Market Research: The Second Oldest Profession?

Paul Hague this week takes us on a trip down memory lane to discover the origins, history and development of the market research profession as we now know it.

A prostitute, a doctor and a market researcher were sitting around late one evening, and they got to discussing which was the oldest profession.  The doctor pointed out that according to biblical tradition, God created Eve from Adam’s rib. This obviously required surgery, so therefore that was the oldest profession in the world.  The prostitute said that this may be so but that was engineered by God, not doctors.  Eve’s temptation of Adam was a clear indication that her profession was the first.  The two turned to the researcher who was listening intently and taking notes.  "Which profession do you think is the oldest?" they asked. "Well," said the researcher, "we can’t be sure without a survey and that will take six weeks.  However, what you should know is that market research is the second oldest profession."  "How is that?" asked the other two in unison.  "No doubt at all about it," said the researcher, "because when Adam and Eve had done their deed, the first words that were uttered were, "How was it for you?"".

This story got me thinking about the history of market research.  Casual questioning, as from Eve, is not the systematic process that we know as market research.  It is said that the first recorded straw polls (incidentally, the term comes from farmers throwing a handful of straw into the air to check out where the wind was coming from) were in the early 1820s when newspapers in the United States carried out simple street surveys to see how the political winds were blowing.  By the early 1900s a fledgling market research industry had started in the U.S. focusing on advertising testing in one form or another.  The industry arrived on the U.K. shores in the 1920s and 30s, and I was reminded of this the other day when I picked up what must be one of the first books published on market research in this country (Market Research by Paul Redmayne & Hugh Weeks, Butterworth & Co – 1931).

Flipping the yellowing, musty pages, I was quickly taken back to my formative days in the market research department of Dunlop, where we had an ingenious device for analysing responses from questionnaires.  The closed answers were represented on single cards, perforated with holes around the edge, each representing an answer to a question.  If a respondent gave a particular answer, the perforated hole would be punched open right to the edge.  When all the cards were punched, they could be lined up in the box and a needle would be run through the holes so that we could lift out only those cards which were not punched right to the edge.  This enabled us to do a quick count of the number of cards left in the box, which represented respondents giving an answer to a question.

Charting in those days was laboriously carried out with my Rotring pen and graph paper.  Redmayne and Weeks had some sage advice for the novice market researcher on this subject: "There are many advantages in using a standard sheet of charting paper, so that charts can be kept together in a ring binder.  It is useful to make a practice, dating each chart and of indicating to whom it has been shown and for what purpose it was first prepared, together with the original source of the various statistics plotted."  Check out this illustration of how they suggested charts should look.  You wouldn’t easily turn out 100 of these by hand the night before a presentation!

Hand Drawn Chart

So what has changed in the market research industry over the last 100 years?  Answer: almost everything.

The questions we ask are broadly the same but the technology that allows us to ask these questions – the phone and online – has resulted in faster, cheaper and more thorough surveys than ever before.  Qualitative research is, as it always has been, dependent on the skills of the moderator, although focus group venues provide an improved environment for viewing and testing products and concepts.  In quantitative research, the tools and techniques such as conjoint, SIMALTO, Van Westendorp and the like enable us to get a better fix on prices and product features.  I was amused to read Redmayne and Weeks say: "As market research acquires a more established position in industry, its purpose will be better understood and appreciated by ordinary men and women, so that in time we may hope to reach the position of the United States, where the man in the street will respond to questions about his tastes and his buying habits since he can understand the reasons why he is being questioned. The time, however, is still very far off when consumers will have cause to be annoyed by the frequency with which they are approached.  It will need a great number of investigations before many of the inhabitants of this country are called upon twice unless the general technique of investigations become so stereotyped that certain representative towns are continually being chosen."  There must hardly be a person in the UK who has not been subjected to some sort of invitation to take part in a survey in the last year.

Returning to the story of the doctor, the prostitute and the market researcher, it occurs to me that market researchers may or may not be the second oldest profession in the world, but for certain, we will be the last profession hanging in there.  When the world finally comes to an end, and we are queuing at the entrance to the Pearly Gates, there will be someone with a clip board and a questionnaire.  "Just one more question Sir/Madam before you enter.  Can you tell me how likely you are to recommend life on earth on a scale from 1 to 10 where…?"  It’s that question again – "How was it for you?"

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