Focus Groups in the Public Sector: Judgement vs. Research

“The federal government has sponsored research that has produced a tomato that is perfect in every respect, except that you can’t eat it. We should make every effort to make sure this disease, often referred to as ‘progress’, doesn’t spread. “
Andy Rooney

The Governor of the Bank of Canada issue a public apology recently at the furor over the bank’s airbrushing of the features of an Asian-Canadian scientist in the mock-up for the new $100 bill — she was made over as a Caucasian. Focus groups had apparently objected to the image of the Asian-looking woman on the notes — some (presumably non-Asian) because other ethnicities had not been so honoured, others (presumably Asian) because it stereotyped Asians as scientists. So: put her in, and you offend some people; take her out, and you offend even more.

The ethnically ambiguous scientist looking into a microscope on the back of the new $100, for instance, is intended to represent “medical innovation source

The bank immediately ordered the image redrawn, imposing what a spokesman called a “neutral ethnicity” for the woman scientist who, now stripped of her “Asian” features, appears on the circulating note. Her light features appear to be Caucasian.

“The original image was not designed or intended to be a person of a particular ethnic origin, according to a bank  spokesperson, citing policy that eschews depictions of ethnic groups on banknotes. “But obviously when they got into focus groups, there was some thought the image appeared to represent a particular ethnic group, so modifications were made.”

A spokesperson for the Chinese Canadian National Council slammed the bank bending to racism. Victor Wong, the group’s national executive director, called on the bank to amend its policy of not depicting visible minorities. “You’re erasing all of us,” he said from Toronto. “Your default position then is an image with Caucasian features.”

The Strategic Counsel conducted the October 2009 focus groups in Calgary, Toronto, Montreal and Fredericton. The Toronto groups were positive about the image of an Asian woman because “it is seen to represent diversity or multiculturalism. “In Quebec, however, “the inclusion of an Asian without representing any other ethnicities was seen to be contentious.” .  One person in Fredericton commented: “The person on it appears to be of Asian descent which doesn’t represent Canada. It is fairly ugly.”

In my many years in government I used focus groups on numerous occasions but I rarely made marketing decisions based on focus groups only. Focus groups are great at giving you insights on the target groups but they can be misleading if taken at face value.

Also I knew that journalists love reading Government focus group reports so they could find something contentious and “stick it to the government’`a favourite preoccupation of journalists especially in the Ottawa market. Later in my career, after I was burnt a few times, I read focus group reports submitted by research companies very carefully.

Focus groups should rarely be used in isolation. Marketing researchers employ a variety of tools, including one-on-one interviews, surveys and polling to track consumer opinion. Used with all of the above or at least some quantitive measurement, a focus group can be an integral part of gauging public perceptions.
Some of the drawbacks of focus groups are:

  • The small sample size means the groups might not be a good representation of the larger population.
  • Group discussions can be difficult to steer and control, so time can be lost to irrelevant topics.
  • Respondents can feel peer pressure to give similar answers to the moderator’s questions.
  • The moderator’s skill in phrasing questions along with the setting can affect responses and skew results.

Also Moderators can greatly impact the outcome of a focus group discussion. They may, intentionally or inadvertently, inject their personal biases into the participants’ exchange of ideas. This can result in inaccurate results. Moderators can also lead focus group participants into reaching certain assumptions or conclusions about an idea or product. Out of fear in going against the opinion of the moderator, or even out of fear of disappointing the moderator, participants may not disclose their true and honest opinions

Also in recent years many public sector and non-profit organizations use focus group research as a crutch and to quote David Ogilvy `there is an increasing reluctance on the part of marketing people to use judgment; they are coming to rely too much on research, and they use it as a drunkard uses a lamp post for support, rather than for illumination. “

So here is my advice, focus groups are valuable but making marketing or product decisions on focus groups alone is risky. Yes I know that focus groups are exciting as you can actually witness behind a mirror respondents discuss your product, service, ad, etc. but done in isolation without any other type of marketing research is really questionable. They are also very expensive. An alternative to focus groups is panel research. They are more representative of the population you are targeting, more scientific and price sensitive. Check out the “Probit” panel at EKOS.

Also if you work in government, review focus group reports very carefully. As mentioned, journalists like getting access to your focus reports as they will always look for the controversial statements and turn them into a headline to embarrass your department or program.

If you are going to use `real people’ in your product or communications, there are real risks when using any racial minority or worse if you have a group shot and use only white people. These are the realities of working in the public sector. However, sometimes public sector marketers and communicators need to “break the barriers“,  and take some risks. Easy to say but hard to do.

I would be interested to hear from the readers of the blog how you deal with minority depictions on your products and communication vehicles.


The Centre of Excellence for Public Sector Marketing supports Healthpartners/Partenairesanté. Here’s why? They are the coordinating organization of sixteen of Canada’s most trusted health charities who share a common goal to support lifesaving medical research and health programs that improve the health and quality of life of Canadians. For more information go to:


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