Toward a broader definition

Editor’s note: Peter J. DePaulo is an independent research consultant based in Chalfont, Pa.

In a TV commercial for a car repair service, an interviewer (Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert) asks a technician, “If Mr. Goodwrench were a tool, which one would he be?” The mechanic answers, in consternation, “A wrench?” The interviewer retorts that this seemingly obvious answer is wrong and was supposed to be “miter saw.” While this joke relies on a misunderstanding of projective analogies (as if there are right and wrong answers), it suggests that they are ubiquitous enough to be worth incorporating in mass-market advertising.

Nevertheless, I believe projective techniques actually are underutilized. Many researchers and clients may not realize the variety of ways in which such techniques work. The name “projective” may imply that the methods only work one way, i.e., through projection.

Though projection is indeed a powerful process for revealing consumer motivations and perceptions, most of the techniques we call projective help respondents express themselves through other psychological processes in addition to projection. Thus, I am proposing a broader adjective - “expressive” - to refer to such techniques.

Classic projection

Why is projection important? Consumers (or doctors, voters, managers, or whomever we are studying) may not tell us everything that influences them. Three obstacles stand in the way:

1. Respondents may be unconscious or unaware of a particular influence.

2. They may be aware of an influence, but feel it is too personal or socially undesirable to admit, e.g., prestige image or racial bias.

3. They may be aware that they perceive a product a particular way, but may not bother to mention this because, in their view, it is not a logical, rational reason for buying or not buying the product. Some doctors, for example, are adamant that what they prescribe has nothing to do with the sound of a drug’s name or the attractiveness of the manufacturer’s logo, and is based solely on decision-making factors such as research findings, clinical experience and patient compliance.

By allowing respondents to project their motivations and perceptions onto someone else or onto some ambiguous or innocuous stimulus or task, they may reveal motivations that they might not realize or admit directly about themselves.

The simplest projective technique is the third-party question, e.g., “Why do other consumers [or consumers in general] buy Brand X?” One variation of this technique is described by Naomi Henderson (in Marketing Research magazine, fall 2005): Ask what “people in your ZIP code” would do in response to a particular terrorist attack.

Third-party questions, like other projective inquiries, can be called indirect questions because we may learn something about consumers that they might not have revealed about themselves if we directly asked them, “Why do you buy Brand X?”   The theory is that in their answers to a third-party question, research respondents may let their guard down and (unconsciously) project their motivations onto the person or people to which the question refers.

In fact, there are hard data suggesting that third-party indirect questioning really can work as theorized. In a clever experiment by Robert Fisher (reported in the September 1993 Journal of Consumer Research), third-party questions evidently circumvented respondents’ tendency to claim only their socially-desirable purchase motivations. Most important, Fisher’s analysis revealed that data from indirect questions were better than data from direct questions in predicting purchase intentions.

Although the third-party indirect question is a simple example of a projective technique, it is exceptional in that projection may be the only way it works. I use it here as a pure example of the process of projection. Other projective techniques work in a variety of ways, not just through projection.

Basically, projective techniques are indirect approaches that help or allow respondents to express what they consciously or unconsciously think and feel. Most of these methods release respondents’ inhibitions and/or stimulate their creativity in expressing all kinds of thoughts, feelings, and motivations - including ones that are neither unconscious nor embarrassing. Hence, I am suggesting that we call these techniques “expressive,” and note that they work through projection as well as other processes.

Now let’s look at the non-projective ways in which many projective techniques work.

Other expressive processes: suggesting different words, pictures, objects, etc.

Most respondents are neither poets nor professional writers. Even when they are willing to tell how us how they feel, they cannot describe all the nuances of their feelings and perceptions without help. In many projective procedures, respondents look at a variety of stimuli, such as magazines, photographs, sketches or Lego blocks. Respondents may even be presented with non-visual stimuli such as scents and sounds. These stimuli elicit new thinking by the respondent and suggest possibly suitable words, pictures (worth a thousand words, an apt cliché), objects, etc., for expressing the respondent’s mindset. When perusing these stimuli, the respondent has an “aha” experience, as she realizes that, yes, this word, picture or whatever tells how I feel.

For example, in medical marketing research, patients may be instructed to construct collages that represent their perceptions of their medical conditions or treatments. Typically, the respondents look through magazines, from which they cut and paste pictures and headlines into their collages. The pictures stimulate the respondents’ thinking and provide ideas for new words and phrases. In an osteoporosis study, for instance, a few respondents used pictures of Swiss cheese to convey their view of their bones as laced with holes and not sufficiently solid to provide support.

This perception of their bones probably was neither unconscious nor too embarrassing for most respondents to admit. Nonetheless, the respondents may not have thought of using the words “full of holes like Swiss cheese” if they had not looked through the magazines for ideas. This is an example of how a projective technique can work through a non-projective process.

I hasten to add that collages DO help reveal unconscious or embarrassing motives. The point is that collages help respondents express all kinds of perceptions and motivations, including conscious and innocuous ones.

Another example is the Livingston Group’s Obstacle Course technique (thank you, Sharon Livingston). It can be used, for instance, in research on why patients might not complete or seek treatment for a particular disease. A collection of Lego blocks and various office and household doodads - paper clips, staplers, white-out, flashlights, pens, erasers, etc. - is spread in front of the patient. She is asked to select or construct items representing the obstacles that she overcame, or will need to overcome, along the path from the diagnosis of her disease to the completion of (hopefully) successful treatment. The doodads stimulate the respondent’s thinking and help her come up with words to describe her feelings.

A very simple psychological principle is at work here: to elicit a wide range of behavior/ideas, present a wide variety of stimuli.

Interestingly, verbal analogies (a.k.a. metaphors) such as “What car/animal/celebrity would this brand be?” also help elicit new ideas, even without the use of physical stimuli. Simply by thinking of various cars (or animals, celebrities, etc.), respondents “look at” these various stimuli in their imaginations. Those mental images serve the same purpose as physical stimuli in helping the respondent come up with apt words to express their perceptions of the product, service, disease or whatever is being studied. In other words, the stimuli are self-generated by respondents in their minds.

One versatile approach is to ask the respondent to relate competing brands to the residents in a hypothetical neighborhood. (I thank Cathy Boyd at TNS Healthcare for introducing this technique to me.) For example, what kinds of neighbors are the Brand X folks? Are they helpful and friendly, or do they keep to themselves? What does their house/yard look like, how do they maintain it, what kind of car do they drive, who is in the household (single person, a couple, without or without kids), how do they dress, how do they act at the block party, what other neighbors (e.g., the Brand Y’s or Brand Z’s) do they socialize with, would they be missed if they moved out of the neighborhood, etc. This variety of probes can stimulate respondents’ creativity and help uncover multifaceted motives and perceptions that would not be evident if we merely asked respondents why they buy Brand X, Y or Z.

Communicating through symbols

In addition to helping the respondent come up with better words and images for describing their perceptions and experiences, techniques such as collages and analogies allow the respondent to communicate through symbols. When asked to analogize tumors in terms of animals, one doctor referred to a particular type of cancer as a snake, explaining that it quietly sneaks up on the patient and fatally bites. Beyond the verbal explanation, the depiction of this particular cancer as a snake conjures additional meanings. In collages and the Obstacle Course approach, particular colors often communicate symbolically, as when a patient chooses a yellow object to represent the hope that a new treatment would be a cure.

Again, symbols help consumers communicate all kinds of motives and perceptions, not just unconscious or embarrassing ones.

Thought organization and placeholders

In the Obstacle Course, each object that the respondent places along the course serves as a mental placeholder to remind her of what is already on record.   She does not need to ask herself, “Did I say X already?” because she can look down on the course and see her prior thoughts represented by obstacles. This frees her mind to concentrate on thinking of other obstacles.

Furthermore, as the respondent places obstacles along the path, she is organizing her thoughts on the matter. Seeing and rearranging the pattern of obstacles already on the course helps stimulate creative new thoughts about additional obstacles.

Collage-making also results in thought organization and stimulation. Pictures and icons pasted onto the collage serve as the mental placeholders, and their relative positions on the poster board convey their symbolic and logical organization.

Raising the energy level

Moderators and clients are understandably uncomfortable with “dead” groups that say little. Conversely, they are delighted when the energy level of the respondents is high. Some projective/expressive techniques can be quite fun and engaging, raising respondents’ energy. The greater the energy level, the greater the number and variety of insights that respondents give us.

One technique that works particularly well in brainstorming new ideas is to ask respondents to tell us the worst ideas they can think of. (I thank Glenn and Sharon Livingston for a demonstration of this method.) For example, in research intended to come up with a unique name for a new product, consumers may be asked for stinker names. Now, this technique can work through projection as respondents may reveal their unconscious or personally sensitive motivations and perceptions in their ideas of bad names. My point here is that it also works simply by raising respondents’ energy level. As the respondents shout out what they think are outlandish names, they typically get giddy and worked up. Some of the ideas, though intended by respondents to be bad ones, actually are quite good - or, at least they provide insights that lead to a good name. The point is that boosting respondents’ energy results in more ideas of all kinds being put on the table, not just those resulting from projection.

Low inhibition in a playful mood

Many projective techniques, such as collages and “worst ideas,” are fun. Respondents get a chance to play. When in a playful mood, respondents let their guard down. The result is that respondents open up and disclose perceptions and motivations about themselves that they otherwise might be uneasy about revealing. However, they are not necessarily projecting anything (though they often are). Their inhibitions simply are released.

Aftereffects - facilitation of subsequent discussion

There often is an afterglow following a successful projective/expressive exercise. Now that respondents have let their guard down and opened up, responses to subsequent direct questions may be enhanced. The effect is evident in more uninhibited, spontaneous and lively conversation though the rest of the session.

Explaining expressive techniques to clients

How can researchers overcome the reluctance of some clients to employ projective techniques? I recommend two approaches. First, describe their projective action in non-technical terms, e.g.:

  • They circumvent consumers’ lack of awareness of - or reluctance to talk about - particular motivations or perceptions relevant to their attitudes toward the product, company, concept or whatever is the subject at hand.
  • They provide indirect ways for respondents to talk about motives and perceptions that they might otherwise find illogical, embarrassing or too personal. This is because respondents talk about “other people” rather than themselves, or end up revealing their otherwise unspoken motivations and perceptions in their analogies, collages or whatever responses are involved.

Second, outline the other (non-projective) ways that the particular techniques under consideration may help generate new insights of all kinds, conscious and unconscious. Depending on the method, an expressive technique may:

  • release consumers’ inhibitions by enabling them to play and have fun;
  • stimulate respondents’ creativity through high-energy interaction, or by suggesting different words, pictures or nonverbal symbols to represent their thoughts and feelings;
  • help respondents organize their thoughts and come up with new ideas by arranging objects/symbols physically.

Thus, by describing projective techniques more broadly as “expressive,” researchers may broaden the range of projects in which these techniques are productively applied.