March 31st, 2012
I am working with a client team on a hybrid qualitative research study (online, then focus groups, then ethnography) related to a consumer packaged goods category, first in Hartford, then Atlanta. In the midst of this research, in conversation relating to the science and enactment of ethnographic observationals and qualitative research, one of my clients teasingly asks me, “So, what is the strangest research project you’ve ever been on?”
Since there have been many strange and wonderful projects, I pause to think. Then one study comes to mind: on fire ants. It is many years ago. The work is for a famous insecticide brand, Amdro which is connected to Raid as a subdivision, who needs to develop a creative TV campaign that will intensify motivation to use Amdro and provide clear understanding of how Amdro’s revolutionary bait works against fire ants in the South.
Fire ants are a powerful, insidious, ant nuisance that have come in from Central America, slowly, inexorably. They are ever spreading, mile by mile, through the south, moving northward. They only can live in warm weather that does not freeze, but warm weather in the U.S. covers all the South and Southwest. At that time, the pest is mostly in Texas, Louisiana, Florida, and South Georgia areas where we end up doing our research.
The problem with fire ants is manifold. Fire ant nests are hard to see and easy to step into. Sometimes they’re almost invisible, appearing and disappearing without notice. If a young child, unsuspecting adult (drunk or gets out of his car near the side of the road for a quick break), a calf, puppy, or other vulnerable creature steps into a fire ant nest without seeing it, the ants have a maddening, instinctual behavior: they swarm over the body and then, as if interconnected with a single nerve synapse, begin biting the victim all at the same time.
The bites are extraordinarily painful, sometimes fatal to young animals and children, leave utter burning sensations, horrible pustules stay unhealed all over the body for weeks. The victim is in misery, requiring hospitalization if severe enough. The ants live up to their name: fire.
So, now it’s 15 years later on this refreshment beverage study. The clients and I are researching outside of Atlanta, in Duluth, GA, and I continue to relate the story that the issue I needed to contend with was to interview farmers and other agricultural people who rarely were seen or interviewed in traditional market research….we set up research stations in location like Stark, Florida, where we recruited fire ant sufferers and set up closed circuit TVs in motel rooms and conference halls to create the research environment that Amdro and agency clients could then observe.
The creative issue, at that time, is interesting, actually. How to communicate that Amdro as bait would eventually reach the queen of the fire ant nest, kill the queen, which would eventually wipe out the entire nest…when most farmers and landowners were pouring gasoline down the fire ant holes hoping to blow it up violently. The issue creatively was that when we personified the killing of the queen and the hive in TV ad storyboards, the ants looked cute. The imagery of the ants and queen engendered sympathy and heroism rather than malice and deadliness. How to un-herocize the queen and the ants? To solve the creative issues at that time, we used focus groups and an iterative process to work it through.
So, here we are in late March 2012, and I’m talking with altogether different clients about this intriguing subject, who find it rather amusing as a creative problem. it’s different from their own, but just as hard to figure out. Not more than three hours later, we do an afternoon ethnography and go out for a run (exercise during authentic ethnography) with a respondent during a real-life observational in Duluth, GA. As we (the respondent, me, and two clients) all run along a road, we notice mounds of gravel, sand, and small holes at the top of each mound. The female respondent that the 3 of us are observing says with excitement, “Look! There! Fire ant mounds! They’re dangerous!” We discuss them quickly, and with amazement.
I can’t believe the fire ant scourge has reached midway into Georgia, near Atlanta. 15 years, farmers and Amdro had predicted it would, and now I’m seeing it. The northward, spreading course of the nuisance is continuing.
The current clients with whom I have just finished discussing fire ants are astounded to hear about the subject of fire ants from this unsuspecting respondent. Then, the respondent says, “You know, Amdro bait is the only thing that really kills them….it gets to the heart of the nest, bringing the bait down into the nest to kill the queen. When the queen is dead, the rest of the ants die.” Clients hear my words repeated from the mouth of a respondent in the midst of and talking about exercise and cold beverages for hydration and replenishment.
To me… It’s obvious that the TV campaign we developed for Amdro 15 years ago worked in terms of communication with education–since the education on how fire ants can be eradicated through Amdro bait is crystal clear to this respondent.
I am left with wonder.
As an observer of synchronicity, I am thinking to myself now that I’m back from this particular piece of research: What does fire ant mean, more universally? Is it just a coincidence? Is it potentially a meaningful coincidence? Why does the sight of these nests return into my experience? What is the meaning of conquering pests through bait? Is the fact that the educative effect works from the Amdro campaign…the reason? What about Amdro anyhow?
What is the symbolic, archetypal, metaphorical, metaphysical meaning of ant? Ants? Fire ants?