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

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

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

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


What do consumers really want? In the mid-twentieth century, many marketing executives sought to answer this question by looking to the theories of Sigmund Freud and his followers. By the 1950s, Freudian psychology had become the adman's most powerful new tool, promising to plumb the depths of shoppers' subconscious minds to access the irrational desires beneath their buying decisions. That the unconscious was the key to consumer behavior was a new idea in the field of advertising, and its impact was felt beyond the commercial realm.

Centered on the fascinating lives of the brilliant men and women who brought psychoanalytic theories and practices from Europe to Madison Avenue and, ultimately, to Main Street, Freud on Madison Avenue tells the story of how midcentury advertisers changed American culture. Paul Lazarsfeld, Herta Herzog, James Vicary, Alfred Politz, Pierre Martineau, and the father of motivation research, Viennese-trained psychologist Ernest Dichter, adapted techniques from sociology, anthropology, and psychology to help their clients market consumer goods. Many of these researchers had fled the Nazis in the 1930s, and their decidedly Continental and intellectual perspectives on secret desires and inner urges sent shockwaves through WASP-dominated postwar American culture and commerce.

Though popular, these qualitative research and persuasion tactics were not without critics in their time. Some of the tools the motivation researchers introduced, such as the focus group, are still in use, with "consumer insights" and "account planning" direct descendants of Freudian psychological techniques. Looking back, author Lawrence R. Samuel implicates Dichter's positive spin on the pleasure principle in the hedonism of the Baby Boomer generation, and he connects the acceptance of psychoanalysis in marketing culture to the rise of therapeutic culture in the United States.


About ten years ago I found myself staring up at the ceiling of a meeting room in a Boston hotel. Lying around me were twenty or so other people in comfortable clothes, thinking about our very first encounter with money. Leading the session, if you could call it that, was a moderator for Archetype Discoveries Worldwide, a consultancy run by Clotaire Rapaille. The moderator was attempting to induce me and my fellow subjects into a primal state in which the “reptilian” part of our brains would take over, enabling us to reveal key, otherwise unavailable insights about the role of money in America. I don’t remember anything particularly interesting emerging from the three-hour session, although I do recall briefly falling asleep.

While researching this book, I came across an interesting comment made by Ernest Dichter in his autobiography. “It probably would be a good idea, in trying to understand people, to go back to the very first money they ever acquired and to find out what they did with it,” Dichter wrote in 1979, a full twenty-one years before my experience. Sheer coincidence? The parallels between Dichter and Rapaille were, upon closer inspection, downright eerie. Rapaille was working with many of the same clients Dichter had, and covering much the same territory by interpreting the “collective unconscious” of different cultures for Chrysler, Procter and Gamble, DuPont, and many others. Whether he was “a sage or a charlatan,” as Fast Company magazine wondered in 2006, was unsure, but there was no doubt that the velvet-suited, Rolls Royce–driving Frenchman was striking a chord similar to the one the frugal Austrian had struck during his long career. While Dichter leaned heavily toward Freudian theory, at least early in his career, Rapaille added Jung to his psychoanalytic mix, a potent combination. “Cracking the code” was the essence of Rapaille’s deliverables, and multinational companies that wanted to do business in the global economy were eager to learn what made a particular society tick. In fact, Rapaille claimed that he had worked with half of the . . .

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