Would you like to “put a tiger in your tank”?
You see, I don’t own a car. That’s why I’m asking.
Anyway, it turns out a lot of people were indeed interested in putting tigers in their tanks. Surprisingly many!
Why is that?
That’s for Ernest Dichter to know, and for you to find out.
Ernest Dichter, Motivational Research, Subconscious Motives, and the Invention of the Brand
While Edward Bernays and Christine Frederick pioneered their big ideas quite early (Propaganda in 1928 & Selling Mrs. Consumer in 1929), those ideas did not take root in the business world until many years later.
Ernest Dichter used both of their ideas to come up with his own innovations for the advertising industry and business world.
This happened some time right after WW2 (1945 and forward). . .
. . . When the U.S economy–AGAIN–faced a situation where it had an excessively large productive capacity owing to its factories, but was met with a frugal public (as a result of going to war, where little profits were made by anyone except the big industrialists who teamed up with the government as the “standard contractors”–like GM, Chrysler, Lockheed).
And–AGAIN–the advertising industry had to concoct the ELIXIR for making the national consumption of goods meet total supply capacity.
The conventional wisdom of marketing at the time was to treat the customer like “a small company”; a highly rational decision-maker.
The conventional wisdom had not yet caught up with the wisdom of Edward Bernays or Christine Frederick.
However, it was not far behind now.
Many big companies, and influential people in the advertising industry, had started distrusting conventional market research methods such as polling.
Because they realized that people have a tendency to LIE or give DISHONEST answers (often unconsciously).
This was a big problem, because it kept the companies from collecting valuable feedback. And selling a lot more products.
People like Henry Ford understood that. . .
. . .there is a BIG difference between what people SAY and actually DO.
At the time, only a few people understood this.
Today most people STILL do NOT get it, they are unable to discern between:
a) Honest answers.
b) Socially conditioned answers given under a pretense of honesty, in order to appear politically correct and adhere to popular opinion.
(This is why every young girl says she wants environmentally friendly clothing, but buys the cheap H&M clothing made in Indian factories.)
This is what Ernest Dichter specialized in; peeling off the outer layers of political correctness and uncovering the inner layers of the subconscious.
Ernest Dichter, like Bernays, combined Freudian psychology with business skills to create new methods of advertising and marketing. He coined the practice of “motivational research“.
It was called “motivational research” because its purpose was to find out the subconscious psychological motivators for why people buy–or, just as important, do not buy–a product.
Motivational research, unlike traditional advertising methods, did NOT emphasize the use of polling, statistics or quantitative research. Instead, it was heavily “unscientific”, relying on in-depth interviews and focus groups.
Dichter and his colleagues would ask indirect questions, play games and watch movies with the interviewees. It was like a mix between a psychoanalytic session and a playground.
We don’t go out and just ask “why do you buy this or that?“
His focus groups mostly consisted of women (who were given free products to play with and discuss with each other–and loved it–while Dichter peeked on them from behind a screen).
Though unorthodox, this proved to be highly effective.
Dichter’s motivational research included in-depth personality analysis, drawing on use of ideas like the Rorschach test. Dichter had a faculty for making his interviewees feel relaxed and playful. This allowed him to go beneath social conditioning and uncover subconscious motivations behind people’s consumer behavior.
A few findings by motivational researchers include:
- That people liked breakfast cereal because their crunchiness “satisfied an aggressive desire to overcome obstacles.” (said by Edward Bernays).
- That women bought exotic lingerie not so much to impress men, but more for their own sake, to feel sexier and to get an ego boost.
- That people drink beer for social reasons (and that was how beer first started becoming advertised in connection with friends, having a good time, and during social occasions).
The ad on the left (portraying beer as food) was done before motivational research uncovered that people bought beer for social reasons.
Before motivational research became established, it had been the norm for companies to assume that they KNEW why consumers bought their products–and they certainly did not want some advertising person, marketer, or psychologist to come in and say:
“Hey, I have this idea: I think people are not buying your products for the practical reasons you THINK they are, but that they are in fact buying your product for a much less flattering reason, namely [. . .]”
To which the old-fashioned company executive would respond:
“Shut up you wacky headshrink. I know EXACTLY what I’m doing. I’ve been in this business for so-and-so many years. Now get out of my office!”
However, when executives saw the increased sales due to insights found by motivational researchers, they came back and solicited their services.
This led to UNFLATTERING DISCOVERIES such as:
- That the people who bought cough drops were not “serious people with cough problems”, but people who enjoyed its sweet taste (like kids).
- That women who bought spices did not use them because they were afraid of making a mistake, and risk embarrassing themselves.
- That women who bought cake mix felt guilty about using it to bake with because it was too easy, and felt like cheating!
These psychological insights, and many more, led to a series of extremely successful advertising campaigns.
Another insight due to motivational research was the use of PET FOOD.
It was found that most people unconsciously projected human qualities onto their pets, and felt GUILTY for feeding them the same food over and over.
Therefore, Dichter advised his pet food clients to create new advertising campaigns and capitalize on this widespread cognitive handicap.
Sales went through the roof.
50+ years later and pet food companies are STILL running that same theme in their ads and TV commercials (to the wrath of Cesar Milan).
So, the purpose of motivational research was to:
- Uncover the subconscious driver for purchasing a product;
- Find a way to use that in marketing and advertising campaigns and,
- Use the right words and images to illustrate this through ads.
And this is still the formula for successful advertising campaigns today.
(This was how Dichter found out that the customers Esso (the gas company in the image on top) were mostly older people who wanted to feel more virile and powerful. That’s why they wanted to “put a tiger in their tank”.)
During the 50s-60s motivational research culminated into ads like these. . .
. . . where the purpose was to find out the consumers’ insecurities, amplify them into DESPERATION, present the product as salvation, and then profit from it.
Consumer culture historian Stuart Ewen summarized the currently held notion of the advertising industry at the time when he said that:
Satisfied customers are not as profitable as discontented ones.
This strategy worked for a while until it became too extreme and advertising got a bad reputation for picking on people. . .
. . . which is the popular opinion about advertising to this day!
The Advent of Brands
Even though Dichter’s motivational research increased consumption levels significantly, it was his idea of BRANDING that has left the biggest impact on modern consumer culture.
Dichter, like Edward Bernays, believed–as Thoreau put it–that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.“
Dichter believed that man could quiet this desperation and find salvation through consumption.
Man could perhaps even experience a sense of belonging, and achieve lasting happiness, through consumption of BRAND products:
Modern man buys products for instant gratification. He buys products as a complement to his identity.
This idea led to a BIG shift away from the “old salesmanship” of selling products based on practical function.
Instead of advertising a car based on its new and improved engine, a car would be advertised as a solution for becoming the person that you ASPIRED to be (self-realization through consumption).
(I’m a cautious person, so I drive a Volvo.)
(I’m a distinguished person, so I drive a Mercedes.)
(I’m new-rich and want to show off, so I drive a Maybach.)
Today, nearly all companies sell products based on desires and aspirations, and this is how it started.
The basic product corresponds to a NEED. . .
. . .The branded product corresponds to a desire, a WISH. . .
. . . The wish lasts for a while, but not too long. It must therefore be maintained, and this is the role of advertising.
–Jean-Noël Kapferer, The Luxury Strategy
It was during this period that CONSUMPTION became equated with EXPRESSION, an idea so deeply ingrained in popular culture today that most don’t even think about it.
You can either study your craft for years, become great at it, and earn the respect of your peers as a result of your dedicated work. Or you can just buy an Armani suit and achieve the same results. . .
. . . that is what the confused consumer believes anyway.
The aspirational brand acts as a psychological shortcut:
“Buy this product and become COOL instantly!”
It is the perfect solution for a society that revels in instant gratification.
The main challenge for guys like Dichter was to find out what “cool” meant for the people who bought his clients’ products.
When he had done that, he could help his clients build a brand around that demographic group’s definition of “cool”, and turn their products into:
- A symbol of success (and status);
- A way to express their personality (through consumption) and,
- A way to feel group belonging.
Brands Are the Most Important Invention of Consumerism
Most people confuse a brand with its symbol.
A brand HAS a symbol–but a brand is more than that.
Brands fulfill a number of functions, three of those functions stand out:
- Brands enable classical conditioning.
- Brands mimic tribal belonging.
- Brands mimic personalities.
#1 Brands enable classical conditioning:
Classical conditioning (A.K.A Pavlovian conditioning) is the basic reason why advertising works. It is the psychological process by which the brain associates one thing with another.
The brand’s symbol acts as the trigger while advertising builds up the positive associations. So that when you see the Apple logo you will think of “rebels” or “innovative”, and experience a pleasurable sensation.
This process–known as brand awareness–is extremely important for big companies. But its monetary value cannot be measured in exact numbers. It is often represented as “goodwill” on a balance sheet.
#2 Brands mimic tribal belonging:
Humans have a genetic drive to achieve high social status, and we will game the system in any way we can to accomplish this.
Especially if we can find an easy shortcut.
We used to live in small tribes. Everyone knew everyone else’s place in the tribe. It was a strictly regulated pecking order-type hierarchy, where your social status–your importance relative to other tribe members--was dictated based on your age, productivity, and usefulness to the tribe.
Social deception was nearly impossible.
You looked and behaved the part of your social status.
If you didn’t, you were quickly put in your place (and often violently).
In recent times when people live in big cities, with lots of people, most people do not know each other. The tribal pecking order has gotten displaced and a confusion about social status and rank has arisen.
…what has not disappeared, on the other hand, is humankind’s need for some form of social stratification, which is vital; without it, a person, a social being by nature, is unable to escape social chaos and imitative disorder born of undifferentiation. We need to know our place in society.
–Jean-Noël Kapferer, The Luxury Strategy
Social deception is now easy thanks to the consumption of brand products, which give the IMPRESSION that you belong to a “cool” tribe, or that you’re higher up in the social hierarchy than you really are.
The brand is used as social camouflage.
Instead of working hard and joining the actual upper class, why don’t you just buy some Ralph Lauren clothing and a designer watch?
This is aspirational branding.
#3 Brands mimic personalities:
If you’ve ever wondered how there can be room for a bunch of different companies in what appears to be an industry of commoditized products, wonder no longer.
There isn’t any significant difference between the various brands of whiskey, or cigarettes or beer. They are all about the same. And so are the cake mixes and the detergents, and the margarines… The manufacturer who dedicates his advertising to building the most sharply defined personality for his brand will get the largest share of the market at the highest profit.
However, it is rare that a company manages to build such a “sharply defined personality” for its brand that it achieves monopoly (thanks to branding alone). Different brands appeal to different personality types.
You buy a product. You form a relationship with a brand. Most people do this without noticing it.
Before the innovation of branding had become common practice–when “old salesmanship” was the prevalent advertising strategy–the business world was more brutal and cut-throat, because. . .
They competed based on size and scale instead of target demographics.
Instead of trying to find out what people thought was “cool”, and building a brand around that, they just bombarded the consumers with messages to “buy our product because it’s the best”.
So in one way, branding has actually had a positive impact for consumers (by giving them more variety). On the other hand you can also rationalize this as a bad thing because of the paradox of choice (more choices can lead to unhappiness).
The brands that do best are often those that manage to mimic a human personality. If they do that they are more easily remembered by the human brain, and classical conditioning works better. Lots of people over the years have believed Betty Crocker to be a real person.
Preferably the (human) brand personality should appear familiar. For our brains have not evolved to empathize with, or compare ourselves to, people who are different from us.
Brands, and their personalities, are becoming increasingly important for businesses. Because without one it becomes hard to counteract people’s ever-shortening attention spans.
More on that, and about the negative aspects of branding, in part 4 (the last article in this series on consumerism).
Until next time,