I arrive at the penthouse of a fading Vancouver hotel with construction views and no parking. A makeshift reception area has been set up in the foyer, where I’m greeted by a bored young man and a harried older woman who scan my ID and give me a stack of waivers to sign, agreements that I won’t divulge what is about to happen here or write an essay about it. After being ushered into a common room and handed a white, logo-less cigarette, I retire to an adjoining balcony, where I smoke it at a stained patio table with two sullen Goth girls in their early twenties. We’ve been informed that we’re allowed to speak to one another, just not about the hotel, the cigarettes, the focus group, or the money involved. We sit in silence.
I’m huddled on this chilly, windswept balcony with these two pale girls for one reason: guilt. The guilt of being a full-time student and making no money while my wife gets up at 4:45 every morning for a ten-hour workday and the two of us are considering starting a family. I tell myself that by attending this focus group and others like it and by filling out dozens of paid on-line surveys and entering every contest available, I’m adding something to our household other than spiralling debt. At least I’m not paying for the cigarettes.
The Goths and I stub out our butts and return to the large, beige room, where each of us writes a number on a piece of paper indicating how much we enjoyed the smoke, before returning to one of the six round dining tables to wait with the others. The others include business people, students, single moms, and more than a few rough characters; one woman has smudged mascara and picks at the numerous scabs on her leg with a chipped, acrylic nail. There is complementary water, we are told, but no food or coffee, lest our taste receptors become compromised. After half an hour, I’m handed another unmarked cigarette and pointed towards the balcony, where I smoke seated next to an older man with a grizzly beard and Slayer t-shirt. I return to the room, write a number, wait again, smoke again, write another number, and am handed a plain white envelope containing twenty dollars on my way out the door.
My next visit, the second of seven needed to fulfill the agreement, passes without incident. Of the fifteen or so people seated at the tables, I recognize only two: the woman with the watery makeup and a cyclist with sizable sweat marks banding his neck and pits. I’m reminded that I need to smoke the cigarettes in their entirety, that I can’t just take a few puffs and butt them out. Even as a seasoned smoker, three smokes in seventy minutes turns out to be way too much, so I slow my pace, let them burn down between my fingers, and vow to quit. Only two days in and I’m already feeling disgusted with myself, questioning whether the eventual payout of three-hundred dollars is worth it, and wishing that my school schedule allowed for an actual job. Maybe I simply should have lied on my student-loan application like everyone else and used the extra money to buy diapers.
On the third day, I’m recognized by a woman with whom I attended a writing class the previous year. I don’t really know her, but recall that she was a powerful writer, painfully earnest and deeply troubled. The book I’ve brought is turning out to be a bit of a slog, however, and I’m grateful for someone to talk to. As we sit outside with our smouldering cigarettes, I tell her that my wife and I are looking to move, but can’t find something decent that we can afford. She says, “I know exactly what you mean! Me and my daughter just got kicked out of our apartment because my ex kept breaking in and pouring beer into the washer and dryer.” I agree that renting is tough and change the topic to summer plans, explaining that I have reservations about taking a car trip to Portland with my parents because it might be too much time together in a small space. “I know what you mean!” she says. “Last year I went to Toronto with my dad and he made me so mad that after a few days I caught a redeye back home and bought a big bag of meth and cried and smoked it for a week. Parents, right!?” Exactly.
As friendly and guileless as she is, this woman, fresh out of psychiatric care and battling a crippling addiction, makes me realize how pointless this exercise is. She, and the sweaty cyclist and the biker dude, and I, indifference streaming from my body in palpable waves, are charting the course for a major tobacco manufacturer, who has undoubtedly spent tens of thousands of dollars on funding this focus group. The numbers I write on the piece of paper are entirely arbitrary and the outcome therefore meaningless. I suspect that, like me, the others are here for personal and/or monetary reasons and have little interest in ensuring that consumers get the right balance of nicotine and tar.
For my next, unrelated market research group, I sit at a conference table in a Yaletown office with ten other men, aged twenty to me. We snack on Digestive biscuits and coffee, while a robust woman tells us that our conversation is being filmed, recorded, and transcribed, indicating a two-way mirror that runs the length of one wall. As part of the agreement, we have each brought a collage we have created, plastered with pictures and words that describe our ideal restaurant environment; mine has slogans like Service! and Drink Specials! and a lot of photos of exposed wood beams. Each of us is encouraged to talk a little about ourselves and display our work to the others, while the woman yells variations on “Ooh, that’s a nice one. Good for you!” To ease our general malaise, she tells us that the women’s group that was here earlier mostly brought much larger, more unwieldy collages and that at least ours will fit on her bulletin board.
Despite the ice-breaking embarrassment of the collages and the moderator’s constant demands that we all relax, the room dynamic remains stilted. And although there are plenty of similarities – educated, Caucasian, male Vancouverites across the board – these likenesses are all superficial at best. I feel kinship for nobody here, save one: a shy, heavyset young man whose discomfort at the awkwardness of the situation matches mine and is so apparent that I want to knock him unconscious to put him out of his misery. Also, we are the only two with beards.
The woman excitedly provides us with a number of different restaurant names and scenarios that we are to react to with single “feeling” words, which she writes on an easel pad, circling the ones that appear most often. I keep tentatively trying to share, repeating the word “stale” in response to a question about The Keg, but a few at the table can’t seem to contain themselves and keep talking over the rest of us and I don’t care enough to speak up. One of the keeners is twenty-two and has an immaculate James-Spader-in-the-80s feathered haircut and seems to want to impress the woman, using the word “artisanal” in every other sentence; I take an instant dislike to him. Another guy, in his early-thirties, appears desperate to be accepted by the group, changing his opinion constantly and referring to us collectively as “just a bunch of dudes, kicking back and hanging out,” as though we were all friends and not random demographically-preferred strangers. I wonder if he’s some sort of panel discussion narc, planted to create the impression of unity. When asked if he considers the wait staff to be important when choosing a place to eat, he says, “Hey, we’re all guys, right? We all love the ladies,” despite the fact that three at the table have identified themselves as gay.
As the group grinds on, the purpose starts to become clear; we are dictating changes to the menu of a major West Coast eatery chain. I’m concerned suddenly; this is a place where I eat regularly and I don’t want their food options dictated by young James Spader or someone who needs their ego stroked by the approval of strangers. My apathy falters and it begins to dawn on me that my cynical approach might have adverse effects; I start to speak louder and try to make my answers more concise and sincere.
When I arrive home, I’m greeted by my wife and ask about her day; she’s not enjoying her job right now and would surely move on to something else if it weren’t for the fact we’re trying to have a baby. As she vents about time sheets and call volume, I drop my paltry $150 earnings into the food-fund jar, knowing it is likely the only money I’ll bring in this month and feeling like a failure as a husband and contributor. After she goes to sleep, I try to make myself feel better by filling out another slate of questionnaires and, in light of tonight’s focus group, try making my responses as accurate and honest as possible.
On another day in another downtown office, I join twelve other adults in scrambling for my share of a platter of sandwiches, cut fruit, and doughnuts. The facilitator, a tall man with the bearing and confidence of a TV doctor, tells us to slow down, there’s plenty to go around. I feel a bit sheepish, but we’ve already been talking for hours and I’m starving and starting to fade; a hungry brain is an indifferent brain and I don’t want my attention to waver as it has during previous panels. I load up on carbs and sugar and try to focus.
Today, I am part of a gender-, age-, and ethnically diverse group that has been assigned the role of “mock jury.” Jointly, we are to determine the fortune of one specific person, a woman with a convoluted history of physical and mental challenges, engaged in a battle with her health insurance company. After the tall man gives us the indisputable facts of the case, he presents us with arguments from both sides of the courtroom, using time charts, video testimonies, and slides of partially-redacted documents, then excuses himself to watch us from behind the mirror, taking the last of our precious snacks with him. It’s clear that he’s employing us to tailor the case before it reaches the courthouse, but unclear whether he’s representing the prosecution or defense.
Our goal is one of consensus; we must decide how much money, if any, the woman deserves and reach a dollar amount without averaging. There is, at first, much energetic discussion and some gentle ribbing between panelists; the camaraderie inherent in working towards a common goal. We unanimously elect a woman in her late-forties as foreperson, all agreeing that her no-nonsense manner makes her seem the least unbalanced, and begin to hash it out. Under her direction, each of us explains how much money we think the plaintiff should receive and why.
The jovial atmosphere quickly cools as we realize that people have wildly differing ideas about the monetary value of “trauma,” with numbers ranging from a few thousand to several million. At opposite ends of the spectrum sit two older gentlemen, each happy to play devil’s advocate; it’s up to the rest of us to convince both of them to budge. I surprise myself by making an impassioned plea for reason; this is not the time to argue for argument’s sake, this individual’s fate may actually rest in our hands. I assert that it is our duty to the plaintiff, and the entire social justice system, not to mess around. My enthusiastic, if overwrought, spiel seems to do the trick as the two gents shrug, allowing the stalemate to end and the discussion to resume.
It takes a good hour of continued persuasion and negotiation to reach a number we can all agree on. It’s close to what I had first suggested and I feel smugly vindicated, but also strangely proud that I have assisted society in some way. The tall man returns and says, “Good work, everybody” and holds up his hand like he’s expecting a high-five, which no one slaps. The amicable vibe of the previous hour returns and I leave feeling content that I’ve used my two cents well, glad that I haven’t just left the outcome to be decided by some stranger with scabby legs or feathered hair. High on personal satisfaction, I briefly consider rejecting the white envelope. But then I think about my wife at home, now at the end of her first trimester of pregnancy, and decide that $125 will buy a lot of diapers. I tuck the envelope in my pocket.