Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Parents – the no-holds-barred focus group

Last week, regular NDA columnist Simon Akers had quite the conversation with his parents on the phone, and it all started from a new ad about baked beans.

Simon (Me): “Have you seen the new Heinz ad campaign with the slogan Beanz means More?”

Mum (M): Don’t think we have no.

Dad (D): What is it?

I explained it further. Someone running around gardens to throw random bits of advice and ultimately retiring an old favourite and catchy slogan in the process.

Me: Honestly without context what do you think of that?

D: Well I’ve grown up with it for 100 odd years – it doesn’t really have a hook to hook you in.

M: I can’t imagine beans means more

D: I’ve got no sympathy for it

M: Change for change’s sake

I add more context. Purpose and about being more. Experiences et al. You know, like the serious and non-humorous ads we talked about before.

D: The fact that Heinz are doing that – doesn’t that seem maybe not a bit over the top for a tin of beans?

M: What does the more actually imply? More fibre? More iron? More what? It sounds like a woke tin of beans to me.

I am dying with laughter and loving the accuracy by this stage.

Me: Does the Beanz Mean Heinz thing make you feel any better about the brand or worse.

D: Nah. Not for me mate. It’s always been Beanz Meanz Heinz

I discuss the concept of mnemonics and earworms. Something which, whether you like it or not, enables nostalgia and is a comfort – and of course a brand recall.

M : [starts singing a jingle from years ago – nobody asked for it but thanks anyway]

Me: Let’s put a Leinz under Heinz now.

M: If it ain’t broke – don’t fix it!

D : [laughs, appreciates the pun]

Leaving the advertising bubble

I have always said we are in our own little marketing and advertising world – which is why I particularly enjoy finding out what the real people think (i.e. not us!). We are, as an industry, guilty for being at times too serious and stressed, justifying our retained scopes and job descriptions with ‘changes for changes’ sake and wanting to put ego and awards before client outcome and customer sentiment. Forget research groups and the corny pic on the pitch deck of a colleague next to Newcastle train station to prove you go ‘out into the real world’. The real world is right there. And trust me, there is no better place to start than your family.

To Preface, my parents are retired from their respective public service jobs in Psychiatric Nursing and Primary School Teaching Support (Dad semi-retired- still keeping his rockstar dream alive with guitar tutor money), and they live in a village in Lincolnshire. Therefore, they have time to view these things – though does not necessarily mean they give these things time. 

A couple of anecdotal insights: 

Mum can’t stand mess and is quite pragmatic and outspoken with thoughts now (i.e ‘now I’m older, I know what I like, I know what I don’t like and I’m no longer going top pussyfoot around’. Noted) Her response above probably exemplifies. 

Dad is a little more laissez-faire, to the point of vagueness e.g. locking the door behind him as he is focussed on re-stringing his Fender Telecaster, much to the chagrin of Mum. The point is, they are (I would say, but what do I know) a normal 60+ couple who live in middle England, basically the antithesis of the young Clapham Common dwelling Northern Line commuting media exec.

The thoughts of advertising in general

Me : Ads in general right now on you see on the TV – how do they make you feel?

D – Yes frontline workers have been incredible but we are trying to get to a new normality so talking about saying Thank You in all the adverts – this is not helpful. The Covid thing is a bit too much and wearing a bit thin now. 

M: They just make me angry!

Me: Strong words – why Mum?

M : Because a lot of them imply that you’re at the heart of all their decisions. As if! Like Lloyds with the horse running on the beach saying ‘By your side’. Nothing to do with their profits or investors I bet [sarcastically]. All they want is your goddam dime [quoting my late grandad who moved to the USA and used to turn down ad breaks and enjoy bemoaning them. Also very much not an Ad man].

OK – I’ve really lit the blue touch paper now:

M: Perfume ads are ridiculous too 

D : Pretentious – nothing to do with smelling nice. 

Me: That’s why I like the Lynx ads. Even though I don’t particularly like the product it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

D: That’s exactly it. Use more humour – rather than trying to be sophisticated. 

Me:  OK playing Devil’s advocate here – how would you sell perfume on a TV ad? 

D: I don’t know, scratch and sniff the TV [laughs]

M: Simple. Don’t put it on there!

An interesting media investment decision to actually consider right there. They also prefer a more direct messaging approach. I mentioned more DR advertising versus Brand/Peak Advertising;

M: Sales ones are useful and you could act on that e.g. price at Morrisons this week.

D: I like the Lidl – ‘big on quality Lidl on price’. It is clear what I am getting.

[is also worth noting at this point the predisposed bias – Dad absolutely loves Lidl’]

D: or ‘4 pack of San Miguels and 2 Pizzas for a fiver’ from the CoOp. I’m inspired and having some of that’ 

I then talked through the concepts of TLO messaging (Time Limited Offers – whilst stocks last etc.). Also I explained there are exceptions and dangers of wearing out message. Like DFS sales.

M: If there is always a sale can you really trust them e.g. DFS?

D: The sale has been ending Sunday for the last 35 years!

The Honesty Gap

This is pertinent. According to WARC – many brands have been stranded in the ‘honesty gap’ in the last 18 months, with a gaping chasm between what a company says and what it actually does – and they ‘urgently need to reconcile their actions with their words’


Back to call. They are really on it now, this quick call has really got their juices flowing. Time to get them on their favourite subject – the old days!

Me: Looking back at ads of products that have been around for years and still exist – what are your favourite ads and why?

D: The one with ‘Don’t you want me baby’ – bloke on forecourt singing in a car about the car. Can’t remember which one.

I add that humour is great but more pertinently, not remembering which brand it was advertising kind of defeats the object. I looked it up, it was this Fiat Punto one here. It was a goodie.

D: I do like humorous ads though. There was one the other day actually. They’re all OOOoing. I’m not sure whether I like it or not. It was for a payment business [looked it up, it was the new SumUp one]. Obviously, I’m not the target but – it is at least memorable.

We all agree that humour sells. I then shared with my parents that there is data to prove the effectiveness of humorous ads.

Wider advertising and marketing mediums

I am quick to remind them that, despite their love for the box, any way in which you hear about a brand or receive info is essentially adverts – or some guise of marketing:

Me: Direct Mail – talk to me. Thoughts on getting a personalised letter on your doormat?

D: I tend not to respond to that

M: I’m annoyed they’ve got my name. Also, don’t make out you’re trying to help me out! It’s intrusive and rude.

D: I would rather seek out the provider for the service provider you know and trust. 

Me: But Dad, how do you suppose you know about the providers in the first place? Advertising, right?

D:  or a Google search’ I know some of them are Ads but at least I searched for it.

M: our generation is used to walking around the high street and checking things out for ourselves, so that is why we don’t trust it if it lands on your door. When I open up my magazine the inserts fall out and that’s annoying. Because it has to go straight to recycling – not sure how they’re meant to be saving the planet when they all bang on about it. So actually it’s a drain on your time and the environment. And it is always advertising. ‘Have you thought about insuring your car with blah blah’. Sometimes it is just leaflets. Sometimes it is targeted with your name on

D: I’ll give you an example – 12 years ago I bought a mirror from Barker & Stonehouse – the only thing I have ever bought from them. And every time they have a sale or offer situation you get a card or a letter through the letterbox. Don’t they get it?

Me:  It annoys you then?

D: Yes because they are quite upmarket 

[I still don’t know the context of this, whether it means they should not be lowering themselves to sale tactics, or he is becoming his aforementioned Dad himself)

M: I don’t mind the Barker & Stonehouse stuff actually because they send a little brochure. And I like looking at things like pictures and seeing it in a lounge or bathroom.

So basically the content itself isn’t too bad – it is more the irritation of medium and/or frequency. Interesting and an unlearn for me. So on to a round-up of traditional broadcast channels…

RADIO : D: Don’t listen to commercial radio – tend to have Radio 2 on. 

[I know this as I compete with my Dad on Popmaster most days] 

M: We may occasionally have Smooth or Magic on Alexa but we don’t really get annoyed by that.

CINEMA: M : They’re annoying

D:  I quite enjoy them. The experience with M&Ms on your lap. I like the OTT ad. M: Yeah – I suppose. Can be more humorous but you’re literally a captive audience so you watch it. 

OUTDOOR – M: Eye catching we have grown up with them on the side of buses. But they are saturated now. 

D: I always like them. Eye-catching but not sure I have acted on them.


Let’s break down some perceptions. It turns out they are digitally very cognizant.

ONLINE VIDEO D: Stop with ads in the middle of it [mid roll] is an absolute no-no. If there is a skip option there we always take it up. Especially on YouTube. With shows though typically E.g when we caught up with Endeavour over lunch we just recorded and skimmed over them.

MOBILE – Me: Let’s talk about those things you live on…

[and often is the cause of tension when I don’t reply straight away, i have to almost apologise for not being retired and constantly on alert!]

Me:  So Mum I know you have recently got into IG – with the dog account. What are your thoughts on Instagram adverts and Facebook?

M: ‘Relentless’ I mean I don’t know how it happens (I know you explained something about cookies once Si) – you click on one thing once like a little independent place that does homey things, now I am getting 2 or 3 different ones on Insta. By the time I got ‘You’re up to date’   there must have been at least 3 different companies trying to flog me this solar water fountain I must have looked at some time.

Me: That is because you have entered a retargeting pool, and the same sharks circle the same waters. It makes sense but I get that it doesn’t help your experience.

D: I don’t find Instagram too bad but Facebook seems to have more. I don’t really mind.

Google – is it the utopia it seems

I ask for thoughts on Google and explain how the difference in terms of media of it being you search them out not THE OTHER WAY AROUND – so capturing intent etc.

D: ‘I like Google – if your mother says to me how much a rug is – the first thing I would do is Google ‘reasonably priced rugs’ e.g. Amazon Wayfair Dunelm.

M: When you’re shopping for something online- I find it better when in the search results – ads/pictures come up along the top. Immediately getting a comparison.

I counter this with, if you are searching and comparing does that dissuade a higher price point. Dad surprises me with his non purely price-buyer response.

D: ‘Not necessarily – it depends what you are looking for sometimes you need to – and other times cheap and nasty will do it!

They then talk about it being good for looking at stuff and information and who is in what show, something that does not need scribing here.

EMAIL – D: When you get an email. Can be useful – it’s from people you have bought from before so you’re familiar. Also I bought a year ago for [grandson] a lovely thing from My 1st Years and get the odd email. Amazon too. I like their personalised recommendations. Charities I subscribe to. I like that because it feels personalised.

Me: On the subject of messaging do you prefer a discount message or something more personal?

D: Discount or sale is always a nice way to book in. A bit of both ideally

Me: Speaking of which- thoughts on upcoming sales – the big one – Black Friday.

M: ‘Oh I ignore it – never take any notice. Stresses me out’

Me: Dad I know – even without asking – for a fact you update Facebook annually with ‘it is not a bargain if you didn’t need it in the first place’ classic Stuff.

D: Abso-bloody-lutely mate!


I ask their opinions for the least and most favourite advertising tactics.

Dad: Least favourite direct mail through the door- please preserve some trees. I usually like what I find through Google Search. Sometimes TV ads just hit the spot too.

Mum: Same. Google is the one you use the most, it gets what you want and you get the comparison view. I like google because it is like going around the high st 

[I used the analogy with Mum of Google search page being High st and site being shop]

Me: Least favourite Mum?

M: Like your Dad. Coming through the door. Pain in the deck. Recycling. Intrusive. It is an absolute irritant

Me: I thought you said that about me!

M: That too. [all laugh] What about you Si, what do you think?

I respond by saying that my answer would probably be too biased and academic and learnt from years of working in media and seeing Google on media plans to capture demands etc. Mum: ‘OK then’

Me: FINALLY – If you could give one bit of advice to a CMO today what would it be?

Mum: Don’t be so insincere or treat people like they are idiots – be more honest and listen to us, and straightforward. And stop with the paper and really help the environment.

Me : [laughs] I feel personally attacked..

Dad: Regarding TV adverts, get to the point, and use more humour. 

CONCLUSION – and my final thoughts.

A whole 58 minutes on the blower and listening to my parents talk over each other on loudspeaker aside, this was really enjoyable. As a proxy CMO/Marketing Consultant myself, I found it refreshing to speak about my work with my parents. We speak a lot, but seldom about day-to-day, as I’m sure to this day they are not 100% what I do, Chandler in Friends style. Mum still thinks I’m in sales and we’re all the same thing anyway trying to twist my arm. Anecdotes aside, there are some genuine insights to pull out of this. I am not saying my parents are the cross-section of the UK or a focus group, but our transparent relationship and their alternative life stage enables them not to hold back. You probably got that! So:

  1. DIGITAL IS THE ENABLER OF CHOICE AND PERSONALISATION – and getting the comparison and structure, from Google Shopping real estate through to personalised CRM recommendations, it is key for success and the easier way to the heart of the most cynical buyer.
  2. NO MORE BULLSHIT – those longer in the tooth have been through all the cycles. Seen all the tactics, from. Phone-Book cold callers to Product retargeting. Learn from them. They have disposable income but aren’t going to give it away because you are pretending to be nice. Don’t overplay the purpose, be more human, be humourous and be clear and direct.
  3. CHALLENGE LAZY DEMOGRAPHIC PLANNING FOR MEDIUMS – The ABC1 60+ Demographic does not always tessellate with a preconception. They love Google, clearly dislike direct mail, and enjoy Radio, but despite its perception as older access, is only as good for planning as their listening to commercial channels.

Ok, I’ll do this again in a year’s time if you want to hear their thoughts when the world has spent time back up and running. I just hope for our sake that brands have learnt their lesson – and the recycling bin isn’t so full of delivered leaflets.