Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Why most research in advertising is stupid

I have dismissed research time and again, privately and in public forums. It’s time to clarify. I reject the procedures that I have seen, but I don’t undervalue homework and thoroughness. And let me tell you I have attended more research sessions than most creative people.

So, what are the kinds of research I don’t agree with? I hate researches where regular human beings are asked stupid questions. Obviously, you will get a stupid reply. You must imagine a situation when you show a pack of a new product to a housewife and ask, ‘What do you feel on seeing this pack?’ She feels bloody nothing. But she is in a group of people and she concocts something to save her face. The next respondent in the room has it easy. She says, ‘I feel the same.’ And so the chain goes on. Soon, a conclusion is forwarded as God’s own truth. I have heard these housewives whisper after the group session, ‘Did you understand the stupid questions they asked us?’ I have also heard the reply, ‘Doesn’t matter, we got a free tiffin carrier and snacks, let’s go home.’

Then there were other stupid techniques. They took me for some research, many decades ago, and put me behind a one-way mirror and gave me headphones. I threw the headphones away. The client complained, ‘Why are you not using the headphones? You won’t hear the respondents.’ I distinctly remember telling him, ‘I don’t want to hear stupid answers to stupid questions. I would much rather watch their body language. If they are chatting and not looking at the TV commercial after five seconds, we have lost them. If the body language is attentive, engaged and involved, we have got them. Simple!

Then came one funny metre, a machine out of Star Wars. The respondents were to hold the damn thing and rotate a dial to indicate when they lost interest and when they were really excited. All this for a thirty-second commercial. The ladies used it the same way a steering wheel is used by a child in a parked car. Swing it around, it’s great fun; nobody will die. But a good idea won’t be born, either. Now I believe there are researches studying the brain to know its response to advertising. Take it easy, folks.

Most of my work would not have seen the light of day if it had gone through this kind of research. The Cadbury Dairy Milk girl dancing on the cricket field would have become a saint if she had been pre-tested. Most of the Fevicol work would not have happened because ‘we did not show furniture’. The Zoozoos of Vodafone would be aliens on earth. And Piyush Pandey would be a failed cricketer selling potatoes because he couldn’t pass the ‘link’ test of advertising.

I am happy doing homework and chatting with people, without any agenda. I have often tried to articulate my distrust and lack of confidence in research and, perhaps, I have impatiently dismissed the concept.

As I sit down to write this book, I have the luxury of time and the number of words to clearly describe why I have reservations on research as we know it. To me, ‘knowing’ what consumers want after conducting some research is like saying ‘I know Goa’ after spending a week there on a conducted tour. All I would know is what the guide chose to show me—and there’s certainly a lot more to Goa than that, much more. It’s like the tip of the iceberg that research shows us, when the larger mass of the berg is invisible to us.

Research captures what’s on the surface. It does not capture what’s inside. It doesn’t truly capture what drives consumers, what motivates them, what captures their imagination, what they want to hear, and so on.

Pandeymonium: By Piyush Pandey, Penguin India, 244 pages, 799
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Pandeymonium: By Piyush Pandey, Penguin India, 244 pages, 799

Most of you have been to Goa and believe that you know Goa well. We’re sitting in my house in Goa as we write this book, but believe me, it’s not the Goa you know. We’re in a small village called Guirim in the district of Bardez. There is no beach anywhere around, there is no shack, there are no bikini-clad women in sight.

This is a village surrounded by paddy fields. A village without a single shop. We have snakes slithering around the fields, sometimes entering our garden. Our dogs (six of them) cannot be let out into the garden or the fields unless accompanied by someone keeping a careful lookout for snakes.

Everything around the house is green.

The village is sleepy; hardly any cars come here. We have a few regular visitors, all welcome ones. Each day, fresh bread is delivered by a baker on a cycle, tooting his horn as he reaches each house. Around 11a.m., fish is delivered by the local fisherman. He, too, is on a cycle, tooting a different horn. A not-so-regular visitor is the chap who delivers gas cylinders.

By now, I think you get the picture. You have a fair idea of what Guirim is like and what these villagers might buy.

So you think. In addition to the breadwallah and the fisherman, we have a third daily visitor. This guy sells Walls ice cream. Would research have thrown that up? If you have transport, you can get anything that you want after a fifteen-minute drive, but what are the items my fellow villagers want delivered? Bread, fish and ice cream!

As I spend more time in this non-tourist side of Goa, I discover a completely different Goa from the one that we see when we come for weekend breaks or for off-sites and conferences. I’ve seen many species of birds, including kingfishers, hornbills and woodpeckers. Kingfishers? But where’s the fish, I wonder. As I watch the kingfishers, I realize that they’ve adapted to the environment, diving into the paddy fields to catch worms and other small creatures. Do you know this Goa? If you want to understand, appreciate and love this Goa, get away from the beach. Explore the non-beach, non-shack, non-casino Goa. Then you will discover freshly baked poi and the fresh catch of fish that comes to your kitchen.

Miles Young, the Global CEO of Ogilvy, insists on eating local food wherever he goes. The last time he was in Delhi (for a board meeting), he dragged all of us to Chandni Chowk (where he goes during most visits to Delhi) for a meal. Some time back, Miles was in Bangalore for a large internal meeting on digital. The colleague who had ordered the lunch had arranged a north Indian menu, and Miles would have nothing of it. ‘In south India, I want south Indian food,’ said Miles, and that was the end of that.

Miles takes this experimentation and immersion to an extreme—that’s his form of research. As far as possible, Miles wants to avoid the predictable five-star fare. It allows him to see, up close, how people live when he experiences what and how they eat. That’s research.

Research of the real kind destroys presumptions and teaches us things that the tourist or superficial research never can. For example, I remember shooting at a little hill station in Gujarat called Saputara. To begin with, I hadn’t known previously that there was a hill station in Gujarat. Saputara is on the border of Maharashtra and Gujarat. We were with Mr Amitabh Bachchan to shoot a story on the tribals of the region for Gujarat Tourism. We were talking about the tribal cuisine and their pickle made out of bamboo. As per the script, Mr Bachchan was to do a shot with the locals, eating their food. The wonderful tribal hosts served him (and all of us working on the shoot) a chapatti-like bread—almost red in colour, cooked in earthenware over a slow fire—and bamboo pickle. I didn’t know that you could make pickle out of bamboo. After tasting this fare, all of us decided that we would continue eating the local food and not the stuff from the city that we had brought with us.

That’s research. Understanding what people eat, where they live, how they live, what pleases them, displeases them...that’s research. This is going beyond the tip of the iceberg; it’s like going underwater and marvelling at the berg that we don’t get to see.


What you see today of Cadbury’s entry into the traditional sweetmeat market is the result of a process that began in the 1980s. Meena Kaushik and I used to travel to small towns and cities to see how (and what) sweets were served and consumed in homes there. We used to travel to small places, and small cities like Varanasi, Patna and Kanpur, across the country. We would try to understand the role of chocolates, to see whether chocolates had replaced the traditional mithai in any house; if so, we wanted to know why the shift happened. ...

... Many young creative professionals in India think of research as a nuisance—probably influenced by me. It was not that I was born hating research; in my earlier days, I attended several meetings with researchers and numerous focus-group interviews. Most of the research studies threw up ‘insights’ that I had known since I was three years old—so this kind of ‘research’ became a waste of time for me.

I still enjoy researching in smaller towns, small houses, and meeting people. Staying in these places for a few days teaches you so much. You can see the food being cooked; you marvel at how six people live in a house of 300–400 square feet; you can experience the role of TV in their lives; you learn what one generation aspires to and what the next aspires to.

Excerpted from the just released Pandeymonium, with permission from Penguin India.

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