Thursday, February 2, 2012

Who's on the couch in the corner office?

         In a December issue, the Economist wrote a piece on retail therapy. The headline in red, "Sex and Advertising", was a bit of a over-promise.

         The article was really about behavioral research. How "humans, it turns out, impressionable, emotional, and irrational". It quoted studies showing that when a store plays soothing music, "shoppers will linger longer and often spend more." Stuff we either knew or presumed.

         Going beyond the contemporary, the article told of psychologist Ernest Dichter, who spun Freud's insights into a million dollar business advising marketers.

         The c.e.o. of the first Chicago ad agency I worked for was a big fan and friend of Dichter. In his book, "The Strategy of Desire", Dichter wrote that "marketplace decisions are driven by emotions and subconscious whims and fears, and often have little to do with the product itself." He introduced what he called "motivation research".

         Suddenly, psychology became a shiny new tool for ad agencies to engage in and merchandise: revealing depth interviews that were not unlike therapy.

         For Ivory soap, Dichter found that bathing was "a ritual that afforded rare moments of personal self-caressing and indulgence, particularly before an important date." A brand was chosen, he said, because of the personality or gestalt, of the soap: young, flirty, or conservative. Ivory was deemed the mother-daughter soap.

        For Chrysler, he found that a convertible symbolized "youth, freedom, and the secret wish for a mistress". On another occasion, he told Chryler that its theme, "Different from every other one you've ever tried", was scaring people. They were afraid of the unknown.

       Today, many of Dichter's ideas are part of conventional research. The focus panel, the in-depth interviews, the psychological interpretations.

       Personally, I loved the whole idea of motivation research. Everything afforded an insight into the human psyche. Every ad needed more than a claim; it needed a storyline into the unconscious. And I thank Dr. Dichter for leading the way.

       Today we seem to be preoccupied with technology, and for technologists, that's fine. But advertising is all about people, and that's a whole different code.

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