research techniques

Passikoff: Bad Research = Bad Predictions. Again.

Making predictions about 21stcentury consumers (or voters) using mid-20th century research techniques generally results in misleading forecasts.

Making predictions about 21stcentury consumers (or voters) using mid-20th century research techniques generally results in misleading forecasts.

What do you get if you throw a brick through a flat-screen TV?

No, that’s not a riddle. I’m serious. What do you get if you throw a brick through a flat-screen TV? The same results if it was a last-century TV? One with a glass screen and cathode ray tube? I imagine if you threw a brick through that there’d be shattered glass, sparks, crackling sounds, and tubes fritzing out. Oh, and smoke. And an acrid smell. I don’t think you’d get the same results with a modern TV. A brick through the flat-screen in my living room somehow doesn’t invoke the same images. And whatever happened, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be as satisfying.

By Robert Passikoff

Why ask the question? Well, because for the past two weeks I’ve sat and watched TV news reporting the results of the midterm elections and have mostly felt like throwing a brick through the screen. Oh, not because of the results. People voted. Some candidates won, some lost. Democracy. It’s all good. No, it wasn’t the election results per se that have me thinking about bricks thru TV screens. It’s the constant postmortems regarding the election polls, which got it wrong. Again.

If you haven’t been living in a cave in Tibet, you’re probably aware that the party of the incumbent president traditionally loses ground during midterm elections. Since World War II, the President’s party has lost an average of 28 seats in the House and an average of four seats in the Senate. A “red wave” – Republicans winning a substantial number of seats – was predicted for the 2022 midterms. And, yeah, that didn’t happen.

There seems to be a lot of fury and frustration about that. Sure, they had modest gains, but not the tsunami the polls predicted and the party projected. The polls and the pundits didn’t get it right. Again. They didn’t leverage the right issues. They didn’t get the numbers right. So, here’s a critical question: If traditional survey-based poll predictions are so good, why didn’t the polls match up with actual electoral results (again)?  While you give that question a ‘think,’ I’d like to remind you of a David Ogilvy quote: “People don’t think how they feel, they don’t say what they think, and they don’t do what they say.” That statement gets truer the more emotional a sector gets. Both parties (and all brands) should really pay attention it!

See, in this century, consumer behavior is driven more by emotional values than rational values. We estimate the emotional-to-rational ratio is currently 70:30. That’s an average across 142 categories, including politics. Quibble all you want about the precise ratio in your category, but in the political arena, rational issues aren’t turning out voters or ginning up votes. I refer you to any TV news show (FOX or MSNBC, your choice) over the past 3 weeks or any political discussion you had at your Thanksgiving dinner. Just saying.

Traditional election polls are snapshots. Moments in time, so not predictive of outcomes. And mostly, these polls capture what people say. At that moment in time. What was on the news the night before? Crime stats? OK, “the big problem is crime,” is what they say. But not necessarily what they really think. And not what they’re going to ultimately act on. And, sure, people are complex and, well, not stupid! (OK, not the people that agree with you, but still). Turns out, people are able to hold more than one idea in their heads at a time. You know, walk and chew gum and vote at the same time!

Inflation, gas prices, crime. Those were at the top of the list of “voter concerns.” According to the polls. Yeah, those are all important, and factor in. Like “price.” Always part of the buying equation, but almost-never the principal reason for buying. And remember what I said about how important emotional values are? Issues like abortion, repressive social policies, and, well, democracy, are far more emotional than rational. As is tribalism and social activism, whatever position you hold. And Trump, election deniers, the “Big Lie” and fascism? Well, you probably had that argument, er, discussion at Thanksgiving, so I won’t revisit them. But you get my point. And, sure, some of the races were close. But as the saying goes, “Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades!”

No. it’s about how people feel. And not necessarily what they say when they’re asked what they think. Trying to rationalize in polls what are essentially emotional issues is problematic. Making predictions about 21stcentury consumers (or voters) using mid-20th century research techniques generally results in misleading forecasts. No really, that’s what happened here. And it happens a lot, whether you’re talking about the marketplace or the voting booth. This isn’t the first time researchers using last-century polling have gotten stuff very wrong. Particularly predicting election outcomes.

Those problems can be mitigated. We do it with emotional engagement metrics. A combination of psychological inquiry and some really neat higher-order statistical analyses. Harder than a poll. But then they have a really (really) high correlation with consumer/voter behavior, and always point to what people will actually do, instead of what they say they’re going to do. We’ve used these engagement metrics to predict winners in every Presidential election since Bill Clinton ran against George H. Bush in 1992. (OK, not in 2000. George W. Bush beat our predicted winner, Al Gore, but only because even an engagement model can’t factor-in a Supreme Court ruling.) Those same assessments called it for Trump in 2016 and called it for Biden in 2020.

Anyway, the big election is 2 years away, but you ought to try some engagement assessments for your brand now. Because as hard as real predictive metrics are to come by, it’s always a lot harder to argue with real world results!

And the difference will, if you excuse the phrase, hit you like a ton of bricks.

Robert PassikoffRobert Passikoff is founder and CEO of Brand Keys. He has received several awards for market research innovation including the prestigious Gold Ogilvy Award and is the author of 3 marketing and branding books including the best-seller, Predicting Market Success.  Robert is also a frequent contributor to TheCustomer.

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash.

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