THE REQUEST LINE IS NOW OPEN:
Inside a classic-rock radio station marketing survey
by Louis Rastelli
From Vol. 2 No. 4, 2003
Participating in marketing studies won’t pay your way through college, but it’ll get you extra spending money. It’s quick cash without the potential side effects of those drug testing experiments.
The road to my most recent market study began, as always, with a frantic phone call from A., a woman I have never met but with whom I’ve spoken sporadically for six years now. Her job is to find people to fill marketing studies with. (I guess she’s an independent broker of some sort between the general public and the marketing study firms.) This time, she asked me if I’d be interested in doing a study for CHOM FM, the local classic-rock radio station. I had done one for CHOM before, a few years ago— it was sheer torture, and I’m pretty sure I vowed never to do one again. Thinking I could use the $60, however, I told her “why not.” She said that on top of the money, a free “light supper” would sweeten the deal. In my experience “light supper” always meant stale egg salad sandwiches, so I wasn’t too excited about that.
As always, after agreeing to do the study, she asked me a number of questions, in a nudge-nudge wink-wink tone implying that of course, my answers should all be “yes.” This time at least some of the answers really were “yes”: I’m a male, between 25 and 34, and I listen to the radio on a regular basis. I could only falsely purport, however, to listening to CHOM at least four hours a week, or that it’s my favourite station, or that I also listen to 99.9 The Buzz or, least of all, that I’m a big fan of Genesis or Elton John. No matter, though—I carefully wrote down these answers so that I could repeat them back to the other person who’d be calling to double-check my requirements. Unlike A., the other people down the line on these studies are usually pretty serious about weeding out people who are faking their way to a fast buck. A.’s coached me well through the years in this practice of petty deception, however. I guess that playing along saves her a lot of time, seeing as she’d have to make a heck of a lot more phone calls if she really wanted to find honest-to-God Genesis fans in the proper age group.
With A.’s help, over the years I’ve pretended to be a prospective cell-phone buyer, a person who drives a car purchased in the last two years, a drinker of flavoured beer coolers, an amateur-league hockey player and even a computer database manager. My age has varied between 22 and 38, my income has varied widely, I’ve been married and not married, but every time, I show up looking like the 20-40 year old white male that our free market values above any other kind of person. Some surveys have been trickier to fake, especially the ones where you’re in a room with a two-way mirror that they videotape your facial expressions through– but that just makes it feel more like I’m earning my money.
Anyway, for this study they needed quite a few people in different age groups, both male and female, so I passed along several phone numbers of friends who might be interested in taking part. A week later, my friends and I were sitting along with 100 other willing subjects in a room at the Ruby Foo’s Hotel, waiting for our “light supper.” The notion of “six degrees of separation” seemed to be working, as many of these people weren’t directly recommended to Aline by me, meaning that a widening circle of people from the local music scene were being drawn into the marketing study circuit after being recommended by friends of friends and so on. I sat together with a core group of friends with whom I’ve gone to at least five studies with already, and we promptly got started with our usual hijinks. (Sometimes they tell you to pretend not to know anyone else there, but this wasn’t the case this time.) Looking around I could tell there were several other groups of friends joking around while waiting for the study to start.
When we finally had our pencils and our bundle of forms ready in front of us, this bouncy marketing coordinator dude came out and announced that the light supper would only come after we’d done a chunk of the study. This was not well received by the people who showed up starving in order to make the most of the free food. The coordinator was undeterred, and claimed that “This is going to be a lot of fun, lots of fun, and before you know it, it’ll be time for our break.”
For the sake of the illiterate morons in the room, he read over each line of the first page of questions we had to fill out. We each had to write once again the information we had to say over the phone, like our favourite radio stations, how much radio we listen to during the week, whether we listen to radio while driving a car, while at work, or at home etc. I got the impression they really wanted to catch the people who were faking it, and would exclude any questionnaires that had inconsistent answers.