Thursday, July 15, 2010

ms. fuzzy head

i don't know if i intended her name to refer to her frizzy, crimpy, blonde 80's hair or her seemingly perpetually confused state of mind.  but it fits both, so i figured i'd run with it.  i met ms. fuzzy head on the street yesterday.  ordinarily i take fliers from strangers as often as i take candy from them.  but ms. fuzzy head was offering the chance to screen the movie Miral before final editing would take place.  i read the film description and decided it was something i would pay for, so it was definitely something i'd see for free (unfortunately, i can't talk about the movie itself - apparently such information is top secret).  but i can talk about my experience with ms. fuzzy head.  she was friendly enough, and i took her flier and i saw a free movie tonight as a result (biting my fingers to keep from writing anything about the film).

i encountered ms. fuzzy head again as j and i stood in the line (oops, that is "on line" here in the city - haven't quite got my vernacular down).  the sun was beating down on stagnant air and stagnant, sweat-dripping bodies.  the masses were joking about giving the film bad reviews just because they had to stand outside so long (as you'll find out, ms. fuzzy head might insist people don't do things like that). imagine a fly trapped in a car, buzzing incessantly, flying from one window into the next, only to turn around and fly into the first window again.  that was ms. fuzzy head pacing up and down the line.  she was looking for people to be in the focus group.  she invited me ... but only because she guessed my age wrong - when she found out how old i was, she took her invitation away.  my age group was already represented.

the price for the free screening was filling out a survey at the end.  in the past, the thought of anyone writing something about "survey methodology" on their resume made me laugh - because truly, the subject could be covered in one well-written chapter ... not even a whole book.  but tonight i learned why "expertise" in this field is important.

after the film, we had about 5-10 minutes to fill out an extremely lengthy survey (remember those ovals from the SAT?  they're back) - lots of ratings and just as many short answers.  we were given dull miniature golf scoring pencils (yes, they write like crayons) and were given half of a line (each) to name and describe our favorite and least favorite scenes.  we rated each of the main actors: one rating each on a completely uninterpretable question (not that there would have been time to read the directions anyway).  were we rating how well the actor played the character?  the believability?  how much we liked the actor?  how much we liked the character?  we also rated the film on how sympathetic the film was.  no, not how sympathetic we felt to the film's message.  no, not how sympathetic we felt to particular characters.  we rated how sympathetic the film itself was (and no, not how sympathetic the film was with regard to any particular topic or issue).  apparently i missed the instruction to tell the film how i was feeling and observe its response.

the only things they will possibly get out of that survey is a vague sense of "liked it" or "didn't like it" from frazzled film goers, and a couple scribbled notes on selected questions ... if they are lucky, legible scribbled notes.  it could have been a single-item questionnaire.  if the survey design weren't bad enough, ms. fuzzy head and her helpers buzzed around the room while people were taking the survey, asking them what they wrote for one of the questions (asking them to say this out loud in the midst of all the other survey takers). i was asked four different times.  after the first time, i knew that if i chose a particular underrepresented overall rating of the film, i would be invited to participate in the focus group (one of ms. fuzzy head's helpers buzzed around repeating "we need people who rated it ___."  and i did want to be in the focus group ... but after an intense moral struggle, i gave it the true rating i thought it deserved.

after completing my survey, i had a brief chat with ms. fuzzy head, in an apparently misguided effort to give her a little professional advice (i.e., give her a little information that, frankly, i'm shocked she didn't already know given that this is her job ... oh youthful idealism, you fail me again - causing me to expect people to know how to do their jobs ... but i would have thought in the business world, if people are motivated to produce profitable results, they would get a position like hers only if they actually knew what they were doing ... but the senseless real world crashes in on me again).  i kept it simple - i just tried to explain the merits of anonymity - how if you want honest, relatively unbiased answers, you can't shout at people and ask them to shout their responses back to you (i used softer words than this).  and that is when i saw a thin coat of glaze trickle down ms. fuzzy head's animated eyes.

she explained that they only asked after people had answered the question.  when i pointed out that i was asked 4 times before i had answered it, she still seemed to insist they didn't do that, so i changed the topic, making only one more last ditch effort to help.  i switched my approach to explaining that even doing this could bias their later responses and could bias the people around them.  ms. fuzzy head looked genuinely surprised.  she said "well, not if they are honest ... you or i would never do that"  i tried to explain that (a) some people might feel pressured, despite wanting to be honest, (b) some people are slower than others to form an opinion, and (c) that more often than not, people are influenced by things without knowing that they are influenced.  there is tons of research about this!  people are influenced by things they don't even consciously perceive ... let alone influenced by things that, although perhaps perceived, influence them in ways they do not understand.  many filmmakers are aware of this (or seem to be, judging by the the painstaking process they go through to make sure the music is just right, the selection of background details, etc.).  ms. fuzzy head chalked it up to needing to get surveys done quickly (i didn't bother to explain that you don't give people 4 pages of questions, crammed into 2 pages, half made of short answers if you want the survey to be quick - you do a little math and figure out the reliable questions ahead of time) - she said, "trust me, i used to be in advertising.  everything has to be quick."  i smiled politely, as i watched the glaze continue to coat ms. fuzzy head's eyes.  and when ms. fuzzy head asked if i had ever read the fountainhead by ayn rand and proceeded to change the conversation to a book recommendation, any lingering questions of whether the road between ears and brain was open to traffic had subsided.  so i smiled and politely ended the conversation.

i tried.  i tried to help Mr. Julian Schnabel get more accurate information before Miral hits the big screen everywhere.  instead, he is probably paying a lot of money for not very good, haphazard data (and this is not to mention how they could possibly analyze anything they collect from that survey in an accurate way ...).  Mr. Schnabel, for future reference, there are much better, more accurate ways of getting valid information (even getting it quickly, as seemed to be ms. fuzzy head's only concern).  call me.  i'll hook you up.  just pay me in proportion to how much more useful the results are.  p.s. thanks for the free screening.  i'd say more, but i know you want to keep it hush, hush.  i'll revisit this when your movie comes out.


  1. I can't wait to hear more when the movie comes out!! Oh- and I totally took an entire semester class on survey methodology. But I'll give you this, I don't think it needed to be a full semester. It was one of my favorite profs though, so it was tolerable.

  2. haha, well i will slightly modify my claims, then ... instead, i will say that if one needs to be taught certain very basic topics covered in such a course, one's gifts may lie in areas outside of survey research ... and i can't help but think that researchers like this are the reason that companies think it is a good idea to blare television commercials at constant maximal decibels (and somehow missed the repercussion that, rather than pay attention to the commercial, people will mute the commercials and/or watch shows later without commercials ... and, among those who do watch, the products advertised this way probably get negative, rather than positive, associations ... but hey, as long as the marketing research was done quickly, right? ;).