Art by Hannah Drossman.
Liza Featherstone,  February 13

The Listening Con

How the powerful learned to launder their reputations using focus groups

Art by Hannah Drossman.


The moms are talking about layoffs. Their hours have been cut. Wages frozen. They have been pinching pennies any way they can: cut back on the cable TV, take fewer car trips to save gas, storing up coupons.

Asked how things are going in the country, they use words like “depressing,” “scary,” “discouraging,” “confusing” and “sour.” They feel the economy is getting worse. They do not believe news reports that say it is getting better, nor politicians who say the same.

They don’t see any evidence of a recovery, not in their own lives. “If I go to the store one more time and see that the price of milk has gone up again, I’ll just scream!” one mom fumed.

When it comes to politics, they’re not worried about gay marriage or abortion—they are thinking about one thing: jobs. They’re worried about how they will ever pay for their kids’ college education—even if the kids in question are just one or two years old.

They’re trying to stay positive. Faith in God. Also, grateful. They love their families. At least one adult in the household still has a job. The moms are resourceful, doing what they can to get by. They donate blood. They collect cans.

Most of them voted for Obama the last time around. They’d like to think he’s doing his best, but they’re not sure. They feel he has lost his passion and they are confused about whether to give him another chance.

Some of the moms blame Wall Street and the big banks for the problems in the economy. They’re mad that the banks were bailed out, yet no one is helping families like theirs. They don’t blame Obama, or Congress, for the country’s economic problems, but they’re frustrated that politicians haven’t done more to help. They mostly don’t know the names of our Congressional leaders—like John Boehner or Nancy Pelosi—but they still feel that Congress could bicker less and compromise more. But mostly when they look at the economic situation of the country, they blame themselves and other ordinary Americans like themselves—for living beyond their means, buying houses they could not afford.

Where are we? A discussion group organized by Occupy Wall Street? A labor union? The Democratic Party? A government seeking input on its economic policies? A sociology professor seeking insight into the impact of economic inequality?

No, the surprising sponsor of this encounter group was Walmart.

The “Walmart Moms” focus groups, held in fall 2011, in Orlando, Florida, Manchester, New Hampshire, and Des Moines Iowa, with women who had children under eighteen and had shopped at Walmart at least once in the past month. Walmart commissioned Democratic and Republican research firms to do the work, and the study was released with much fanfare: LOOK WHAT THE WALMART MOMS ARE THINKING, one typical headline exclaimed. It was accepted by the media as a revealing look into the mind of the struggling working-class woman, and in a way, maybe it was.

Women are paid less than men in nearly every position at the company—even male cashiers make more than female cashiers.

Walmart is a company by now famous for discriminating against female workers—the target of decade-long lawsuit Betty Dukes vs. Walmart, the largest civil rights class action suit in history—and failing to pay living wages to its majority-female workforce. It’s also famous for making staggering profits off that workforce, making the Walton family—heirs of Walmart founder Sam Walton—the richest in the United States.

Women are paid less than men in nearly every position at the company—even male cashiers make more than female cashiers. The company has also been accused of leading a race to the bottom in wages for the retail industry—driving down wages throughout the sector, the majority of whose employees are women. Such criticisms have been dogging Walmart for years, but because the discrimination case had gone to the Supreme Court, the headlines about discrimination loomed especially large the year this focus group convened.

No wonder Walmart wanted to position itself to working-class women—who are, after all, its largest customer group by far—not as oppressor, but as listener.

“Walmart Moms are a big deal,” reads the flattering copy on the company’s website touting the findings. The groups allowed the company to present itself as the confidant, with special insight into the struggles of the nation’s moms.

Walmart simultaneously created a new demographic category and cast itself as a friend of America’s struggling women with its bipartisan “Walmart Moms” focus groups. This only ratified what most Americans at some level already understood: that politics and consumerism had become one and the same. Both required the participation and opinions of ordinary people, yet granted big corporations the power to make the important decisions. Just as significantly, it showed that a company beseiged by criticism—in this case, for its treatment of working-class women—could easily change the subject by listening. With the creation of these focus groups, and by labeling them “Walmart Moms,” Walmart deftly re-branded itself from oppressor to champion of the nation’s hard-working women.

Most of all, the Walmart Moms group—and the public relations campaign surrounding it—enacted one of the central political paradoxes of our time: ordinary people are listened to more than ever, even as they have less and less real power. Only in this sort of political environment could a company notorious for rendering working-class women powerless and exploited, then turn around and theatrically display their voices, one in which elites ignore the actual needs of the masses—in this company’s case, for living wages, healthcare, and equal treatment—but listen to them endlessly.

How did we get here?

While the early, mid-century focus group had a political purpose—recall that Paul Lazarsfeld was hired to test the government’s World War II propaganda, an elite aim in the service of a democratic agenda over the ensuing decades—its use came to reflect a changing relationship between the masses and elites: one in which elites pursuing a markedly undemocratic agenda, listening to the people endlessly, with the aim of selling them stuff they didn’t need, like the Head-to-Toe Wet Washcloth, or policies that are not in their interests.

In the early twentieth century, when polling first began to occupy a central place in American political culture, public opinion researcher Paul Cherington had celebrated his industry’s potential to give the “vox populi” a “voice” and “restore effective democracy.

This understanding of market research as a populist and democratic project persisted. An ad agency’s 1939 pitch for its services explicitly made the political argument that market research was a tool of democracy, and its participants like voters:

The final arbiter of advertising is the common man. That is why advertising can fairly claim to represent the best methods of democracy . . . That is why advertising is never tired of studying the needs, desires and fears of the . . . consumers . . . 

The rise of the political focus group was accompanied by similar claims. As the tools for selling consumer goods became more embedded in the political system, we see more language extolling techniques like focus groups as bringing more democracy to the consumer markeplace: CEOs, the men of Sawyer Miller liked to say, were “up for election every single day.” The marketing world had convinced itself that its methods of gauging public opinon were actually more democratic than political mechanisms like voting—so therefore, what a brilliant twist to use them to democratize real life democracy. 

The marketing world had convinced itself that its methods of gauging public opinon were actually more democratic than political mechanisms like voting.

In the eighties, the increasingly strategic and central role of focus groups in politics was part of a dramatic expansion in the political polling and influence industries. Reagan spent more than a million dollars per year on polling (including focus groups), while Carter, his predecessor, had spent only $250,000.

The explosion of the culture of consultation was fueled, appropriately, by people called “consultants.” Beginning in the 1960s, political candidates began reaching beyond their supporters and volunteers, seeking professional help with public opinion research and media. By the 1980s, this was a huge industry: every presidential and statewide political campaign hired professional consultants. In 1982, the New York Times noted that “politicians are relying more than in the past on campaign consultants,” and that these professionals were branching beyond their specialties to “take over campaigns completely.” The Times also noted that such professionals’ numbers and fees were growing every year.

One of the most important of these consultants was Reagan’s pollster, Richard Wirthlin. Wirthlin was constantly testing the impact of Reagan’s rhetoric and making sure he was tapping into shared values—especialy the themes of family, neighborhood, workplace, freedom. This strategy ensured, according to Wirthlin ghostwriter Wynton Hall—himself a communication strategist—that even if Reagan’s “policies aren’t popular the rhetoric surrounding them can be.” This was a critical shift in the use of the focus group: it could be used, not to find out what people wanted, but how to get them to accept things they didn’t want at all.

Wirthlin arranged for viewers to watch TV with a dial device, that they could use to indicate whether they liked or didn’t like a particular passage of speech. Similar to the Lazarsfeld-Stanton Program Analyzer, these devices had been used to test political campaign ads since the 1960s. Wirthlin, however, was the first to integrate the technology into a sitting president’s communication strategy.

“You persuade by reason,” said Wirthlin, “but if you want to motivate you have got to do it through emotion. You do that by tapping into people’s values.” He made “caring maps” to chart how the American people felt about things.

Wirthlin used focus groups at some key historic moments. For example, in 1985, every time Reagan delivered a speech about Soviet relations and disarmament, the president used phrases that had been tested by focus groups with American audiences, and retained the phrases that tested well. He knew what he wanted to do—end the Cold War—but he needed to package it in the right way so the American people would accept it, emphasizing themes like peace through strength, and phrases like “a fresh start.” Wirthlin, in a 2010 interview, told the New York Times he was proud of the role his focus groups played in helping Reagan set the stage for disarmament—allowing the conservative hawk who had originally called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” to find a rhetoric of peace that would resonate with Americans.

Both Democratic and Republican consultants in this period were clear that the focus groups did not shape the policies; rather, leaders knew what they wanted to do and used focus groups to figure out how to sell these policies.

The political focus group took off in this period in part because it was needed more than ever to bridge the widening gap between masses and elites. With the experiences of the haves and have-nots increasingly diverging, so were their political agendas, meaning that the goal of the focus group became, increasingly, not to find out what the people need but to determine how best to sell them on policies at odds with their interests.

As the Cold War wound down, the class war escalated—with the ruling class on the offensive.

After all, in this period, as the Cold War wound down, the class war escalated—with the ruling class on the offensive. During the 1970s, capitalist elites had been concerned about the predictability of their profits and about whether they could continue to dominate the world. The Soviet Union supported communist countries in Latin America and in Africa. At home, in the United States, workers were going on wildcat strikes and unions were strong in many sectors. Ralph Nader’s consumer movement and a growing environmental consciousness had corporate America scared. Although voter participation was not especially high during this period, all other forms of political participation were—whether attending protests or working on electoral campaigns. Economic elites feared that they—and their privileges—were under attack.

In 1971, Lewis Powell, a corporate lawyer Nixon would appoint to the Supreme Court the following year, wrote a memo to Eugene Sydnor, the director of the Chamber of Commerce, in which he eloquently expressed these fears. While conspiracy theorists have no doubt made too much of the Powell memo, it does offer a window onto elite thinking; it was ahead of its time, but helped to catalyze a new way of thinking for the ruling class. Powell wrote, “The assault on the enterprise system is broadly based and consistently pursued. It is gaining momentum and converts.” He worried that both the media and the universities were dominated by opponents and skeptics of free enterprise, and that business elites had been too passive, too willing to appease its critics, and needed to mobilize and fight back. “The time has come—indeed, it is long overdue,” Powell exhorted, “for the wisdom, ingenuity and resources of American business to be marshaled against those who would destroy it.” He plaintively demanded in a sub-heading in the memo, “WHAT CAN BE DONE ABOUT THE PUBLIC?”

In 1975, Samuel Huntington and a group of other elite thinkers wrote a similar report called A Crisis of Democracy. The Trilateral Commission, described in Foreign Affairs magazine the following year as “an organization of influential private citizens,” had been formed in 1972 at a meeting at the Rockefeller family’s 3,510-acre estate in Pocantico, about half an hour north of New York City. Overlooking the Hudson River, the estate, built by oil industry profits, boasts terraced beaux arts gardens, a nine-hole golf course, a collection of classic cars and horse carriages, and a major private art collection including works by Picasso, Calder, Warhol, and Chagall. The meeting was hosted by David Rockefeller, chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank and grandson of oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, who told those in attendance that it was time for elites to organize: the governments of rich countries were drifting “aimlessly.” “Now,” he admonished, “is a propitious time for persons from the private sector to make a valuable contribution to public policy.”

As the real political power of the American public declined they were, paradoxically, listened to more than ever.

The Trilateral Commission was founded to promote a foreign policy more favorable to the global economic elite, and more coordination among the elites of Western countries, in reaction to what some saw as the Nixon administration’s unilateralism. They were concerned that increasing coordination among oil-exporting countries and, especially, “Third World militancy” were threatening their economic and political dominance. But they were also worried about their ability, as elites, to maintain hegemony and order at home. It turned out that their idea of a “crisis of democracy” was actually an “excess of democracy.” They worried that all this popular empowerment had gone too far and wondered, “Is political democracy, as it exists today, a viable form of government for the industrialized countries of Europe, North America, and Asia?” They fretted that the people had been participating too much and had gotten too much of what they wanted. As a result, government was too big, while the authority of those holding state power was not respected. The Trilateral Commission suggested that the cure for this excess of democracy was a little less democracy, or, as they put it, “a greater degree of moderation in democracy.”

Such warnings were heeded, and the capitalist elites mobilized against popular will. The result was a tremendous consolidation of elite power in the 1970s and 1980s. Lobbying firms to advance capitalist interests increased; a study by the Greater Washington Board of Trade showed that while there were 1700 lobbying organizations in 1977, there were 2000 in 1980, and that one or two new ones emerged every week. In Lobbying America: The Politic of Business from Nixon to NAFTA, Benjamin Waterhouse argues that in this period, American business began to translate its economic power into political influence and to far more aggressively shape policy.

For all Wirthlin’s “caring emotion” maps, and increasing attentiveness to the feelings of the average American, recall that in 1981, President Ronald Reagan fired air traffic controllers who refused to call off their strike and broke their union—an action that would embolden employers everywhere and thus permanently reshape the workplace in their favor. Corporate power was on the rise, and popular power was under attack—no matter how attentively Reagan’s advisors listened to the people.

As the real political power of the American public declined—whether we consider Americans as citizens, workers, people who breathe air and drink water—they were, paradoxically, listened to more than ever. They could give their opinion freely in a focus group, and feel the frisson of having influence. But increasingly, the average Americans could not join a union, or expect to be paid decently and fairly for their labor with some measure of job security—all things that give people real power.

About a decade into the political consultation explosion, in an article describing the pervasive influence of focus groups on political campaigns, the New York Times magazine noted this paradox:

It has become a commonplace of American political discourse that so-called ordinary people have no say in the process, that the average citizen’s opinion counts for less and less in a system dominated by special interests. Yet nearly every day, somewhere in the country, conversations . . . are being staged among people who have been chosen precisely because of their ordinariness. These people are encouraged to say exactly what’s on their minds. They are treated with great solicitude and even paid a fee for the trouble of expressing their opinions, and their thoughts and feelings can end up, sometimes verbatim, in policy speeches and campaign literature. These sessions, called focus groups, are becoming ever more influential, even as the power of the “little guy” allegedly evaporates.

The Times was right to note the tension, though wrong to suggest that the rise of focus groups cast doubt on the “commonplace” narrative. There was nothing merely “alleged” about the evaporating power of the little guy.

There was nothing merely “alleged” about the evaporating power of the little guy.

Then and now, the opinions of average people appear to have had little effect on policy. In a 2014 paper, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, political scientists at Princeton and Northwestern, respectively, studied 1,779 policy cases between 1981 and 2002, examining the opinions of Americans at the fiftieth income percentile, those of Americans at the ninetieth income percentile, and those of interest groups listed on Fortune magazine’s “Power 25.” Gilens and Page found that while their better-off fellow citizens and business interest groups had a significant influence on policy outcomes, average Americans enjoyed little to none.

Toward the end of the century, the “average” American’s opinions were avidly sought after, but they mattered very little. Ordinary people were eagerly listened to, but they had no power. Indeed, the focus groups were needed precisely because actual ordinary people were so marginal to the political process; as politics became more controlled by elites, the gap between the political class and the average person grew. Thus, the spread of the focus group was a symptom of the estrangement between politicians and the rest. Ordinary people had been shut out of meaningful policy-making, but to win their votes, politicians still needed to hear from them.

Divining Desire: Focus Groups and the Culture of Consultation by Liza Featherstone is published by OR Books.

Liza Featherstone writes the Nation magazine’s advice column, “Asking for a Friend.” 

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