Surveys asking if men are superior, whether gays deserve equal rights spark a research rethink

The head of the association representing pollsters in this country says in this era of social movements such as #MeToo, it's time for the industry to rethink its approach to probing for opinions on delicate topics.

Polling association plans to re-evaluate industry's approach to probing for opinions on delicate topics

Provocative questions in market research surveys are being called into question following complaints from respondents. (CBC)

How would you react if you agreed to do an online survey about the environment in exchange for Air Miles and were asked to agree or disagree with the following statements?

  • Society has gone too far in granting gays and lesbians equal rights.
  • Society has gone too far in providing equal rights to minorities.
  • Acts of civil disobedience (protests, blockades, occupying offices and other spaces) have no place in our democracy.

Offended? If so, you're not alone.

The poll featuring those statements, circulated to Air Miles members, is one of three recent surveys that prompted complaints. The other two — including one conducted for the Aeroplan rewards program — posed similar hot-button questions, such as whether immigration "threatens the purity of a country." 

One of the questions a complainant encountered in a survey conducted on behalf of Aeroplan.

Now, the association representing pollsters in this country says it's time for the industry to rethink its approach to probing for opinions on delicate topics.

"I am going to put some urgency on this," said Kevin Noel, CEO of the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association (MRIA).

He says contentious questions have been used for decades to gauge the public's views, but in an era of social movements such as #MeToo, and with heightened concerns over data use, it's time for a reassessment. 

"Society and times are changing," Noel said. "As an industry association we need to make sure that our standards are the best and are working for the public."

Questioning equal rights

Greg Chaisson of Pictou, N.S., took the survey with the statements listed above, which was distributed by U.S.-based market research company Research Now SSI. The firm has a deal with Air Miles to send surveys to participating members.

The stated topic of this particular questionnaire was "environmental attitudes," so Chaisson said he was shocked when it asked for his opinion on discriminatory statements about issues such as minority rights.

He could opt to "strongly disagree," but that didn't quell his concerns.

"They're questioning what I consider basic human rights," he said. "That's really regressive and offensive."

One of the survey questions Greg Chaisson of Pictou, N.S., found troubling in a recent survey circulated to Air Miles members.

Chaisson said he regretted taking the survey and worried about what the data would be used for. "Whoever wrote this survey did so in a way that seemed troubling."

Air Miles agrees. The rewards program says it had no role in creating the survey or collecting the data, and that it has voiced its concerns to Research Now.

"We do not condone in the strongest of terms the survey," a spokesperson wrote in an email.

Greg Chaisson says he was offended by questions in an online survey he agreed to take earlier this month in exchange for Air Miles. (submitted by Greg Chaisson)

Research Now offered Chaisson an apology, and said the survey of more than 100 questions, administered on behalf of a non-profit, non-political client, had no ill intentions behind it.

The company said the small number of questions Chaisson found problematic were strictly used to "measure cultural worldviews," to help understand people's positions on pro-environmental policies.

"Questions such as these have been used for decades and are based on decades of research," Research Now spokesperson Barbara Palmer said in an email.

Aeroplan, football team apologize

In April, CBC News reported that the Aeroplan rewards program apologized for and scrapped the data from a survey created on its behalf after a member complained. 

Lacey Willmott of Waterloo, Ont., objected to questions that asked her to agree or disagree with statements such as: "getting married and having children is the only real way of having a family," and "men have a certain natural superiority over women."

Lacey Willmott of Waterloo, Ont., was shocked when an Aeroplan survey she was taking switched from questions about shopping habits to ones about family values and immigration affecting the purity of Canada. (submitted by Lacey Willmott)

The market research company that created the survey, CROP in Montreal, said the questions were simply used to gauge attitudes and values of Aeroplan's members.

In March, a survey created for the U.K. Premier League's Tottenham Hotspur football club sparked outcry for asking U.S. fans their opinion on the statement: "A woman's place is in the home."

The question was "wholly unacceptable and a regrettable oversight," club spokesperson Joe Bacon said in an email.

MRIA's Noel says along with a growing awareness of insensitive language, people are also on high alert because of the recent Cambridge Analytica-Facebook scandal. In that case, personal data was reportedly misused during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

"The way they used data was not to the best interest of the general public, clearly, and that has caused a lot of people in society and the general public to start questioning things."

As part of its reassessment, MRIA may suggest changing the wording of sensitive questions, or perhaps more clearly warning respondents about their right to abandon surveys they find problematic, Noel said.  

As for Chaisson, he hopes provocative questions like the ones he encountered are axed from the list.

"I hope no one has to get a survey like that again. They really need to be more careful."

About the Author

Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Sophia Harris has worked as a CBC video journalist across the country, covering everything from the start of the annual lobster fishery in Yarmouth, N.S., to farming in Saskatchewan. She now has found a good home at the business unit in Toronto. Contact: sophia.harris@cbc.ca

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