The popular War Stories column, which presents humorous tales of life in the research trenches, has historically been compiled by Art Shulman, president of Shulman Research in Van Nuys, Calif. Each month in our e-newsletters we feature anecdotes from past War Stories columns and over time, we have received a handful of submissions from our e-newsletter readers who want to share their own outlandish or otherwise entertaining experiences of research gone just-slightly awry.

Submit your own War Story today!

Her number came out of a computer

July 9, 2024

Mike Halberstam reports that an elderly female respondent contacted in one of their telephone surveys asked how she was selected to be called. The interviewer advised her that her number came out of a computer. The indignant woman complained, "That's ridiculous! I have never, ever put my number into any computer!"

Roach traps 

June 25, 2024

Sherry Haub cites a focus group on roach traps she conducted early in her career. The session was held in one of the loveliest rooms she ever moderated in, with plants everywhere and a large skylight highlighting a big round marble table. The table featured a plateful of elegant goodies for respondents to snack on, surrounded by a dozen of the client's roach traps, the intended subject of discussion.

The group was progressing nicely when suddenly all faces in the room registered surprise, then puzzlement, then dawning dismay as they noticed the Madagascar-sized roach perched insolently on the edge of the goodies plate, safe amid the armada of roach traps it had so casually negotiated on its way to the snacks.

A 20% discount

June 11, 2024

Consultant Alan Fine reports that when he worked for a supplier earlier in his career, clients occasionally called and asked if his firm could complete a study and provide a report within a very unreasonable time period. Fine would tell them, "Listen, I have a report on tuna fish, and if you want I'll just replace 'tuna fish' with (the client's product type). And that's the only way I can get you the report in the time you want it."

Fine indicates that once in a while a client tried to take him up on his offer, with one of them saying, "OK, but I want a 20% discount."

"Oh, he works in advertising"

May 28, 2024

Imagine how Donna Tinari-Sigfried felt when, while moderating a focus group on a new product being tested as a promotion by her telecommunications company client, a respondent said, "I love this new promotion, my dad sent me a whole bunch." "Your dad sent you these?" Sigfried asked, somewhat panicked, as a large contingent of agency and client personnel observed through the mirror. "Oh, he works in advertising for [the client company]," explained the consumer.


May 14, 2024 

Doug Conwell once told about a opinion poll regarding the possible merger of two local municipalities. Respondents tended to be older retirees. The first night of interviewing, when a respondent was told the topic of the survey was the "merger," she replied - in horror "Murder?"
Conwell and his group at first thought it was very funny. But when it started happening over and over again, they had to change the terminology.

Green bananas 

April 30, 2024

J. Patrick Galloway cites a telephone study of recent appliance purchasers, where one 93-year-old respondent expressed an interesting view of extended warranties.

Interviewer: "And why do you say you would 'definitely not' purchase an extended warranty for your new dishwasher?"
Respondent: "Honey, at my age I don't even buy green bananas."

“I think I left it in my car”

April 16, 2024

A researcher who prefers anonymity reports on a focus group he conducted among cigarette smokers, back when smoking was much more prevalent but starting on its decline. The session was going fine, with many seeming insightful comments. The last portion of the session involved a comparison test where respondents were to light up their current brand, which presumably they brought with them, and then compare it with the client’s new product. 

But when the moderator asked respondents to light their current cigarette, one by one each respondent claimed not to have their cigarettes with them. “I think I left it in my car,” “They’re on my desk at home,” etc.  Finally, everyone confessed.

Turns out none of the respondents smoked. 

A peanut butter taste test

April 2, 2024

Al Popelka remembers the time his company was shipping product around the country for a peanut butter taste test, and the test product for one city disappeared. In the midst of the sweat and tears of vexation, one of his project directors came up with the only logical solution, "It must be stuck to the roof of the truck!"

Make some money

March 19, 2024

Diane Okrent tells about a able crafts show focus group. To qualify, respondents had to be interested in crafts.  Going around the table, Okrent came to a participant who said, “I’m really not crafty.”  Of course, that respondent couldn’t contribute much to the discussion.   

At the end of the group, Okrent asked the respondent to stay while she retrieved her screener.  Before she got back, though, the respondent had collected her incentive and disappeared. 

The next day, Okrent called the project manager and asked for an explanation of how the unqualified respondent got into the group.  After some research, it turned out that the actual respondent had been detained at work and she told her sister-in-law to show up in her place (and make some money).   

"I liked it fine"

March 5, 2024

Chuck Teaman tells about being a new researcher who had occasion to accompany an interviewer door-to-door in sub-zero Midwestern weather on a home placement callback interview.

When the interviewer came to the overall rating question (a 5-point asymmetrical scale) and read the scale choices, the respondent answered, "I liked it fine," The interviewer said, "Oh, you mean excellent," promptly circled "Excellent" and went on to the next question. Teaman didn't want to interrupt so he spoke to the interviewer afterward, who assured him that, "Well, everybody knows 'fine' means 'excellent' in Peoria, Ill.!"

Passing out business cards

February 20, 2024

Betsy Bernstein of Bernstein Research Group recalls a focus group among small business owners, where the owner of a boxing firm – a former prizefighter – started actively using his phone for e-mails and texting. The boxer had arrived at the session late and missed the initial phones off reminder, so to keep him engaged with the session, Bernstein politely asked him to turn his phone off. He said no; he needed to stay in touch with his business. OK. Small business. He had already said that his business is his life.  

A few minutes later he proceeded to stand up and pass out business cards to everyone in the group. Bernstein again asked him if he could defer this activity until the end of the session, at which point this prizefighter said she was "really beginning to piss him off." The group helped reach a detente and the session ended without incident. 

An hour after the session ended, the facility received an call from the boxer with an apology. He thought he had been invited to a networking event where he was paying $250 to attend. Imagine his surprise when he received $250 instead. 

The morale of the story? Even though we think we are explaining the research process ­­­– many times and through many channels – to the inexperienced respondent, coming to a focus group isn't always what they expect it to be. 

Pros and cons

February 6, 2024

Erin Read says she is often torn between cursing and loving open-ended questions. Pros: unfettered truths that amuse and inspire. Cons: 27 different ways of spelling Facebook.

Very strange looks

January 23, 2024 

Rob Podhurst was conducting an in-store intercept study for a brand of toilet bowl cleaner. When he got to the store where the interviews were to take place, he discovered that the store was out of stock on the product. Quickly improvising, Podhurst headed over to a rival supermarket and filled a shopping cart with the needed product. 

As he stood in line to pay, he noticed he was getting some very strange looks from the woman in line behind him. Seizing the moment, he leaned over to her and whispered, "I've got a very busy day ahead of me!"

When purchasing beer

January 8, 2024

Gail Fleenor tells of conducting in-store surveys in two small towns and receiving two types of refusals she’d never received before. One man refused to be interviewed because he was purchasing beer and was sure that somehow through the survey (which of course was anonymous) his pastor would find out that he drank.