Why Hidden Market Research Should Be Banned

Received a call from Infratest, a well-known German polling company, yesterday. The interviewer said they were doing a poll on politics which would take about ten minutes and the results of which would be published by ARD, a publicly funded TV station. I agreed to be interviewed.

The interview started out with demographics, then came questions on politics, but at some point I thought, "Wait a minute, what does my telephone connection have to do with politics? Market research?" Being too agreeable a person, I still went ahead, but when she announced the next questions would be on my "travel behaviour", I asked whether this was still the interview for ARD. She answered no, this would be a little market research and she was sorry; she couldn't know beforehand which questions the computer would throw at her (which is credible). I declined to continue the interview.

The probability that I'm going to agree to be interviewed by Infratest in the future has markedly declined as a consequence. Perhaps Infratest's decision to couple the announced interview with market research is profitable in the short term but not the long term? Well, that's for them to worry about.

But not everyone will differentiate between this company and others. As a consequence of Infratest's questionable tactics, the willingness to participate in any social science research, including on topics more important than which party people would vote for in a hypothetical upcoming election, will decline. In other words, this kind of thing creates a negative externality for other researchers.

And of course, it is immoral to mislead interviewees about what they're going to be interviewed about. Not in the same league as rape and torture, but immoral still.

Two reasons why this kind of thing should be illegal.

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