Over the course of the last century, the focus group has become an increasingly vital part of the way companies and politicians sell their products and policies. Few areas of life, from salad dressing to health care legislation to our favorite TV shows, have been left untouched by the questions put to controlled groups about what they do and don’t like. Divining Desire is the first-ever popular survey of this rich topic.
In a lively, sweeping history, 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 deployment today. She also explores such famous “failures” of the method as the doomed launch of the Ford Edsel with its vagina shaped radiator grille, 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 have become increasingly detached from the general public, they rely 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 will be listened to and that their opinions count. Yet, it seems the more we are consulted, the less power we 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 fascinating story, Featherstone raises profound questions about democracy, desire and the innermost workings of consumer society.
“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
“[A] 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
“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
“Focus groups—the desires, anxieties, and fears they reveal—have come to shape almost every aspect of our daily lives, from the products we buy to the politicians we elect. In her history of how the American psyche has been mined in the service of selling, Liza Featherstone lays out how the focus group has burrowed into our culture, becoming a crucial way for elites to explore and use the experiences of everyday people to their profit and advantage. An important, smart, revealing, and especially timely book.”
—Susan J. Douglas, author, Enlightened Sexism and Where the Girls Are
“This compulsively readable book is not just about focus groups any more than Moneyball is just about baseball—it’s about American inequality itself, and how giving strategic voice to people as consumers rather than as full citizens has shaped not just our products, but our poisonous policies and politics. Featherstone guides us with clearheaded argument and caustic wit through the often-mesmerizing history of elites listening to masses only to achieve their own capital, and pushes us to imagine what possibilities lie in using the market practice of listening for democratic power, and not just purchase.” —Lauren Sandler, author of One and Only and Righteous
“What’s a focus group and why do you need to know what it is? Liza Featherstone’s Divining Desire is a fascinating and timely look at the big business of asking Americans for their opinion, and gives us valuable and much needed insights into an industry few of us know anything about, but one that impacts everything from our politics to the products for sale on the shelf of our supermarket. It’s a compelling and important book.” —Helaine Olen, author, Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry