Ernest Dichter papers1936-1991 Majority of material found within 1956-1986
- Majority of material found within 1956-1986
- Dichter, Ernest, 1907-1991 (Person)
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In his own words, Ernest Dichter "concentrated on earning money" from the age of fourteen. He began by picking wild mushrooms and berries in the countryside, which he sold to grocery stores. By 1924, he was forced to drop out of school for lack of money and secured a position in an uncle's department store as a clerk and window decorator. Although he remained poor, Dichter was able attend the University of Vienna where he studied German literature from 1927 to 1929, thanks to a new law that permitted working students to take classes on nights and weekends. In the latter year, he fled to Paris to escape family pressures and enrolled at the Sorbonne, where he continued his literary studies. Here a woman fellow-student, a refugee from the Russian Revolution with whom he had a relationship, turned his interests away from literature towards socialism and psychology.
Because of the Depression, Dichter was forced to return to Vienna in 1930, where he resumed his studies at the University, supporting himself as a tutor and window dresser. He now pursued a doctorate in psychology. His most important mentors were Karl Bühler (1879-1963) and Charlotte Bühler (1893-1974), who taught an anti-Freudian, empirical and developmental psychology and a motivation-based theory of personality. Dichter himself later credited the analytical philosopher Moritz Schlick (1882-1936), under whom he studied epistemology and logic, as having the greater influence and giving him the intellectual tools most essential to his later work. However, it was his statistics teacher, Paul Felix Lazarsfeld (1901-1976), who would later provide the entry to his American career. Dichter also studied the art and psychology of public speaking in a class taught by Esti Freud, the daughter-in-law of Sigmund Freud.
In 1934, Dichter received his Ph.D., and his father died. In the following year, Dichter married Hedy Langfelder (1911-2016), a concert pianist, the three events together marking his entrance into the professional class and into adult family life. He worked with developing infants, mentally ill children, offered vocational guidance to adults, and authored a popular syndicated column on practical psychology. He also conducted a private psychoanalytical practice and studied with Wilhelm Stekel (1868-1940) and August Aichhorn (1878-1949), both of whom practiced a more clinical and empirical form of psychoanalysis than Freud. During 1936-1937, he also worked at the Arbeitsgemeinschaft der Mitarbeiter des Ősterreichischen Wirtschaftspsychologischen Forschungsstelle (Employees Association of the Austrian Economic Psychology Research Center) where Lazarsfeld, who had emigrated to America in 1933, had developed innovative market research that employed psychological depth interviews.
However, Dichter claimed to have been unaware that the Center was a haven for socialist dissidents and what the new right-wing government of Austria considered subversive activities, and he found himself arrested and held for interrogation without warning. Early in 1937, at the same time as the Center was formally shuttered, Dichter and his wife fled to Paris, where he was forced to work at his father's old trade of commission salesman, a setback, but one that forced him to hone his ability to deliver a successful sales pitch and drove home the fact that the product generally does not sell itself.
Dichter was one of those fortunate refugees from Nazism who accurately gauged the threat Hitler posed to all of Western Europe and escaped in time. He secured a visa to the United States in the spring of 1938 by, as he claimed, personally convincing the American Vice Consul in Paris of the value of his skills to the U.S. consumer economy. The Dichters arrived in New York with only $100 between them in September. However, with a recommendation from Lazarsfeld, who had established himself in the U.S. in 1933 and was busily developing and refining many of the techniques that Dichter himself would later employ, Dichter secured a position with a market research firm within three days and settled into the refugee community in New York City. Unlike many refugee intellectuals and professionals, however, he sought professional help to replace his Viennese accent with an American one.
Within a short time, Dichter began to solicit short-term consulting jobs, the first with Esquire magazine, then for Procter & Gamble's Ivory soap, and then for Chrysler's new Plymouth line of low-priced cars, all incidentally, products that had a high psycho-sexual or erotic component to their consumer appeal. Within eighteen months of his arrival, Dichter had been noticed by Time magazine, and these first successes led to the post of director of psychological research with the influential advertising agency J. Stirling Getchell, Inc. After Getchell died, Dichter accepted an offer from Frank Stanton of the Columbia Broadcasting System, where Lazarsfeld was doing pioneering work on audience response. Stanton, Lazarsfeld, and their teams aired programs for test audiences and used a Program Analyzer to accurately measure fluctuating listener attention, thereby discovering what parts of the program people liked most. Where Lazarsfeld's research was both rigorously quantitative and qualitative, Dichter's approach was almost entirely qualitative. Where Lazarsfeld favored collaboration and team effort, Dichter worked on the basis of personal insight and in the role of an individual expert.
Naturally independent and entrepreneurial, Dichter chafed under the working conditions within a large organization like CBS, and in 1946 established his own consulting firm, which he incorporated as the Institute for Research in Mass Motivations in 1952. He was soon commanding fees of $500 a day. He moved his office from New York to a small farm in Montrose in 1953, and about a year later, to a 26-room mansion on a hill top overlooking the river in Croton-on-Hudson about thirty miles north of Manhattan. It 1955, it was restyled the Institute for Motivational Research, Inc., and it was under this title that the Dichter organization was at its most productive.
The 1950s were the heyday of the type of motivational research that Dichter practiced. Whether Dichter originated M.R. or was merely its most important and aggressive practitioner is still debated. He clearly benefited from his place in the New York market and from his forceful, charismatic personality. Dichter was capable of using a barrage of controversial, speculative and Freudian assertions (a watered-down Freudianism was everywhere permeating contemporary American culture) and a talent for what would later become known as "thinking outside the box" to command the attention of manufacturers and their advertising agencies.
Dichter followed a consistent operating procedure for most of his career. He came to employ a staff of as many as sixty or seventy people, about a third of which were social scientists, along with a pool of as many as 2,000 part-time interviewers scattered around the country who worked with carefully constructed groups of test subjects drawn from the target population. Dichter also maintained a smaller and more permanent pool of families from the New York-Westchester County area from whom he could select test subjects for more intensive study at his offices.
Dichter usually began with a mailed proposal calling attention to some supposed problem faced by a prospective client and describing his own past successes. A substantial number failed to elicit a response. When one did, Dichter attended an initial meeting to deliver his well-honed pitch like any other salesman. If successful, either the manufacturer, its advertising agency, or both, would pay $20,000-60,000 for a full-fledged study whose end product might run to hundreds of pages. Dichter's staff would assemble an appropriate sample of test subjects and use them to investigate Dichter's hypotheses and assertions. With some companies, Dichter was able to secure follow-up studies and establish a long-term working relationship. He is perhaps best known for the groundwork that lead to the "put a tiger in your tank" slogan for Exxon Corporation and the "bet you can't eat just one" advertising campaign of Frito-Lay, as well as facilitating the successful introduction of the Barbie doll.
Dichter used a wide variety of methods, including standard personality assessment and perception tests, anthropological observations, and psychodrama. Test subjects and families assembled in Dichter's "Living Laboratory," a facsimile of an ordinary suburban family room, where they watched television commercials or interacted with actual products, while tape recorders rolled and hidden cameras captured changes in body language. However, the core of Dichter's approach was the use of the in-depth interview. He and his staff used the whole battery of psychiatric techniques to elicit self-exploration and candid responses from his subjects that teased out their unconscious (often sexualized) motivations and emotional engagements with the whole range of consumer goods, with commercials and advertisements, and, when occasionally promoting service agencies or political candidates, with other aspects of daily life. Dichter claimed not only to reveal the consumers innermost secrets and taboos, but also the "soul of the product," the deeper meanings and taboos surrounding it.
Dichter's own motivations were rather complex, befitting his personal history. As someone who had experienced privation, he understood how material goods contributed to physical and psychological well-being and brought some measure of satisfaction and fulfillment even to the relatively poor. He wrote paeans to the simple and deep delights offered by bathing or eating soup or feeling the textures of different types of cloth. He had witnessed the growth of the middle classes through increasing income and leisure time and realized that the newly-prosperous and upwardly mobile American relied on advertising and other mass media rather than tradition for cues to appropriate behavior and possessions. He also saw how material abundance complicated the age-old issue of status markers, allowing for all sorts of associations and "personal statements" between the old dichotomy of excess for the rich few and meagerness for everyone else. Hence, for Dichter, consumption, properly channeled, became a form of therapy and self-realization. Goods chosen to meet one's inner needs and social responsibilities represented an advance over items chosen simply as external status markers to assert one's superiority. Mass communication, again properly channeled and explained, became the structural framework of democratic society. Products designed and sold in line with people's deepest, albeit irrational, internal needs would constitute realistic and realizable small steps towards a better life, if not the Good Life. Such steps, Dichter believed, would allay the kind of mass public anxieties that had been exploited by Hitler and other totalitarians of left and right.
At the same time, Dichter seems to have had a sense of mission to bring a more open, Continental sexuality to repressed, puritanical America and to make American society more open to immigrants and outsiders. In this, he was largely riding on underlying tectonic shifts that had been going on for years and that had accelerated during the social disruptions of World War II. On the other hand, he seems to have believed that American politics, and for that matter advertising, had gone too far in the direction of the real equality of the sexes. Dichter was a believer in gender complementarity, not equality, which implied the existence of subconscious gendered consumer preferences that advertisers ignored at their peril. In an early study he expatiated on "the gender of rice," rice being by culture, if not by nature, "feminine," while potatoes, say, were perceived as "masculine." A corollary was that advertisers must avoid sexual ambiguity or confusion in their ads, pitching a "masculine" product in a "feminine" way or vice versa, and especially avoiding the suggestion that a product was, in today's parlance, "too gay," an issue that was, in contrast to the frankness about bodily functions, usually approached obliquely in the 1950s and 1960s.
Even at his peak, Dichter had opponents. Some maintained that his work was insufficiently quantitative and was therefore "unscientific," and in fact, Dichter seems to have been forced to include more quantitative analysis later on simply to keep up with disciplinary trends. Others thought Dichter was little more that a gifted advertising copywriter who simply wrapped his creative insights in psychological garb, or a pitchman who could appeal over the heads of experts to bosses who found his presentation of simple truisms psychologically profound.
A more comprehensive attack was launched by Vance Packard in his 1957 book The Hidden Persuaders, who arraigned Dichter as "the most famed" practitioner of techniques that promoted mass consumption and self-indulgence and manipulated consumers into buying things they never wanted or needed. Ironically, Packard's attack served as the perfect endorsement for potential clients, increasing Dichter's business and his stature. Dichter himself responded with a presentation of his own views in Strategy of Desire in 1960. Whatever one thinks of Dichter's own beliefs, his report interviews show his consumer subjects to be critical and skeptical, often brutally so, and capable of distinguishing what worked for them from advertising hype.
The attack by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique in 1963 was less easily deflected. Dichter's quasi-Freudian psychology, adherence to the notion of separate spheres, and personal view of women as male help-meets could not be reconciled with any version of feminism. Dichter had long divided female consumers into three classes. The "career woman," even if lacking an actual career, might dream of one and felt bored and frustrated by housework. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the "pure housewife" reveled in traditional domestic duties. As a result, neither was likely to be a receptive consumer of household goods, the first being indifferent and the second committed to the doctrine of "do it yourself." Dichter favored (or perhaps created) the happy medium of the "balanced woman," who enjoyed housekeeping, yet engaged in or at least thought about some activities outside the domestic circle. The "balanced woman" was the perfect mark for advertisers, because they could entice her to try some supposedly labor-saving product that would allegedly increase her free time, while at the same time playing on her guilt at not being a more dedicated homemaker and her desire to meld domesticity and creativity. So in a famous study for General Mills, Dichter advised them to remove the powdered eggs and milk from Bisquick, a biscuit or cake mix which needed only water, on the grounds that it eliminated the last bit of creativity in cooking. The "balanced woman" could be won over by being made an active (but not too active) participant through adding the real eggs and milk herself.
On the crest of his American successes, Dichter took his approach back to Europe. Here he encountered varying blends of resistance and acceptance depending upon a given country's general stance on the larger issues of "Americanization." Where cultural resistance was highest, in Paris (1958) and Rome (1959), Dichter's branch offices were small and short-lived, although he continued to do some work for French clients out of New York.
In Britain, Dichter encountered a society numbed by nearly three decades of Depression privation and war rationing, where American abundance still generated mixed reactions of awe and resentment. Traditional British society was hostile to Dichter at a number of levels. Britain's long traditions of empiricism and analytical philosophy ensured that academics and scientists rejected Dichter's qualitative methods and watered-down Freudianism out of hand. Its deeply-ingrained class system and notions of class solidarity that stifled anything that smacked of "putting on airs" or grabbing more than one's share seemed to offer only barren ground for Dichter's ideas of optimism and mobility. Dichter thought the British even more puritanical than the Americans, yet within a few years after Dichter opened his London office in 1958, Britain's younger generation was developing its own brands of hedonism and fashion-sense and exporting them to the rest of the world. Even Dichter's "balanced woman" was a step forward in the British case, as a 1965 study of women's sexuality for Nova, a new women's magazine, showed.
In the end, however, Dichter's most reliable British clients were vendors of cigarettes and chocolates. For whatever cultural reasons, Dichter continued to find a more receptive audience in the German-speaking Europe from which he had come. The branch offices in Zurich, his main European base (1968), and Frankfurt (1970) generated an increasing share of Dichter's business, and in fact survived him. Dichter developed some of his strongest relationships with German and Swiss firms.
By the 1960s, a resurgent feminism was but one of Dichter's problems. The early success stories could not be repeated indefinitely. Dichter's multi-volume reports could be little more than a post-mortem for the Edsel. Often as not, Dichter was called in as part of a usually unsuccessful drive to revive flagging sales of products that were losing their appeal or regional brands that eventually would succumb to competition from national chains. The academic study of consumer behavior was moving into business schools and becoming more quantitative and theoretical. Advertising thrived on novelty, and Freudianism was becoming old. Newer advertising agencies increasingly relied on humor and irony, and it became clear that if people could remember the style of your ad, your jingle, catchphrase or mascot for whatever reason, you didn't have to punch their Freudian subconscious buttons.
Beginning in the early 1960s, Dichter began responding to these challenges more by changing the scope of his work than by altering his own ideologies. He solicited more work from non-profits, governments and political candidates, shifted the emphasis from the product to the effectiveness of the packaging, and used his motivational techniques to suggest ways to improve the morale of employees, particularly local managers, salespeople, dealers, and commission agents. He added more appendices with graphs to make his work more quantitative.
These unfavorable trends accelerated in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Dichter had long preached against American Puritanism, but when the barriers began collapsing, it is likely that he was not as pleased with the result as he might have once thought. The baby boomer kids who had sat sullen or fidgety in his "Living Laboratory" while he poked and prodded their psyches in the 1950s were now vowing not to trust anyone over thirty. While many vendors quickly figured out ways to cultivate the Youth Market, Dichter was now not merely over thirty, he was over sixty. While he could observe the Counterculture from outside as a social scientist and profess to see some of his own ideas and ideals there, to the hippie generation he could only be a parent and not a prophet. His work on the "peacock revolution" in men's dress, however perceptive, was used by DuPont to market the garish polyester fabrics and clothing that have since become a cliché of the 1970s.
To someone who had promised to ameliorate societal anxieties and psychological discontents in the pursuit of greater harmony and personal growth, the era's sometimes violent confrontations over stark racial, generational, class, gender, and lifestyle divides was genuinely disturbing. By his own accounts, Dichter saw the polarizations of the late 1960s as a replay of what had happened in Germany in the early 1930s. Spiro Agnew-style conservatism, in particular, seemed to him to presage a second coming of the Brown Shirts. As in the 1930s, Dichter seriously considered whether it might be time to escape by emigrating before it was too late. Matters came to a head in 1970, when Dichter suffered a heart attack during a confrontational speaking encounter with a Black militant. Nonetheless, with typical optimism, he used his forced recuperation to make suggestions for improving amenities for patients in hospitals.
This physical setback further prompted Dichter to rearrange his affairs. In March 1971, he sold his companies to Lehigh Valley Industries, Inc., a minor industrial conglomerate that had begun life as an anthracite coal company, but they jettisoned the business as unprofitable in 1973, keeping only a subsidiary that promoted coupon sales. Dichter repurchased the rest. His firms went through several changes of name, although it is unclear if these were merely cosmetic or represented attempts to recapitalize or reorganize.
At the same time, of course, the cataclysms that Dichter had feared did not happen, and as the 1970s turned into the "me decade," he enjoyed a new popularity in a cultural landscape teeming with rival gurus and self-help artists. As he gradually lost favor with many American mass marketers, he gained greater exposure as a pop psychologist. He ran seminars, wrote personality tests for popular magazines such as Cosmopolitan, and gave interviews (and a temporary sheen of respectability) to Penthouse and the supermarket tabloids. On the more serious side, Dichter developed an interest in futurology and a relationship with the nearby Hudson Institute founded by Herman Kahn. He also taught courses in marketing at Mercy College, originally a Catholic junior college in Dobbs Ferry that was vigorously transforming itself into an institution for adult students and continuing education.
By now, Dichter was at the normal age for retirement. He had tried to hand down his businesses to his only son, Thomas W. Dichter, making him the titular president of the Institute for a time in the 1970s, but he opted for an independent career as an anthropologist and expert on Third World development. Although Ernest Dichter continued working, age and the economic dislocations of the early 1980s forced him to curtail his activities. He sold the Croton-on-Hudson "Castle" at the end of 1981 and moved to more economical quarters in nearby Cortlandt Manor. The successful offices in Zurich and Frankfurt were sold to their local staffs who retained the Dichter name, and the London operation had already been sold to William Schlackman, a former employee who was becoming Britain's leading market researcher.
Dichter turned more and more to writing, obtained a faculty position at Nova University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and sought to convert his business into an academic institute, housed either in Florida or Israel. He took commissions from strange bedfellows, including Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network, for whom he analyzed viewer reactions to American television re-runs beamed into northern Israel and occupied southern Lebanon. With much of his written output now divorced from selling particular products, Dichter proved able to re-run or syndicate his own message to new audiences. As late as 1989 he was hired to conduct the first consumer motivation studies in the Soviet Union.
Dichter disseminated his ideas in seventeen books published over his lifetime, as well as in his Institute's newsletters and in countless speeches and public appearances. His major published works include: The Psychology of Everyday Living (1947), The Strategy of Desire (1960, The Handbook of Consumer Motivations: The Psychology of the World of Objects (1964), Motivating Human Behavior (1971), The Naked Manager (1974), Packaging: The Sixth Sense? (1975), Total Self-Knowledge (1976), Getting Motivated (1979), and How Hot a Manager Are You? (1987). Attempts to explain his work to his oldest grandson Sasha resulted in a series of Sacha books on psychological concepts for children published in Paris in the mid-1970s.
Ernest Dichter died of heart failure in the Hudson Valley Hospital Center near Peekskill, New York, on November 21, 1991. His work is perpetuated by Dichter Research AG, successor to the old Zurich office, and the Ernest Dichter Institut. Motiv-, Marketing- Kommunikationsforschung GmbH & Co. KG in Frankfurt. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Dichter's work has been rediscovered by a new generation of historians of consumer culture.
Although Dichter saw himself as first and foremost a psychologist, a balanced account of his life must concede some points to his critics. It would appear, perhaps reflecting his earlier devotion to literary studies, that, whatever his other gifts Dichter was also a sometimes-brilliant artist whose medium was the symbolic element of advertising and whose methods had a large intuitive component. That is, Dichter used his training in psychology and logic, his personal experiences, and those of his subjects to craft explanatory narratives that were highly plausible if not always completely convincing. There is an anecdote that Nestlé finally balked at hiring him, saying in effect, that since the premises and conclusions of his reports were the same, it made no sense to pay for what was in the middle.
Of course, there was nothing really new here. Seers, poets, artists, and their kin have been coining intuitive readings of situations into pithy images and phrases since the dawn of human history, and traders, merchants and manufacturers have depended upon intuitive readings of their customers' emotional needs and have tried to turn luxuries into necessities ever since commerce began. From that perspective, Dichter did not so much venture into unexplored territory as develop a style, a distinctive voice in a long-running conversation. It is perhaps appropriate that automatic Internet translation software renders the name of his German successor literally as "Ernest Poets Institute."
Dichter's wish to be taken seriously as a social philosopher will always be compromised by his participation in commerce, but perhaps equally so by his deep immersion in the messiness of everyday life, both his own and that of his subjects. Unlike professional therapists, Dichter made no pretense of curing the psychically damaged of their traumas nor of elevating humanity onto some straight and narrow path. At the same time, the charges of Vance Packard and other moralizers seem overblown in that Dichter's actual effectiveness is not that easy to measure among a host of other factors. It is difficult if not impossible to prove that Dichter all by himself successfully and knowingly tempted people into activities he knew to be harmful, something he himself went to some lengths to deny and disprove. He did, however, use his authority to validate some kinds of irrational, emotional and messy behavior, and although he urged the channeling of animal appetites for food, sex, security, control, and emotional gratification towards moderate and socially benign ends, this in itself is enough to condemn him in the eyes of those who for whatever reason have a hard time with messiness in general. To use the vocabulary of the clergy he professed to despise, Dichter sought to help people live with their sinfulness and acknowledged the futility of trying to stamp it out.
As someone who first directly experienced the baneful effects of a society organized around totalizing myths of "blood and soil," and master race/untermenschen polarizations, and later those of unbridled hedonism and "let it all hang out," Dichter remains pertinent as an example, if not a guide, to our continuing "creative discontents." Situated in the murky, ambiguous no-man's land somewhere between self-denial and self-indulgence, privation and excess, the ideal and the material, repression and license, asceticism and sensuality, will and appetite, dichotomies that have shaped human thought and action for ages, Dichter and his subjects remain contentious, engaging and relevant.
Note: The above essay draws heavily upon Daniel Horowitz's "The Birth of a Salesman: Ernest Dichter and the Objects of Desire," which is perhaps the fullest account of Dichter's life and work thus far, and also upon Dichter's own letters and manuscripts.
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After closing his offices in the Croton-on-Hudson "Castle" in 1982, Dichter placed his library of research studies, publications and other writings with Mercy College, where he taught marketing. However, when Mercy College sought permission in 1990 to microfilm them and have carte blanche to destroy the originals to save space, Dichter repossessed them. He was working with a dealer to sell them to another library but was unable to make satisfactory arrangements before his final illness. These materials, plus Dr. Dichter's remaining business correspondence and notes, were removed to Hagley from Dichter's last residence and office in Cortlandt Manor, New York, in 2007.
- Dichter, Ernest, 1907-1991 (Person)
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- Ernest Dichter papers
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