some ideas into the heads of anyone who deals with difficult clients on a regular basis.

But the most interesting part to me on Sunday night's episode was the look into focus groups. Now, back in the day, I regularly took part in focus groups to earn extra money (of course never disclosing that I was a journalist, or better yet, a journalist that writes about PR and marketing!). And I've always wondered what exactly went on behind the two-way mirror and the agenda behind the group. So, it was particularly interesting to see what happened when Don hired Dr. Faye Miller to conduct a focus group with young women (Joan was too old because she's married!) to find out what campaign theme would resonate with that audience so it could begin work for new client Ponds Cold Cream. Luckily for the firm, it was able to recruit some of its female employees as subjects so it saved some money there.

Faye was completely cold and scientific—forming hypotheses about what the focus group results would be and taking off her wedding rings so that she could relate to the young secretaries as they talked about beauty routines—and eventually— boys.

Though the original hypothesis was that women would respond to a message about self-improvement and ritual, after a highly emotional session, Faye told Don that the campaign should center on the idea of marriage and landing a husband, something Don called “1925”.

“You can't change the truth,” Faye said.

“Who says it's the truth?” Don countered. “They don't know what they haven't been told yet. Put my campaign on TV for a year and then do your group again and see if their attitude changes.”

That's a bold statement, even for an egomaniac like Don, but does he have a point? Are focus groups valuable if the goal is to introduce a new idea or concept? And in the day and age of social media, is it even necessary to conduct in-person focus groups anymore? Isn't the Web just one big focus group anyway? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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