NEW YORK — When Burns W. Roper started his job asking people their opinions in 1946, he wasn't employed by a corporation. His boss was his father, Elmo.
As Roper matured, opinion research grew into an industry, and the young interviewer who left Yale before graduation to be a poll taker eventually became chairman of the Roper Organization. By the time he began his retirement April 30, the family business had evolved further, merging with another company and being renamed Roper Starch Worldwide.
But this tidy summary of Burns Roper's career is misleading.
Roper retired only in theory. His was never really a family business and, aside from embracing computer technology, it has not changed that much in four dozen years.
Roper, 69, sat among packing boxes in his Midtown Manhattan office recently to look back on his 48-year career. It was clear that despite criticism of surveys and their methods, he still believes that polling people is a viable and valid process.
"I've said many times that when I see a poll result and it's opposite to my personal feelings, my first instinct is to re-examine my personal feelings," he said.
Pundits sometimes scoff at polls for asking people simple questions about complicated public policy. But Roper argues that the American public is very observant and wise, and its opinion is valuable to marketers and politicians alike--if they study it in enough depth and report the bad with the good.
The media and decision makers have grown more reliant on surveys over the years. That has helped the Roper Organization, and now Roper Starch, grow.
Roper surveys have been used by clients like The Wall Street Journal and Worth magazine, which have used poll findings to produce feature stories; by Good Housekeeping to sell advertising; by Philip Morris to link its Virginia Slims cigarette brand to a major study of women's changing roles in society, and by Warner Lambert to study youth attitudes.
In a highly competitive field, Roper Starch has some distinguishing features, including the fact that it still does a substantial amount of polling door-to-door in an era of telephone interviewing.
Roper's interviewers, 95% of them women, knock on doors in scientifically selected blocks. The main advantage for the personal contact is that it gives a poll taker the ability to show respondents pictures or text that is too long to read over the phone.
Burns Roper is an ardent supporter of in-person polling and predicts it will make a comeback because Americans are tired of intrusive telephone surveys. The response rates from these polls are falling, he warned.
"The telephone conversation that starts with, 'How are you this evening?'--well, you know what's coming," Roper said.
He finds fault with telephone survey methods, saying that if the people who refuse to participate on the phone are different somehow--perhaps more suspicious, less intellectually curious, more downscale--then the phone sample, and in turn the survey results, are biased.
The only solution for pollsters is to hope these same people are too polite to slam a door in a woman's face, he said, adding with a hopeful smile: "Chivalry isn't dead."
Roper Starch is up to date in other ways. Like its rivals, it uses computers that make it possible to get precise information a lot faster than when questionnaires were tabulated by hand.
The Roper polling operation was founded in 1933. Three years later, Elmo Roper, George Gallup and Archibald Crossley established a national reputation for scientific sampling by predicting a Roosevelt landslide.
Elmo Roper died in 1971. Burns Roper, known as "Bud," said he made it clear to his three sons and daughter that they were not expected to become pollsters. None has.
The company began its passage out of family hands more than a decade ago, when it was acquired by Starch INRA Hooper Inc. Starch, founded in 1923, is best known for measuring advertising effectiveness.
Roper Starch has about 46 employees in its Manhattan headquarters--about the same number of people who worked for the company 48 years ago--and 150 more in its office in Mamaroneck, a New York City suburb.
Starch Executive Vice President Ed Keller has taken over management of the Roper subsidiary, which has been merged into the Starch operation.
"Over the last few years, the Roper business, mainly opinion and market research, and the Starch business, mostly advertising and media research, were increasingly complementing each other and there was a common corps of clients interested in both capabilities," Keller said.
Burns Roper is aware of the limits that polling can have. "I don't think a single figure on a single question can do justice to very many subjects," he said.
But a single question repeated often enough can show a trend. The classic example is a question Roper wrote around 1970: Do you think things are headed in the right direction or headed off on the wrong track?