Looking for Trouble
Updated: Oct 22
Incidental Findings #1
by T.H. Kern
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Oil Painting from "Sounds of Jazz" by Roman Nogin
If you ever want a four-minute master class in qualitative data analysis, I suggest looking to John Lee Hooker. And specifically, 1966’s “Peace Lovin’ Man.”
It doesn’t matter if you hate listening to the blues. If you don’t dig his riveting turn (“Boom Boom”) in The Blues Brothers, that’s fine—I’m not here to convert you. This blues legend from Mississippi (1917-2001) was never keen on winning favor. But he does have a useful lesson for market researchers, hiding in plain sight.
On first listen, “Peace Lovin’ Man” seems like nothing. The band is an electric blues quartet, a lean one. The drummer has a kick drum, a snare, and a tambourine. It’s a slow, propulsive rhythm, embroidered by guitars and bass that mesh in a sound that feels both crowded and roomy at the same time. Dum duh DUM, Dum duh DUM, Dum duh DUM. A plodding beat.
Right from the jump, the song’s narrator has a message to deliver. And on the surface, it’s a strange one:
I’m a peace-loving man
I don’t want trouble
I’m a peace-loving man
I don’t want trouble baby
I better go now babe
I don’t wanna get in trouble
We don’t know exactly where he is, other than a place he probably should not be. We don’t know who he has come to see; there’s no backstory. And we don’t really know exactly what he is after, but we can tell it’s something somebody doesn’t want him to have right now, or possibly ever.
What we do know, for damn sure, is that whatever it is, he really wants it. A lingering sense of doom is palpable, even in his use of the deliciously vague “trouble.” Make no mistake—this guy knows the threat is real.
I see trouble baby
Way up yonder ahead of me
I better go now baby
I smell trouble
For all of this talk, you can't help but notice that the guy does not budge. He just keeps telling the woman (and telling her and telling her), I’m not here to make trouble. So what exactly is going on here?
The first time I listened to Hooker’s Real Folk Blues in my college apartment, I found “Peace Lovin’ Man” a chore to sit through. Its numbing repetitions struck me as overkill, and inside my mind (possibly aloud), I may even have shouted at the stereo, “So leave already! You’re not gonna get what you want!”
Looking back, I may have been touchy due to sleep deprivation. But the guy does keep saying one thing over and over. If the song was a qualitative interview, any backroom client would have long ago sent a terse note in to the moderator: “Move on.”
Turns out, I was missing the point—the big “E” on the eye chart. What this song ultimately taught me, some time later, was not to focus on the singer’s words alone. The key takeaway is not what he says. It’s that he continues to stick around, perils be damned. He says one thing. But he does something else.
This matters in market research because observing what people do (or how they do it) tells you more than what they say. The narrator of “Peace Lovin’ Man” doesn’t have a whole lot to say as such, and Lord knows, he repeats it. But what he says (this fella isn’t after trouble) is directly at odds with what he does (sticking around).
In market research, as in life, this is a finding.
Allowing respondents to demonstrate their feelings, rather than merely state them, seems to be one of those cardinal rules that everybody knows but nobody practices. There are, of course, many reasons to give disproportionate weight to a respondent’s literal utterances in market research. And it seems logical, kind of, to assume that people do in life exactly what they say they do in interviews. But give them one chance to do something, not just describe it, and they will nearly always show you something more—and often quite different.
To some extent, online bulletin boards and ethnographic studies (and even standard interviews with a “homework” task) can help meet the need for more “evidentiary” data collection. In pharmaceutical companies, however, marketing teams often have a cerebral/rational bent that dismisses tasks they don’t deem sufficiently “scientific.” That’s their loss, and a loss for their data. Ultimately, all the brands they support stand to lose some competitive edge as well.
So the next time you hear an oncologist say, “I only care about data,” or an internist say, “I never look at journal ads,” think about putting their statements to the test. After all, talk is cheap. If you doubt me, ask John Lee Hooker.
T.H. Kern is Executive Vice President at Armature Group, a healthcare market research consultancy based in Wynnewood, PA. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org
John Lee Hooker, “Peace Lovin’ Man” (1966)
From The Real Folk Blues
All Rights Reserved
John Lee Hooker, “Boom Boom” (1980)
From the Universal picture The Blues Brothers
Directed by John Landis
All Rights Reserved