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!

If every day were Christmas

December 6, 2022

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."

Changing the terminology

November 28, 2022

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.

Toilet bowl cleaner

November 14, 2022

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!"

"Do you have Windows?"

October 31, 2022

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!"

"Your dad sent you these?"

October 17, 2022

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.

Pass out business cards

October 3, 2022 

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. 

Community needs survey

September 19, 2022 

Anthony Stanowski tells about conducting a community needs survey early in his career on consumers' health attitudes, behaviors and risks. One of the questions involved asking female respondents if they'd been pregnant within the past five years. A 74-year-old female laughed and said that if she had been, they would have surely heard about it by now. On the news.

Guerrilla marketing?

September 6, 2022

Margaret Roller tells about a group she was moderating on dried herbs where her client sent in a note asking her to gauge the group’s reaction to the “fact” that the competitor’s product consisted of 5% rat feces. Roller tossed the note and continued conducting the session according to her guide. To this day she has never found out if the “fact” was correct or a guerrilla marketing ruse.


August 22, 2022

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.!"

Open-ended questions

August 8, 2022

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.


July 25, 2022

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.

Another gentleman purchasing beer refused to be interviewed because he didn’t want his wife to know he was buying beer again.

The product pic

July 11, 2022

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.”


June 27, 2022

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."

The only logical solution

June 13, 2022 

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!"

A flatulent dog 

May 31, 2022

A client 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!

Tartar and plaque

May 16, 2022

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?"

Toilet paper

May 2, 2022

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.

Dress a mannequin

April 18, 2022

Cheryl Simer recalls a focus group she conducted on bras, where one of her responsibilities was to dress a mannequin with various prototypes, and then obtain consumer reactions. Rushed for time, she had hurriedly put the bras on the mannequin. The fourth bra to be evaluated suddenly began to slip upward and snapped off the form, shooting up two feet in the air. The consumers took it in stride. With slightly disapproving looks they said they were not interested in bras that did that!

Roach traps 

April 4, 2022

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.

Make some money 

March 21, 2022

Diane Okrent of Do Research 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).  

The other side of the mirror

March 7, 2022

Cathy Castenaeda cites a focus group she observed with about a dozen senior executives of a financial services company she worked for. One of the executives, attending his first focus group discussion, turned on the light in the viewing room, leaving the executives clearly visible to the group of women on the other side of the mirror. Some of the executives dove to the floor. Others sheepishly smiled.

"I'll call the session!" 

February 21, 2022

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?"

Almost $500

February 7, 2022

Ron Sellers recalled receiving a call from a potential client who ran a manufacturing business and was convinced she needed in-depth research to build market share. She spoke knowledgeably about focus groups, in-depth interviews, pre-/post-testing, etc. After taking calls from countless neophytes, finally Sellers had someone who understood research!

They talked for an hour about numerous strategies, finally deciding that their starting point could be a series of focus groups among different market segments, followed by quantitative work. Before they went any further, Sellers felt he needed to make sure they were on the same page in terms of budgets.
"Oh, I've got almost $500 set aside for research," she gushed.

"In the dumpster"

January 24, 2022

Many years ago, Kevin Dona was as a young analyst working in the CPG arena, and had a colleague who was managing an in-home test of a new dip. She approached Dona one day in a slight panic and said, "I don't know what to do about these results." It was a simple question of where consumers expected to find the product in the store. Enough people selected "other specify" with the response "in the dumpster" that it was coded and showing up in the client tables. After tasting the sample myself, Dona recommended leaving that consumer suggestion. 

Not hired 

January 10, 2022

For a restaurant focus group, Jim Nelems of The Marketing Workshop reports that a participant had applied for a job at the client restaurant, but not hired. Then, once the client restaurant was identified, he began shouting out the name of the restaurant and cursing the person who turned him down, who was, in fact, behind the mirror in the observation room. A hostess entered and told the respondent he had a phone call, and because he was so drunk, he did not stop to think how someone had the phone number of the group facility to call him there. By then, he was out of the group room. 

Who would ever think to screen for people who had applied for a job with a restaurant and been turned down?