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The 24-hour challenge

Feb. 16, 2011 - Starting back in the ‘70s, a famous marketing campaign featured participants taste-testing different brands of cola. The cups were not marked with the brand names, colours or logos, so the campaign had the basic appearance of a scientific study. There is a big difference, however, between a marketing research study and a marketing campaign. A truly rigorous research study would be blinded in such way that neither the researchers nor the participants would know which brands were in play, which company sponsored the study or the intended use of the data being gathered.

February 16, 2011
By Peter Sells

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The Pepsi Challenge, on the other hand, was aggressively advertised with logo-emblazoned tents or booths set up at county fairs and shopping malls all across the continent.

A single-blind study is one in which the participants don’t have information about how their responses will affect the outcome. They are unaware of any information that would introduce bias or otherwise skew the results. The Pepsi Challenge is often described as a single-blind study but, in my opinion, the marketing factors described above introduced a significant level of bias, especially if the participants were brand-loyal consumers of one of the products in question. It was a very effective marketing campaign, but as a life-long over-consumer of cola products I could never believe that people couldn’t tell the difference in the taste test between Coke and Pepsi and then choose their favourite.

In a double-blind study, the researchers would also be unaware of which cola is in which cup – or even that the study was funded by Pepsi. Double-blind studies are generally held up as more rigorous and defensible research models.

So much for cola; what about a study that potentially affects the health and safety of firefighters and, ultimately, public safety? Let’s imagine that you are a firefighter participating in a pilot program of a 24-hour shift. Let’s further imagine that you have a personal preference for or against the permanent adoption of a 24-hour shift by your fire department. How would that personal preference influence your answers to questions such as:

• How satisfied are you with your nutrition and eating patterns?
• How do the people you live with like your work hours?
• How often does your significant other complain about your schedule?

• How do you feel your significant other feels about your schedule?

• How sleepy do you feel during your shift (or at the end of your shift, or during the following day)?

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As a participant answering these survey questions, you would be completely aware of how your answers would reflect either positively or negatively on the effects of the 24-hour shift. You were not asked to keep a log of what you ate and drank. Your family members were not asked for their input independently. Your fatigue levels were not measured by having you perform any standardized mental or manipulative tasks.

I must tell you that as a retiree I have no personal stake in the adoption of 24-hour shifts, nor did it in any way affect me in my career as a chief training officer. But I have to caution readers that decisions are being made that affect your lives, based on a version of the Pepsi Challenge, with the drinks straight out of the can and a really cool Pepsi-logoed leather jacket hanging on the wall in plain view. If the adoption of the 24-hour shift continues to snowball across Canada, let’s make sure the decisions being made are based on real data.


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