Talk is cheap: the myth of the focus group

Focus groups make us feel our views matter – but no one with power cares what we think. By Liza Featherstone

In the early 1950s, the Betty Crocker company had a problem: American housewives liked the idea of cake mix, but they weren’t actually buying it. And so the company approached Ernest Dichter, a Viennese psychologist who had pioneered a new kind of market research, and asked him to find out why.

At the same time, the relatively new processed-food industry was determined to push ready-made food. Frozen foods had enjoyed a boost during the war because of tin rationing, and the first frozen ready meals were launched in 1952. More women were working outside the home, making the convenience of these meals especially appealing. Incomes were rising, too, during this postwar period, which gave families more money to spend on convenience items, and on trying out new dishes. Not all such products were new – cake mix, after all, had been around for decades – but in this postwar climate, the food industry assumed there would be a much larger market for them. And yet, cake mix sales were slow.

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