The Messiah of Madison Avenue

“The Messiah of Madison Avenue”
by Robert Anton Wilson

from Ralph Ginzburg’s fact:
 Mar-Apr 1965
Volume 2, Issue 2

The battle rages over Dr. Ernest Dichter’s use-or misuse-of motivational research to ply consumers with goods that are often worthless, if not downright harmful

A woman walked into a supermarket some­where in America today and bought $20 worth of magic potions-love charms, amulets against old age, talismans of status, totems and icons against all the ills of the flesh. The woman was not a witch, and she did not know that she was purchasing the implements of sorcery. She thought she was buying cigarettes, detergents, cosmetics, and food. The denizens of the Ave­nue of the Mad – Madison Avenue in New York City, where the advertising industry is clustered – know better. They know better be­cause the advertising industry is now working hand-in-glove with- another industry known as Motivational Research, and Motivational Re­search is the new witchcraft, the science and art of reducing modern, educated populations to the fear-ridden and fetish-worshipping status 6f the savages of the Old Stone Age.

According to the dictionary, “fetish” has two meanings. In anthropology, a fetish is “an object regarded with awe as being the embodi­ment or habitation of a potent spirit or demon.” A charm, a lucky piece, a rabbit’s foot are all fetishes in this sense. In psychiatry, on the other hand, a fetish is “an inanimate object used in attaining sexual gratification,” and typical ex­amples collected by those persons having this compulsion are shoes, locks of hair, stockings, underclothes, and necklaces.

Motivational Research has discovered and, to some extent, created-a new kind of fetishism somewhere between those two. MR (as it is called by the ad-men) is a technique that enables manufacturers to persuade con­sumers to buy products-not because of any physical property they possess-but because of psychological gratifications they provide. Virtu­ally all advertising in America today is under the influence of MR. You can’t leaf through a magazine, look at TV, listen to radio, or even ride a bus without being in sight-or-sound range of an MR – inspired attempt to imprint the new fetishism on your nervous system.

The high priest and original inventor of MR, Dr. Ernest Dichter of the Institute for Motivational Research, is well aware of the roots of his science in primitive black magic. In his Handbook of Consumer Motivations, he tells us bluntly:

This book is a sort of contemporary cultural an­thropology of modern man. His customs, motivations, desires and hopes are often not too far removed from the rituals and fetishes of the New Guineans. He buys his fetishes in the department store, and the New Guin­eans carve theirs out of the skulls of their enemies.

And this black magic is now big business. Dr. Dichter lists 72 different advertising agen­cies as regular clients. Among them are such leaders as Young & Rubicam; J. Walter Thomp­son; and Ogilvy, Benson & Mather. In addition, he has done special MR studies for such com­panies as Allstate Insurance, The Borden Co., Chrysler Corporation, Dow Chemical Co., For­est Lawn Memorial Park, Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co.,’ Johnson & Johnson, Kimberly ­Clark Corp., Lane Bryant, Mars Company, The Nestle Co., Procter & Gamble, Quaker Oats Co., Reynolds Metals Co., Socony Mobil Oil Co., Time magazine, and Hiram Walker. All in all, Dr. Dichter has performed 2500 MR studies to date, and many of his clients have come back again and again, such as the Col­gate-Palmolive Co. (8 times), Ford Motor Co. (20 times), Esso (13 times), and Nationwide Mutual Insurance (24 times).

To be sure, Dr. Dichter is not alone in this field. Louis Cheskin’s deliberately misnamed Color Research Institute is also an MR outfit, with the special advantage that its subjects be­lieve they are being interviewed about the psy­chology of color and do not know that their consumer habits are also being psychoanalyzed. James M. Vicary Company is another leading MR firm. Edward H. Weiss & Company made a unique contribution to MR a few years ago by performing a massive study of how women’s purchasing habits vary at each stage of their menstrual cycle. There are more than 90 other firms engaged in motivational research in America today, staffed by fully qualified psy­chologists, sociologists, and other behavioral scientists. In addition, many of the top ad agencies now have their own MR departments. McCann-Erickson of New York, for example, employ five full-time psychologists whose main function is to work in consultation with the agency’s copywriters.

*     *     *

There are several techniques used in MR, but the most popular, created by Dr. Dichter, is the “depth interview.” A depth interview is a sort of instant psychoanalysis, except that psycho­analysis aims to cure neurosis while MR ex­ploits it. The subject-any average consumer -is interviewed, on the surface, in the manner of traditional market research: Why do you like, or dislike, this product? What would you like to see improved about it? What do you like, or dislike, about its commercials?

Beneath this surface, the real “depth inter­view” is going on. The interviewer is a trained psychologist or other social scientist. Classic psychological tests such as the Thematic Apper­ception Test or Rorschach Inkblot Test are brought out. Or the subject is shown photos of 12 men and asked to pick out the 6 he likes best (he will, inevitably, pick out the 6 most like himself, psychologically. Latent homosexu­als, for example, will pick out a homosexual who is also latent). Or the subject is asked, frankly, to daydream out loud about the prod­uct. Sometimes a group of subjects are given blindfold tests to see if they can identify the product by taste (if it is a food or cigarette). Naturally, if the subjects cannot identify it by taste-a very frequent occurrence-the MR men know at once that the product’s entire ap­peal is psychological and fetishistic. This is true, for instance, of cigarettes. The MR men have never found a consumer who can identify his favorite smoke when blindfolded. “They are smoking an image completely,” Dr. Dichter has written. .

An average MR study involves 500 to 2000 “depth interviews.” When summarized, these interviews reveal to the clinical eye of the MR men the fetishistic associations which the product already has in the public mind. Future advertising then emphasizes these fetishistic as­sociations in every indirect and subliminal way that the imaginative copywriters can dream up.

Typical is the first-and, perhaps, still the most influential-MR study performed by Dr. Dichter. This was the study of the Plymouth car, performed by Dr. Dichter in 1940. The study determined that the car is simultaneously a sex symbol, a mother symbol, and a status symbol-a phallus, a womb, and a badge of distinction all in one package. Chrysler scored so big by exploiting these fetishistic associations in their ads for the Plymouth that soon the whole industry followed suit and began to imi­tate the ads. Today, 25 years later, it is impos­sible to find an automobile ad that doesn’t have leering sexual innuendoes. Indeed, MR has infiltrated automobile design as well as auto­mobile advertising, arid each year the manufac­turers strive to create an ambiguous chromium beast that looks at once like a penis and a womb, and also glitters like a child’s toy. Safety experts-as pointed out in Fact, May-June 1964-are convinced that these gimcracks have made the American car ten times more lethal than it need be.

*     *     *

A study performed by the Institute for Moti­vational Research for the Pharmaceutical Ad­vertising Club offers an example of a more specialized use of MR. Physicians were shown a cartoon of a man telling his doctor, “Doctor, I’ve been wondering about antibiotics for my condition.” The doctors were asked to guess what the doctor in the cartoon was thinking. Typical responses were: “These wonder drugs have been oversold,” “Let me be the doctor, I’ll do what I think best,” “How the hell would you know what to suggest; self-diagnosticians are a pain in the gluteus maximus.” From these responses (together with other interview tech­niques), the MR men were able to conclude, unknown to the doctors themselves, that:

While, on the surface, the physician claims that he just wants factual scientific information [in pharmaceu­tical ads], our depth interviews and ad tests made clear that a cold black-and-white rational presentation of ob­jective facts is most often simply ignored. Similarly, highly technical copy-featuring complicated charts and chemical formulae-tends to be rejected because he can­not understand it and because it serves as an unpleasant reminder of his lack of knowledge in this area.

MR not only discovers fetishistic associations; it also creates them. Have you ever won­dered why the Marlboro Man looks so much like the Neanderthal Man and the Piltdown Man? Some years ago, filter-cigarette makers discovered, through MR, that their sales were lower than those of the nonfilter brands because they were not functioning as virility fetishes. The male population, it was found, regarded filter cigarettes as sissified, upper-class, effem­inate, and almost swishy. The Marlboro Man – and all the deep-sea divers, truck drivers, and cowboys in the ads for other filter cigarettes­ – represented an attempt to create “rugged” asso­ciations. The sales of filter cigarettes have been rising ever since this campaign began. Similar techniques are now being used to peddle per­fume to men, and would probably work with any other previously “feminine” product, with the possible exception of tampons.

Besides inducing us to butcher one another in unsafe cars and poison our lungs with coal-­tar, MR also deserves part of the credit for alcoholism having become America’s No.3 health problem, right behind heart disease and cancer.

“We are not concerned with the moral values involved,” Dr. Dichter royally declares in the section of his Handbook on booze. With this refreshingly frank admission, he proceeds to probe the fetishistic associations of beer, bour­bon, scotch, rum, vodka, and wine, each of which appeals to a different personality type. The beer drinker wants to be a “regular guy,” but the scotch drinker is consciously seeking a superior status. The bourbon drinker is an individualist: He says that scotch tastes like medicine and is aware (without the MR boys telling him) that its fans drink it for status. Rum is very masculine and almost makes one an honorary pirate – it is the drink for fantasy, escape, swashbuckling, and building “a true male image. ” Vodka is glamorous and exotic and creates a feeling of superiority: “I dare to be different.”

Wine, however, has a connotation of snobbery and aristocracy. Most Americans are still afraid to serve it because they are not sure what type of meat or fish goes with what type of wine. Dr. Dichter suggests that the wine sellers should emphasize that “any kind of wine is the right kind of wine as long as the consumer likes it.”

The chief reason for drinking any liquor, however, is to escape from oneself. Dr. Dich­ter writes:

Our studies have shown that drinking permits the discovery of a different personality within oneself. The person who is drunk really says, “Is this me, I did not know that I had these other sides, these ot_er potentiali­tie,s. . . .” It is a dynamic psychological remedy.

The “dynamic psychological remedy,” for many people, is an endless curse. For most of us, MR -type ads, intended to subliminally hyp­notize us into taking a drink, are no problem, but for the five million alcoholics in America and for their families-these ads are psychologi­cal poison. Albert Camus, symbolizing all the neuroses of man as one allegorical plague, once asked, “Are we on the side of the plague or’ against it?” MR, undeniably, is on the side of the plague.

Dr. Dichter has recently published a sum­mary of the results of the’ 2500 motivational studies he has conducted over the past 25 years. Here, in alphabetical order, you can learn all about the fetishistic meaning of everything from apples to yoghurt. The apple, for instance, is a symbol of immortality, an amulet against death. The Greeks, Dr. Dichter reminds us, pre­sented an apple to the winner of the Olympics; the apple in the Garden of Eden promised im­mortality; and we have all heard that “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Yoghurt, strangely enough, is also a symbol of immortal­ity, and many people believe you can live to 120 years on a yoghurt diet. Most everything else, however, is either a mother symbol or a sex symbol. Cotton is sexy and feminine; wool is sexy and masculine. Meat is very sexy, and so is the butcher because he handles it. He is the only merchant allowed to flirt with his female customers. Steak is more sexy than chicken, because bulls are virile and chickens are-well, chicken. Most of us still believe, unconsciously, that we will acquire the bull’s bravery by eat­ing him and fear that we will acquire the chick­en’s cowardice by eating her. Soup is motherly, and we want it when we are ill, because mother gave it to us when we were jll as children: It is almost identical with mother’s milk in the unconscious. The – sexiest and most enticing product of all is silk, and Dr. Dichter is de­lighted to report that “silk ‘worship’ is, in fact, a surprisingly frequent ‘secret vice’ in our soci­ety, and is found in a great many otherwise well-adjusted people. Many, many children are ardent silk fetishists and cannot go to sleep without a piece of silk to hold and rub between their fingers.”

When he is not writing books, Dr. Dichter publishes a newsletter, called Findings. Its Janu­ary 1965 issue declares:

1965 promises to be a year when advertisers will discuss the sexual implications of their products with less restraint, more freedom. Toothpaste manufacturers will not only show beautiful teeth, but also that they can be used to bite, to express passion. Cars will increasingly become symbols of strength, vitality, conquest. The ad­vertising of candy, cigarettes, and perfume will embody stronger connotations of love and compassion.

Sex in advertising will be used with less inhibition, with less double-entendre. Advertisers will begin call­ing a spade a spade. . . .

I couldn’t believe that when I read it. After all, how much more blatant can you get than “Come all the way up with Kools?”

*     *     *

It isn’t only manufactured commodities that have become fetishes in modern America. So have political candidates. Perhaps the first con­scious use of MR in politics was by William Benton of Benton & Bowles advertising agency, who ran for the U.S. Senate in 1946 using mo­tivational research, and got elected. (Ironically, Benton subsequently tussled with the late Joe McCarthy, who intuited a few things about MR that even Dr. Dichter hasn’t discovered yet, and Benton was soundly defeated in the next election.)

The big breakthrough in MR came in 1952, when Batten, Barton, Durstine and Os­born Advertising Agency employed it in politics. BBD&O managed the Eisenhower campaign, using the full arsenal of the new fetishism to establish “Ike” as the Big Daddy symbol of all time. This campaign was so effective that, even today, many people who violently criticize Eisenhower as President, still retain a deep filial affection for the man himself. In every election since 1952, Democrats and Republicans alike have employed MR, and there is a continuous search for new gimmicks.

Even the Church is resorting to MR. The slogan, “Take a friend to church next Sunday,” was inspired by an MR study which quoted David Riesman’s sociological classic, The Lone­ly Crowd, to demonstrate that Americans are becoming increasingly “other-directed.” Church attendance increased markedly after this slogan was introduced.

Dr. Dichter has even performed a study, for the Air Force, on how to induce more young men to enter military service. Perhaps someday, as a crowning achievement, MR will banish peace-mongering except in such ironic contexts as the Air Force’s celebrated motto, “Peace is our profession.”

*     *     *

However, voices of protest are beginning to rise against the mass mesmerism of MR. As long ago as 1942, Philip Wylie castigated Freud-derived advertising in an unforgettable chapter of his Generation of Vipers, and many still remember his blunt paraphrase of the basic question asked in all ads directed at women: “Madam, are you a good lay?” (Alas, the same question is still being asked, and the ads for men are more and more explicitly enquiring, “Broth­er, does your wand come all the way up?”)

Author Marshall McLuhan writes bitterly, “Ours is the first age in which many of the best trained individuals make it a full-time business to get inside the collective public mind to ma­nipulate and exploit it, to generate heat, not light.” And semanticist, S. I. Hayakawa, bitter­ly castigates MR men as “harlot scientists.” Social scientist Kenneth Boulding sums up the fears of many, writing that through MR “a world of unseen dictatorship is conceivable, still using the forms of democratic government.” And psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, insists that MR men “do not discover needs, they create them.” But the basically retrogressive and paleo­lithic nature of the new fetishism was perhaps best described by Judge Learned Hand, who called it simply “a black art.”

Interested to’ find out how he feels about these criticisms, I recently got on the phone to see if I could make an appointment with Dr. Dichter himself. To my surprise and delight, the big man’s secretary immediately gave me an appointment to see him the next day, in his com­bination office-and-home in Croton-on-Hudson, New York.

When I arrived I found the Institute for Motivational Research located in a mansion perched boldly atop the tallest mountain in the area, commanding a baronial view of the Hud­son River far below. The mansion has 26 rooms and, during the day, houses 60 employees who supervise and coordinate the activities of 1200 interviewers scattered throughout every metro­politan, suburban, and rural area in the United States. (Most of these interviewers are graduate students in psychology or sociology, and some are teachers or social workers.) It is a mile’s drive from the entrance gate to the castle, and you are going uphill all the way, a factor which is probably calculated by Dr. Dichter to estab­lish his eminence and authority, subliminally. It is rather like paying a visit to the Wizard of Oz.

A receptionist showed me into a waiting room and told me, regretfully, that Dr. Dichter was “running 10 minutes behind schedule to­day,” so there would be a short wait. I sat down, wondering if this was just another psychological gimmick to put me in my place. Then I noticed a bookcase full of bound motivational studies, and, since they were in the waiting room, I eagerly began to sample them.

The first report I picked up was done for the Commission for Intergroup Relations and dealt with landlords’ objections to the New York City Fair Housing Law. Its conclusion was that landlords are willing to integrate, but want pressure to be put on them by the government so that they can justify themselves by saying, that they were forced into it.

Doctor Dichter has argued, in his book The Strategy of Desire, that MR is often used for “far loftier goals” than selling soap and cigarettes. I began to wonder if this sample shelf was deliberately stacked to reinforce that claim, so I grabbed another report at random. This one was written for a pharmaceutical company and concerned the unwillingness of doctors to pre­scribe hormones made by the company for female disorders. Depth interviews revealed that the doctors were afraid the hormones might be cancer-producing. The company’ was advised to counteract that fear in their future advertis­ing in medical journals.

I picked out another report, for Brown and Williamson Tobacco Corporation. This was a study of the failure of Viceroy Cigarettes’ ad­vertising campaign, “The man who thinks. for himself smokes Viceroys.” Depth interviews revealed, according to the report, that “Too much thought tends to stir up anxieties and to interfere with the emotional pleasure people seek in smoking.” Viceroy was advised to give up rationality and to “combine basic promises of pleasure with reassurances of ‘health’ anxie­ties.” Viceroy’s latest campaign reflects this advice.

Just as I began to peruse a study for the Consolidated Cigar Corporation-which con­tained the not-very-original observations that cigars are phallic and connote status-the re­ceptionist told me that Dr. Dichter would see me now.

*     *     *

The Messiah of Motivation, I found to my sur­prise, was a jaunty, merry-eyed, debonair, little man, looking considerably younger than his 58 years, and with no notable resemblance to either Dr. Frankenstein or Dr. Strangelove. After the initial amenities, I aimed for blood with my first question: “The Surgeon-General is trying to get people to stop smoking cigarettes because they cause cancer. Part of your work is selling cigarettes by psychological gimmicks. How do you justify yourself?”

To my surprise, Dr. Dichter answered cheerfully, “The Surgeon-General is probably correct, but I’m not convinced people would live longer if they gave up smoking. They would probably be frustrated and get other diseases. ”

Stunned, I mumbled something about heroin pushers being able to use the same ra­tionalization. Unruffled, Dr., Dichter replied, “Well, I’m not smart enough to answer the ulti­mate questions of philosophical right and wrong. No matter what companies I work for, somebody will object. Cars are dangerous, too. Should I stop working for Detroit? Or should I listen to the vegetarians and stop working for the meat industry? I’m just not smart enough to answer the ultimate questions that philosophers have been debating since the dawn of history.”

“Well,” I asked, “is there anybody you wouldn’t do MR for?”

“The Catholic Church,” he answered at once. “I would hesitate to work for them.”

I asked why Dr. Dichter had given up his psychoanalytical practice to create MR.

“I practiced psychoanalysis for 2 years, in Vienna,” he said, “but I was frustrated at not being able to help more than 20 people a year. Most of the patients were just suffering from a wrong environment anyway. I wanted to get into mass psychology. Advertising was the nat­ural direction.” He went on to talk of his first attempts to sell MR, in Paris, in 1937, and the failure of French businessmen to appreciate his approach. Then, in 1938, he arrived in America and sent out six letters, outlining the MR serv­ices he was prepared to offer. He received four replies, and two of them led to his first two MR projects-a study of Ivory soap and a study of reader reactions to Esquire magazine. This led immediately to the epoch-making study of Ply­mouth cars, and MR had fully arrived on the American scene.          .

When I asked about his connection, if any, with Freud, Dr. Dichtedaughed and said, “The University of Vienna discouraged students in the psychology department from studying psy­choanalysis. Naturally, that made us curious, and we all studied it, just as the taboo on social- I ism drove us toward that.”

“Were you a socialist?” I asked.

“Ninety-five percent of the people in I Vienna were, in the ’30s,” he answered eva­sively. Actually, if he were a socialist in those I days, he had good reason. Poverty forced him I to leave school and take a job at 15, and he was I only able to enter the University of Vienna later I under a ruling which admitted impecunious students who could pass a special examination. He worked his way through the University of Vienna, and the Sorbonne in Paris, as a tailor’s assistant, a window decorator, a translator, and in other odd jobs.

Again aiming for blood, I asked him if MR were not reinforcing the very neuroses which psychoanalysis originally aimed to cure. “I be­lieve in constructive discontent,” he replied. “I’m not here to make people happy. If such a being as Homo sapiens actually existed, he would be miserably unhappy.” He went on to point out that he didn’t keep his work secret, having published two books on the discoveries of MR. However, when I asked if knowing about MR techniques makes one invulnerable to them, he smiled ironically and said, “Nobody is invulnerable. Ninety-nine percent of human actions are irrationa1. I buy more useless things than the rest of my family put together.”

When I asked about the totalitarian im­plications of motivational research in politics, Dr. Dichter repeated, “I’m not smart enough to answer the ultimate questions of right and wrong.” He went on to say that he was a reg­istered Democrat and a libera1. He added that he did not share the sentimentality of most lib­erals. “When I was in Haiti,” he said, “I ad­mitted to myself that seeing all those Negroes got on my nerves.”

When I asked Dr. Dichter about Fredric Wertham and other psychiatrists who charge that MR creates frustration, he replied that many other things besides MR create frustra­tion in our civilization. He went on to reiterate his concept of “creative discontent,” which he holds to be the fountainhead of all progress. By teaching people to want more than they ever wanted before, he said, modern advertising is freeing us from Puritanism.

“I do care about people,” he said. “I am trying to teach them to recognize their own ir­rationality and to demand more desirable goals.” He proceeded to point out that organ­ized religion has traditionally brainwashed helpless children, indoctrinating them in dog­mas which they cannot intellectually evaluate. “They force children into a church when they’re too young to think rationally,” he said, blithely ignoring the lion’s share of MR that is directed at children these days.

*     *     *

It is obvious that Dr. Dichter thinks of himself as a creative rebel. He told me, with glee, how he had shocked a Catholic priest by saying that our high divorce rate indicates an increase in public morality. “It is immoral for a marriage to stay together if it is bad for the people in­volved,” he pronounced sternly. Then he” grinned again and repeated, “The priest was awfully shocked.”

When I asked if ‘1 could take a few MR studies home to read at leisure, Dr. Dichter graciously complied, and I had a weird moment of deja vu, feeling that I had lived this scene before. Then I realized that Dr. Dichter remind­ed me of another jaunty, co-operative, strangely likeable man I had interviewed only a few months before: Robert Shelton, Imperial Wiz­ard of the Ku Klux Klan. The quality that both men share is innocence, guiltlessness. Both – I realized – are co-operative and friendly because they are convinced that their critics are mis­guided men, and are eager to explain themselves and set the record straight. And both men look younger than their years precisely because of this boyish innocence.

Before leaving, I asked Dr. Dichter about one of his recent critics, psychologist Betty Friedan, whose best-seller, The Feminine Mystique, holds him largely responsible for creating a false ideal of femininity which is driving, Ameri­can women into nervous breakdowns. “She re­minds me,” Dr. Dichter snapped, “of the kind of girl who accuses a guy of raping her, after she led him on.” He insisted that MR only mir­rors the drives of consumers and does not create drives. But then, inevitably, he cheered up. “Books like hers and Vance Packard’s The Hid­den Persuaders are, after all, good publicity,” he concluded happily.

And that, undoubtedly, will be his final verdict on this article also. Criticism cannot hurt him. One year after the Surgeon-General’s report, 90% of the cigarette smokers in Amer­ica are still puffing their way to an early grave, myself included. “Nobody is immune,” I can still hear Dr. Dichter saying, with a cheerful smile, “99% of all human acts are irrational. . . .”

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