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Scurrilous Scalawags and Other Alliterative Miscreants



By Steve Needel, PhD

A recent Linkedin discussion posted on the ESOMAR group site, “Join the Debate: Black Hat v. White Hat”, (see link below) worried about the “intruders” coming into marketing research, often waving the banners of Big Data or Social Media analysis, wreaking havoc and scorching the earth behind them. Okay, was that a vivid enough description of the vitriol that was spewed? Of course, we researchers had a solution to this scourge – trade associations! Yes, rather than take responsibility ourselves, many suggested it is the job of trade associations like AMA, CASRO, ESOMAR, MRA, and MRS, to throw out a few acronyms, to protect us. These trade associations should swoop in like the cavalry (or the white knight in the case of MRS), publicly admonishing the evil-doers who dare encroach on our territory and making sure research buyers were aware of the shoddy wares they dispensed. Or something like that.

It turns out that not all trade associations are what we may think they are – fighters for truth, justice, etc. Some exist for the benefit of its members only, rather than for the benefit of the industry as a whole, with the members reaping the benefits thereof. Yes, I know that sounds like trickle-down economics and we all know where that got us. If you look at the “why we exist” section of the above groups’ websites, you see that they all have an industry focus:

“As the leading organization for marketers, AMA is the trusted resource go-to resource for marketers and academics. We are counted as the most credible marketing resource where our members can stay relevant…. The AMA is constantly innovating and evolving, helping to shape the field …”

“CASRO is the voice and values of the survey research industry.”

“ESOMAR is the essential organization for encouraging, advancing, and elevating market research worldwide.”

“MRA is the leading and largest association dedicated solely to promoting, unifying, and advancing the insight, opinion, and marketing research profession.”

“Welcome to the Market Research Society. We’re here for all those who need, use, generate or interpret the evidence essential to making good decisions for commercial and public policy. The quality standards, suitability, and sustainability of evidence is important because evidence matters to decision makers.” (author’s note – well said, MRS).

Of course they are not all the largest or the best or blah, blah, blah – but they are all very good and they are all focused on the industry as a whole. Contrast this with a pseudo trade organization – an organization you would think by its name is devoted to truth and beauty, but instead is a propaganda medium for its members.

I’m going to pick on one such organization, which claims as its raison d’etre, “In sum, the Institute is a one-stop clearinghouse for trends and developments in shopper technology as well as a forum for thought leadership and an advocate for best practices.” Not bad, until you quickly figure out that the trends, developments, thought leadership, and best practices are all from their sponsors (at $5,000 to $10,000 a year). This is a great deal for the sponsors. who get to write their own articles and espouse whatever position they like – no editing, no fact-checking, and no opportunity for discussion or rebuttal, all under an institute’s imprimatur.

This would not be much of a problem if the articles were written by people who really understood what was going on in research or by suppliers trying to advance the industry (and benefit from the enlightened self-interest that would follow). But there is some amazingly bad work and some incredibly dishonest activity going on in some of these organizations. Let me give you some examples of what I mean (and I’ve commented publicly on this in other forums):

  • They report the results of a study by Kimberly-Clark where the baby care section was rearranged in Safeway Stores (using virtual reality, my specialty). The author reports long term increases (not a simple one-time increase) in the major segments (diapers, wipes, etc.) of 28% to 81%. For those of you who do any kind of sales research, you know that nothing increases a category’s sales by that much over the long term – ever!
  • In a recent newsletter, they summarize a presentation by one of the virtual reality suppliers outlining the myths of virtual reality. This is great, except that the author is wrong about most of the myths.  And I’m sure it would surprise you to find out that where he is wrong, it is because to be right is to the detriment of his company. Creating myths and then knocking them down to make your company look better is a great marketing tool, but it is hardly appropriate to a forum for “thought leadership and an advocate for best practices”.
  • This particular institute has alliances and is “media buddies” with other institutes and publications. So here’s a neat trick. They get their sponsors to each write a chapter and self-publish a book that is supposed to be leading edge and thought provoking and all those good things you’d hope for.  How do I know this? Because there’s a review on Amazon that says so, written by one of their media buddies (no disclosure is made of the relationship).

I’m picking on one self-styled trade association – I can name many others who persist in sending me their newsletters and requests to send them cash in return for innumerable benefits to my company. The point I want to bring up is both a continuation of the black hat – white hat debate and a cautionary note. We should be skeptical about relying on trade associations to “protect” our industry. While some, like ESOMAR, MRS, and others are well-above board, others are not. Likewise, we should not assume that just because they are an “Institute” or a “Trade Association”, that they have anybody’s interests at heart except those who pay to have their products and point of views shilled. And hey, not everything you read on the Internet is true – just ask Allstate (

For the original Black Hat – White Hat debate, go to:


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