"If you're really strapped for cash, you can sell your blood plasma," Buster Ringling says. "You can become an extra, but $60 for eight hours' worth of work? You get treated literally like cattle. It wasn't for me."
When Ringling, a 26-year-old comedian/actor/juggler from Queens, New York, came out West in 2007, a friend who had been here a few months detailed the secrets of Hollywood survival: the bars with all-day happy hours, the restaurants with $3 sushi lunch specials. And then he mentioned the market research firms -- and that they'd pay you $150 an hour to describe how Spike TV and Budweiser would beat up Apple and Hoegaarden if they met at a party.
It was there Ringling found his calling.
In a never-ending quest for extra cash, Ringling has perfected his method of "booking" focus groups: listening for dropped clues about what the researchers are looking for and stretching the truth to become the ideal candidate for any situation.
"I enjoy an occasional soda, but it's not my poison," he explains. But when market research firms call up asking about soda, "I love all sodas. It's pretty much all I drink."
He has professed daily usage of everything from a garage-door opener (he lives in an apartment) to a brand-new car (his is used), although he draws the line at the alien topics of gaming and sports.
Los Angeles-based companies like Adept Consumer Testing, Trotta Associates and Facts 'n Figures Inc. post 30-page surveys on their websites, asking potential participants to fill out demographic details and join the mailing list that announces upcoming groups. You're technically allowed to participate in only one focus group every six months, but Ringling has developed a foolproof response to the inevitable "When was your last?" query: "Uhhh, I don't know, maybe it was, like, almost a year ago now, I guess?" Diane Trotta, founder and owner of Trotta Associates, acknowledges that many unscrupulous performers have attempted to take advantage of her company over the years.
"There are actors and actresses who think they know their way around, but we do have a blacklist," she says, laughing. "I think that sometimes the actors get a little glib about it, [but] we weed them out. We have it under control, but that doesn't mean that people don't fall through the cracks." (Suffice it to say, Buster Ringling is not our hero's real name; he has no interest in ending up on that blacklist.)
When Ringling isn't on the road performing, he averages one or two groups a month. There he sits around the table in a blank room with five to eight other punk-rock white boys in their mid-20s. They're plied with coffee and snacks while a moderator encourages conversation. It might be about a new Coors gimmick -- Ringling liked the box that turned blue when the beer was cold, but hated the spiraling Vortex bottle neck. Or maybe which car millennials will want in five to 10 years. (Ringling suggested something utilitarian that you could sleep in if you needed to; he thinks his group may have inspired the Nissan Cube and the Ford Flex.) Along one wall, an innocuous mirror implies further observation.
"Sometimes the mirror will sneeze," Ringling says.
The real money, however, is in the home visits. Firms often choose a group's most informative member for a follow-up, party-style feedback session, paying that person around $350 to invite over a few friends, each of whom also receives about $100, with another $200 for alcohol and refreshments.
The path to these lucrative events, according to Ringling? Be at least 10 minutes early for the initial group meeting; keep comments on-topic; try to talk as much as you can; express coherent, vehement opinions; charm the pants off the moderator; and, most of all, don't lapse into chauvinist rants, as at least one man in every focus group seems to do.
Ringling's friend Rick Denaker, 26, who works as a sculptural metal artist, a sideshow fire juggler and a mall Santa Claus, has been lucky enough to tag along on a few of Ringling's home visits.
"[Buster] is extremely good at getting lots of money for hanging out, drinking beer and playing board games," Denaker says, enviously.
Last month, Ringling attended an alcohol-related focus group, knowing a home-visit opportunity with the potential for hundreds of dollars of free booze was up for grabs. Sizing up the other participants, he determined that a gregarious man on the other side of the table was the one to beat.
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"The guy across from me was looking at me like, 'Oh, you better not get this stupid home visit,' " Ringling says. "He knew how to play the game a little bit. I could tell he was an experienced focus grouper."
Tensions rose as the session progressed, with the boys talking over each other in an effort to seem the most hip and knowledgeable, the easiest to get along with, the most willing to tell elaborate stories about the personalities of Svedka Vodka and Heineken.
Finally, the moderator asked them both to fill out paperwork for a follow-up session later that evening. Ringling looked up and locked eyes with his opponent, thrilled they had both succeeded.
"We had a moment of understanding, like, 'We both rocked that,' " Ringling says.