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Detroiter magazine - December 1999

Marketing, 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 studies.

By Linda Obrec

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 offer."

Gads! Who would want to buy something like that, marketing gurus of the era asked themselves.

Today, of 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.

The 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.

You 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, "why?"

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 by:

Shifting the emphasis on the consumer's viewpoint -- not the marketer's -- as the starting point of all marketing activities.

Modifying psychoanalytic concepts for consumer research.

Adapting clinical or therapy methods to analyze market behavior.

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 verbal response.

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 attitudes.

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 behavior."

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:

An underlying 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.
Commercials introducing 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 them.
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 investigative attention.

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 action?

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 critics.

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 rational sell."

Ernest Dichter would be the first to agree.

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 Riordan.
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