Is Market Research Getting Too Intimate?

 By Jon Burton & Peter Mc Leod. 

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Market research, in its simplest form, can be considered to be the process where companies gather facts to ensure they are delivering what their consumers need and want. This is usually achieved by using tools such as questionnaire surveys, focus groups, perceptual maps and a number of other analytical and empirical techniques. However, today’s marketers face many difficult questions. These include: How do our customers really use our products? Will they tell us? Can they tell us? [i] Often enough we find that consumers are not given the time or the ability to engage emotionally in the decisions they make when purchasing. This can result in consumer’s regretting such choices and hence not providing the accurate data that companies would like to collect to better inform them of their chosen market segment/s [ii].

For example, Best Western international hotel chain discovered that men are often the decision makers on where and when to stop for the night on a long journey, as evidenced through focus group analysis. However, upon analysis of video footage of couples who were cross-country travelling, it was often the women who made this decision and this fact was not identified by the focus group analysis [iii].


To get an insight into what consumers really do, many companies use ethnographic research, as identified in the example above, to observe and interact with consumers in their “natural environment”. Techniques are drawn from anthropology, sociology and documentary filmmaking and generally involve watching and recording people [iv]. This kind of research gives marketers an opportunity to enter the customers’ world to observe a subject’s unconscious and scrutinize how they think and feel in relation to a companies’ product/s. According to a research expert, ethnography allows companies to “zero in on their customers’ unarticulated desires” [v].


Gillette targeted the Indian market in 2011 with their marketing campaign, Gillette Guard. They used Indian students studying in America to drive product development. The students loved the product on offer. Nevertheless, Gillette initially failed to impress the Indian market when they launched the product there. By filming their subjects, Gillette found out that in India, men shave with just a cup of water (or hardly any water at all) instead of shaving cream and hot running water as is common practice in the western world and this often resulted in hair clogging in their razors which made shaving a far more difficult task.

Ethnographic research often provides intimate details that traditional forms of market research would not be able to [vi]. Not only that, this method can reveal problems that customers do not even know they have. For instance, Moen is claimed as one of the biggest plumbing supplier manufacturers in North America. By filming people in the shower (in a purely scientific and private sense of course), the company uncovered particular attributes of product usage as well as safety concerns that many customers (or designers) were not aware of. For example, women were found to hold on to and manipulate the temperature control while shaving their legs. Without this method, it would be almost impossible to detect such a particular form of application and certainly difficult to gauge with the use of techniques such as questionnaires or surveys, for the reasons mentioned above.


Gogglebox is a British observational documentary which showcases British couples and families communicating in their living room while watching TV (a straightforward yet peculiar concept). There are two mini HD remote control cameras installed in the viewers’ living rooms which record their personal experience. The concept allows for the examination of consumers in an unrestricted environment and discloses their reactions and ensuing discussions resulting from their television experience. For the program’s developers, the public audience and prospective marketers, a smorgasbord or brands, attitudes and insights are on show. This may include the Pringles packet on the table, the particular lounge chain in use, the method in which the lounge chair is being used and the reaction or even impersonation of particular TV personalities to name a few. This smorgasbord of advertising allows a vast number of stakeholders to gather data or insight into product placement, its use and its positioning within the market group/s (couples, families of various ages and ethnicities, etc.). The obvious disadvantage for the participants (whether it is reality or not, likely not) is that they are on show for all to see. This begs the question, from a customers’ perspective, is their privacy being compromised in a similar way in their everyday shopping experience? As they say, “Big Brother” is always watching.


Beyond conducting ethnography in physical consumer environments, “webnography” – observing online users in a natural context on the Internet, is routinely conducted by marketers [vii]. This observational methodology involves the use of forums, blogs and social networking services in which customers are spontaneously talking and sharing their experiences and vital data. Given the personalized nature of blogs and other online subscriptions, these mediums tend to promote more “real” or “heart-felt” discussion. This is partly due to the anonymity associated with online communication and also the speed and nature of data usage that takes place. e.g. A consumers’ ability to instantly compare a brand’s price, customer satisfaction and features with other brands in order to formulate or be persuaded towards an opinion.

However effective ethnographic market research is, questions must be asked:

Is a consumer that is being observed in a multitude of ways (i.e. physically or online), going a step too far and does this represent an invasion of security in going beyond the safety net of our own self-image and extent of reveal?

Should there be limits imposed on marketers in the never-ending pursuit of human behavioral studies?

How can marketers obtain such intimate data but remain objective in the eye of the consumer?


[i] Kolter, P., Burton, S., Deans, K., Brown, L. & Armstrong, G. 2013, Marketing, 9edn, Pearson Australia, NSW, Chapter 6, pp. 148-170.

[ii] Connolly, T., Zeelenberg, M. & Rieters, R. 2007, “A Theory of Regret Regulation 1.0”, Journal of Consumer psychology, Vol. 17, Iss. 1, pp. 3-18.

[iii] Parasuraman, A., Grewal, D. & Kishnan, R. 2007, Market Research, 2edn, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston.

[iv] Elliott, R. & Jankel-Elliott, N. 2003, “Using ethnography in strategic consumer research”, Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal, Vol. 6, Iss. 4, pp. 215-223.

[v] Ante, SE. 2006, “The science of desire”, Business Week, 5 June, pp. 100.

[vi] Blakely, R. 2007, “You know when it feels like somebody’s watching you”, New Times, 14 May, pp. 46.

[vii] Tyagi, PK. 2010, “Webnography: A new tool to conduct marketing research”, Journal of American Academy of Business, March, pp. 116-123.

[viii] Profoundry, 2014. “What Can Gogglebox Teach Marketers?”. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 14 April 15].


12 thoughts on “Is Market Research Getting Too Intimate?

  1. Actually, I always feel creeped out by this thought. I feel that someone may be tracking my movements as I shop, monitoring my purchases through my loyalty card, and possibly following my keystrokes as I am typing this comment now. From the perspective of a consumer, privacy is definitely an issue, and I feel we have little control over some of the research that is carried out. It’s not like as though upon entry of a supermarket, a large notice advises me that my movement may be monitored.

    From the perspective of a business, and in a market filled with competition, it is important to understand the needs of your customers to deliver value. However, there are privacy concerns that need to be considered. Masters (n.d) maps out ethical issues of marketing research such as deceptive practices (dishonest research methods), invasion of privacy (where Companies have the ability to collect, store and match customer information that violate privacy) and breaches of confidentiality (unauthorised sharing of customers’ personal information).
    Researchers must also abide by legal standards, as mapped out in the privacy Act 1988 and the Australian Privacy Principles.

    I think it is important to understand consumers’ needs and behaviour but invasive research methods must be conducted with the consent of those being researched and ethical standards must be met and kept.

    AMSRS, 2015, ‘The AMSRS Code of Professional Behaviour’, retrieved 16 April 2015, .

    Masters, T, n.d, ‘Ethical Considerations of Marketing Research’, Small Business, retrieved 16 April 2015, .


  2. Wow what a great blog, very interesting. I don’t have a problem with this sort of market research. I don’t really think that it is all that much different from getting a focus group together, apart from the fact that people in focus groups might have a tendency to tell you what you want to hear whereas in video footage people are in their natural state.

    I think that this issue is not too dissimilar to some people’s dislike of the plethora of surveillance cameras around our modern cities. My personal opinion is that provided is that I would prefer to have surveillance cameras if it means I am safer in a city (since I have nothing to hide) and similarly I am not strongly opposed to marketers studying video footage of me to gain insights into how they can improve their products or evolve their marketing strategy.

    Though, I can understand why people might have a view that is contrary to mine.


  3. There is always two sides to a coin. Same is with the view to above practices by marketers. why is it that the marketers have to get involved and disturb the privacy of an individual just to understand his likes and dislikes. Wouldn’t just surveying or asking a few questions help here? Yes, as mentioned above, an individual would utter only those words in a focus group to what thee person in front wants to hear. What about the actual piece of information? what about the truth? Would you mind spending two minutes from your daily busy schedule just to answer a few set of questions. I think many of us actually might. What if the other set of people are interested. This helps in a study when people volunteer to give their insights over the product or service offered by the company to them. A study where an individual’s privacy doesn’t get affected and at the same time the company withhelds the necessary information would be something everyone can accept.


  4. an excellent and thought provoking blog, thanks!

    I believe that there should be legal limits to market research. Marketing is just one example of where technology has moved at a faster pace than the laws which can regulate it. Companies now possess an extreme amount of personal information, particularly through platforms like Facebook.


  5. Thanks for this blog. The legal and ethical dimensions of the use of information and how it is collected is really a new space that as a society we are trying to grapple with. The other responses to your blog highlight how diverse views on this topic are.

    I can recall (but cant recall the source) reading of the difficulties anthropologies have had in studying different cultures and people without having the study itself influencing the behaviours observed. How confident can we be that some of these more invasive forms of research haven’t modified or influenced the response. Do people on goggle box react genuinely or play it up to the camera. It may not be that different from the focus group which tells you what you want to hear.

    My discomfort lies in the unfirmed observation and then subsequent recording and analysis of people. I cant help but feel there is something inherently sinister about recording what people do and say without their knowledge and then using to make conclusions about their behaviours. Maybe it depends on the context and what it is being used for and who is collecting it and what framework exists to inform how it is used. If we always feel we are being watched and recorded then when do we behave as our true selves. if it is not when we are being recorded then how useful really is the data collected.


  6. great blog! information is significant in marketing, accurate information brings organizations to success in the competition, wrong information will definitely brings risks. however if the research of information mess or excessive information would cause unnecessary troublesome to both customers and organization.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. In my opinion, the same principles of ethics that apply in marketing research are relevant to ethnographic research. Although ethnographic research is unique in some ways that is often associated with ethical dilemmas and uncertainties:

    For example, unlike surveys or focus groups, where standard codes of practice such as subject release forms and protocols are employed, ethnography research is conducted in a processual manner. Hence, the ethical issues are ongoing, as issues unfold in real time and space. The ethnographer can not always ask informants for their informed consent, and certainly not in the heat of the moment. Thus there is a greater risk of situational dilemmas and uncertainties associated with ethnography research when compared with other forms of marketing research. [1]

    There is a great article – the link below – that discuses some of the ethical concerns, unique to anthropology research:



  8. Interesting article! I am thinking about the question you raised: how can a marketers obtain such intimate data but remain objective in the eye of the consumer? I think ethnographic research is always subjective because the observer is always (probably unconsciously) interpreting a situation in the light of his previous experiences and preconceptions. It is impossible to separate oneself from our attitudes and beliefs that we have. Therefore, an objective observation seems impossible. At the same time this is not necessarily negative, because the observer’s previous experience help him to interpret the situation and communicate the to the outsider. Accordingly, the challenge for the observer is to be aware that his observations are biased, to take the point of view of a detached observer and to present the results on the most objective possible way.


  9. Ethics are always an interesting topic of conversation! I feel there is a difference between the ethics of using data collected from physical observation to that collected online. Where people post information online in a public forum they are clearly happy for people to hear their views/ideas/beliefs so I think this is fair game. However where someone is observed without their prior knowledge or consent the question of ethics comes into play. I understand the importance of gathering this type of data for marketing purposes but am not sure I would appreciate being the non-consenting participant. This is a grey area. If the ethical principal of “do no harm” is followed (as used in other research disciplines such as psychology) I believe this method is reasonable for market researches to use.


  10. Hi, thanks for the blog, I really enjoy it.

    I was wondering how I would behave if I know that I am been recording all the time. I think that in this case I wouldn’t be myself and I wouldn’t act naturally. If you know that your living room is a set, you just behave in the way you think that is properly, and maybe that is not your real behaviour. Based on this, I don’t know how effective are these strategies to get the real perception of people about certain products.


  11. I really enjoyed reading this.

    It is always going to be hard to assess just how worthwhile these forms of market research actually are. In a focus group as you point out early in your piece results may not always be accurate depending on the individuals in those groups. Someone may give a false opinion to what they believe for a simple reason such as feeling uncomfortable in the group, and not wanting to be out of line with others in the group.

    When it comes to a limit on the studies I don’t think there necessarily has to be one – if the people within these studies give their consent. What I mean by this for example is if the idea of Gogglebox was used by a company to put cameras in their devices to see how often consumers used their product/s to gain data (without consumers being aware of this) there is obvious issues there. Although if consent was given to do such research (as would be assumed most organizations would hopefully do) such as the Moen example there is no issues.

    Market research is obviously such an important part of marketing. Again you use a great example of Gillette not appealing to the Indian market due to obvious lack of research within that segment.

    At the end of the day Big Brother is everywhere in our everyday world.

    Studying Media and Communication as an undergraduate it surprised me to learn early on that ‘Big Brother’ can view almost any aspect of you life if truly necessary. Key words in our text messages for example can trigger Government departments to view our messages. There is cameras positioned all over the place; social networking increases ‘the eye’ even further.

    I don’t really see why (or how) such research should stop in marketing as it is around us in so many other ways in modern life.


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