Real to Reel

Jesse Kipp's job in the emerging field of commercial ethnography could make you the star of your very own advertisement

Holland explains how different this method is from others used throughout the last half-century of advertising: the slogan in the '50s, the survey in the '70s, and the focus group in the '80s. By the early '90s, advertisers were looking for increasingly intimate insights into their increasingly sophisticated audiences.

"At first, focus groups were able to provide so much additional information above and beyond any sort of paper-and-pencil marketing research tool that they appeared to be the answer," Holland says. "And that worked for a very long time." But during the media-saturated '80s and '90s, consumers became progressively more savvy and skeptical, a change she considers a side effect of an overresearched society.

"There was a time when so few people were contacted personally that there was the feeling of obligation and almost flattery when you were asked to participate," Holland says. "But when you're attacked by the clipboard ladies every single time you go to the mall, the mystique is lost."

Kipp at his office.
James Sanders
Kipp at his office.
Claudine Murphy, an account planner at Goodby, 
James Sanders
Claudine Murphy, an account planner at Goodby, Silverstein.

In the early '90s a handful of research firms developed a new tactic. Dubbed "commercial ethnography," the technique quickly became a hot topic in the advertising industry (which seems prone to hot topics) for using components of sociology and anthropology in conducting market research. By its academic definition, ethnography is the study of behavior in its natural environment, used mostly for academic anthropology; when that observation is used by a company to understand the way its products affect people in the world -- usually by videotaping or audiotaping consumers -- it's called commercial ethnography. The idea is to get to know the consumer better than he knows himself.

"It offers something that you can't study statistically, most of the time about the demographic that changes its mind the quickest: youth," Holland says. "There was an awakening to the fact that you couldn't get an accurate view of what teenagers are thinking by having them fill out a survey or participate in a focus group."

Holland concedes that the media- and tech-savvy youth market -- constantly snapping pictures with camera phones, sharing personal information online, and desensitized to the ubiquity of reality television -- is probably more comfortable in front of a camera than any other generation. "It's something that is so much more accepted now," Holland says. "You just share your life with others."

Kipp is hardly the only one with whom people are sharing their lives. Aside from him and the nameless New Yorkers, people are also doing so with Chip Rees and Bonnie Wan. The San Francisco couple, both veterans of large ad agencies, launched Witness the Way We Live, their own commercial ethnography firm based in the city, with a mission to "use lifestyle research and documentary as a way to stimulate ideas through vivid cultural portraits," as their promotional material explains. When we meet in a Mission District coffee shop near the Witness office, Rees agrees that today's kids are more open to intimate video research.

"There is very much a comfort level because your friends are always recording you," says Rees. "You go to Union Square in Manhattan and there are all these skateboarders out there filming each other and recording each other. And there is the revolution of digital cameras. People are used to seeing themselves and being recorded."

"Kids are experts with media," Wan says. "Not only because they are growing up in a media culture, but also because they are the ones who are creating media themselves. It's very much a part of their world. We are in a reality video culture. That is the pervasive culture."

That culture allows people like Rees, Wan, and Kipp extensive access to the lives of the people they study. For many teenagers, participating in a commercial ethnography study is like starring in an episode of a reality television show.

"The whole reason this kind of research works is rooted in the fact that it makes people feel unique and that they have something interesting to tell," says Joanna Holland. For example, when asked why her daughter provided such candid answers to the pizza men, she replies, "Because they asked. [The girls] felt like movie stars."

For Rees (and, as his films reveal, Kipp), the way such questions are asked is just as important as what's asked. "When you approach a person and show genuine interest in their ideas and where they come from, and you're not treating them as a specimen, they open up."

That kind of genuine interest first appeared in the work of Caroline Gibbons Barry, who founded PortiCo Research, an early commercial ethnography firm that started in New York City in 1993 and today has satellite offices all over the United States and Europe. According to PortiCo's second in command, Scott Mosier (who has the Orwellian-sounding title director of consumer insights), Barry was "frustrated with asking people about how they use paper towels but not being able to see how they use paper towels in real life."

Mosier goes on, "She knew that the only way this was going to work was if she could communicate what she was seeing and learning in [consumers'] homes to the clients." Barry hired documentary filmmakers in New York City to film in-home visits, hoping to show how powerful the documentary technique was as a tool for going beyond traditional focus group methods into a better understanding of the interior lives of consumers. "Sure enough," Mosier says with a touch of pride, "the things that she was hoping would come true came true. They all came true." Today PortiCo is one of the leading research firms that conduct commercial ethnography in the world.

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