It's Friday night in the ballroom at Inn on the Park, and I'm witnessing the unfolding of a market research ruse that has fooled a million people around the world. NLike the other 175 people here, I've been lured by the chance to decide what will and won't make it onto the television screen next season. I got here by answering one of 2,000 mail-outs from an organization called Television Preview inviting a representative sample of TV-watching Torontonians to come and "evaluate not-yet-released television material that is being considered for nationwide broadcast." We're not getting paid for our trouble -- we only get the pleasure of talking back to the tube. After handing in our slim, green tickets at the door, each of us is handed a sealed package of questionnaires and directed to rows of chairs facing a line of four TV screens.
The evening's host tells us we're to watch two half-hour sitcoms and then give our "frank and honest opinions."
"The people associated with national television have asked us to show you this material," he explains in a light British accent.
But before we begin our brief stint as content gatekeepers, we're asked to fill out our first questionnaire -- eight pages of snapshots of air fresheners, paper towels and toothpastes.
Simple instructions The instructions are simple: "Circle the one you truly want." The information is ostensibly needed to "know what to include in your prize package" in case we win a prize draw, the questionnaire affirms.
And no one seems to doubt it.
Then there is more skullduggery. To better simulate a "natural environment," the host tells us how the kindly folks at Television Preview have inserted commercials into the screenings -- but only to make everyone feel more at home.
Is this getting clearer?
Then the clincher. The televised segment of "not-yet-released material" turns out to be an episode of City, a Valerie Harper vehicle that enjoyed a 13-episode run on CBS -- 10 years ago.
Nobody else appears to notice this fact.
Nor do they seem to know that the second sitcom, Blind Men, is a defunct pilot that NBC opted not to premiere last fall.
Moreover, not a soul gets up to leave when asked to complete a second brand-preference questionnaire -- for yet another door prize -- or when a final survey poses 31 questions about political activities, pet ownership, genetically modified foods and detergent purchases.
The fact is, the people behind Television Preview, an Evansville, Indiana, firm called RSC the Quality Measurement Company, have nothing to do with TV programs and everything to do with TV ads.
I track down RSC's group manager of marketing communications, Wade Holmes, who explains over the phone from Evansville how RSC participants are used as guinea pigs in Television Preview's "simulated purchase environment."
"During the previews, they're going to view television programming into which we've embedded videos -- commercial breaks -- just like they'd be seeing at home," he says.
But the key to the experiment is the two questionnaires that subjects fill out before and after watching any programming.
"We do that so we can tell whether or not exposure to a particular brand message or advertising caused more people to prefer that brand," Holmes reveals. RSC uses this method, called a persuasion test, to score 2,000 TV ads every year.
John Philip Jones, a professor of communications at Syracuse University who spent 27 years in advertising, confirms that RSC's Television Preview tests can accurately predict if an ad will boost a corporation's sales in the short term.
"RSC is the leader in (TV advertisement) evaluation," he says.
According to industry sources, RSC charges $18,000 a pop for the tests. They've been using the method since the early 70s, almost 35,000 times, testing ads for 6,000 brands in a dozen countries, with a high turnout of almost a million aspiring TV critics.
Of course, if ignorance really is bliss, then it's all OK. "You'd be amazed at how few people figure it out," says RSC's Holmes.
Ad-testing sham "The whole set-up is that they're there to evaluate the programming. We try not to cue them to the advertising, because we like it to be an incidental exposure."
Indeed, not one of the half-dozen people I interviewed after the show caught on to the ad-testing sham.
"In these kinds of experimental contexts, people are so caught up in the novelty of the situation that they can't really think clearly," explains Romin Tafarodi, a U of T professor of social psychology.
"What we see on television is decided by advertisers and what they think is appropriate," he says. "The average viewer feels fairly disempowered, and when given what seems to be an opportunity to have direct influence on what they see on the tube, they take it up."
Number of commercials seen by average viewer by age 20: 600,000
Television ads as a percentage of total advertising spending: 50
Newspaper ads as a percentage of total spending: 24
Cost of a 30-second spot on ABC during theY2K Super Bowl: $2 million (U.S.)
Cost of a 30-second spot on E.R.: $545,000
Cost of an average 30-second one-shot spot on any of the big four U.S. networks: $150,000
Increase in dollar sales RSC claims its method ensures over four years: 50 per cent