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MRS Conference: Lies and Statistics

March 24 2009

Appropriately, given reports today* that the UK government is to replace P&G as the country's largest advertiser, and their research spend is also up, public sector clients are among the few in evidence at the MRS Conference. Hence a topical session on communicating with - and getting the truth from - the public.

Chaired by Fiona Wood of the COI (Central Office of Information), the session on The Bigger Picture: Research and Social Issues comprised three papers which examined how research can drive communications that influence behaviour; considered the premise that what people say is not always what they actually do; and illustrated a new way of evaluating segmentation by attitudes and values instead of demographics.

First up were Mairi Budge and Martin Dewhurst from the COI, who explained how the organisation has sought to influence public behaviour down the decades with advertising and communications which rely on emotional levers.

The pair described the COI's challenge in examining how audience segments react to different communications, and of conducting research to deliver communications that produce required behavioural changes.

Next, Alistair Goode from Cogresearch and Winnie Coutinho from the charity Changing Faces outlined the research behind the charity's Face Equality campaign; designed to raise public awareness of discrimination against those with facial disabilities.

The study was based around the assumption that direct questioning and self-report techniques do not always produce an answer that accurately reflects attitude and behaviour.

Using a psychological approach called the Implicit Attitude Test (IAT), Cogresearch was able to uncover the actual attitudes of those who feel uncomfortable offering a true representation of what they believe - either because they want to appear not to hold a negative attitude or because they don't want to accept themselves that they have the biases.

Michelle Harrison from BMRB Social and Sara Jones from the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) argued that customer segmentation is still largely based on demographics or socio-economic status, and outlined an alternative. This study demonstrated that groups can be segmented by attitudinal or behavioural characteristics, producing a greater impact on the research conducted.

The findings from the study and the new segmentations uncovered have led the DCSF to use new ways of looking at some of its key audiences and issues, and developing new thinking on the most effective ways of targeting.


* Procter & Gamble has cut its ad spend by 10%, and its TV budget by 13%, according to data from Nielsen Media Research that was commissioned by Marketing magazine and reported in www.mediabuyerplanner.com . Meanwhile the COI increased media spend by nearly 20% in 2008, to about £178.7m ($263m).

MRS Conference reviews in full:

TV Scientist Kicks off MRS 'Unconference' - Sir Robert Winston's keynote interview
This page: Lies and Statistics - social research; getting the truth from respondents
Nerd-Free Zone? - in-game advertising; consumer engagement, YouTube vs TV
Research in a Recession - winners, losers and strategies
Glasses Half Full and Half Empty - social scene; threats and opportunities to the profession
Virtual Ethnography - multi-sourced consumer feedback from social media and elsewhere
On Human Behaviour - views from an anthropologist, a zoologist and an economist
MR as Storytelling; and Conference Conclusions - how was it for you?

All articles 2006-21 written and edited by Mel Crowther and/or Nick Thomas unless otherwise stated.

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