I recently received an unsolicited mailing from the Australian Conservation Foundation. I am not a member of the organisation. It contained a 4-page A4 brochure headed “Climate Change Action Survey”.

As a market researcher, I’m always keen to do any kind of survey … provided it is legitimate research (see my Crikey piece on “sugging” — selling under the guise of research). The brochure had a little yellow sticky note attached with a “personal” message from ACF boss Don Henry: “It is particularly important to me that you complete this survey today”. How could I refuse?

Unfortunately I got only as far as Question 2 before I started to ask my own questions about ACF’s underlying motives and whether this was worthy of the title “survey”. It asked: “When did you first become aware that climate change was a serious issue? (Please tick one box only)” and offered three timeframes — “In the past 12 months”, “In the last 2-5 years” and “I’ve known for more than 5 years”.

Hang on, what if I didn’t believe that climate change was a serious issue? (In fact I do, but that’s not the point here.) Which box should I tick then? Obviously, if I didn’t agree with the premise of the question then ACF wasn’t interested in my opinion.

By Question 3, I was seeing red, not green. It asked: “Which of the following statements best describes how you feel about climate change? (Please tick one box only)”. The alternatives were:

The issue is overwhelming and I feel helpless

I am frustrated that not enough is being done

I am hopeful that if we take action now, we can stop it

I am tired of hearing about it and want to see some action taken.

This is a reprehensible kind of question in any survey as it deliberately backs people into a corner. What if I am concerned about climate change but pleased that we ratified Kyoto and confident that Peter Garrett and Penny Wong will work things out? What if I am concerned that stunts like Earth Hour are distracting consumer and media attention away from more serious issues and more meaningful interventions? Again, if these were my views then ACF didn’t want to hear about them, at least not in this “survey”.

The next five questions were what we researchers call “loaded”: in each of them, the word “dangerous” had been added to “climate change” so that I was asked each time what I was doing or what action I would be willing to take “to help stop dangerous climate change”.

But by Question 9, the survey went from leading and loaded to just plain loopy. It asked: “What do you think is the best way for the government to stop dangerous climate change?” Firstly, this question contains a built-in and naïve presumption that “the government” — acting alone — has the power to “stop dangerous climate change”. But some of the alternatives (of which I was asked to choose up to three) were truly ridiculous:

“Pass a national law to cut greenhouse gas emissions” — Was the ACF suggesting that, like the Ministry of Magic, “the government” could simply wave a wand, pass a law and emissions would be cut? Survey respondents might well support tighter regulation of emissions but that’s not what the question asked.

“Set energy efficiency standards” — Huh? Standards for what? Household appliances? Vehicles? Industry? Agriculture? Which government? And how would energy efficiency standards stop dangerous climate change?

“Reject the dangerous nuclear industry” — There’s that word “dangerous” again but this time it’s the answer that’s loaded.

Question 14 of the “survey” asked whether I had made a will and whether I had included or intended to include a bequest to ACF. Over the page was a section where I could use a credit card to make a donation or even set up a regular direct debit in favour of ACF.

OK, so it was ham-fisted and laughable, but this “survey” also raised serious concerns about confidentiality and privacy. In three places, I was assured that “no individual responses will be disclosed” and “individual responses will not be revealed”.

“Disclosed” or “revealed” to whom? Legitimate market research organisations take great pains to ensure that consumers’ individual responses are not revealed to the organisation that commissioned the survey. This is so participants will give freely of their opinions secure in the knowledge that personal information will not then be used for selling or to build databases.

In this case, however, the ACF is the client and the questionnaire form arrived pre-printed with my name and address details in a way that couldn’t be separated from my answers. Thus my opinions would be inextricably linked not only to my name and address but also to my banking details (if I decided to give a donation). That breaches every known market research privacy provision I can think of.

Just because they’re green and they want to save the planet doesn’t mean ACF can get away with crap like this. The concerns this appalling “survey” raises about ACF’s professionalism and credibility are one thing, but there are very serious trade practices issues here, too.

Clearly this is not legitimate research: it’s a combination of FRUGGING (fund raising under the guise of research) and what has long been called “push polling” in a political context. And when you add the potentially misleading claims about confidentiality, it’s ACF that should be answering the questions.

ACF responds with a few points regarding the survey:

The survey was not independent research and was not dressed up as such.

It was a survey, to a mix of ACF supporters and others. The aim was to involve our members and supporters and other people concerned about the environment to join with ACF to – as the survey stated – “demand action from our political leaders”. This includes writing to politicians, attending workshops and supporting ACF financially.

There was no intention to publish the results. As the covering letter said: “Our survey will provide you with an opportunity to record your personal views about dangerous climate change – what your concerns are about its effects and, most importantly of all, what you might be prepared to do to help stop it”.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey