Bj’s 30 Years in 30 Days—June 22 Doing Good

  Bj Kirschner      22 June 2022     

The month of June marks my 30th Anniversary in market research. Since 30 days hath June and I love a good countdown, I have decided to do a Market Research Thought of the Day each day in June. Enjoy! Bj

Bj’s 30 Years in 30 Days—June 22 Doing Good

Healthcare or consumer, this country or that country, small study or big study, qual or quant, everyone in market research loves to see real world application of our work.  Be stoic all you want and pretend you are above it.  That’s like parents claiming not to have a favorite child.

For quant folks, remember when you did those 75-page studies on yellow paper, blue paper, green paper and periwinkle paper?  Remember when there was a part that showed a word or sentence or concept that you showed to the respondent for a specific amount of seconds to test recall (and then were edited in red pencil)?  That process was automated like everything else, but it is still a very popular way to test reaction to words.  You were part of the effort to name a drug or see if a commercial tagline would be remembered as people watched the Super Bowl.  It was cool!

There is one study from fairly early in my career (and yes, I do remember every study I’ve done…well, okay, at this point I can pretend I remember every study I’ve done) that proved to me we are a part of something larger and we are doing good.

As Y2K turned out to be problematic only at a few Blockbuster locations (Google Y2K and Blockbuster, I'll wait), HIV was still being treated with what was then called “the cocktail,” a combination of drugs that worked well but had deleterious side effects.  Inhibitor therapies would be an epidemic-changing revolution, but not until closer to the end of the decade.  The side effects of the medications were not something market research could directly alter, we are information gatherers, not clinicians. 

There was one medication that had a dire taste and aftertaste.  There were people who did not take their medications as prescribed because of the noxious taste.  How can this medication be improved taste-wise without altering the drug itself or how it works in the body? 

So, we were tasked with bringing into the office a few hundred HIV patients who were on this medication at the time of day they would normally take this medication to actually take the medication in front of us, but with a flavoring.  There was a spoonful of chocolate, of peanut butter, of fruit jellies and others.  Because we were dealing with an actual drug, we had nurses right there for safety and to answer any medication questions.  It was a Pepsi Challenge methodology (go look that one up too) with a very serious and important intention.

Every day for weeks and weeks, we had dozens of people participate.  The horror stories they told us about the taste and aftertaste were frightening.  They came into the room nervous and unsure.  The study was not clinical, no one was altering the drug chemically.  It was not even high tech, it was literally dropping a pill into a spoonful of something tasty and then swallowing.

Each person would come in, be given a masking flavor, take the pill, stick around for a bit and then report what they thought.  The flavors were randomly rotated, so unless someone had an allergy, we were not allowed to hint at the flavor or provide any explanation.

At the beginning of the study, I wondered why it took this kind of study to think of something so simple.  After all, parents get their kids to take medicine by burying it in sweet flavors (my mother always used apple butter—if we saw a jar enter the house, we knew a con job was on the way because we never touched apple butter otherwise).  And pets!  Give a pet a spoonful of peanut butter and they won’t even notice the pill!

So, I asked (I went off-script, I know, it was tension-cutting tactic).  First the nurses.  Most of them said the same things: first, drawing attention to the taste by masking it could increase anxiety; second, these medications were fairly new and very expensive, so people would rather deal with it than rock the boat and run the risk of having it taken away; third, lots of medications have terrible tastes and aftertastes, so even though this was extreme, people “just deal with it.”

Then I asked the patients.  The main reply was the middle one, that they did not want to complain for fear of losing access to it.  But I am not a clinician, I have no medical training or knowledge, so me asking the question was harmless to them, they could answer truthfully.  I had no control over their treatment, at most I knew no more their first names.  I can still hear the voices and see the faces, people fighting back tears, caught between the hope of survival and the ache of reality.

We had a lot of people say the flavor we gave them was one they would never touch (for some reason, that happened most often with strawberry), but if they could get the pills with that flavor, no problem, go ahead and use it.

The study did not promise that the drug would ever be flavored, but it meant so much to everyone that the people behind the manufacture of these therapies knew how awful the taste was and was even considering solutions.

You do not forget the smiles on the faces of respondents as they leave in a situation like this.

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