|Detroiter magazine - December 1999|
motives and Dr. Freud
Back in the 50s, motivational research was a
popular marketing theory that viewed consumers as creatures often
influenced by erotic impulses. Though largely eclipsed, MR is widely
acknowledged as the precursor of today's consumer lifestyle
Consider, if you will, the following commentary on the
prune from the mid-1960s: "Our studies have shown that they are a
symbol of old age; they are like dried-out spinsters; they have none
of the soft pleasurableness of plums. Prunes are devitalized.
Therefore, they are felt to be dried out, to have nothing to
Gads! Who would want to buy something like that,
marketing gurus of the era asked themselves.
course, we know the answer. Those pitiable prunes became the
California "wonder fruit." Their patent juiciness was touted by
introducing the "sunshine jar" in which prunes were first cooked and
then chilled. Children were used in advertising campaigns to
counteract the association with wrinkles and old age.
result was a huge sales increase for a product that had previously
been identified exclusively for its value as a laxative. Score a big
one for "motivational marketing" -- a scientific (some might say
pseudo-scientific) approach to advertising predicated on the notion
that consumer behavior is often the result of unconscious motives
which can be determined through psychological techniques.
might call it the psychoanalytic approach. Motivational research, in
fact, is usually described as the application of techniques from
clinical psychology to the advertising and marketing research field.
In short, it looks at human behavior and asks the pivotal question,
Motivational marketing emerged shortly after World War
II and bloomed in the 1950s -- an era that witnessed a remarkable
wave of prosperity unleashed by pent-up demand for consumer goods.
It wove together a number of then-current concepts
Shifting the emphasis on the consumer's viewpoint -- not
the marketer's -- as the starting point of all marketing
Modifying psychoanalytic concepts for consumer
Adapting clinical or therapy methods to analyze
There were three main schools of
motivational research or MR, but it was primarily an ad man named
Ernest Dichter whose ideas gained widest circulation in the 1950s.
Under his leadership, MR was viewed as a logical outcome of the
pursuit of the marketing concept as well as a summation of the
dominant psychological wisdom. Dichter relied heavily on
psychoanalytical interpretation of what was drawn from consumers in
"depth interviews" -- a term of his coinage -- and projective tests
where thoughts and emotions were studied vs. recording a person's
Depth interviews were free conversations
pointed in the general direction of the problem and its various
components. The purpose was to cast as wide a net as possible to
learn what was on the individual's mind, to determine the kind and
quantity of feeling involved and to note if anything in the
unguarded conversation contradicts the expressed
Freudian interpretations dominated Dichter's
analyses, which were sometimes elaborated in surprising detail. For
example, he emphasized that the effects of early toilet training
explain consumer responses to things as diverse as toothpaste and
donations for community projects.
In 1946, after jobs with
Chrysler, Procter & Gamble and an ad agency, Dichter founded the
Institute of Motivational Research in New York. He derived the name
"motivational research" from the study of human motives, and defined
MR as "qualitative research designed to uncover the consumer's
subconscious or hidden motivations that determine purchase
MR "rooted the selling act within the human
personality," meshing with a contemporary interest in Freudianism
and an emerging preoccupation with the individual's inner life.
Dichter's theory was predicated on non-rational consumer choice.
Humans were perceived as immature, ruled by irrational insecurity
and motivated by erotic desires. Motivation research fascinated
marketing researchers in the 50s, offering glib, entertaining and
usually surprising explanations for consumer behavior -- often
rooted in sex.
Products that benefited most from the MR
approach were so-called "low-involvement" products that were
comparable in price, performance and quality such as soap, gasoline,
foods and cigarettes. A number of examples, including the
above-mentioned prunes, can be found in the "Handbook of Consumer
Motivation," published in 1964, including:
message of canned soup when first introduced was that it is as warm
and nutritious as a loving mother's milk. Therefore, women who serve
it shouldn't feel guilty for not cooking.
the invention of boxed cake mixes considered women's inner desire to
give birth, which is fulfilled at the time the finished cake is
pulled from the oven.
Another reason marketing shifted to MR
was that historically, marketing research relied heavily on the
direct question survey to explain buying behavior. Factors such as
income, age, education and so forth could only be used to correlate
purchasing and sales patterns. This level of information was
important, but it usually did not in itself reveal why people buy in
terms of the meanings the purchased product or brand had for
One of the most significant features of the MR development
was that it made researchers realize that they needed new ways of
thinking about buyers, consumers and products. New concepts led to
investigating factors which hadn't received systematic attention
before, and to the use of research approaches relatively new to
marketing. MR pointed out the importance of egoistic and social
needs as determinants of behavior, adding them to the physical and
economic needs which previously had received the bulk of
Despite all that it appeared to
offer, motivational research drew criticism. One of the biggest
arguments was that the results of the MR tests could not distinguish
between the thoughts a person will act upon and those that serve as
a substitute for action. Translating this to market research terms,
suppose you discover underlying/unconscious drives to buy a product.
Will they be transformed into action or are they substitutes for
Probably the greatest opposition to MR came from
Alfred Politz Research Inc., a large firm loyal to quantitative
sampling. The Politz contingent contended that "attitudes, motives,
and underlying processes which cannot be related to antecedent
factors that can be manipulated are of no interest to the advertiser
or producer." Against this intellectual backdrop, it's probably no
surprise that the novelty and glamour that accelerated MR's rapid
acceptance evaporated rather quickly.
Market researchers began
questioning MR's techniques and debating its merits in the Journal
of Marketing. By the end of the 1950s, the direct influence of
psychology on advertising was diminishing, and consumer behavior was
becoming a separate discipline in its own right, newly "born" in
business schools programs.
In the 1960s, two quantitative
approaches came to dominate this new discipline -- one based on
economics, operations research and statistical inference, the other
on the behavioral sciences, centered in schools with powerful social
science departments. Both contributed to dissatisfaction with
Dichter's theory. Criticism centered on methodological shortcomings,
not to mention the improper invasion of people's private thoughts to
persuade them to buy things.
Critics also took aim at the MR's
tendency to impute sexual motivation to rather prosaic consumer
purchases. While the sexual explanations for mundane consumption
activities were no doubt interesting, they rarely contained
information that marketers really could use, according to
By the end of the 1960s, marketing turned toward
more rigorous quantitative research. Proponents of the new "buyer
behavior" school of research that came to dominate marketing turned
away from MR.
Despite its generation of eclipse, motivational
research is still used by marketers -- mostly in advertising
agencies -- to gain deeper insights into why consumers behave as
they do. The unconscious mind is recognized as an important source
of motivation, and some practitioners find value in probing the
thoughts of individuals.
Dichter's "depth" interview, in fact, is
making a comeback in consumer research. Modified depth interviews
are often used in focus groups to elicit ideas for new products and
promotional campaigns. Academic researchers acknowledge the
historical importance of motivation research as the precursor to
lifestyle studies, and deem it once more an acceptable research
technique for understanding the consumer.
Newer forms of
motivation research are also designed to get at the core truths
below a person's surface rationalization. These tools, with snappy
names like "Emotional SONAR" and "Emotional Lexicon," are
computer-assisted diagnostic tools.
"It's not that we're
returning to motivational research, but we are realizing more than
ever that emotion is an extremely important part of the
communication package for any brand that has a heritage like ours,"
noted Anthony Adams, vice president of marketing research at
Campbell Soup. "Customers don't respond well to a 100 percent
Ernest Dichter would be the first to
Linda Obrec is area marketing manager for Sprint
PCS in Michigan and northern Ohio. She studied motivational research
as a Wayne State University MBA student and credits the information
in this story to her sources with special thanks to Prof. Ed
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