Freud on Madison Avenue: Motivation Research and Subliminal Advertising in America

Geoffrey P. Lantos (Stonehill College, North Easton, Massachusetts, USA)

Journal of Consumer Marketing

ISSN: 0736-3761

Article publication date: 28 June 2011




Lantos, G.P. (2011), "Freud on Madison Avenue: Motivation Research and Subliminal Advertising in America", Journal of Consumer Marketing, Vol. 28 No. 4, pp. 313-315.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Perhaps this book should be titled Everything You Wanted to Know about Motivation Research and Subliminal Advertising but Were Afraid to Ask. Commercial historian Lawrence R. Samuel presents a rich, detailed, and fascinating look at the historical evolution of motivation (aka motivational) research (MR) and its 1950s offshoot, subliminal advertising. Both draw on Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytical theory, which investigates people's desires and motives using psychoanalytical techniques, notably in‐depth (depth) interviews and projective (indirect, disguised) questioning. These enable probing consumers' subconscious (unconscious) minds to answer the burning questions “What do consumers really want?” and “Why do they buy”?

This tome also offers in its early pages a history of the development of the marketing research field as well as how MR arose as an alleged panacea to some of traditional survey research's shortcomings, notability the unwillingness or inability of respondents to provide accurate answers. The rest of Freud on Madison Avenue traces the evolution of MR from its birth in Vienna in the early 1930s through its subsequent fall in the early 1960s and rise again in the 1970s and 1980s, with a much smaller amount devoted to subliminal advertising.

The introductory chapter presents a fairly detailed history of the evolution of marketing research, beginning with its early days of survey research and market segmentation after the First World War. It describes amusingly survey research's design flaws (friends and relatives of employees as “representative” samples, interviewers changing respondents' age or sex in order to fill quotas, invented answers by interviewers, leading questions, etc.). We learn about research pioneers such as George Gallup, A.C. Nielsen, and Elmo Roper and their public opinion polls and sales tracking services. Also presented is a history of the use of psychology to get inside consumers' heads, beginning with Walter Dill Scott's 1903 book The Psychology of Advertising and including Earnest Elmo Calkins' “scientific advertising” using “laws of the human mind” (p. 4), Melvin Copeland's 1924 Principles of Merchandising identifying rational and emotional motives, and the use by ad agencies as early as the late 1910s of behavioral psychologists such as John B. Watson (who believed consumer behavior could be manipulated) and “father of marketing research” Paul Cherington.

The Introduction details MR's origins among the few Viennese psychologists (notably Ernest Dichter) who brought in‐depth interviewing to the USA. in the 1930s. Over the next few decades MR became “the darling of Madison Avenue” (p. 3), with Freudian psychology promising to plumb the depths of shoppers’ subconscious minds to unearth the irrational desires underlying their purchase decisions, such as the “four s's: sustenance, sex, security, and status” (p. 55). We also learn how supply‐demand imbalances, the rise of national standardized brands, and the explosion of new products, advertising, and media led to the popularity of consumer research as companies adopted questionnaires used by the military for screening and borrowed techniques from sociology, anthropology, and ethnography. The prevalence of parity products also encouraged developing brand personalities to differentiate brands, thereby fueling personality research, much of which used MR to personify brands (e.g., Ivory soap represented a pure mother and daughter, while Camay was a glamorous woman). The lack of tangible brand distinctions also fostered a turning from use of adman Claude Hopkins' “reason‐why” copy and the century‐old “economic man” model, who acted predictably according to prices and his income, toward emotional appeals and the “psychological man” model (p. 37), rooted in Dichter's belief that “man […] is more strongly motivated by the pleasure principle [especially sex] than by the principle of reality” (p. 17).

Drawing on thorough secondary search of mostly popular and trade periodicals, as well as occasional academic journal articles and books, the book's following five chapters take us not only through the rise and fall (and, in the case of MR, rise again) of MR and subliminal advertising but also portray the personal lives of their founders and practitioners, especially Viennese psychologist Ernest Dichter (allegedly a poor father and a cheapskate), as well as Paul Lazersfeld (Dichter's Viennese teacher, who argued that consumer behavior could be controlled), James Vicary, and Pierre Martineau, as well as critics such as Alfred Politz and Vance Packard. Many MR pioneers had fled the Nazis in the 1930s and brought with them their European intellectual perspectives on secret desires and inner urges.

MR grew out of marketers' frustration with being misled by consumers when they asked them what they wanted. For instance, an auto maker in the early 1950s learned from surveys that consumers wanted a “sensible” car: easy to park, that made tight turns, and without unnecessary frills. However, when launched, the car did not sell nearly as well as huge, technicolor, tail‐finned models, leading executives to question survey research's validity. To the rescue came Dichter and his disciples. Dichter popularized MR by “churning out a flood of books, articles, and studies for clients, all grounded in his particular brand of Freudian thought” (p. 29). To tap into consumers' irrational and unconscious drives, which he believed were more basic and powerful than logic, Dichter borrowed such psychoanalytical tools as role playing, the Thematic Apperception Test, phrase completion, and association tests, using Freudian principles such as projection, rationalization, and free association. Consequently, for example, instead of focusing on “high octane rating,” Esso gasoline suggested putting a “tiger in your tank.”

Recounted are the rather public feuds between “nose counters” or “sample men,” as the quantitative researchers were known in the trade, who used direct research, which assumes asking consumers straight questions yields straight answers, and the “depth boys,” as the qualitative motivation researchers were nicknamed (p. 12), who used indirect research, based on disguised and probing questions. The quantitative researchers felt threatened by the new wave of qualitative research, which they viewed as violating basic research principles such as using representative samples, large samples, and short, cut‐and‐dry questions. Nonetheless, by the 1950s, MR had taken Madison Avenue by storm, notwithstanding that it was “accused of and blamed for a variety of sins, not the least of which was the leading of consumers down a wayward path” (p. 55). Vance Packard, author of 1957's best‐selling The Hidden Persuaders, caused quite a stir by capitalizing on Americans' fear of outside forces and raising ethical issues regarding MR's preying upon consumers' weaknesses and encouragement of irrational behavior and materialism, plus its invasion of the privacy of consumers' minds. Nonetheless, Dichter strongly defended MR, arguing that it serves consumers by better understanding their needs and wants.

The 1960s witnessed the decline but not demise of MR, as it faced critics in both the press and the research ranks. The new rage was “dynamic research” (p. 156), which rejected the idea that truth could be extracted from the subconscious in favor of observing customers in real or simulated circumstances. Also supplanting MR was quantitative data analysis, abetted by the computer and the quantitative orientation of business, encouraged by American firms' new love of MBAs. Undeterred, Dichter published new articles and books (notably his encyclopedic Handbook of Consumer Motivations) that reasserted his dogma.

However, MR was revitalized by the 1970s self‐help movement and the fact that it had become relatively inexpensive compared with nose counting. Dichter shifted his focus to socially responsible projects, often working pro bono. In a 1985 Journal of Consumer Marketing article, he complained that “the whole free‐enterprise system suffers from the lack of an appropriate image” (p. 181), believing that the Soviet Union was doing a better job of branding “with their hammer‐and‐sickle iconography, red packaging, and clearly delineated (if not executed) reason for being” (pp. 181‐2), whereas the USA had a negative image as a capitalist society and lacked a convincing color and trademark and a clear image.

A discussion of subliminal advertising can be found in the middle of Freud. Subliminal advertising was a spin‐off of motivation research that became much feared by the public during Cold War reports of brainwashing and mind control by the Communists and, through guilt by association, helped account for MR's 1960s decline. News of subliminal advertising (advertising below the threshold of consciousness) was reported by Business Week in 1957 as “as rumors about a startling kind of ‘invisible’ advertising that sells products while leaving buyers unaware they are getting a sales pitch” (p. 90). Samuel details the infamous James Vicary “eat popcorn”, “Drink Coke” subliminal experiment and the brouhaha it caused in the media and among the public, including fears of Communist mind control and its use to elect politicians with a secret Soviet agenda. Ad agency people also raised red flags on subliminal advertising's ethicality. Nonetheless, within a year the subliminal selling craze subsided as scientific evidence against it had effectively discredited it.

The Epilogue provides a brief history of marketing research in the 1980s and beyond, surveying the ascendancy of psychographics and the further decline of MR, even though following Dichter's 1991 death others such as Rapaille invented variations on it. Samuel also chronicles the further fall of subliminal advertising, which had turned into a running joke parodied by advertisers. Nonetheless, even today many people continue to believe in subliminal advertising's efficacy, as evidenced by the slew of subliminal self‐help products since the mid‐1980s.

The book presents a balanced discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the methodologies of both traditional quantitative as well as later qualitative research such as MR. If there is any doubt about the inefficacy of subliminal seduction Freud should lay it to rest. My major criticism is that the book could be better organized, either chronologically (especially since it claims to tell MR's chronological tale) or by topic. The author tended to jump back and forth on both of these dimensions, and he was at times repetitive. Also, there is more detail than some readers might care to know; I found myself at times skimming through sections. And, I would like some discussion of the current state and use of MR.

Freud should be read and its more interesting examples and points used by instructors in marketing research, consumer behavior, advertising, and communications courses. Tales of MR that should play well in the classroom include:

  • Fountain pens were phallic symbols, hence the popularity of larger ones.

  • Deep freezers offered comfortable assurance against Depression and wartime shortages.

  • Coffee drinkers added cream and sugar not to improve taste, but as a rebellion against having food served to them by “mother” as she preferred it.

  • Buying life insurance and taking out a loan were proof of adulthood and masculinity.

  • Golfing and fishing were substitutes for the baseball and football one played as a child, making one believe one was not getting older. Golfers also had an urge to fly, their long drives substituting for flying, and bowlers were really into knocking down people, a release of pent‐up frustrations.

You will also learn little‐known facts, such as:
  • Responsibility for the Ford Edsel being one of the biggest new product failures of all time can be at least partially attributed to the massive amounts of MR that went into its development, resulting in a wishy‐washy brand image.

  • MR found that Marlboro cigarettes, pitched to sophisticates, were “sexually maladjusted” (p. 15), leading to their repositioning with the Marlboro Man.

  • Dichter was a Marxist who used MR to fund his agenda, and he turned the tables on Packard and used the to‐do stirred up by The Hidden Persuaders to generate his own publicity.

  • Brave New World author Aldous Huxley criticized subliminal advertising as smacking of a brave new world, seeing clear parallels between it and the mind control his book envisioned.

Practitioners will also do well to read Freud to gain perspective on the ongoing debate between quantitative and qualitative researchers. Executives will also get insight into the origins of currently vogue tools of the marketing research trade such as focus groups; “consumer insights” and “account planning,” which probe consumers’ inner psyches; anthropological and ethnographic techniques such as trend spotting and “cool hunting”; psychographics; brand imagery; Clotaire Rapeille's “culture codes”; the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique (ZMET); disruptive creative ideas; and neuromarketing. Those interested in popular culture will enjoy learning how MR shaped subsequent psychological movements, such as that of 1970s self‐help, 1980s‐1990s New Age, and modern therapeutic culture, and how Dichter's positive spin on the pleasure principle helps account for the “morality of pleasure” and “ethic of fun” (p. 18) underlying the hedonism of the Baby Boomer generation.

Although it has its detractors, MR is still a valued marketing research methodology. The bottom‐line conclusion: “Freud will likely remain on Madison Avenue for some time to come” (p. 188).

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