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This Space for Rent: Disclosing for Money in Focus Groups

February 2000

Even though we are infected with HIV, people with AIDS are still human. We have feelings, morals and some self respect.

But when an organization shows me the money, my morals fly out the window and I become a whore.

Even when I worked and made a good salary, I've always needed more money. So when I saw a flier advertising that a marketing group would pay $75 for me to participate in a focus group and give them my opinion, I thought "Great!" Usually, I tell people my opinion for nothing.

So one day in August I decided to earn $75 by participating in market research for a pharmaceutical product. After driving 47 miles in heavy traffic, getting lost and pissed off, I thought to myself, "Seventy-five dollars really is not that much money."

When I finally arrived, the clerk placed me and several other women in a cozy room with a one-way mirror in place of a wall. I knew the minute I saw that mirror we were being watched. A very proper Southern belle, who was obviously not educated about HIV/AIDS, told us that she was going to conduct the session and asked if anyone had any questions.

My first question to Ms. "Susanna" was "Why are they behind the mirror?" "Well," she replied, "they want to get the full effect of your opinions without you feeling uncomfortable." If I had known what they were going to show us I would have understood why they wanted to hide.

"Susanna" started the session by asking us women around the table to state our name, our age, when we were infected with HIV, and how. Now this will be a great ice-breaker, I thought. They had no interest in making us feel comfortable and things proceeded to go from bad to worse.

She then told us of a print advertising campaign for a new drug regimen her company was hoping to launch. In the ad campaign, the company tells us that women are so very busy being the care-givers that they never have time for themselves. Then the ad tells us how ashamed we must feel when we have to stop our care-giving for others and take our meds. I for one have never felt ashamed to take my medicine.

The focus of the ad was a badly lit photograph of a Hispanic woman between 35 and 45 years old. Beneath the photo were two words:


Hmmm, I thought. Until that point, I never felt that I had to choose between being a "whore" or a "mother." I'm not yet a mother. And except for the fact that I drove 47 miles to participate in this focus group, I never considered myself a whore!

Others in the focus group said they felt the same way. Ironically this included the women who openly stated that they were prostitutes! After we all told "Susanna" that the Whore/Mother campaign would not fly, a different approach was shown to us. This ad depicted a Hispanic woman with her kids, a black woman playing golf, a white woman in the store, and an Asian woman picking flowers. The ads still said "Whore" and "Mother" but to this they had added "Sister," "Friend," "Lover" and "Boss."

This ad still felt very cold, we all agreed.

Having shared our opinions with "Susanna," who strangely seemed shocked at our strong reaction, and the unseen people behind the mirror whoever they were, our focus group reached the end of this great experience. As we left the lobby, an envelope containing $75 cash was handed to each of us.

As I walked to my car I had a pounding headache, I was hungry, it was rush hour and I had to drive 47 miles home. All the way home I thought about what I just did and swore I would never pimp myself out like that again.

It wasn't long however, before I heard the pimp in me calling again. When I was at my doctor's office, I was told I could be paid in exchange for participating in a half-hour interview regarding my current meds and past cocktails.

This phone survey was effortless. I was completely comfortable in my home. The interview took only 28 minutes. As we were about to hang up, the very pleasant woman advised me that I would receive my $35 in approximately six to eight weeks.

Seventy-five dollars here and thirty-five dollars there may not sound like a lot of money, but it adds up. And if you get into the clinical trial circuit and are willing to have your blood drawn, spend some time in a hospital and have your food intake and bodily functions scrutinized, you could make BIG BUCKS!!!

By the way, if this is published in Positive Living, I'll get $50!

This article has been reprinted at The Body with the permission of AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA).

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This article was provided by AIDS Project Los Angeles. It is a part of the publication Positive Living.
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