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George Gallup in Hollywood


 Susan Ohmer


 New York : Columbia University Press, 2006. Paperback. 336 pp.

ISBN-10: 0231121334 ; ISBN-13: 978-0231121330. $27.50.


Reviewed by Nolwenn Mingant

Université Sorbonne nouvelle - Paris III


A central issue in Hollywood is the unpredictability of the audience. Movie producers are constantly looking for a ‘sure-fire way to develop popular films’ [127]. They desperately seek to ‘avoid uncertainty and save money’ [207]. Producing sure-fire hits means knowing one’s audience. One way to learn about the general public is quantitative research, a scientific approach notably embraced by George Gallup in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s. ‘Guesswork eliminated,’ the title of this book’s second chapter, defines Gallup’s work in advertizing, politics and the movies. It is thus a description of his method, its impact and its limits that Susan Ohmer presents in George Gallup in Hollywood.

Those attracted by the title – and by the Walk of Fame star on the cover – will however find it quite misleading. Indeed the first five chapters of the book (out of ten) are about Gallup’s pre-Hollywood career, while the chapters actually dedicated to Hollywood concentrate more on Gallup’s right-hand man, Ogilvy. Beyond the fact that the title is somewhat of a misnomer, and that Susan Ohmer recurrently tries to apologize for it, this book is of great interest for Business Studies (marketing), American Studies and Film Studies academics and students. American Studies academics will be particularly interested in Chapters 3 and 4.

Chapter 3 relates Gallup’s career at Young & Rubicam and, indirectly, gives a picture of the advertizing world: the ad crisis of the 1920s, the rise of market research in the 1930s, the relationship between ads and newspapers, the development of radio ads. Chapter 4 depicts the political polls of the 1940s, opposing older methods (straw polls [57]) to Gallup’s scientific approach (sampling [53]) in the 1936 presidential elections. One year before, Gallup had founded the American Institute of Public Opinion (AIPO). Film academics will be more interested in Chapters 6 to 10, in which Ohmer details Gallup’s work in Hollywood from 1939 to 1948: the polls he conceived for major studios (RKO) as well as independents (Samuel Goldwyn, David O. Selznick, Disney) and the way the producers used Gallup’s results. Gallup explored such issues as the demographics of Hollywood’s audience, the relevance of the double-bill in movie theaters, the popularity of specific actors and actresses, or the potential of stories. Gallup offered his services to Hollywod through the Audience Research Institute, which he founded in 1940. Marketing students will learn much from the detailed case studies in the fields both of advertizing and movies.

Susan Ohmer’s approach to Gallup’s work is twofold: she is interested both in the man and the method. One facet of her work is sociological. She describes Gallup’s career in a very detailed way, from his education in the 1920s to his work in Hollywood in the 1940s. She insists on the personal backgrounds and professional trajectories of the people who worked for or with Gallup. For example, she shows how social and professional networking led Gallup from Madison Avenue to Hollywood Boulevard. Among Ohmer’s numerous primary sources are many personal papers (George Gallup, David Ogilvy, David O. Selznick, Nelson Rockefeller), oral history collections and interviews. This first approach is however never psychologizing and is generally to the point.

Susan Ohmer secondly concentrates on Gallup’s method, describing and thoroughly analyzing in each chapter the polls, their conception, their results and interpretation. Again, she uses primary sources: the polls themselves and the press reports circulated at the time. The first half of the book insists on the scientism of Gallup’s method, as a reflection of the celebration of empiricism in the 1930s. The second half is more argumentative and recurrently confronts Gallup’s method to the issue of subjectivity. Although public opinion is quantitatively measured, impartiality cannot be guaranteed. The formulation of questions, the personality of interviewers have an impact on the results. In the same way, the personal opinions of Ogilvy are shown to appear in his report to Hollywood producers [146]. Ohmer also suggests that Gallup’s collaborator sometimes ‘may have been telling his client what it wanted to hear’ [203]. The second half of the book thus tempers the enthusiasm of the first chapters, which tended to insist, in a sometimes too laudatory fashion, on Gallup’s role as innovator, as the man who had become ‘a household word’ by 1936 [49]. The interest of the first chapters lies in describing the establishment of an empirical method. The point of the second part is to show that scientific methods can never be completely equated with objectivity. Quantitative research ‘is not just raw data but a discourse’ [8].

It is in the moments when Susan Ohmer deconstructs this discourse and puts to the fore the issue of voice that her book becomes truly fascinating. Gallup considered himself as ‘a new spokesperson for America’ [56] and ‘promoted the idea that polls were “the pulse of democracy” ’ [66], as they convey the feelings and opinions of American consumers and citizens. In Hollywood, Gallup tried to ‘make these voices audible to the executives who produced their entertainment’ [78]. For Susan Ohmer, this explains why Gallup was welcomed with curiosity but also very often with mistrust in Hollywood. By claiming to represent the audience, by positioning himself as ‘an alternative voice to the film industry,’ [157] Gallup went against the traditional Hollywood methods to research audiences and make production choices. Exhibitors and producers thus tended to see Gallup’s work either as useless (‘discovering’ facts that Hollywood insiders were already aware of) or as threatening (giving more clout to the audience than to industry insiders). As Gallup’s self-proclaimed unbiased scientific approach clashed with Hollywood’s reliance on gut instinct, the debate around his polls put into relief the power structure of the film industry and the crucial role of knowledge in the struggle for control. Although Gallup did not revolutionize Hollywood, he did bring the studios' attention to a more scientific approach to audience research. Studios and producers, such as Disney, did internalize and adapt Gallup’s methods and the use of audience research did become widespread after World War II ‘as an effort to maintain dominance’ [224].

In ten chapters, Susan Ohmer takes the reader on a journey from advertizing to politics to movies, showing the links between the different fields. ‘Historically, Gallup's work in Hollywood provides a critical connection between areas of U.S. culture that we might think were separate, such as political polling and popular culture,’ she declared in an interview.(1) In the end, this book is not really about Gallup in Hollywood, but it is an innovative and fascinating study about the construction of discourse, power and control in the field of mass culture.






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