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!

Head of household 

December 30, 2019

Kathleen L. DeWitt reports that while screening for respondents on a study involving baking products, she came across an elderly woman who was offended by DeWitt asking to speak with the “senile head of the household.”

Full spa treatment

December 9, 2019

Ron Sellers tells about one of his clients who decided to discontinue using a moderator after the client received a fully-itemized travel bill that included limousine, body massage and full spa treatment.

Shipping underwear

November 25, 2019

An unnamed focus group moderator, often on the road, made a practice of shipping home his used underwear while he was on long trips. One evening he instructed the hostess at the focus facility he was visiting to FedEx a package holding his underwear to his home, and ship the audio tapes to his client.

When the moderator returned home a couple of days later he opened the FedEx package and, to his horror, saw audio tapes. Realizing what his client had received, and more concerned that his client would know whether he wore jockey shorts or boxers than with the client not having audio tapes, the moderator immediately called the client's secretary, who said that the package hadn't yet been opened. He then instructed her not to open it, and to FedEx it to his office, next-day priority.

Boiled broccoli

November 11, 2019 

Kevin Reilly reports conducting a focus group with five-year-olds and explaining a five-point  rating scale utilizing the familiar face of Snoopy from the "Peanuts" comic strip. On this scale, the emotive  expressions on Snoopy's face ran from "elated" to "sad." In order to test kids' understanding of the rating scale, Reilly first gave them a few  throwaway questions, usually extremes on the emotional spectrum. First, he asked them to, "Point to the face that tells me how much you like boiled broccoli." 

Understandably, the responses were mostly negative all around. Then, to check the high end of the scale, he asked kids to, "Point to the face that tells me how you'd feel if every day were Christmas." As expected, responses were very enthusiastic – except for one boy who offered a more neutral rating. When asked why, his response was quite matter-of-fact: "It wouldn't really be a big deal to me ... I'm Jewish."

A quarter 

October 21, 2019

Years ago, Ben Pine's company sent a questionnaire, together with a quarter, to an executive of The Franchise Tax Board, the tax collection agency for the State of California. Within a few days the quarter was returned along with a form letter which began, "We have received your payment but cannot accept it for the reason checked." Unchecked were items such as, "The numerical and written amounts differ or the amount was not entered," and "Wrong payee. Make your check or money order payable to Franchise Tax Board."

Instead, an "X" was typed in the "Other" space, and to the right was the note, "The State of California does not accept gratuities."

The State of California sure knows how to fill out forms.

Hair color

October 7, 2019

Moderator Margaret Lane tells about an ad agency creative director whoíd lost most of his hair. When asked his hair color, upon renewing his driver's license, he filled in, "Clear."

"That's my name too!" 

September 23, 2019

One anonymous interviewer, whom we'll call Tina, is particularly adept  at interviewing young children. One of her secrets when interviewing little girls is to establish rapport by first asking the girl what her middle name is. Then, whatever name is mentioned, Tina says to the girl, "What a coincidence. That's my middle name too!"

During recruiting for one study, after assuming 15 different middle names over a two-day period, she asked a little girl what her first name was. The girl responded, "Tina."

"What a coincidence. That's my name too!" said Tina the interviewer.

To which Tina the respondent said, "You're just saying that so I'll talk to you!"

Heart bypass surgery 

September 9, 2019 

Hal Meier reports that a client of his wished to conduct focus groups with people who had undergone a certain form of heart bypass surgery. The client provided a list of such patients, with phone numbers. 

Meier's company diligently began calling these people, but wasn't successful in putting together the group. Turns out that almost everyone on the list was no longer living. Perhaps if the purpose of the group was to get a handle on customer satisfaction, they had the answer right there.

All the boxes

August 19, 2019

Warren Weiss recalls a survey where, in response to the question, "Please check what level of education you've completed," one bright Ph.D. checked all the boxes.

Tuna fish

August 5, 2019 

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 a client tried to take him up on his offer, saying, “OK, but I want a 20% discount.”

Hand tools

July 22, 2019

When Lloyd Wohlner was doing market research at a consumer magazine a few years ago, he mailed out a survey on topics his readers would like to see in future issues. One man mailed back a response indicating a high interest in hand tools and no interest in cars, which was a very unusual response compared to the magazine's typical male respondents. Then Wohlner checked the ZIP code against the original mailing list. The respondent lived in Ossining, N.Y. - Sing Sing Correctional Facility, to be exact. Wohlner wondered whether the respondent's interest in cars would increase after he used certain hand tools.

Conjugate the vowels

July 8, 2019

Interviewer Damien Rommal in the Los Angeles area reports occasionally being rebuffed by shoppers he attempts to interview in the mall. The most frequent response of this type is “No habla Ingles,” provided by Hispanic consumers. But he was shocked one afternoon when a consumer he approached responded in a robot-like staccato voice, “Sorry. I am unable to conjugate the vowels necessary to compile sentences within the confines of the English language.”

Pure water

June 24, 2019

A researcher preferring anonymity tells about being an interviewer early in his career, conducting a survey sponsored by a particular regional brand of beer. The brand's advertising was based on the fact that the beer was made using pure water from a particular lake. 

One respondent, when asked if he found anything hard to believe about the advertising, said he did. The cause of his skepticism? "I once visited that lake and saw a man standing on the shore peeing into it," he said.


June 10, 2019

Sometimes respondents put each other in their places. Sig Saltz recalls attending a focus group on mouthwash where it became obvious that one particular respondent might be a problem. The hostess had complained about his demeanor during check-in and at times he appeared to be scowling during the session. After about an hour he finally offered a contribution, in a rather gruff voice, "On Friday nights I have friends over for poker. Before we begin, I put a bottle of mouthwash on the card table and tell them they'd better use it!" 

A subdued voice from a corner of the table meekly asked, "What do your friends say?" Without skipping a beat another respondent replied sarcastically, "He doesn't have many friends!" 

The entire group immediately broke into uncontrollable laughter, including the formerly scowling respondent. For the remainder of the session he was a complete teddy bear.

A new doll

May 20, 2019

Most kids responding to questionnaires tend to be shy and polite. One little girl, for example, when asked how she'd play with a new doll, said, "With my  little sister, and very carefully." In contrast, a perhaps more truthful girl in the same survey said, "I'd break it over my bratty little brother's head."

Tiny baby

May 6, 2019

Mary Wang-Boucher tells a story of a woman who arrived to a focus group wearing a baggy sweatshirt. Some time later, from the back room, the researchers heard a baby cry out. Everyone scrambled to figure out where the sound was coming from.  A notification on some device?

Turns out, the woman had hidden an actual, tiny baby in her sweatshirt and brought the child into the focus group without anyone noticing!

An awful interview

April 29, 2019

Jim Nelems, founder and retired CEO of research firm Marketing Workshop, tells of a client who came to a phone center to monitor the pre-tests of his interview. Five minutes in, the client put the phone down in disgust and said, "This is an awful interview. I don't see how anyone could go through it."

The researcher on site said, "Let's see how it can be improved."

"No,” said the client. “Leave it as is. We need the information."

A nasty letter

April 8, 2019 

Alan Fine reports a study he worked on where a new board game was being considered for purchase by a toy company. In consumer testing the product fared poorly and the toy company turned it down. The game’s inventor shot back a nasty letter, his missive reporting that the previous weekend a group of his friends had the most wonderful time playing his game and drinking martinis. Fine shot off a return letter, advising the inventor that the next time he submitted the game he include in the rules that the players are required to drink martinis while playing.

The construction worker 

March 25, 2019 

Joel Reish once was moderating a group of men who were all screened to have a particular radio station in a large southern city as their favorite. The room was a broad mix of guys, including one not-too-polite construction worker in a Cat Tractor cap. 

At one point, Reish explored the topic of the disc jockeys on the respondents' favorite station. He asked participants to raise their hand if they could remember the name of the morning show host. Construction Guy was the only one who raised his hand (perhaps one indication of why the station's ratings had slipped). The other guys looked at each other sheepishly, finding it a little embarrassing that they couldn't think of the host's name on their own favorite station. As the construction worker held up his hand, he looked around the room and then yelled at the top of his voice, "Damn, y'all! I do drugs and I know that one!"

The screaming and laughter took a while to diminish - and that was just from the clients in the back room.

One-way mirror

March 22, 2019 

David Bauer reports going through the introductory remarks of a focus group he was conducting. When he got to the part where he told participants about the one-way mirror, he pointed behind him and said, "There are some people on my team sitting behind me." One of the participants looked at him as if he were crazy and said, "There's no one behind you." Bauer couldn't understand why she didn't believe there were people behind him. Luckily for him, another respondent jumped in, saying, "He means that that is a one-way mirror with people sitting behind it."

Burning the evidence 

February 18, 2019 

Jim Nelems, founder and retired CEO of research firm Marketing Workshop, tells of an interviewer who returned from completing in-home interviews without a single completed questionnaire. 

“One of the men I interviewed said I was soliciting without a license,” she explained, “and that I could go to jail, so I burned all my interviews.” 


February 4, 2019

Doug Conwell tells about a survey conducted for a local hospital. A 17-year-old
male interviewer, very new to surveying, indicated that a respondent traveled out of her area to visit her "dinacologist," followed by a string of question marks.


January 21, 2019

Doug Conwell of the Tampa Tribune tells about a recent 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.

My dog, Talbot

January 7, 2019

Cathy Casteneda, tells of a mail survey her firm conducted. After giving Talbot's, a firm that sells women's clothes, the highest possible ratings on all characteristics, one woman wrote in the space for additional comments, "My dog, Talbot, is named for my favorite place to shop! Keep up the good work!" 

Casteneda did not proceed to recommend the correspondent to Talbot's management as a spokeswoman.