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A marketer's dream come true would be to sit at the kitchen table at dinnertime and pass the potatoes. Anthropologists study people and cultures around the globe in search of unbiased clues and insights. While anthropology conjures exotic lands, visual ethnography offers marketers an up-close take on customers (and potential customers). It's a way to learn what little Jimmy has to do for homework, and even better, what the household wants out of the computer, washing machine and frozen dinners.

A form of anthropological research, visual ethnography looks at the subject — a family, a couple, an individual — in its “natural� habitat. This in-home or on-site qualitative market research is videotaped and edited for further review. Companies like Portico Research and The Insight Works Inc., both based in New York City, offer it as a way for companies to pretest new products, marketing programs, brand development or customer satisfaction initiatives.

Olga Gonzalez, a cultural anthropologist with Insight Works, says the tool offers marketers a practical way into the mind of the consumer. An individual stopped in a mall and asked to answer questions, or fill out a survey, is less likely to offer time and real information than the recruited people who decide to open up their homes and be heard, she says.

American Demographics contributor Susan Posnock spoke with Gonzalez about how this relatively new practice is having an impact.

AD: What drew you to this field, and more specifically, this type of research?

OG: I have a background in clinical psychology. In my own country, which is Peru, psychology was not enough to understand human behavior and how people dealt with conflict or change. I needed more of a cultural perspective. Usually, when we think about anthropology, it's faraway places — cultures completely different and “the exotic.� You wouldn't think about market research in that sense.

AD: How does visual ethnography compare with other types of market research?

OG: The methodology we follow for market research involves using video and engaging the subject (whether a family or individual), within a natural setting. People in their familiar environment are going to be less self-conscious about their behavior. They aren't trying to please the researcher by saying what they [think they're] expected to say. They feel carefree and in that sense a lot of unaware behavior also comes out. From this comes a written report or ethnography, a narrative that tells the story. It becomes a tool for insights and analysis. The video allows you to observe more than once.

AD: What are some key behaviors you've discovered through the research?

OG: You're listening to what they're saying but also observing what they're doing. For example, I was doing research on water conservation in the Los Angeles area. [The subject] may have a discourse that sounds conscientious about how to conserve. But you get to the bathroom and they have a shower with no device for water conservation. Because you're in the home, a trust allows the researcher to be up front about contradictions.

While doing a project on computers and what technology means, I went to a house where they were very technology-driven. But there was a room that had no technology. I asked the mother, a computer person, how she could have such a room. She said she calls it the ‘free-technology room.’ People feel threatened that technology will take over. You're able to pinpoint these types of things you probably wouldn't find in a focus group.

AD: What sort of insight do you think these types of discoveries give to marketers?

OG: It gives them more information about emotions, motivations and underlying beliefs and values. Those are difficult topics to talk about when you ask straightforward questions. They might come out indirectly in the natural setting because it humanizes the research. It offers a live picture of who these potential customers are, not just a number.

AD: How do you think marketers will be able to actually use this information?

OG: Brand positioning or to develop ideas for new products or to improve customer service, retail spaces that can be more appealing. In the case of what our technology research showed, one thing marketers have to do is be more sensitive.

Also, customers usually complain that they're weary of marketers, that they are only interested in money. This can help build a bridge because there's more human contact.

AD: What does research tell you about human behavior in the next 10 years?

OG: You have so many kinds of people: different generations, cultural groups, and socioeconomic statuses. There's this tension between the past and present regardless of what we're talking about.

AD: What have been some of the most surprising revelations about people?

OG: I find it amazing how they open their doors and houses.

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