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!

Toilet bowl cleaner

December 20, 2021

A few years ago, 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!"

Applying lipstick 

December 6, 2021

Mary Ann Farrell tells of a focus group she heard about among women who had very recently given birth. Before the session, one woman walked up to the mirror to apply lipstick. At that instant, as she was attending to her reflection, one of the clients in the viewing room, standing just behind the mirror, lit a match for his cigarette.
The woman suddenly saw, through the mirror, superimposed on her face, the face of a man with a flame in front of it. She fainted and had to be revived.

Not that crafty

November 22, 2021

Diane Okrent o 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).   

"Your dad sent you these?"

November 8, 2021

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.

Her number came out of a computer

October 25, 2021

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!"

He fled the room

October 11, 2021 

Gerald Linda was mystified once when a respondent, upon being told the group was being videotaped, hid his face and fled the room. Pity! Fugitives from justice have opinions, too.

Another time, Linda reports, one member of the "dissatisfied" group recruited for a focus group tried to get the other group members to sign an affidavit. It turns out he was in the midst of a lawsuit against the client.

A flatulent dog 

September 27, 2021

A client recently asked Doug Schorr if he had any stories from a week of shop-along and in-home ethnographies that were conducted in Dallas. At first the answer was a simple no, just the usual cast of characters. But then his team remembered the extremely flatulent dog (the respondent stated the dog was nervous of the interview), the cat in a dress chasing a wasp on the ledge, a 1940s murder house and being sequestered in a retail store while on lock down from a horrible hail storm. Maybe not just the usual after all!

Rival attorneys

September 13, 2021

Ron Sellers reports working on a focus group with a very tough recruit of business professionals (doctors, dentists, attorneys, etc.). They managed to recruit two attorneys for the first group. In the waiting area during screening, the observant hostess noticed each attorney glancing nervously at each other. The tension in the room was high. Turns out they were about to conduct focus groups with rival attorneys on a very ugly, high profile case. One of them was paid and sent home.

Cigarette smokers

September 1, 2021

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. 

Product-in-use imagery

August 23, 2021

Erin Read shares a story from one of her research efforts that involved asking participants which images they preferred from a series of photo sets, followed by an open-ended question of why they liked that image. One photo set was of an empty spa room vs. a smiling gentleman receiving a massage in a spa room. Read’s aim was to see which was more compelling: the product pic or the product-in-use imagery.

One Baby Boomer, when asked why she preferred the image with the product-in-use, was compelled to explain, “I dearly love nearly naked men.”

Purchasing beer

August 9, 2021

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.

The "any" key

July 26, 2021

Joyce Rachelson received a phone call from a prospective client who seemed upset because he couldn't get a demo to run. When Rachelson asked what the message he saw on his computer screen was, he told her "Hit Any Key to Continue." The potential client went on to say that he couldn't find the "any" key on his keyboard.

High security

July 12, 2021

Ken Hollander remembers the time his firm was retained by a very large computer hardware manufacturer to conduct user research. The client seemed extremely concerned about maintaining anonymity. His firm had to sign a non-disclosure agreement, and was visited by a member of the client’ s security department, who not only checked locked closets and files, but looked into their windows with high-powered binoculars from the roof of an adjoining building to ensure that no competitive spy could read materials on the desktops.

Having passed these stringent tests, Hollander’s firm proceeded to brief the field service, stressing the need for extremely high security. The study designed was double-blinded so that no one (including the field service) would know the identity of the company sponsoring the research.

Shortly thereafter a delivery truck pulled up to the field service with the client’ s name and logo emblazoned on its sides. Two of its employees, wearing company uniforms, then entered the facility to deliver, in clearly marked boxes, the hardware to be tested.

So much for the security of the client’s identity.


June 28, 2021

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.!"

Casing the houses for robberies

June 14, 2021

Karen Hendersin reports that when she first started in marketing research in the mid-‘70s she conducted many door-to-door studies. In one, interviewers asked respondents if they could take a picture of the toilet tank. They’d be paid $5 and given a sample of an in-tank cleaner (a new idea at the time). Then, later the company would come back, take a new picture and collect opinion on the product. Some consumers became suspicious and reported her company to the police, who in turn asked local radio stations to announce that her company should not be let in because it was assumed they were casing the houses for robberies. One radio station referred to it as the “crapper caper.”

Peanut butter

June 1, 2021 

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!"

Cryptic notes 

May 17, 2021

J. Patrick Galloway noted that interviewers sometimes make cryptic notes on their questionnaires to explain things. For example, on an incomplete door-to-door callback questionnaire an interviewer wrote the letters SOP. Turned out this stood for "snake on porch."


May 3, 2021

Tara J. Abrams of Columbia House reports mail studies she used to conduct in the pharmaceutical field, where physicians were asked, "In what state do you practice?" Some of the write-in answers were: "Denial," "Confusion" and "Psychosis."

Extended warranties 

April 19, 2021

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."

Tartar and plaque

April 5, 2021

During one group among denture wearers, the discussion turned to tartar and plaque. When one man said something moderator Sharon Livingston couldn't understand, he moved is denture, thrust it in her face and asked, "Is this what you're talking about, honey?"

In the basement

March 29, 2021

Mike Exinger of Clearwater Research reports doing a survey on computer peripherals where respondents were asked about computer types, printers and software. When one office manager was asked, "Do you have Windows?" she replied, "No, we're in the basement!"

One-way mirror

March 15, 2021

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."

Toilet paper

March 1, 2021

Tony Memoli remembers coming upon some interesting statistics a number of years ago while working at a consumer panel research company: 96 percent of households bought toilet paper (what about the rest?), and 45 percent of households bought dog food yet only 40 percent owned a dog.

Returned the money

February 15, 2021

Is there such a thing as too much honesty?
Jeff Totten cites a mail study where his firm sent out a small amount of money as an incentive. An elderly minister returned the money, along with the questionnaire, writing how sinful it was to "guilt" people into responding.

Very unreasonable

February 1, 2021

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 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."

"I'll call the session!" 

January 25, 2021

Some time ago, there was a contentious debate about some proposed legislation in Kentucky. The firm Bart Borkosky worked for was hired to conduct a public opinion telephone survey. After a series of questions about the core issue, they asked a question that was worded along the lines of, "Now that you know a bit more about (issue), do you favor calling a special legislative session to resolve this?" One respondent answered without pause: "Heck yes, I'll call the session! What's the number?"


January 11, 2021

Ron Gore reports a survey his interviewing service conducted for legal purposes in anti-embolism stockings. When visiting nurses and doctors who had previously agreed to be interviewed at their place of business, interviewers were supposed to show the two wooden legs they had been given, which were cloaked in the competitor's and the client's stockings. When Gore validated interviews, he found that one interviewer wore the products herself, one on each leg. It made much more sense to her for respondents to see the stockings on an actual person.