Day in the Life of a Cosmetics Focus Group

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A woman calls and asks some questions to see if I qualify for a focus group. The questions are about my use of cosmetics. As I answer, I'm surprised and embarrassed to realize that I wear an awful lot of makeup.

"How many days a week do you apply makeup?"

"Uh, four."

"Five would be better."

"Oh. Five."

"Five is good. How many days a week do you wear blush?"


So I qualify for the focus group. I'm sent a FedEx containing a homework assignment to purchase an item of the sponsoring brand on Macy's main floor, for which I'll be reimbursed. If we'd had homework like this in high school, I would have done some of it. I buy a lavender lipstick that looks better in the tube than on my lips.

A few days later, the "research session" is held in midtown. Seven participants. Each girl has a "look," but each look is different. One has spiky bleached-blonde hair, red suede shoes and a bedazzled retro t. Another has yanked-back hair, a vivid purple shirt and modified Buddy Holly glasses. A very pretty Latina with glossy dark locks, deep lipstick, slacks and heels. Etc. I take my Kleenex with the red lips printed on them out of my lizard-look purse and someone stifles a laugh.

In the reception area, we're given a questionnaire to double-check that we qualify for the study. I circle all the fives. I chat with another participant who must be a former model?real tall with perfect body, skin and face. She's going to L.A. and I've just been. She tells me she's painted her toenails in anticipation of the warm weather, knowing that I must have done the same thing. I recommend a chain restaurant. "Oh noooh, but we have that here," she counters. Then she asks me who owns the hotel I stayed at. "Balasz? I think he owns the Morgan here."

"Noooh. That's Schrager."

She's got me. I've confused my hoteliers. I crawl into the meeting room.

We're told we'll be videotaped; a one-way mirror lines the wall. I get a rush when I see all the pretty-colored pots and vials laid out on the conference table.

My first problem is that I can't pronounce the product. "What I like about Bourgwee...uh Boujwasie uh..." Can we rewind the tape? The facilitator draws a scale on her easel and asks us to rate the funkiness of the line. The group says that competitor Hard Candy is funkier, at the top of the funky scale. This upsets me. I blurt, "Well I use Hard Candy and I am NOT funky." In a flurry, the girls appease me by conceding that Hard Candy ranks only a 95 in funkiness, not 100.

We're asked to rate different ad campaign statements. A preppie soft-spoken woman gives each campaign a 10. One statement goes on about feeling feminine and confident. I say, "This is awful. It sounds like an ad for a feminine hygiene product." A hush comes over the room and I am stared at as if I am a lavender-lipped Hitler. Preppie gives it a 10. Purple shirt says, "I don't like to be called feminine. That's sort of an insult."

My jaw drops as my head swivels and my eyes pop to gape in horror at the speaker of this insanity. Then I wince, hearing the laughter my pop-eyes will cause at playback.

We're asked for a banner statement to identify the cosmetics line. I point to their poster ad, saying, "I like what they used there?Joie de Vivre." The facilitator gives me a cold silent stare for seven seconds and says, "Why is it you can pronounce that, but not the name of the company?"

Then we get sandwiches! I wolf down a deli-sized ham and cheese on rye, camera be damned. Just a few more questions, and we pounce on the samples we're offered. I say thank-you to the facilitator, but she's absorbed by a discussion of whether to feed the next group or not. The receptionist hands me an envelope with 125 clams in it. Hey, that's nine lipsticks.

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