How market researchers navigate the ever-evolving English language

Mustard’s Anthony Shephard-Williams (research director and head of online communities) discusses the common ground between market research and the reality TV show ‘The Circle’.

Like many other people, I have been known to enjoy the odd bit of ‘reality TV’ here and there; I was an avid Big Brother fan for many years (until it lost its sparkle) and I still enjoy watching Gogglebox and IMACGMOOH. (I even wrote a blog on Gogglebox a few years back).

My reason excuse for watching these shows is that, as a researcher, I am naturally curious and love to observe people. I like to see how people conduct themselves and interact with others, or how they react in different situations (given the nature of these shows they are often challenging!).

More recently a new (ish) reality show has caught my eye. The Circle on Channel 4 (the second series) is currently showing and has been on our screens for around two weeks, which is based around the use of social media.

Around 8 contestants live in an apartment block in Salford (not too far away from Mustard HQ in Manchester City Centre) and they communicate only via social media. Although they may see pictures of one another, during the show they never meet face-to-face and they only communicate in text format via an online app.

How market researchers navigate the ever-evolving English language

Sounds straightforward right? Well of course, this is Channel 4, and there has to be a twist…the premise of the show is simply that anyone can be anyone.

So, for example, in this latest series there is a middle-aged woman who is pretending to be her own builder son and a 25-year-old man who is pretending to be a single mum with a new born. Viewers have also had the pleasure of the ‘This Morning’ presenter Richard Madeley take part for a few days, pretending to be a 27-year-old female called Judy (see what they did there?!). It is not all catfish though and aside from some deviants there are also some people who choose to go in and be their true, authentic selves.

So aside from the observational element, I bet you’re thinking what has this got to do with market research and how is it different to observing any other reality TV show?

Well a big part of a researcher’s role is to review written / text content. This can come in many forms – transcriptions from focus groups or telephone interviews, verbatim comments from open ended questions in quantitative surveys, exports from online communities or even hand written feedback forms.

We get to see how the English language continues to evolve, in written / text format:

  • Lots of emojis are used ☹ 😊 😉 – cue funny moments where some of the older contestants have been told by others what ‘WTF’ and ‘AF’ means. On a serious note though emoji’s are increasingly being used by respondents and the use of them can make it easier to understand the emotion behind a comment. The wink emoji 😉 can even make the notoriously hard to read sarcastic comments easier to interpret. We’ve also been known to use emoji’s as a technique in some of our focus groups – to help people express their emotions and illicit subconscious views.
  • Words are being abbreviated – Richard Madeley used S’later, and I even used my own abbreviation above (IMACGMOOH is I’m a celebrity get me out of here, if you were wondering). Other abbreviations that have been used lots on the show include YOLO (you only live once) and IMO (in my opinion).
  • New words are popping up left right and centre – with some of my personal favourites from the show being ‘peng’ or ‘mandem’ (peng if you’re wondering means fit, hot or good looking, whilst mandem refers to a group of men or people in general, like one’s crew, boys, or mates). These are slang words which are hard enough to get our heads around but we also should bear in mind that in 2018 over 1,000 new words, sense and sub-entries were added into The Oxford Dictionary.
  • New alternative meanings of words – historically words that sound the same can have different meanings (meat / meet / bare / bear etc.) but as language progress we are seeing increasingly alternative meanings for words that are spelt the same. For example shade doesn’t just mean getting out of the sun or putting your shades on anymore – it can now also mean being disrespectful or suspicious “throwing shade” and extra no longer just means in addition to, it can also mean that something is over the top or trying too hard, “he was behaving so extra”.

I find watching the contestants trying to fathom out whether a comment is real, is being cheeky or sarcastic or understanding how a comment is framed and reading into its deeper meaning really interesting.  And it is no different for us researchers – we sometimes have to second guess terminology and the context in which it is used or how it is framed. As the language we use and the way we communicate continues to evolve at a rapid pace, it certainly makes our role very interesting and keeps us on our toes!

In case you didn’t know, it was a “deviant” that won the first series of The Circle (a 26-year-old male who was pretending to be his 25-year-old girlfriend). Now I didn’t watch the first series but I am avidly watching series 2 and I am gunning for a ‘real’ person that is being themselves and not being a catfish to win. We shall see!

We would love to hear about your experiences of the ever-evolving language, and the things you’ve heard, seen and learned as a result. If you want to discuss how we go about analysing text / written content in relation to a research project then get in touch, we’d love to hear from you.