Divining Desire



“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

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About the Book

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.

254 pages • Paperback ISBN 978-1-682191-06-4 • E-book 978-1-682191-07-1

About the Author

liza featherstone author photo

Photo © Brennan Cavanaugh
Liza Featherstone is a journalist based in New York City and a contributing editor to The Nation, where she also writes the advice column “Asking for a Friend.” Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Ms., and Rolling Stone among many other outlets. She is the co-author of Students against Sweatshops: The Making of a Movement (Verso, 2002) and author of Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Wal-Mart (Basic, 2004). She is the editor of False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Clinton (Verso, 2016).

Read an Excerpt

Preface: ”How Would You Imagine That?”

“It’s hard but it’s worth it, I think.” She says, reassuring herself, but not sounding entirely sure, “It is.” Michelle, a soft-spoken young mother of two, is speaking about balancing childcare, housework, and a full-time job outside the home.

Sharon, a stay-at-home mom, says her interests are “trying to figure out how to be stress-free, being at home with the kids.”

Teresa calls herself as a stay-at-home mom, too, although she actually works part-time as a waitress. She heartily seconds Sharon’s emphasis on stress: “I just can’t wait till bedtime.”

The women, all mothers of young children, are introducing themselves to one another, and describing the difficulties of balancing work and parenthood, time pressures, and many other shared problems. Though the problems are contemporary, the conversation evokes a bygone era.

But we’re not eavesdropping on a 1970s-style feminist consciousness-raising group, with its fusion of therapy and empowerment. Nor is this a political group organizing for universal day care or pay equity. It’s a focus group whose aim is to explore consumer reaction to a new product whose target market is mothers of babies.

The mothers describe time pressure, and the burden of “husbands who don’t really want to do stuff.” Not a single woman fails to be animated by the conversation or the product; everyone is engaged. Some would consider the women’s discussion a political one, engaging, as it does, problems of work-family balance and gender equality within marriage. Yet their conversation offers a window on how such concerns, and the pleasure people take in discussing them, can be so helpful to corporate America.

“How would you imagine that?” the moderator asks constantly, inviting the women to think creatively about how the product might best transform their lives.

One woman brings one word of hope to the discussion of how the product might make her feel: “Relief.”

The conversation gets into intimate child-rearing detail. The women’s graphic descriptions of poop “blowouts” at the shopping mall, or on an airplane, would resonate with any parent. Others describe less-dramatic crises. “She goes like this after every meal,” one mom imitates her toddler, putting her hands in her hair. “I need to give her a bath but there’s not always time for that.”

“What do you do now in these situations?” asks the moderator, a warm and deeply attentive listener, who never assumes she knows what they’re thinking.

No bath, was the consensus.

If the baby doesn’t get a bath: “Then you feel really guilty,” one mom explains, to murmurs of agreement. “Because you’re a terrible mother.”

“When would you see using something like this?” the moderator asks them, about the product. Not surprisingly, given the magic powers they’ve already bestowed upon it, one woman says quickly, “As soon as possible.”

When they test the product, however, the moms don’t love it as much as they loved the idea. They complain about the texture. It’s not obvious how best to use it.

The moms are overworked—inside and outside the home. When the focus group explores their own lives, it does sound like a feminist consciousness-raising group. But because it’s run by a consumer goods company rather than by radical feminists, the solutions that emerge are commercial and not political.

The women in this group are doing some quasi-political things. They are looking critically at their lives, forming community—even if only for a few hours—and cooperating. They are talking and listening, building on each other’s ideas. The focus group taps into some of what we as social human beings do best. The focus group can also engage people at a profound level, tapping into deep desires, conflicts, and even new ideas. It harnesses our collective impulses to share, discuss, and work together. The focus group also allows us to cooperate with others, which in our rather lonely, individualistic culture, we don’t often get to do.

No product can solve all these women’s problems, of course. But the conversation took place for good reason. The company convened the focus group because, no doubt, the corporate executives who run the company genuinely don’t know how ordinary moms live. In order to sell things, they need to do some listening.

The focus group has been one of their favorite ways of listening for a long time.

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