Mid twentieth-century America. In a corporate board room, hazy with tobacco smoke and whiskey fumes, a man pitches innovative new advertising ideas. Soap isn’t just for mundane hygiene issues, it’s associated with sensuality and should be marketed as sexy and refreshing. Cigarettes aren’t just commodities, they’re rewards for a job well done, or a break from a stressful work day. Car makers should promote their brands with convertibles because men associate them with freedom and the fantasy of having a mistress, even if they end up buying a sedan when they take their wife back to the dealership.
Don Draper, right? Now in its fifth season, Mad Men has reintroduced the American public to the advertising revolution that led companies away from spots extolling their product’s obvious uses to a new style targeting consumers’ unspoken desires. But the instigator of this movement was not a mysterious and dangerously sexy ad executive like Don Draper. He was a much more interesting figure who forever changed American consumerism.
Ernest Dichter was born in Vienna in 1907 and following a severely impoverished childhood was employed in his uncle’s department store. Working as a window dresser, he became interested in marketing and introduced new American ideas into the shop, such as the use of music to soothe customers.
In 1938, following university training in psychology and informal training in psychoanalysis, he moved to New York with his wife and only $100 to his name. Dichter worked for a time with a traditional market-research firm, but in 1939 he sent a letter to six corporations in which he offered his understanding of psychoanalysis as a way to radically improve their marketing strategies. Four responded, and his first contract was for Ivory Soap. Using in-depth consumer interviews, he learned that when shoppers picked a particular brand,
“it wasn’t exactly the smell or price or look or feel of the soap, but all that and something else besides—that is, the gestalt or ‘personality’ of the soap.
This was a big idea. Dichter understood that every product has an image, even a ‘soul’, and is bought not merely for the purpose it serves but for the values it seems to embody. Our possessions are extensions of our own personalities, which serve as a ‘kind of mirror which reflects our own image’. Dichter’s message to advertisers was: figure out the personality of a product, and you will understand how to market it” (The Economist).
Dichter’s belief in good marketing went beyond creating successful ads; it became a total philosophy. Profoundly affected by the turmoil he had experienced as a young man in Europe, he believed that consumerism was the only bulwark against totalitarianism. The public, he argued, must learn to stop feeling guilty. They must accept and fulfill their unconscious desires, or risk falling under the spell of communism or fascism.
In light of this, he wrote his first book for the general public. The Psychology of Everyday Living, published in 1947, was
“designed as an accessible self-help manual to help Americans ‘accept the morality of the good life’… As America entered the 1950s, the decade of heightened commodity fetishism, Dichter offered consumers moral permission to embrace sex and consumption, and forged a philosophy of corporate hedonism, which he thought would make people immune to dangerous totalitarian ideas” (Cabinet Magazine, issue 44, p. 30).
Chapters such as “The Magic of Soap”, “What Bread Means to You”, “How to Be Happy While Cooking”, and “The Psychology of Buying” purported to solve the problems of everyday life, but largely encouraged a positive attitude to consumption by stressing the good feelings associated with a new purchase or the use of a specific commodity.
The book is extensively illustrated, with images that promote consumerism even more blatantly than the text does. A photograph of a woman applying makeup is captioned “Cosmetics provide psychological therapy”, and another of a man trying on a hat reads, “The right kind of hat gives us dignity”.
In chapter after chapter, Dichter posits that consumer products can help us express our individuality, engage with the world in new ways, or simply provide a self-esteem boost:
The chapter on cigarettes argues that those who try to abstain from smoking are wrong to feel guilty about the habit. Dichter writes that,
“Efforts to reduce the amount of smoking signify a willingness to sacrifice pleasure in order to assuage their feeling of guilt… Guilt feelings may cause harmful physical effects not at all caused by the cigarettes used, which may be extremely mild. Such guilt feelings alone may be the real cause of the injurious consequences”.
One of the photographs used in this chapter has a decidedly sexual subtext:
Automobiles, according to Dichter, aren’t simply for running errands or getting to work. They’re about freedom, personal identity, youthful self-assertion, and, of course, sex.
Probably the best illustration is “What is bought depends on what the woman says”:
Though Dichter faced scrutiny from those who were wary of the corporate hold on Americans’ psyches, criticism only seemed to generate more converts. But his method did have faults, and executives in the early 60s began to feel that his ideas were sometimes too strange to be practical. Like Don Draper dismissing the psychoanalyst in the first episode of Mad Men, the director of a Pepsi campaign fired Dichter when he was told that ice shouldn’t be used in advertisements because it reminded consumers of death. At the the same time, the advent of accessible computing meant that firms were able to return to more scientific methods of researching consumer behaviour. But Dichter remains the most important figure of twentieth-century advertising. Glance at the television or pass a billboard and you’ll recognise that the concepts he pioneered still dominate the advertising that surrounds us.
- For an excellent piece on Dichter’s attempts to convert the American public to his philosophy of consumerism, see the Winter 2011/2012 issue of Cabinet Magazine.
- The Economist also has an extensive article that’s available online: Retail Therapy. How Ernest Dichter, an Acolyte of Sigmund Freud, Revolutionsed Marketing.
- Duke University’s John W. Hartmann Center for Sales, Advertising, and Marketing History has digitised a huge range of twentieth-century advertising, including both print ads and television commercials. In many cases you can see the difference between pre and post-Dichter advertising strategies.
- For more Mad Men goodness, try the blog The Rolodex, and also see the Slate TV club’s discussions of each episode.