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Rusty Saber

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by Joe McAdoo

A loose end ...

The ink was barely dry on the column I wrote about the misuse of the word "focus" in basketball when a reader took me to task for not mentioning the role of focus groups in the creation of public policy.

The reader (who shall go unnamed) is right. I omitted focus groups. Let's just say the "focus" of that column wasn't on politics.

Focus groups are not, as the name

implies, group eye examinations. They were originally a market-research tool, allowing for a clearer understanding of public reaction to products and ideas.

Small groups of people representative of target audiences are assembled and queried about whatever is being investigated. Usually, focus-group sessions are videotaped, allowing groups' verbal responses to be compared to accompanying facial expressions and body language.

Thus, researchers are able to clearly focus on the thoughts of group members; hence, the name. Focus groups have been a valuable tool in market research. Since public policy today is marketed in about the same way as toothpaste, politicians have adopted focus groups as their own, leading to government by focus groups. Here's how it happens.

Understand, this scenario would play out the same if the president were a Republican or Democrat; government by focus groups transcends partisan politics.

Scenario: In an effort to find a disadvantaged group not presently receiving government subsides, an anonymous presidential adviser comes up with left-handed people.

Of course they are disadvantaged: Pencil sharpeners and catcher's mitts are made for right-handed people; left-handed drivers (except in England) have to operate car radios with their right hands; left-handed people write upside down. Being left-handed is a terrible burden.

Besides, these subsidies win the president's party the votes of the "Left-Handed Block."

"Great idea!" says the president, "Let's run it by some focus groups."

(Later) The president's chief pollster reports: "We have a winner, Mr. President. Left-handers love it. Oh, we got some strong negative responses from right-handers; they said subsidies for lefties would put righties at a disadvantage. We agreed that it would create disadvantages, thus qualifying them for equalization subsidies to catch them up to left-handers. You should have seen their eyes light up, Mr. President!"

The president interrupts: "Didn't both groups see that they would be right back where they started?"

Pollster: "No, sir. They just mentally counted the money. You'll love this, Mr. President; when they asked where the money would come from, we told them it would come from savings from the 'downsizing of government.' I love it!

"Here's something we didn't even consider: Ambidextrous people went ballistic over the idea. They believe they deserve both the left-handed and right-handed subsidies; of course we agreed. Focus-group data are clear, Mr. President. Put this baby on the books and you'll get everybody's vote."

To which the president replies, "Let's do it!"

The alert reader was right. Focus groups have given "focus" a whole new meaning.

Another loose end ...

After results of the recent Rusty Limerick contest were announced, a limerick arrived written by Arthur R. Trampler. It seems he intended to enter the contest a year ago, but didn't. He planned to enter this year; however, he missed reading the Rusty Saber column announcing the contest. (See what happens when you don't read SBJ every week?)

The subject of the limerick is his failure to submit an entry. To demonstrate in poetic form the importance of never missing the Rusty Saber, his limerick follows:

I missed the message from McAdoo,

That he sought our limericks anew.

So again am I late

And 'till next year must wait

To submit inane verse for the world to view.

Arthur R. Trampler

Poet Trampler says he has many limericks to enter in next year's contest, and he actually plans to do it.

(Joe McAdoo is former chairman of the communication department at Drury College and a Springfield public relations consultant.)

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