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What's the worst thing that can happen to you if you undergo hypnosis? For Kevin Bacon's character in the movie Stir of Echoes, hypnosis helps uncover some dark and gruesome secrets that border on, well, fiction. But in real life, inducing a trance is more likely to induce honesty, which comes in handy when you're trying to discern consumer attitudes.

"Hypnosis is nothing more than a state of relaxation, which lowers people's inhibitions - their tendency to filter their thoughts," says Stuart Grau, director of brand planning at New York ad agency Avrett, Free & Ginsberg. "It's not voodoo." How does he know? Grau hired Hal Goldberg, a trained hypnotist and market researcher, to conduct mesmerizing focus groups to assess two new Dewar's campaigns.

Goldberg, whose one-man shop, Qualitative and Quantitative Research, is based in Irvine, California, has more than three decades of experience working with focus groups. Five years ago, he decided to pair his research skills with his interest in hypnotism, a combination he admits is a bit unusual. According to the National Guild of Hypnotists, the majority of the 7,000 licensed hypnotists worldwide use their skills for medical purposes - to help people curb pain, smoking, anxiety and the like - or to help solve crimes.

But there's nothing wrong with applying hypnotism to market research, says Goldberg, in answer to critics who might find it unseemly to use the discipline to help sell packaged goods. If anything, his business seeks to address what he and other researchers call the "over-commercialization" of focus groups. "People lie or exaggerate for all sorts of reasons," says Goldberg. "The only way to access the subconscious is through hypnosis."

Dewar's focus group participants were all people in their late 20s who had adopted scotch as a drink in the previous year. A unit of Bacardi-Martini USA, Dewar's is aiming for a target demographic of 25-to-34-year-olds, according to Toby Dunn, group director at Avrett, Free & Ginsberg. Each was asked about their first scotch experience (usually on the sly, in childhood) and how they came to drink it later on. Under hypnosis, respondents confessed that they want to be cool and that drinking scotch with friends is one way to feel that way. Some said they feel like they've grown up or become members of a different club now that they drink Dewar's, even though it's perceived as a drink for oldsters.

The agency then used the "friends as an extended family" concept to advance the positioning of Dewar's print and outdoor ads, especially the image portion of the $20 million campaign that touts Dewar's drinkers as passionate risk-takers. Hence the tagline "They're Dewars," accompanied by a humorous shot of the makers of The Blair Witch Project. The agency has also updated the image of the brand, embodied by a Highlander in tartans. In an effort to make the kilted Scotsman appeal to a younger crowd, the agency has put him in comical poses, either ironing his kilt or, in the latest execution for the holidays, riding a camel.

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