Candid Camera

As every schoolboy knows, the 1970s saw a profound shift in advertising. The golden age of “unique selling propositions” and product demonstrations gradually gave way to the soft sell. Emphasis moved from what the product did to how the brand made you feel.

This was partly caused by new research methods. Agencies had grown distrustful of quantitative surveys and began using qualitative methods to “get behind the numbers.” The instrument of choice became the focus group, in which techniques borrowed from psycho logy were applied to reveal the hidden depths of a user’s relationship with the product.

Since then, doubts about focus groups have, in turn, arisen. Their artificiality distorts the findings; they force people to overrationalize; they are terribly boring to watch.

Technology, however, may offer a way for advertising research to evolve. With video, the planner can get out of research facilities and into the homes, shops and offices where products are bought and used.

Interestingly, this sort of observational research is much more common in Japan (which may help explain the Japanese genius for product improvement). There, executives study housewives unloading groceries to see who is buying their products. By driving around with customers, designers at Lexus found that one joy of ownership was the satisfying clunk the door made as it shut. In later models, locks were adjusted to accentuate the sound. It’s hard to imagine this sort of insight coming from a focus group.

Some of the biggest U.S. marketers are jumping into the fray. Procter & Gamble, for instance, is now using video to compare the way mothers around the world prepare breakfast for their children.

But use of the camcorder should not be limited to watching people use products. It can also transform the humble interview. Questioned in their own surroundings, people are more relaxed—and candid—and they tend to remember things they wouldn’t in a research facility. By filming them, we can also bring them back to the agency, where those who make the advertising get to really see their target.

Video, of course, is nothing new for agencies. What’s different now is that it’s vastly easier to use. I can remember only a few years ago taking a cameraman and sound technician along to film “closet searches” in people’s homes. Apart from the expense and hassle, people found having a film crew in their bedroom a little disconcerting.

Today’s cameras are smaller, dirt cheap and good enough for Lars von Trier to shoot features on. But the real innovation is in digital editing. For about $1,000, you can have the sort of editing suite on your desktop until recently only enjoyed by top editing houses.

At present, video is mainly a novelty item for agencies, used primarily to leaven the occasional pitch presentation. Conditions are right, however, for it to become a standard tool. The ability to see into lives as they are lived, rather than as they are reported, could prompt advertising’s next evolution.