Company surveys of their consumers: How reliable?
Corporations have always used consumer surveys for marketing purposes. Now, some are using so-called public opinion surveys to justify their own positions.Skip to next paragraph
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Results like these from such surveys were sent out to the press this year, for example:
* The majority of Americans think money market mutual funds are ''draining credit money away from local communities and consumer needs.''
* Most US households would like to have a satellite ''dish,'' to receive multichannel television programming.
* And 94 percent of all Americans want more product information about the products they buy.
The first finding, concerning money market funds, was commissioned by the American Bankers Association, the lobbying and trade association of commercial banks, which is not exactly a disinterested party when it comes to money market funds.
The second was paid for by the United States Satellite Broadcasting Company, a unit of Hubbard Broadcasting Inc., which would like to beam TV programs via satellite.
And the third survey was done for the General Electric Company, which subsequently began a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign to spread product information.
In each instance it appears the organizations received the findings they wished to receive, leading some outsiders to question the validity of the surveys. Only the results of the General Electric survey made the national news media. The New York Times advertising column ran a story about GE's new ad campaign and mentioned the survey.
At the Wall Street Journal, Charles Stabler, assistant managing editor, says that ''obviously this kind of thing is self-serving and, like any self-serving press release, is thrown in the wastebasket. I wouldn't say we never use one, but certainly if the release is pure puffery, it is treated as it deserves.''
Naturally, the institutions that sponsored the surveys defend them. Laura Jordan Bellis, a spokeswoman at the American Bankers Association, says the ABA sponsored its survey to inform the membership what the public was thinking, not just to send out a press release. Had most people disagreed with the ABA's findings, would she have sent out a press release? Probably not, she concedes.
Most people would probably not have disagreed with the ABA survey, however, because of the way the questioning was worded. Cambridge Reports Inc., a Cambridge, Mass.-based polling firm, asked 1,100 people in six regions of the country to agree or disagree with the following statement: ''Uninsured money market mutual funds offered by investment bankers are draining money consumers would normally put into savings accounts which are the basis to provide credit to meet the needs of the local community.''
The same is true with the General Electric survey, likewise done by Cambridge Reports. GE's first question was worded, ''How interested are you in having sufficient and useful information about the products or services you buy and use?'' Not surprisingly, 94 percent were either extremely interested or fairly interested.