10 March 2004

Last night I participated in one of those things which are one of the sadder parts of living in our current age - The Focus Group. By this I do not mean I was involved in some staring contest, and neither am I referring to FOCUS the charity.

On Sunday afternoon, I was participating in my weekly(ish) shop at my local supermarket. Whilst picking up some vegetarian faux-bacon in the freezer section I was accosted by a middle-aged gentleman, brandishing a clipboard.

"Are you a vegetarian?"


"Would you like to go to a Cutomer Question Time on Tuesday at the hotel around the corner to talk to bigwigs from [insert non-specific name of supermarket here] about vegetarian frozen food in this store. You get £15 in store vouchers for turning up, free tea, coffee and biscuits throughout the session and either a bottle of wine or a box of chocolates at the end for participating"


"Can I take your address and telephone number please?"

Now, call me naive and slightly innocent... but I figured this was a safe thing to do. After all, if he was a dodgy man with a fetish for vegetarians trying to lure women back to his hotel room, surely security would've noticed? And his clipboard looked well used and a bit tatty. This could either indicate it had been well used by the supermarket in attracting customers to question times before, or he was very experienced in his seduction of vegetarians.

Either way, I divulged my details.

I had planned to go to Comedy Camp last night, but I was offered a choice: spend £7 plus drinks on a night out, or earn £15 plus caffeine and alcohol. Being terminally financially challenged with a caffeine problem and a propensity towards vast alcohol consumption, I chose the latter.

After all - if he had been trying to get me back to his hotel room for seduction purposes... I might of still gotten a free cup of tea from his hotel rooms courtesy stash - and I'm sure if I closed my eyes and imagined hard enough, I could've convinced myself he was Sharleen Spiteri wearing a strap on.

I have not yet noticed anyone stalking me (after all, why would anyone want to?) and when I arrived at the hotel yesterday evening, a man in a supermarket uniform ticked my name off a list, and handed me my £15 in store vouchers.

All was well.

I'd never really given much of a thought to the type of person with a tendency to say "yes" to attending focus groups. The closest I've ever come before is attending a test screening of About A Boy about a year before it was released, and having to fill in a form afterwards saying "yes, I didn't think the ending was too happy/sad" etc. I think those things are quite horrible as films should be ablout art, not pleasing audiences. But, then, I was pleased to get to see a film for free, and I've still not actually seen the film in it's completed state.

It was quite interesting to note that I was almost certainly the youngest person in the room. Vegetarianism is something you tend to associate with twentysomethings, hippies and lesbians, so it was quite shocking that I was the only person to fulfill all those criteria (I remember once, many, many years ago my swimming coach saying to me "I think you're a closet hippie" which took all the self-restraint I had to not blurb "that's not the only thing I'm closeted about"). I was sitting next to a strange, dull middle aged man who might qualify as a hippie, but, apart from that, the room was full of middle-aged women who all looked and talked like they needed to fill a void in their life with vegetarian sausages (make of that what you will, there was a woman at my table with an actual obsession).

Do you have to be older and slightly bored with life to attend a focus group? Or do all the other twentysomethings, hippies and lesbians have better places to be on a Tuesday night? What does this say about me as a person?

We were asked questions about the kind of products we'd like to see in the vegetarian frozen food ranges, and what kind of promotions we'd like to see.

"Would you like to see promotions linking vegetarian frozen food to other ranges?"

"Yes, 'buy a pack of vegetarian sausages, get a free rack of lamb.'" (is that how lamb is sold? I wouldn't know, I've never bought it.)

I was being honest with my comments like "well, [this supermarket] does much nicer vegetarian curries", and "[that supermarket] does a really nice vegetarian carbonara", which I think most of the other attendees thought made me really rude, as they all seemed to of been programmed to say nothing but "yes".

This has me paranoid. Was I not part of a focus group at all? Was I part of the updating of psychological research? Was I being tested to see if I'd say "yes" just to follow everyone else in a group?

Either way. I don't care. I had 5 cups of tea in 2 hours, I have my wine and I have £15 to spend in store.

To this I say: "Sixty Marlboro Lights, please."

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