09 December, 2011

Celebrating the birth of the polls

Melbourne Herald Sun, Friday December 9, 2011

Opinion polls rule! Politicians jump at their peaks and troughs and are quick to dump candidates, even leaders, who can’t get the numbers. Products are minutely researched before they see the light of day.

We know about how many of us are fat or thin, when and how we shop, what we feel about any issue from a war to a proposed traffic island, and how often we have sex - and with whom. All is known to the all-seeing eye as we are pursued by armies of researchers.

But 70 years ago none of this existed. Here in Australia we may have read an occasional article about opinion polls in America, but on this quiet isle we relied on taxi driver polls.

Then in 1940 Sir Keith Murdoch (father of Rupert) sent his bright young accountant, Roy Morgan, to the US to find out about opinion polls from Dr George Gallup, founding father of the industry.

When he returned, Morgan was Australia’s leading - only - expert on the subject and immediately was put to work researching for this paper’s ancestors, the Melbourne Herald group.

In the spring of 1941, three months before Pearl Harbour, Murdoch set Morgan the task of measuring a “reader interest survey” for the Sydney Sun. It was Australia’s first “Gallup” opinion poll, measuring attitudes to equal pay for men and women.

Incidentally 60 per cent were in favour, showing that even 70 years ago, Australians were egalitarians.

However, political polling was tricky in the middle of a fierce war, but after it ended Morgan applied the Gallup method to pick the winning party for the next five federal elections from 1946 to 1954, within a margin of 1 percent.

Today of course an election would be unthinkable without its polls - and just about every other week in the year.

The Roy Morgan Research Centre became independent in 1959, though it received housing, power and postage from The Herald until 1973. But the other papers, and then television channels, were not going to take this lying down.

Since the late 60s, a number of polling companies have pushed forward. These days News Limited features within its stables the Newspoll and the Galaxy Poll.

In the early 70s Rod Cameron, whose research had guided John Cain, and then Bob Hawke, to their victories, formed ANOP. Fairfax use multi-national grocery researchers Nielsen.

What they all share is a high degree of accuracy that has grown from long practice. At the end of most modern campaigns, the postmortem shows all the major companies within a couple of percentage points of the outcome.

In both politics and consumer research they have introduced innovative methods. We are now familiar with political debates being underlined by a “worm”.

Morgans claim to have devised it, but the term “worm” has rapidly become a common noun so now it is named The Reactor . This is the squiggly lines across your TV screens as politicians debate, to show the public’s immediate reaction.

This is now available as an iPhone app from the Morgans web site so you can participate in research wherever you may be. The plan is to encourage TV viewers to comment on programs as they run - the good bits, the boring bits, the flow of interest. So if you want you can invite the all-seeing eye into your home.

Meanwhile, today, Morgans are having a 70th birthday party.

Blog: themarketeer-raybeatty.blogspot.com

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