Pi Attitude Zone: Flexibility

Can Agony Aunts Reveal Market Research Insights?

In an age when brand managers pore over Tweet-strands as if they were runes endowed with magical significance, Pi would like to suggest a look into another widely available source of consumer insights: the agony aunt column.

This compulsively readable genre is not just entertaining, but also unexpectedly revealing.  Agony aunts, and the ‘agonized’ people who write to them, offer market researchers and the advertiser companies they serve a rich vein of insight into the human condition.  These letters and replies give an intimate glimpse into social attitudes, human foibles, behavioral curiosities and bizarre beliefs.  Many such stray thoughts can usefully guide brand communication strategies. 

As agony aunts go, few could hold a candle to their doyenne, ‘Dear Abby’, or more properly Abigail Van Buren, born Pauline Esther Friedman just after WWI.   Abby died in January 2013, aged 94. 

In her heyday, she would get up to 25,000 letters a week.  During a nearly 60-year career, the Dear Abby syndicated agony column shared with millions of newspaper- (and later online-) readers her take on the concerns of ordinary people who felt they were dealing with extraordinary problems.  “You changed my life”, many would say gratefully after she responded.  Dear Abby demurred, saying she was simply applying common sense and a desire to help.

Starting out in the mid-1950s, she was often in the vanguard of change in social thinking. After originally believing that the bonds of marriage should be indissoluble, she later reconciled herself to the idea of divorce.  Remarkably for an American of her era, she came to voice support for pro-choice attitudes on abortion and equal treatment for gay people.  She even pondered the legalization of recreational drug-taking.

Sometimes the issues she wrote about achieved the pre-internet equivalent of ‘going viral’.  When her column invited comment on whether women over 50 still enjoyed sex, a quarter of a million readers wrote in.

Dear Abby could be wonderfully witty while dispensing her deceptively ‘homespun’ wisdom.  When a woman wrote in seeking a cure for her oversexed husband’s roving eye, she suggested “rigor mortis”.  A complainant disgusted about a gay couple moving in next door asked how to restore the quality of the neighborhood.  Her tart response was “You could move”.

Perhaps most endearingly, a young woman wrote to confess that a 21st birthday celebration with her boyfriend had gotten a little out of hand: “I don’t usually drink, but I had three martinis and at dinner we split a bottle of wine. Then we had two brandies. Did I do wrong?”  “Probably”, said Abigail van Buren.

Beyond toasting the memory of this wonderfully wise human being, Pi nominates Dear Abby for a posthumous place in the Market Research Hall of Fame.

Zone: Flexibility Country: USA / North America Product – Services