Earlier this month I posted a commentary taking issue with online survey data from Ketchum Purpose’s 2018 “Causes Americans Care About.”
That’s because, according to a news release from Ketchum, “Animal Welfare” was allegedly the No. 1 issue Americans care most about in terms of a cause they support.
I don’t believe that for a second — not because animal welfare isn’t a worthy cause, just that it isn’t accurate to claim it’s at the top of the list of what concerns the American public.
That result prompted me to speculate that survey respondents were choosing options from a pre-selected list, rather than being asked an open-ended question, such as “What issue(s) is most important to you?”
Turns out I was correct, as the actual survey questions supplied by Ketchum listed 16 choices from which people could select.
To recap: According to Ketchum, the top three issues, and the percentages of people who selected them, are as follows:
- No. 1: Animal Welfare (41%)
- No. 2: Children’s Education (38%)
- No. 3: Hunger (33%)
I might flip the order in which those three were listed, but there’s no denying that all three represent important issues conscientious Americans ought to identify as worthy causes.
Inside the Survey
But here’s the problem with ranking animal welfare as No. 1: It’s wrong.
Why? Because the format of the survey practically guaranteed that animal welfare would lead the list. To explain, skim through the actual list to which survey respondents reacted:
“Which of the following issues/causes are you most interested in supporting personally?
Please select up to five.”
01 Animal Welfare (ethical treatment, wildlife conservation, etc.)
02 Arts & Culture (supporting museums, the performing arts, etc.)
03 Children’s Education (literacy, helping low-performing students, etc.)
04 Community Development (local fundraisers, housing/neighborhood projects, etc.)
05 Disaster Relief & Public Safety (destroyed homes, lack of supplies, etc.)
06 Diseases (research for cures, prevention, disease management, etc.)
07 Environment (pollution, recycling, renewable energy, etc.)
08 Family Services (single-parents, adoption, strengthening the family, etc.)
09 Hunger (children who do not have enough to eat, etc.)
10 Mental Health (combating depression, behavior disorders, etc.)
11 Poverty (fighting homelessness, families not earning enough to sustain themselves, etc.)
12 Women’s Rights (empowering women in the workplace, fighting discrimination, etc.)
13 Workforce Development (access to employment, training, etc.)
14 Youth Development (leadership training, helping at-risk youth, extracurricular
15 Other [Please specify]
16 None [Exclusive]
Imagine you’re a concerned person who’s agreed to complete this survey. Leaving aside the fact that you’re already part of a self-selected group predisposed to have causes with which they’re engaged, you’ve just been told to select five choices. You’re going to skim the list, pick two or three issues that are your priorities, along with a couple others about which you tell yourself: If I had the time, I’d definitely get involved.
Keep in mind that aspirational surveys in general are notoriously unreliable. It’s painless to declare that you care about some issue; quite another to ask, for example: “To which of the following causes have you donated time and/or money in 2017?”
Those two surveys would reveal different results.
But there is another even bigger problem with Ketchum’s survey: The list is in alphabetical order!
C’mon. They’re supposed to be PR professionals, and it didn’t dawn on them that when people get to pick five items from a list that is arguably loaded with causes that are ALL worthy of selection, maybe that list needed to be randomized?
When respondents know that they can choose five items, there’s no incentive to review the entire list first, consider the options, then go back and make an informed choice, as would be the case if respondents had been instructed to “Select your most important issue/cause from the list below.”
People simply start at the top, see “animal welfare” — which is coupled with “wildlife conservation,” for cryin’ out loud! — and check that first box as they go down the list.
I mean, who’s against animal welfare? And how many “concerned” people are going to think, “Ah, conserving wildlife … that’s not important enough to make my top five.”
Answer: Very few.
The format of this survey is all wrong, as is the conclusion that animal welfare is somehow the most important cause about which Americans are concerned.
Try sticking “animal welfare” down at the bottom of the list — without tacking on “wildlife conservation” — and then see where it rates.
Ain’t gonna be first.
Better yet: Ask a thousand people to name their top three causes in life.
I guarantee that worrying about animals won’t be No. 1.
Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.