Back in the 1960’s a large packaged food company had an idea for a new line of frozen foods. Frozen dinners were still a pretty radical idea back then, and there was a certain stigma associated with the idea. So this company decided that the thing to do was to make frozen foods with class. Instead of beans&franks and meatloaf, they would offer consumers tenderloin and filet mignon.
The packaged food company hired a marketing firm (another pretty radical idea at the time) to conduct some tests to determine if the product would sell. The marketing firm gave away a bunch of free samples, collected a bunch of questionnaires and decided that, yes, this line of frozen foods was a great idea, everybody they asked said that they would absolutely buy frozen cordon blue and lobster Newburg.
So the company launched the line of gourmet frozen dinners and it was a catastrophe. Stores couldn’t sell them. Stores couldn’t give them away. The package food company lost buckets of money and careers imploded.
And amid all the finger-pointing and ass-covering everyone was asking the question: “What the Hell just happened here?”
The lesson learned, which became the cornerstone of modern market research is this:
People lie about what they want.
What the marketing firm didn’t understand was that their focus group–given the demographics of the time period, mostly women who were full time stay-at-home mothers and homemakers–wanted to give the “right” answers. They wanted to impress the interviewers, so instead of saying “Feed a six year old Lobster Newburg? Are you fucking high?” they said, “Oh, yes, I would definitely treat my family to gourmet meals every night of the week!”
The focus group told the marketing group what the marketers wanted to hear, and the marketers told the food packaging company what the food packagers wanted to hear, and when the housewives went to the market they glanced at the frozen filet mignon, grinned to themselves, and walked right past it to the beans&franks, which they knew their families would actually eat.
There is an important lesson here for writers, I believe. Readers, particularly readers of science fiction and fantasy fiction, want to give the “right” answers when asked about their reading preferences. In public forums, discussion boards, fan sites, and the like, no one is going to write, “Really, what I want is another Star Wars book that is virtually indistinguishable from the twenty-six other Star Wars books I already have on my shelf,” what they write is, “I am looking for something new and original, something that has never been done before,” because that makes them sound smart and hip.
However, if you check the sales rankings on Amazon, what actually sells is beans&franks and meatloaf.