A critical view of "commercial" Consumer Ethnography

In my consulting work with businesses and non-profit groups, I'm always amused to hear about market research firms that try to sell their clients what they call "consumer ethnography". As trendy in corporate circles as focus groups were back in the 1980s, consumer ethnography is just about as useless and misleading. The business world would do well to consider a few issues if it were to avoid falling into the same trap of empty, self-reinforcing hype that came along with the focus group fad.

First of all, the methodology of "consumer ethnography", following someone around for a day, or two days or even a week, is not ethnography at all. Ethnography is the serious, in-depth study of social and cultural systems. A true ethnographer will not just study a single household, but an entire community. In the case of today's post-industrial, information age culture, that community does just not consist of an individual, an individual's family, extended family, neighborhood or city. Accurate ethnography is made very difficult by the globalization of culture and society.

To do an ethnography of consumer behavior, one would have to interpret the meanings of work, family, recreation, and the relationship of self to many different others in addition to the particular dynamics related to the product in question. One would have to base this interpretation upon a representative sample of a coherent group of people who would be able to provide insight into each other's behaviors. In ethnography, one does not rely just upon direct observation and a subject's self-interpretation. One must gather information about each person being observed from other people who are familiar with him or her. These secondary consultants often provide insights that cast new light on the real place of the primary informant in the community.

For example, it is plausible that the owner of a Ford Explorer might believe herself to be a rugged, outdoorsy type of person who uses her vehicle to help her go off the beaten path. Being observed by a consumer ethnographer, she might take her Explorer across a local creek bed as she "always" does. Her neighbors, however, might see her as a frightened house mouse who only bought to her sport utility vehicle after everyone else in the neighborhood bought one. Furthermore, we might learn from her neighbors that she doesn't really do much with the Ford Explorer except go to the grocery store and pick up her kids from day care. Because ethnography purports to describe actual cultural behavior, it is very important to get confirmation of findings by going to multiple sources.

In consumer ethnography, there is a serious problem of observer interference. A person who is knowingly being observed usually will not behave normally, but will attempt, consciously or unconsciously, to project an image that either conforms to what the observer is expected to want to see or offers a picture which is particularly flattering. The observed person will not engage in behavior which is embarrassing or inappropriate for display to outsiders. In the case of a study on the use of automobiles, an observed owner might be more likely to use premium gasoline, have a recent oil change, obey traffic laws and drive to interesting locations which would reflect an exciting lifestyle. The vehicle itself would probably have recently been washed and cleaned on the inside. Would music be played loudly? Would the driver yell and curse at other drivers? Probably not.

True ethnography is based upon participant observation, in which the observer becomes integrated over a long period of time into the everyday lives of those being observed. It is in this manner that the observer hopes to eventually witness the authentic behavior of the observed. True ethnographers regard short-term observation as a useful but superficial preparation for eventual long-term research.

An additional shortcoming of consumer ethnography is that the outwardly observable behavior it records does not necessarily reflect consumer motivation. The owner of a Ford Explorer may only drive the vehicle to the movies, but that does not mean that the owner was thinking of driving to the movies when he or she bought the Explorer. Observing the owner while driving will not reveal the thoughts or feelings that motivate the owner to drive that particular vehicle. The researcher may be provided with a repertoire of images to use in advertisements, but will not understand which images will be motivating to consumers or why. The images will be rooted in the real experiences of consumers with the product but will never be able to transcend this reality to appeal to the true hopes of consumers.

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