The problem of partial ethnography


Ethnography is much used in corporate circles.  As a matter of fact, I’m headed to Toronto to participate in the Marketing Science Institute’s "Business Insights from consumer culture."  It will be jammed with ethnographers and marketers interested in ethnography.  Here’s a sneak preview of part of my presentation.

This interest in ethnography is being driven chiefly by 4 things:

1) the simple recognition that the focus group is no longer the preeminent methodological tool for qualitative inquiry.

2) the CEO of P&G, A.G. Lafley has smiled on ethnography and in marketing circles this is pretty close to a Papal blessing.

3) ethnography is moving through its life cycle.  It is no longer the new kid on the block, and its time to get serious about what it is, how it works, and how it can be managed for corporate purposes.

4) there are lots of bad practitioners now operating, and it is time for the corporation to begin to separate the sheep from the goats.

If ethnography has an obvious advantage, it is that it disintermediates the connection between the corporation and the consumer.  The ethnographer goes into the life of the consumer, sitting in kitchens and living rooms, to listen and observe.  This is good.  Ideally, it means that the corporation can see how the product and the brand manifests itself in home, in use, in life.  The famous and most obvious example of the value of ethnography: a 20 minute video showing a consumer trying to open a package.  "Ah," says the corporation, "we have a design problem." 

This is fine as far as it goes, but some clients are now treating ethnography as if it were merely for disintermediation, only a way to collapse the distance between the corporation and the corporation.  In the partial view, the ethnographer becomes, in effect, the marketer’s surrogate, a way for the marketer to see into the life of the consumer, his or her eyes and ears in place.  The presumption here is that, with a little more time, the marketer would have gone himself (herself) and would have seen pretty much the same thing.  This might be someone struggling with a package they cannot open.  Who could miss this?  The ethnographer is merely a witness to something so obvious it would have been evident to anyone. 

This short changes the method and the corporation.  For the method is designed not just for observation but analysis.  In a mature methodological universe, the ethnographer returns not just with brute observations but with insights.  And this is called for because many of the things the corporation needs to know are not evident on the surface of the consumer’s life.  We have to see beneath the surface into the beliefs and assumptions, the patterns and the practices, that make this life practical and sensible.  No mere "eyes and ears" ethnographer can supply these deeper insights. 

The "eyes and ears" model of ethnography is, I think, one of the reasons that bad practitioners have flourished.  Many are too uneducated or dim witted to offer anything more than surface reports.  More pointedly, they are often too stupid to see the real analytic opportunity or competitive insight.  This means that the corporation is buying only half the method.  More pointedly, many ethnographers are selling half the insight.  Naive empiricism is fine if all we need to worry about is impenetrable packaging.  But when the marketing problem is more difficult, more nuanced, more interesting, this sort of thing will not do.  Certainly, no partial ethnographer is going to spot a BFI.  No partial ethnographer is going to discover a "blue ocean."  No partial ethnographer can hope to perform the higher order analysis that is the corporation’s due. 

Here is an ad from Nokia that helps make the point.  It’s for the Nokia 8801.  The tag is "It’s your life in there."  The ad is available on line (see the link below).  When you get to the website, you will have to select one of several images that are scrolling horizontally.  You want the one that shows a blond woman with the tag "new."  If you’ve got the time, please watch both ads.   The link is here.

Here’s a recap of the second ad, the one entitled "Jill and her Nokia."  Jill says,

"I met a guy last Saturday night and he asked for my phone number and, like, things were going well at the bar, so I give him my phone number and he puts me right into his phone and was like, hey, that’s ,that’s, that’s pretty quick and then he asked me if I wanted his number and I was like yeah do you want to put it down on a business card or something.  I mean I’m a lady!  Who thinks of jumping right into my phone.  I got to take this as a process.  If we call, if we have some sort of thing going."

[The ad shows the Nokia 8801 and the line:] Nokia: It’s your life in there

"It’s like my cell phone is precious, it’s precious territory."

Now this is a great ad in some ways.  It says the Nokia has gone well behind the boiler plate of its PR, which I found online and reproduce, very partially, here:

Nokia is dedicated to enhancing people’s lives and productivity by providing easy-to-use and secure products like mobiles phones and solutions for imaging, games, media,, mobile network operations and businesses.

…we aim to help people get connected and increase the level of enjoyment and productivity that results.

Using ethnography, Nokia has drilled down into some of the real uses of the phone, and especially the way the phone interacts with the consumer’s life.  The second ad shows us that this Nokia is not merely an "enhancement" of Jill’s life but something deeply personal, a way of marking the boundaries of her social life, a way of deciding whether someone is in or out.  And in the first ad, we see that the Nokia is actually a way to remove people from her life, as when Jill "deletes" her boyfriend. 

Now, I would be prepared to bet a substantial sum of money that this ad comes almost directly from the ethnographer’s note book.  Clearly, "Jill" is an actress.  Clearly, this ethnographic moment has been reshot.  Just as clearly, Nokia decided that they liked the insight of the research so well that they would turn the insight into the ad and reproduce the moment of illumination.  They even went so far as to preserve the original cheesy video work. 

I think this is a bad idea.  The first ad (Jill deleting an old boyfriend) is cringingly unpleasant to watch.  Especially "Jill’s" laugh at the very end which happens to catch the pain of this experience rather too vividly.  The phrase "overshare" is making the rounds of adolescent speech at the moment, and it seems particularly apt here.  This is research overshare.  I don’t really want to know about Jill’s anxieties.  Unlike a former president, I don’t want to feel her pain. 

Don’t get me wrong.  The underlying research, the insight that some ethnographer brought back from Jill’s bedroom, is a beauty.  As I say, it moves us beyond the  "we sell communications" model of the corporation.  But it is just an insight, and as such it is too personal, particular and painful too deliver a powerful branding message.  I am impressed that Nokia did their homework.  I am impressed that they hired an ethnographer to capture this insight but I don’t want disintermediated access to the research.  For marketing purposes, this should be the point of departure.  But it should not be our point of arrival.   

In sum, the world of corporate ethnography appears to be leaving an exuberant adolescence and entering what we hope will be a more solemn, deliberate, and useful adulthood.  It will, we hope, put the things of childhood behind it. See you at the conference, if you are going.  Watch this space for periodic reports, if you’re not. 


The quote above from Nolkia’s corporate brochure can be found here


11 thoughts on “The problem of partial ethnography

  1. Mike

    For me, the first Jill ad works, even or perhaps especially the laugh at the end. If “Jill” can have a sense of humor about the breakup of her relationship, then great. She has moved beyond the pain, we can laugh with her, and join in reliving the triumpal moment in which she zapped the entry from her phone.

    You say you don’t want disintermediated access to the ethnographer’s research, but this, too, is not a problem for me. Or rather, I don’t feel it. There is intermediation here, but it is a light touch and that lets the ad seem honest. The ethnographer’s eye may have spotted the cultural significance in a women’s use of a cell phone to signal relationships and mark social boundaries, but there is little sense of a third party intermediating the experience and telling me as a consumer what this means.

    Of course in this, as in many things, Seinfeld was there almost a decade ago, in an episode in which Jerry frets about his position on his girlfriend’s speed dial list, makes it to the number one slot, and becomes caught in the middle of a “speed dial war” between his girlfried and her mother.

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  3. dilys

    Disintermediation then demands re-intermediation, I think you’re saying. Maybe that’s a way to think in many fields about the difference between the clumsy literalist and the artist.

    If your earlier post was about ATMs and the archetype of “motherhood,” this is about cell phones and the archetype of, well, maybe what’s left of “virginity.” Communications celibacy. Is the guy I meet “phone-worthy”?

  4. craig lefebvre

    Your assessment of the half-baked ethnography studies echoes what has been said over the years about people who conduct focus groups: there are those who ask the questions and those who bring back the insight. [Maybe they are the same people expanding their methods base?]
    The Nokia example goes beyond the method and analysis issue and into the creative turf. While we all prefer this to be a seamless hand off (via a creative brief or other debriefing by the research or account planning people), in reality the data comes to life (or not) in the hands of creative people. I can imagine the CD for Nokia saying that s/he wanted a ‘slice of life’ execution and the ‘notebook’ example was perfect. AKA selecting data to fit preconceptions.
    I don’t think better data collection, or better analysis, necessarily leads to more effective ads, but one would hope it at least influences strategy in ways that Nokia seems to have found. Now what does the rest of their marketing program do to bring this insight to life?

  5. Steve Portigal

    I’ve been facscinated for years by the aesthetics of ethnography making their way into advertising. There’s a whole passel (?) of market research methods that appear literally/figuratively/etc. (the videogame testing labs, the Dell industrial design interns) in advertising, but I think the style of ethnography – people obviously being interviewed, people talk in a natural-esque manner about their dreams (remember the adults who were “fans” of Tony the Tiger and followed him around to get a glimpse of him – carrying a book of blurry photos they shared with each other? DIRECTLY from my gang of aging Stones fans that I hang with).

    Part of this I think is the collision->blurring of consumer and producer as a cultural story, and so advertising repackages what we know about what they do back at us.

    Personas – one of the tools that the interface/interaction design community like to use to make sense of field research (personally I abhor them – they are reductive and silly and dangerous in the wrong hands, but beloved nonetheless) – often apppear in advertising. I put one of ’em up at

    And yeah, you raise a wonderful and painful point about the crappy level of work being done under the banner of user research or ethnography or what-have-you. We’ve had clients call months after we worked with them, announcing they had purchased a video camera and gone and done their own work out in the field. Oh, and by the way, could they hire us to tell to look at their videotapes and tell us what they mean? Yikes – we obviously did a bad job at demonstrating where our value lay if they thought it was going to require a $400 piece of A/V equipment to replace us. That was back in the bad old days when we thought it was bad-bad-bad to bring “the client” into “the field” because they might screw it up or something.

    I love bringing the client in the field – they add value – they always screw it up but I’ve found that it isn’t actually all that fragile and it doesn’t really matter too terribly – the interviews are harder to do and don’t flow as well and yet we get way more out of them because my clients tell me what surprises them, they have their own analyses, they are already part-way there when the insights come back, because they may not have been able to come up with them but they are able to recognize ’em.

    Okay, this is getting off-topic but I could obviously go on.

    Hope the event is great! We just got back from Toronto on Monday (not quite as erudite a gathering; it was the American Society for Testing and Measurement’s working group on Sensory Research)…

  6. Charles Frith

    If Jill uses the delete data function frequently enough to make an ad it’s a possibility she has other issues that an ethnographer could tap into. More seriously, it seems quite misleading as a discipline from it’s immediate meaning and the findings aren’t left-field from pedestrian product/customer relationship research. How do we know an Ethnographer is responsible for the outcome of the creative execution? I’m not sold on this quite yet? 🙁 But of course always open minded.

  7. Peter

    I was struck, Grant, by the unmentioned-elephant-in-the-room with regard to the use of ethnography in market research implicit in your post: the issue of “the other”. It seems from your post that marketing departments are still mostly thinking of their target markets as “other” than themselves in the way that anthropologists once did of their subjects (and hopefully do no more). In the case of Nokia this is probably a correct assumption: one would hardly have fingered the silent Finns as leaders in a communication technology, and least of all the timber-fellers-turned-technology-producers of Nokia.

    A theme I detect from this and your recent posts on co-generation of brands, is that companies wishing to be successful in the interactive economy have to stop viewing their target customers as alien or exotic species, that is, as “the other”, and welcome them into (or join them in!) the control room of marketing. When will the reflective revolution of 1960s anthropology reach marketing, I wonder?

  8. Reynold

    Hi Grant,

    This is a fantastic article. It succinctly defines a much-maligned term and sets out its limitations as well. It’s sheer marketing laziness to play back an insight as an ad. However, I like the fact that Nokia’s product design is informed by this kind of work – I found their “loudspeaker” and “silence” features to be tremendously useful.

    They do have a ways to go when it comes to advertising. Much of their advertising in India seems category-generic, with the focus on the product/features – nothing wrong there but each ad could be from a different brand, for all anyone knows and that is something they should fix.

    Looking forward to your posts from MSI.


  9. nelson

    Interesting thoughts. But for me the Nokia ad doesn’t work, because I’m more interested in watching dumbo Jill than in remembering who made the product. I have seen this ad at least a dozen times now (I’ve been watching a lot of NBA playoff ball, and it seems to appear often on TNT), and until I saw your blog, I wouldn’t have been able to recall who made the phone. And I have a very good memory for details — I’m a novelist — but it’s the significant details I remember. Jill’s not quite pretty, college blond gone to seed face, the spread of her ample hips and big thighs, the shape of her belt, the drippy sadness of her little laugh at the end….

  10. Edgar

    Rather than being a way for brands to communicate directly with the costumers without the need of intermediates (of any sort), ethnography is merely the exercise of testing a hypothesis. It’s obvious that its origin can’t be found in marketing culture or methodological approaches. Instead, marketing experts should read a bit of the anthropological method of ethnography, which has been used for over 200 years and has made some pretty important advances in both the methodological and the theoretical field.

    So, borrowing some of this knowledge from anthropology, it would be wise to read one of the previous lines again: “ethnography is merely the exercise of testing a hypothesis.” This might sound as a simplification, and well, it might be. But the basis of ethnography is to test a pre conceived idea or hypothesis in the “real world” and applying the ethnographic method of observation, analysis and comparison with other known cultures or marketing groups. Anthropology has discarded the idea that the methodological approach of ethnography is free of any preconceived notions or that it gives a “true”, or “more true”, look at people’s ways of living (or consuming, for this matter). Instead, scientists arrive at the observation point (a tribe, a poor neighborhood in a city or individuals and families, as costumers, in the modern days), with a clear idea of what they are going to watch, which conducts they wish to observe, which attitudes are going to be analyzed and to whom or what they are going to be compared. This is far different than the idea that an ethnographer, of any sort, arrives at the observation point and gets to see the “truth” of costumers concerns which was previously veiled by the partial study of focus groups or the inconsistent method of polls.

    It took over a century for anthropology to understand the notion that observation, from any perspective and under any approach, is always veiled and is always imbued by the “luggage” of preconceived notions that the scientist (or marketing researcher) carries along. It sounds unreasonable that marketing takes this approach so lightly and assumes that its results are, oh my, the truth that had always been in front of us and yet we couldn’t see. Thank god for ethnography then. But researchers are missing huge methodological steps. They are assuming that mere observation and analysis, let’s say: living in the same house for a few days with a bunch of consumers, will drop results as to what consumer habits are and what are their real experiences with the products. But ethnography can’t say this. Nothing can, except the consumers themselves. The point is that we see what we want to see, and if it’s not present, then we define it by the negative statement: Family A lacks consuming habit W1, or whatever. Many aspects of our true behavior will be lost in these analyses, because a respectable ethnographic study is based on regular, prolonged and intense fieldwork. And even after years living with the same tribe, the study may still be obscured by our previous ideas about consumers.

    The point is that applying a methodological approach of a social science without actually taking into account the vast concerns that it carries along, simply sounds wrong to me, at least from a practical point of view. Unless it’s done properly (which doesn’t mean that it has to be done by an anthropologist), it’s useless. The observations that derive from ethnographic studies are first analyzed, synthetized and ALTERED by the researcher. It’s not, and will never be, a direct look at consumers tastes or conducts, but a reflection of what the researcher wanted to observe and how the researcher transformed those “facts” that were observed into valuable information for marketing departments of big corporations.

    My honest opinion, it’s banal. Yet I’m really interested in the debate. My opinion was not aimed directly at anyone and I made no remarks to other people, or the author’s, comments, not because I didn’t read em, but because it would simply make the task of writing too painful.

    P.D.: my apologies if I have spelling, grammar, etc., mistakes. English is not my native tongue.

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