In the first episode of TV’s “Mad Men,” Uber smoking/drinking/shagging, Creative Director, Don Draper has a meeting with the agencies Research Director, the only female in the building that does something besides empty ashtrays and bring coffee and aspirin to treat the guys’ hangovers.She also sports a “Nurse Diesel” accent, tweedy clothes and thick horn rimmed glasses.
Ah, I thought, it must be Dr. Ernest Dichter’s sister. (See my classic, “The Ubiquitous Persuaders.”) Or, perhaps even the Doctor himself in drag.
Dichter was the guy who in the fifties became a household name, thanks to Vance Packard’s best selling classic, “The Hidden Persuaders.” In the book Packard talks about “the large-scale efforts being made, often with impressive success to channel our unthinking habits, our purchasing decisions, and our thought processes by the use of insights gleaned from psychiatry.” ‘
And as the examples he used were presented as proof of the success of these methods, even though rarely identified, it all sounded pretty scary. In addition, the post Korean War and McCarthy hearings fifties were rife with rumours of the Red Menace and Manchurian Candidate-like mind manipulation, so the media was happy to ride this wave of paranoia.
Throughout the book, Packard used the term “Motivational Research,” which had been around since the thirties, but MR as he referred to it, really took off in the fifties, primarily because of the efforts of Louis Cheskin and Ernst Dichter.
Dichter was the archetypical European “Shrink” with tweedy suits and jelly jar spectacles. He was the founder of “The Institute of Motivational Research” where he and his staff of acolytes, working out of a Gothic pile overlooking the Hudson River, studied the effects of TV cartoons on the toilet habits of children and why women prefer certain kinds of ketchup during their menstrual cycles.
He insisted on being referred to as “Dr.” even though there’s doubt he ever received a Bachelor’s degree, let alone a Doctorate. According to Dichter humans were immature, with irrational insecurities and insatiable erotic desires. This provided titillating and easy to understand explanations for hard to comprehend consumer behaviour. Plus, liberal helpings of sexual innuendo dressed up as science never hurt anyone. Dichter’s star shone brightly in the fifties, but by the late sixties he fell from favour and disappeared.
Cheskin, however, lasted much longer, perhaps because he considered that relying primarily on Freudian psychology as Dichter did, was not the way to go when poking around in the human psyche. An example of this is cigarettes. Dichter claimed women smoked more when ads showed “erect” cigarettes in the hands of other women because they suffered from “Penis Envy.” Cheskin merely claimed that women smoked more when they saw pictures of other women smoking. I must confess, although Dichter’s theory is more titillating, I’m with Cheskin here.
Cheskin’s work was based on logic rather than bullshit. It’s no surprise Cheskin is remembered for many successes, including the Marlboro Man, the Gerber Baby and the research responsible for the Ford Mustang and Lincoln Continental.
Dichter is remembered for telling Mattel to make Barbie’s boobs bigger prior to the dolls launch. No surprises there.
But Motivational Research never went away and has been continually reinvented. We now have psycho/marketing/branding companies again claiming to be able to delve into the consumer’s mind and deliver triggers that bring on insatiable desires for products. Much of it is data driven; relying on masses of digital information which allows practitioners to claim they can forecast what messages will influence a single, welfare mother of three, living in a trailer park in Georgia, to buy a certain brand of cornflakes.
Often referred to as Psychometrics, this new interpretation of MR relies on such awe inspiring and exciting sounding techniques as “factor analysis, multidimensional scaling, and data clustering.” Very impressive, but still mostly bullshit.
Oh, and Don Draper wouldn’t have thrown that research in the trash. In 1960, he would have read it cover to cover, even though back then, it was entirely bullshit.
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