One Reason to Like Focus Groups

I’m not a big fan of focus groups (when it comes to businesses figuring out what customers want) for a number of reasons.

First, they are unnatural settings with a very high degree of scrutiny, which may distort how people respond. Second, it seems likely that people will tend to say what they think others expect them to say, or what the people organizing the focus group might want them to say. Third, I suspect that one or two vocal participants can sway the responses of the others who are present. Fourth, in general I am more interested in what people do than what they say.

It is hard not to like this focus group, run by Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, unless of course you were one of the attendees. Advertised as a holiday-shopper focus group, it was really a trick to catch fugitives.

More than 60 eager criminals showed up. The fact that they were being promised $500 to take part in the activity should have been a dead giveaway. When people like my mom are willing to participate for $50, there is no need to pay $500.

The most surprising thing of all is that of the 60-plus fugitives who showed up, only one was carrying marijuana.


Umm, is that legal?


I don't understand this story. Criminals were more likely than normal people to want $500 for being in a focus group?

The story has very, very little information too.

Rev Matt

I enjoy participating in focus groups and marketing surveys for just that reason: to screw with the results.

Your comment that you're more interested in what people do than what they say is encapsulated in the IT truism: Users lie.


I don't quite understand how the police were able to send the fugitives invitations to the focus group, while being unable to locate them in their homes while the arrest warrants were out and take them them into custody in the customary way.

Jack Edmonston

The things you list are all problems of focus groups, but the biggest focus group problem is that the results can never be projected to the entire universe because the sample is both small and not random.


Well, actually, I do know the reason this was done: the police view cost of arresting all those fugitives at their homes as substantially higher than the cost of arresting them at the focus group. It really does surprise me, though, that the police can have the known addresses and locations of all these fugitives -- some of whom had warrants out for aggravated battery -- and chose not to pursue any of them, even if they posed a considerable threat to the public.


Did they still have to pay them the $500 to avoid false advertising charges?

Philippe Chaintreuil

The original story explains it more. They sent fugitives a offer to join this focus group, along with a scratch-off that *might* let them win $500 if they brought it along with them. Presumably, the fugitives got their mail one way or another, showed up and got a surprise.

This sounds a lot like a Simpsons episode where the Springfield PD sent out "You've won a free motorboat" to people with unpaid parking tickets.

Of course, this makes me ask if any of the criminals won the $500 from the scratch off. If not, there's probably a lawsuit in there.....


Creative, legal, but unethical, granted dealing with unetical people.
they send it to the fugatives last known, which most likely is friends or family. to increase the likelihood of their comrades passing the information along to the convict, they 'sweeten the deal' by offering $500, because $50 isn't enough to really bother with since the friend or family will want a cut.


I don't think the police are going to be sued. These guys are criminals and should be detained anyway. It's legal for cops to lie to people they're trying to arrest.


From my understanding it is not quite illegal for the police to lie for purposes of apprehending or questioning someone suspected of a crime.

Neil Phillips

Interestingly, this was the exact plot-line of an episode of the ITV TV series "The Bill" earlier this year. I wonder if the Sheriff's a fan.


First - to the question of why can't they be picked up at their homes, the county determined it would be quicker and cheaper to round them up this way. Presumably they are not violent criminals, but delinquent dads and others that have committed non-violent crimes (although I don't put a whole lot of faith in any part of the Cook County government).

Second - this doesn't compare to the ruse set up in North Dakota, where they used free Ozzy Osbourne tickets as the bait.


They tried something similar in NYC in 1999 with free Metrocards mailed to suspects- here is a link

I thought it was a clever idea but it was quickly cancelled in response to criticism.


Focus groups research is very tricky to do properly. When academics do it, and do it with rigor, the unit of analysis is the entire focus group.

In other words, you can't break down answers to the individual paritcipants, in part because of the reasons Levitt lists.

This doesn't mean that they can't be useful. Rather, it means -- in my view -- that they are best use as part of a larger protocol, perhaps a prelimary step to gather issues to validate by other means.


Like most law enforcement moves, it's done for the process, not the the outcome. The effect is many more prisoners receiving free security, room and board, utilities, cable TV, medical care, legal representation, and coffee and cigarettes.

So they (LEO's) save a few bucks from having to go arrest them (which they weren't going to do anyway). They weren't going to go arrest them in person because they are posing no threat unless the same circumstances as their crime present again - usually drugs, or drunk, altercation, weapon handy, and no affect control.

Bottom line is most jail prisoners (local with <1 year sentences, not penitentiary) are in jail because they violated probation (+80%), not in a criminal way but in an administrative way (missed appointment, failed drug test, associated with "known associates"). It's a system run for the benefit of the prison officials, attorneys, and law enforcement officials - not society. Society (meaning us) merely get to pay the infinite upward spiraling cost of doing nothing about crime while running communal concrete boarding houses without any vacancies vacancies.



I can't remember the movie...had to be about 15 years ago. The sting was an autograph signing by a ball player. One soft-hearted cop tipped off one fellow who had his little boy with him.


Ceolof.... "academic" focus groups also heavily supported the soviet union

Frankie Johnson

It's become very fashionable these days to dump on focus groups. And, yes, the office-like settings and two-way mirrors are "unnatural", unless you're talking to a business group. But, as to your other points, a good moderator can deal with being conned or dominant respondents. And, yes, it would indeed be nice to always pay attention to what people do rather than what they say. But it can be hard to figure out WHY they do what they do without striking up some kind of conversation.
I've been doing focus groups for decades. They weren't always so formal or expensive. They were originally done with a bunch of neighbors in a church basement or someone's living room. The client might sit in the corner, listening. No wine or M&Ms. Over the years, things have got fancier and the criticisms have increased. But many a focus group has saved a company from going on to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars of research money on a really dumb idea. And, this isn't often said, but just as was the case with your example, the real action is often behind the scenes. A focus group often brings together in the back room a diverse group of people from within a company - the CMO chats casually with a junior brand person, R&D folks find that the marketing guys aren't such a..holes after all.
So, despite their deficiencies, focus groups have their place and will probably be around for a while.


jeff b.

#17 (di)

I think it was an episode of monk...