The Stupidest Market Research Question Ever Asked

There’s a great scene in the 1970s’ movie The Marathon Man, in which Laurence Olivier, who plays an evil dentist (that’s redundant, isn’t it?) is torturing Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman’s character is the brother of a CIA agent who was killed and took some secrets with him to the grave.

Olivier thinks Hoffman knows those secrets, and while torturing Hoffman asks him “Is it safe? Is it safe?” Hoffman has no freaking clue what Olivier is talking about, but after enduring as much pain as he can take, yells “It’s safe! It’s very safe!”


I was reminded of that movie when I read about research recently conducted by Nielsen in which they asked consumers the extent to which they trusted advertising on various marketing channels and from various sources.

My take: Asking consumers about the degree to which they trust advertising on a particular marketing channel is the stupidest marketing research question ever asked. To avoid the pain of a stupid survey, consumers will pretty much say anything.



First off, there’s a huge difference between “completely” trusting a source and “somewhat” trusting it, so combining the two responses into a single bar is a bit suspect. But I’m guilty of having done that (many times), so I better not cast too many stones on that point.

More importantly though, is that the nature of the question — regardless of the degrees prompted for — is just misguided.

So 62% of people completely or somewhat trust ads on TV, but only 37% completely or somewhat trust text ads on mobile phones. THEY’RE THE SAME DAMN ADS. HOW CAN YOU “COMPLETELY” TRUST IT ON ONE CHANNEL, BUT NOT ANOTHER?

Since we’re not given the break out between respondents who answered “completely” and those who answered “somewhat,” we’re at a bit of a disadvantage in interpreting the results. But, if the percentage of people who said they “completely” trust ads on TV is any number greater than zero, then we really need to wonder what kind of idiots Nielsen surveyed here.

Are these people saying they “completely” trust ALL types of advertisers on TV (or whatever marketing channel)? This is a ridiculous notion. Not that I want to get political here, but I think this will make the point: I wouldn’t trust an ad from in any channel, on any device, and even from my best friend (if I had one). Just as liberals wouldn’t trust any ad from Fox News regardless of where they heard or saw it.

The point here is that a “channel” isn’t a source of trust/distrust, it’s the source of the message that’s trusted or not.


There’s something else suspect here: The change in trust percentages from 2007.

Can you explain to me why trust in “ads before movies” would jump 18 percentage points between 2007 and 2013?

Or even why trust in TV advertising increased? Is it really that much better, or more trustworthy?

There’s something else impacting these results. I suspect it’s the general mood of the population overall. 2007 was the beginning of the decline in the economy, and consumers’ mood, satisfaction, and optimism wasn’t very high. As a result, they responded negatively to all the trust-related questions Nielsen asked about.


Bottom line: What we have here is shameless research designed to drive advertising dollars towards TV. And worse, based on the stupidest market research question ever asked.

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