Sunday, November 14, 2010

Mind Control (Or, “My Unmentionable Job”)

My first job after the Army was with O'Brien-Sherwood Associates, a market-research firm on New York's Madison Avenue. Our offices were a block or two south of Brooks Brothers and handy to Grand Central, giving me an easy commute from Connecticut.

Mind you, I didn't tell my Connecticut friends I was doing market research. Too embarrassing. "Advertising research," I would mumble, if pressed.

The man to blame for my embarrassment was Ernest Dichter, a psychologist from Vienna,. By the latter 1950s Dr. Dichter had made "market research" synonymous with "motivational research." That wasn't good. Motivational research was widely regarded as a black art – one that sought to use Freud's psychoanalytic concepts to influence consumer behavior.

Dr. Dichter's motivational techniques made a lot of people nervous, including a little-known writer, Vance Packard. While I mumbled about my job, Packard was writing what would prove to be a surprise best seller: The Hidden Persuaders.

When Packard realized that a prime motivator for less-than-rational purchasing decisions was the desire to appear "high class," he followed up with another best seller, The Status Seekers.

(Remember Kaye Miller, the psychologist on Mad Men? She wouldn't be there if not for Dr. Dichter. Some say he invented focus groups.)

Motivational research never had the evil power ascribed to it in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet a significant percentage of hedge-fund investors must be status seekers. And brokers use plenty of hidden persuasion to frame product sales as "advice."

Today motivational research is old hat. There's a new key to creating Ads that Whisper in the Brain. If Vance Packard were still around he'd probably write another book, this one about neuromarketing.

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