Page last updated at 23:46 GMT, Wednesday, 3 February 2010

It's official ... Do surveys reflect our lifestyle?

By Kevin Peachey
Consumer affairs reporter, BBC News

Del Boy and Rodney as Batman and Robin
Would Batman really make the best boss?

Results of consumer surveys only convince 20% of Britons who read them. Do you believe that?

Actually, you should not pay any attention to the findings, because they are based on a poll of 10 people in the BBC's business and economics newsroom - extrapolated to the population as a whole.

The conclusion might prove to be accurate, but that would be a matter of coincidence, not a matter of fact.

So should we pay any attention to the growing number of surveys published about our consumer behaviour? And what controls are in place to police their accuracy?

Silliness

Many consumer surveys could be best described as a bit of fun, giving light relief while drawing attention to a new product on the market.

Many of these have been sent to news organisations - including the BBC News website - and prove to be appropriate fodder for stories. However, many - arguably the majority - are not reported.

The results of some of the more bizarre surveys include:

  • Batman is the superhero boss most UK employees would like to have. This was an attempt to raise awareness of employees' hidden potential
  • The credit crunch has prompted a "dramatic" increase in dry cleaning, according to a dry cleaning company
  • UK workers' "ideal salary" is £38,000, says a poll for a recruitment company
  • An increasing number of people are inventing ill and dying animal stories in an attempt to pull sickies and get out of work, says a company offering pet insurance
  • A "massive" 95% of Britons consider taking a holiday at least once a year as more important than owning a home or having children, says a travel search website.

The cult of celebrity has been fully embraced by these surveys, which adds to the opportunity for the findings to be accompanied by a picture.

Did you know, for example, that Katie Price, aka Jordan, is the person people would least like to meet trick or treating at Halloween? And women skiers voted George Clooney as their ideal ski instructor.

But for consistent entertainment - and enthusiasm for promoting their products - take a bow Debenhams.

It has announced that Liverpudlian women have the largest breasts in the UK, and mathematical analysis has concluded that the winning formula for pulling a Christmas cracker is O = 11x C/L + 5xQ.

The department store also concluded that the distance walked by an average British woman each year while shopping is the same as walking from London to Hull.

"We have a dedicated customer and strategy development team at Debenhams that run a research programme, including surveys, to provide us with insight into our customers, our products and the shopping habits of the nation," says Ruth Attridge, spokeswoman for Debenhams.

"These vary in seriousness with some much more tongue-in-cheek than others. However, all our surveys produce results that help us shape our business, communicate with press and customers and improve the shopping experience at Debenhams."

Robust

Is there a danger that these shopping surveys drag down the whole business of consumer research?

Paper and pen
Conducting surveys and polls can be an exact science

One classic sketch in the long-running political comedy series "Yes Minister" displays some cynicism for the world of polls and surveys.

"The Party has had an opinion poll done and it seems all the voters are in favour of bringing back National Service," says civil servant Bernard Woolley in one episode.

"Well, have another opinion poll done showing the voters are against bringing back National Service," replies Sir Humphrey Appleby, before explaining how different lead up questions would elicit a different final response.

There are tight controls on opinion polls, but some "flakier" consumer surveys do seem to be aimed at attracting "easy headlines", according to Ben Page, chief executive of Ipsos Mori.

"It is not a hugely regulated industry," he says.

But he says that members of the public are intelligent enough to spot the most robust surveys, and which are published for commercial purposes. Many consumers look for details and methodology about how these surveys are conducted.

Investment

Organisations such as Ipsos Mori are mainly hired by companies to conduct the kind of consumer research that is never published and that is used as reference to make business decisions worth up to millions of pounds.

This could include supermarkets keen to know what should be stocked in the coming summer.

Many of these research organisations are members of the Market Research Society. They can be struck off from the trade organisation if they breach its code of conduct - potentially a fatal blow for a business which lives off reputation.

The code applies to all members, whether they are engaged in consumer, business to business, social, opinion, international or any other type of confidential research.

The revised version, which has been updated for April 2010, runs to 20 pages. It includes various rules regarding anonymity and safety.

Then, in section B, conduct numbers 49 and 50, you can read the key to the analysis of any findings.

Members must ensure that conclusions disseminated by them are clearly and adequately supported by the data, it says. They must also comply with reasonable requests to make available to anyone the technical information necessary to assess the validity of any published findings from a project.

Later, it explains that facts and interpretation should be clearly distinguished.

Often it is interpretation of figures and statistics that lead to the greatest debate.

Does that water down the whole business of consumer research? Perhaps it is time to conduct a survey about that.



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