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Divining Desire: Focus Groups and the Culture of Consultation

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Original Language: English | 320 pp. | February 2018

2 Seas Represents: Dutch, French, and Nordic rights.

Rights sold: Turkey (Kitap)

SOCIOLOGY | MARKETING

“When did the vox populi become just another way to fatten the elite? In this vividly written history of the focus group, Liza Featherstone tells us how consumer capitalism found its pseudo-liberating groove. By pretending to listen, big business pretends to empower.” ―Tom Frank, author, What’s the Matter With Kansas?

“With sharp analysis and on-the-ground reporting, Liza Featherstone exposes the secret life of focus groups. She shows in fascinating detail just how corporations and politicians create a false sense of populism, as they scramble to gather bits of wisdom from Everywoman―in order to better sell her a can of soup or a candidate. If you want to learn how consumerism―and the politics of consumerism–really work, Divining Desire is the book to read.” ―Leslie Savan, author, The Sponsored Life: Ads, TV and American Culture.

“The focus group has been a staple of the American consumer and political landscape for well more than a half-century, yet few know its history, ubiquity, and limitations. Liza Featherstone has filled in the knowledge gap with this brilliantly conceived and elegantly written book. Divining Desire is essential for anyone trying to understand how business and political elites connect with their desired audience―or fail to.” ―James Ledbetter, editor of Inc. magazine, and author of One Nation under Gold: How One Precious Metal Has Dominated the American Imagination for Four Centuries

“We are increasingly living in a world obsessed with soliciting and expressing opinions–whether on social media, in market surveys, or surrounding presidential elections. In her wonderful book, Liza Featherstone helps us penetrate this ‘culture of consultation’ – and recognize that actually we are living in a culture of cooptation where weighing in is more of an illusion than a reality, one that helps legitimize the power of elites.” ―Lizabeth Cohen, author of A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America

Divining Desire is a brilliant and insightful work of history, reportage and social criticism. In this deeply researched, slyly funny book, Featherstone takes us “behind the mirror” to show us how the economic ritual of the focus group reflects our deepest, most secret political longings: not for better consumer products, but for a deeper role in our democracy. Essential reading for anyone interested in the history of capitalism, economic life and social change.” ―Kim Phillips-Fein, author of Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics

Divining Desire infiltrates and skillfully analyzes one of the most under-scrutinized elements of our modern machinery of influence: the focus group. With origins in academia, this shortcut to understanding affects our views on consumer culture, class, social categories, politics, and policy. Liza Featherstone’s definitive take on the subject will change the way you think about what other people (supposedly) think.” ―Rob Walker, author, Buying In: The Secret Dialogue between What We Buy and Who We Are

“Featherstone’s uncynical history of public opinion research is a treasury of information and analysis. Where others only see spin, she tracks the deep neediness of elites, who know so little about those they seek to please and manipulate and dominate.” ―Andrew Ross, author of Creditocracy and the Case for Debt Refusal and Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City

“For anyone interested in the modern manipulation of the masses, Divining Desire is a must read. Liza Featherstone makes a convincing case for how focus groups have warped the democratic impulse to create politics and products that are more responsive to the people, into a marketing system designed to make people respond favorably to what has already been created for them. Through historical research, participant observation, and interviews with industry professionals, Featherstone takes us on an erudite and engaging tour of focus groups, from their early use by Viennese socialists and anti-Nazi propagandists, to mid-century marketers selling cake mix to guilty housewives, to contemporary political elites passing policies that largely benefit the 1% by understanding everyday voters’ desires and frustrations. Divining Desire is, quite simply, the best book in print on the history and politics of the “culture of consultation.” ―Stephen Duncombe, Professor of Media and Culture, New York University and author of Dream: Reimagining Radical Politics in an Age of Fantasy

“Fake input came long before fake news, and fake input is just as dangerous. The more people let the new Wall Street, Silicon Valley, pretend to offer input, the less real power there is for ordinary people. This book contributes a critical understanding of how frames and narrative have become a shallow and grossly ineffective tool that reinforces, not challenges, the economic and polite elite. Google, Facebook and Silicon Valley are strategically turning the world into one big focus group.” ―Jane McAlevey, author, No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age

An engaging, accessible history of the focus group, Featherstone’s survey shows how the primary purpose of the focus group has shifted from determining what we want, to selling us things we don’t. 

The focus group, over the course of the last century, became an increasingly vital part of the way companies and politicians sold their products and policies with few areas of life, from salad dressing to health care legislation to our favorite TV shows, left untouched by moderators questioning controlled groups about what they liked and didn’t. Divining Desire is the first-ever popular survey of this topic.

In a lively, sweeping survey, Liza Featherstone traces the surprising roots of the focus group in early-twentieth century European socialism, its subsequent use by the “Mad Men” of Madison Avenue, and its widespread employment today. She also explores such famous “failures” of the method as the doomed launch of the Ford Edsel, and the even more ill-fated attempt to introduce a new flavor of Coca Cola (which prompted street protests from devotees of the old formula).

As elites became increasingly detached from the general public, they relied ever more on focus groups, whether to win votes or to sell products. And, in a society where many feel increasingly powerless, the focus group has at least offered the illusion that ordinary people can be heard and that their opinions count. Yet, the more they are listened to, the less power they have. That paradox is particularly stark today, when everyone can post an opinion on social media – our 24 hour “focus group”―yet only plutocrats can shape policy.

In telling this story, Featherstone raises profound and fascinating questions about democracy and consumer society.