Don Draper, Behavioral Scientist


In the fourth episode of the fourth season of Mad Men, ad man Don Draper has a brief dust up with a consultant.  She’s just completed her analysis of a focus group on women’s attitudes about cold cream. Here’s Don telling us how he feels about the risks of relying on focus groups:

Don: How’d we do?

Consultant: Well… turns out the hypothesis was rejected. I’d recommend a strategy that links Ponds cold cream to matrimony. A veiled promise.

Don: Hello, 1925. I’m not going to do that. So, what are we going to tell the client?

Consultant: I can’t change the truth.

Don: How do you know that’s the truth? A new idea is something they don’t know yet, so of course it’s not going to come up as an option. Put my campaign on TV for a year, then we’ll “group” again and maybe it will show up.

Consultant:  Well, I tried everything. I said routine, I tried ritual… all they care about is a husband. You were there; I’ll show you the transcripts.

Don: You can’t tell how people are going to behave based on how they have behaved.

Consultant: Why are you being so hostile? You think I’ve never had this argument before?

Don: You go in there, and you stick your finger in people’s brains, and they just start talking: blah, blah, blah… just to be heard.

If you watch the entire episode, you know that Don has some additional reasons to discredit this particular focus group.  But either way, he’s onto something:

  • New ideas – genuine innovations – meet underlying needs that people can’t articulate.  Steve Jobs knows this, and it shows in how Apple does design.  As Jobs said in an interview with BusinessWeek (May 25, 1998):

“It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

  • Don’t let observed behavior fool you.  You can’t know how people are going to behave based on how they behaved in the past.  There is a yawning gap between what people want and intend, and what they actually do.  I believe in oil changes, but if you looked at my behavior — I am chronically 750 miles late for them — you’d conclude that I am not such a big fan.

Pulling this through to products and solutions is hard work, because you’re constantly trying to see something that isn’t obvious, and putting things on the table before they make sense.  On the front end, great ideas look a heck of a lot like lousy ones.  Is being a savant (a la Draper and Jobs) the only solution, or is there a better way to do this?

About the author


View all posts