Summary of the Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard
In an era of soaring GNP, productivity, and discretionary income, many in business believed that for the good of the economy, people had to consume more and more, whether they wanted to or not. By the mid-fifties, psychological counselors were urging merchandisers to become “merchants of discontent” — to create wants that people didn’t know they had, so that their possessions, well before they actually wore out, would become “psychologically obsolete. ” Finally, in a time of increasing product parity, consumer had to be given reasons — not necessarily rational — for preferring one brand over another. . So Ad Men Become Depth Men. Ad men recognized three different levels of human consciousness: (1) conscious (rational) — we know what we think and can explain our thinking; (2) preconscious — we may understand our feelings, sensations, and attitudes (our prejudices, assumptions, fears, emotional promptings and so on) but would not be willing to explain them; (3) subconscious — we not only are not aware of our true attitudes and feelings but would not discuss them if we could. MR was concerned with exploring the second and third levels.
MR did not take root as a really serious movement until the late ’40s and early ’50s. The most famous practitioner was Ernest Dichter, PhD, Director of the Institute for Motivational Research. As early as 1941 Dichter was exhorting ad agencies to see themselves as “some of the most advanced laboratories in psychology. ” He said the successful ad agency “manipulates human motivations and desires and develops a need for goods with which the public has… been unfamiliar — [and] perhaps may be even undesirous of purchasing. Dichter insists that products must not only be good; they must appeal to our feelings “deep in the psychological recesses of the mind. ” He tells companies that they must discover the psychological hook and that they’ve either got to sell emotional security — or go under. Excitement about MR reached a crescendo in 1953 and ’54, as marketers began recruiting social scientists by the hundreds to conduct depth studies. 4. And the Hooks are Lowered. By 1957, a great many marketers were using MR.
Two of the more common techniques are: Depth interview. The investigator tries, patiently but casually, to get the consumer into a reverie of talking and musing absent-mindedly about the pleasures, joys, enthusiasms, agonies, nightmares, deceptions, [and] apprehensions the product recalls to him/her. Projective tests. The subject is asked to interpret a symmetrical ink-blot, or to tell a story about a picture, or to make up captions for a cartoon, or (the “Szondi test”) to pick out, from a group of pictures, the person e/she would like take a trip with (the subject doesn’t know that each person suffers from a different mental illness). Some MR investigators also use lie detectors, word-association and sentence-completion tests, hypnosis, or subthreshold (subliminal) stimulation. 5. Self-Images for Everybody. The growing sameness of products (and the complexity of their ingredients), had made it very hard for either marketers or consumers to make reasonable distinctions among products in the same category.
The answer was to help people, in an easy, warm, emotional way, to make unreasonable distinctions, by giving each product a distinctive, highly appealing image. Studies of narcissism indicated that nothing appeals more to people than themselves, so why not help people buy products that were projections of themselves? The image builders reasoned that they could thus spark love affairs by the millions, and the sale of self-images soon was expediting the movement of hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of merchandise to consumers, particularly gasoline, cigarettes, and automobiles. . Rx for Our Secret Distresses. The merchandisers concluded that billions of dollars’ worth of sales depended heavily on successfully manipulating or coping with our guilt, fears, anxieties, hostilities, loneliness, and inner tensions. Guilt proved to be one of the major problems the motivational analysts had to grapple with, for though self-indulgent and easy-does-it products such as candy, soft drinks, cigarettes, liquor, cake mixes, and laborsaving appliances were becoming a significant sector of the total market, Americans still were basically puritans at heart.
Therefore, the marketing of such products had to assuage guilt feelings and offer absolution. Cigarette advertising began to reflect the insights of MR: people were shown smoking while under pressure or as a reward for tough jobs done. Similarly, candy was marketed as a way to reward oneself, or, when sold in bite-sized pieces, as self-indulgence in moderation. Household appliances were portrayed as offering a way to spend more time with the children, and cars, a legitimate release of aggression through speed and power. 7. Marketing Eight Hidden Needs.
In searching for extra psychological values that could add to product appeal, merchandisers came upon many gratifying clues by studying our subconscious needs, yearnings, and cravings. Once a compelling need was identified, the promise of its fulfillment was built into sales messages [see Table 1]. 8. The Built-in Sexual Overtone. The MR people went beyond the old cheesecake and get-your-man themes, with more subtlety, deeper penetration into the subconscious, and more emphasis on poetry, fantasy, and whimsy. Thus the famous “I Dreamed I Stopped Traffic in My Maidenform Bra” played upon hidden exhibitionistic desires.
And the enormously successful hardtop car fulfilled a man’s desire for both wife (sedan) and mistress (convertible), for conventionality plus adventure. The depth researchers also found both men and women in need of reassurance about their respective sexuality. Thus, lingerie ads began showing women admiring themselves in mirrors, assuring herself that she is fully feminine, and urging the buyer to do the same. And a host of products (e. g. , cigars, True Magazine) were successful because they reassured men of their virility.
The same product was found to have different meanings to men and women. While a house is an expression of a woman’s self, it is, to a man, a haven, a symbolic Mom. One ad even showed a house with outstretched, loving arms. Some products underwent “transvestitism,” the most spectacular being Marlboro, which started out as a women’s cigarette, but, with new filter, packaging, and advertising, was reborn as an aggressively male product that addressed some of the core meanings of smoking — adulthood, vigor, potency. 9. Back to the Breast, and Beyond.
MR also sought to exploit the subconscious desire of many adults for the pleasant mouth satisfaction they felt as infant breast feeders and small children. Foods were found to be loaded with hidden meanings. Ice cream, for example, symbolizes uninhibited overindulgence, so advertisers were advised to show it overflowing the dish. Housewives may use food as a reward or punishment, depending on what they choose to serve. Food has special meaning for fat people (they use it as a substitute for other forms of gratification) and for people under stress — so hospitals were counseled not to offer strange or unusual foods.
Chewing gum, cigars, and cigarettes (“Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet”) — and the oral gratification associated with them — were all subjects of the motivational researchers’ attention. 10. Babes in Consumerland. The prodigious amount of supermarket impulse buying is apparently due to the fact that many women, during supermarket shopping, fall into a light trance (perhaps the result of the profusion of goods that once were available only to royalty). Accordingly, marketers went to work to make their packages as hypnotically attractive as possible, e. g. , by making the shopper’s imagination leap ahead to the finished product.
Impulse buying was also stimulated by “splurge counters” laden with delicacies and, in department stores, by counters labeled simply “Why Not? “. 11. Class and Caste in the Salesroom. The social classes of greatest interest to marketers are the lower-middle and upper- lower, since these account for most of the population and the purchasing power in a typical community. Accordingly, sights were trained on “Mrs. Middle Majority,” who lives under a strong moral code in a highly restricted world. The sponsors of daytime TV personalities that brought warmth and connection into that world (e. , Arthur Godfrey, Garry Moore) were richly rewarded. Although people in the lower social brackets don’t seem to want to climb the social ladder, they can be persuaded to move up in their consumption, so merchandisers began to pay close attention to the consuming preferences that went with the various social classes (thus, for example, a more expensive candy box was designed for the lower-class purchaser, for whom the packaging was highly significant). 12. Selling Symbols to Upward Strivers. Another opportunity arose from the fact that most Americans are social strivers (though no one cares to admit it).
Our purchasing habits change as we adopt the choices of the group we seek to enter. The merchandisers played to this tendency by investing products with new and exciting messages of status. Most Americans are vulnerable to one of three merchandising strategies: (1) Offer bigness. Has been vigorously exploited in automotive marketing. (2) Offer price exclusivity, e. g. , Joy perfume advertised as “the costliest perfume in the world. ” (3) Testimonials by high-status celebrities. These were not new, but in the 50’s they were employed more systematically than before.
Of course, restraint must be exercised: products cannot be presented as too high-toned, lest consumers wonder, “Am I good enough? “; and the appeal cannot be too narrow (e. g. , dog food ought not be sold with thoroughbred dogs, since most people don’t have them). 13. Cures for Our Hidden Aversions. In many cases, consumers’ resistance was based on seemingly unreasoned prejudices, which MR was able to uncover, thus enabling products to be “rediscovered. ” Cases in point: Prunes, with their “old maid” and “laxative” connotations, were repositioned as a delightful, sweet “wonder fruit. The marketing of instant coffee as efficient and timesaving was found to imply that the housewife who bought it was lazy and a poor planner; the new advertising emphasized that the product was “100% pure coffee” that satisfied “your coffee hunger. ” Margarine and dried milk, heretofore touted simply as worthy substitute products, were marketed on their own virtues. 14. Coping with Our Pesky Inner Ear. The acute sensitivity of our inner eye and ear in receiving unintended messages impelled marketers to look for the “residual impression” in selling messages.
Examples: A refrigerator maker was advised not to show the door open without a housewife’s hand on it, since this implied the waste of electricity. Philip Morris was advised to stop touting its cigarettes as “less irritating”: what remained in the consumer’s mind was “irritating. ” In a similar vein, questions arose as to whether a TV show could be so arresting that viewers wouldn’t pay attention to the commercials. When a mystery show was replaced by a panel show, sales of the sponsor’s product went up. 15. The Psycho-Seduction of Children.
MR was also concerned with developing product and brand loyalty early in life and thus creating eager consumers for the future. But even before children could buy, the merchandisers sought to harness kids’ influence on their parents. Some companies offered prizes to kids who could bring parents into the showrooms. Motivational researchers were asked to help assure that TV shows would have a strong impact on children. They suggested that a show need not offer amusement or pleasure, as long as it helped the child express his/her inner tensions and fantasies in a manageable way, i. . , by triggering fear, anger or confusion, then offering a way to resolve these feelings, as with Howdy Doody and other shows which offered children a safe way to work off resentment against the adult “ruling class. ” MR also analyzed kids’ crazes — in particular, the Davy Crockett phenomenon — to discover why they rose and fell, and perhaps ultimately to create them. 16. New Frontiers for Recruiting Customers. As marketers were looked for ways to create new, broader, or more insatiable demands for their products, a key area of interest was men’s clothes.
Psychologists concluded that men’s reluctance to appear conspicuous could be overcome by persuasion that (1) played on their increasing desire to impress their peer group and (2) gave women permission to indulge their already strong inclination to “mold and perfect” their men’s public image. The drive to create psychological obsolescence by making the public style-conscious and then switching styles extended to typewriters, phones, and home appliances, where color was the primary sign of newness. Depth merchandisers also began changing the seasons around, selling spring finery to women in January, when “psychological spring” begins.
Mother’s and Father’s Days were converted into occasions for buying splurges. The growing amount of leisure time held out the prospect of vast consumer expenditures, and marketers focused on luring consumers into “relaxing” with such money-burning activities as do-it-yourself projects and hobbies, participatory sports, boating, and even shopping. 17. Politics and the Image Builders. In the 1950’s the character of American political life changed radically, as both parties used professional persuaders and modern marketing techniques to help sell their candidates.
The 1956 campaigns featured carefully-staged conventions and campaign appearances, five-minute (instead of 30-minute) TV speeches, and saturation advertising. The persuaders found that a vote, like a purchasing decision, was often based on irrational, illogical factors that MR could uncover, specifically, (1) the performance of the candidate, especially its sincerity, and (2) the personality of the candidate, especially the extent to which he is perceived as a father figure. Richard Nixon benefitted from all of these techniques and was regarded as the first of a new breed of “media politician. 18. Molding “Team Players” for Free Enterprise. The rise of the idea that the individual had no meaning except as a member of a group — ironic in a country where individualism and free enterprise had always been watchwords — was reflected in many areas of American life and was of keen interest to those interested in manipulating human behavior. In industry, the emphasis on team play coincided with the appearance, in plants and offices, of social scientists, who brought their insights and techniques to bear on “the perversity of man. MR consultants offered various services: evaluation of candidates for executive positions, finding out what employees think about their jobs and the firm, evaluating performance. Increasingly, companies screened their job applicants and employees for the appropriate team-play qualities. While some of the research was aimed at improving employee satisfaction, much of it was surreptitiously aimed at evaluating up-and-coming executives’ respect for authority, spotting potential mental illness, and scrutinizing men’s home lives and wives to see if they would interfere with or support job performance. 9. The Engineered Yes. By the mid-’50s, public relations counselors saw that they could cultivate positive opinions about their companies with the same techniques as the ad men were using to sell products. MR was enthusiastically applied to fund-raising, where the depth approach revealed that self-aggrandizement, ego-gratification, and self-interest (and, to a lesser degree, public interest, and the social benefit that accrues from associating with the best people) were the deeper reasons why people give to or volunteer to serve charitable causes. 0. Care and Feeding of Positive Thinkers. Much of the optimism coming out of the business community in the mid-50’s was the work of PR people guiding top management in the proper manner, timing, and approach in making announcements of economic expansion and voicing expressions of confidence, thus helping win the public’s mind over to optimism.
This “psychological marketing” was considered key to economic growth, for if consumers started watching their dollars and becoming more cerebral about their purchases, it would become more difficult for the depth merchandisers to tempt people into impulse buying, status-symbol buying, leisure buying, and many other forms of self-indulgent consumption. Similarly, small retailers and investors were thought to need repeated doses of reassurance. 21. The Packaged Soul? The persuasive techniques of MR and the values that it advances (consumption, groupthink) hold some disturbing implications, which are already evident in current [i. e. mid-50’s] developments: * “packaged communities” complete with furniture, ready-to-meet neighbors, and already-formed recreational groups; * a trade school that trains workers not only in mechanical skills, but in a co-operative outlook; * the depth probing of little girls, in order to discover their vulnerability to advertising messages for home permanents; * the notion that human behavior could, like airplanes and missiles, be electronically controlled, since “the human brain [is]… essentially a digital computer. ” 22. The Question of Validity. MR was not without its critics and skeptics [see Table 2].
But the consensus of the most responsible practitioners was that MR was useful as a starting-point or clue-spotter, but that it should be validated by other methods whenever possible. And executives have concluded that MR can provide answers they can’t afford to ignore; it is, therefore, here to stay. 23. The Question of Morality. The defenders of MR claim that anything that raises the GNP is good, or that people have become so skeptical that their psyches are not damaged by the constant assaults, or that there’s nothing sinister about giving people what they really want, whether it’s new products or better working conditions.
Still, there are profound moral questions about using mass media to play on people’s hidden fears and weaknesses to sell them products, to manipulate small children, to treat voters like customers in need of father figures, to cultivate wastefulness by promoting psychological obsolescence, and so on. The most disturbing ethical issues are: (1) the assumption of the right to manipulate human personality; this involves an inherent disrespect for the individual; (2) the elevation of consumerism; while Dr.
Dichter contends that it’s important to give people permission to enjoy life, possessions don’t necessarily make people happy — and besides, America is too great a nation to have to depend on such devious practices to sustain its economy; Professional advertising and PR organizations should draw up codes of ethics, and individuals should learn to recognize the devices of persuasion, so that if they are behaving in response to irrational motivations, at least they will be aware that they are doing so.
TABLE 1: Eight Hidden Needs * Emotional security. Home freezers, a way to store more food than people could possibly eat, were sold as symbols of security, warmth, and safety. * Reassurance of worth. Soap and detergent advertising reassured the housewife by exalting the importance of her role in keeping things clean. * Ego-gratification. Steam shovel sales improved when ads began showing more prominent pictures of the operators, upon whose recommendations sales depended. * Creative outlet.
Cake mix marketers reformulated their product to allow the housewife to add eggs or milk, thereby giving here a more active role in the process. * Love object. The promoters of pianist Liberace made much of his resemblance to a beautiful child. * Sense of power. A staple of automotive marketing, with promises of “that extra margin of safety in an emergency” providing a rationale for the power. * Sense of roots. Mogen David wine was marketed with references to the family-centered occasions of which it was a part. Immortality. Life insurance ads showed the deceased, while physically gone, still shielding, providing for, comforting and governing his family. TABLE 2: Major Criticisms of MR * Overenthusiastic supporters have too often implied that MR is a cure for every marketing problem, whereas in reality there is no single reason why people buy — or don’t buy — a product. * MR has lifted diagnostic tools from clinical psychiatry and applied them to mass behavior — with no certainty that such transference is valid.
And since MR is expensive, there is a built-in motivation to limit the size of the sample population. * Results depend too much on the brilliance of a single practitioner; testing procedures have not been standardized or validated. Also, different research experts can interpret the same test results differently. * The findings are sometimes not subjected to objective confirmation by conventional testing methods before they are accepted and applied. There is often no rigorous follow-up study. THE HIDDEN PERSUADERS Critical CommentaryI.
GENERAL COMMENTS ON THE BOOK AND ON THE ARGUMENTS IT MAKES: * “Manipulation” is a word with strong negative connotations. The techniques Packard describes can also be viewed simply as a refinement of techniques of advertising, communication, and persuasion, in order to address needs of a different kind — needs which represent the next stage of consumption patterns, instigated by the synergistic effects of mass production and widespread wealth. * Any new knowledge is typically seen at first as sinister and forbidden.
But Packard sometimes goes too far in presenting simple truths in this light. Of course we buy products on the basis of the ways in which their characteristics interact with our own. Of course we use material possessions to advertise our status, our prestige, our awareness of style and fashion. When didn’t we? Of course we want our working conditions to respect our dignity and self-esteem. And of course workers should be trained in how to get along with others (cf. Packard’s negatively-presented trade-school example, Ch. 21, which actually presages TQM, team concept, quality circles, etc. This is why some of the case-studies seem either obvious or forced (e. g. , vanity presses as an example of ego-gratification), while others have, as Packard admits, a positive side (as when psychologists found that the need for recognition was a factor in worker discontent). As Foote Cone & Belding Chairman John O’Toole said in a Time interview (2/8/82), “critics such as Vance Packard… made the [advertising] profession out to be sinister, like brainwashing. In fact, advertising is simply salesmanship. It is unabashedly partisan and persuasive; it doesn’t pretend to be gospel. * A related point: Packard denigrates virtually all attempts to increase people’s cooperation and compliance. Thus, he ridicules MR studies that try to “find ways to make us less troublesome and complaining while staying in hospitals. ” But if an organization — or a society — is to function, there must be a balance between these and individualism. Packard ignores the fact that making people cooperative and compliant is often the result of removing genuine irritants or demeaning conditions that obstruct a necessary cooperative effort. Packard occasionally makes his points with case studies that are either trivial (e. g. , that MR caused Socony Vacuum to change its name to Socony Mobiloil because of associations with vacuum cleaners; surely this requires no probing for subtle, hidden meanings! ). * Regarding the morality of consumerism… the argument against “gadgets/consumption” is framed simplistically, inasmuch as Packard attempts to impose a moral framework on an activity that is essentially amoral. Frivolousness is in the eye of the beholder.
Those who condemn consumerism always take it upon themselves to decide what others do and do not “really need,” ignoring the fact that many new products really do help people control their environment, use time more effectively, improve their health and fitness, and so on, in ways that they may not have known about. The conflict between Epicureans and Stoics is an old one that will probably never be resolved. The social consensus veers toward one or the other — eras of consumption alternate with eras of restraint — in response to various forces, the most powerful of which may be the state of the economy.
In any event, neither side should attempt to impose its values on the other. * Issues that are still relevant/valid: * “Men at bay,” needing reassurances of their virility; cigars as symbols of same. * Emotional significance of ice cream (nostalgia, voluptuousness). * Moral objections to advertising that targets children. * The rationalizing of children’s TV shows (“calling a cowboy movie ‘American history’ and a space show ‘scientific'”) recalls contemporary attempts to do the same with the Jetsons and other shows. * Controversy over laugh tracks on TV. Commercialism of political campaigns; candidate as product. – Importance of President as father figure (Eisenhower in the ’50s, Reagan in the ’80s). * Importance of “psychological marketing” and consumer confidence. * Issues that are no longer relevant/valid: * Low-calorie foods fulfilling a need for “penance” (may be true for some consumers; most will not tolerate compromise on taste). * Expectations of greater need for leisure products because of increasing leisure time, shorter work week (people are not working less; may even be working more). Concern over “social engineering” of “team players” (while teamwork is important, the real challenge is not to create conformity, but to disrupt it — cf. the current emphasis on “renewal, “diversity,” “intrapreneurship,” “thriving on chaos,” etc. ). II. UPDATE: PACKARD AND HIDDEN PERSUADERS IN THE ’80s AND ’90s. * Eric Clark, in his 1989 book The Want Makers: The World of Advertising — How They Make You Buy is less gloomy and alarmist about advertising than Packard, but he believes that advertising is “all-pervasive”: Today advertising is vast, increasingly global and more and more ‘scientific in its methods. Its domination over the kind of programs we watch, the content of the newspapers and magazines we read, grows each year. It helps determine the politicians we elect the medicines we are offered, the toys our children demand, and the sports that are to thrive or decline. All of this is new in its size and its range, its implications and its dangers. Election appeals have become interchangeable with Coca-Cola commercials; products themselves are no longer simply sold by advertising — increasingly they are the advertising. * In an article called “Psyching Out Consumers,” Newsweek (2/27/89) says “The motivational techniques first described in Vance Packard’s 1957 best-seller are making a comeback. These methods fell by the wayside as advertisers turned to making decisions based largely on research that emphasized who might buy a product, not why. Now, with the same basic information available to all marketers, ad agencies are compelled to go beyond mere numbers to maintain a competitive edge. Moreover, many products are so similar that differentiating one brand from another is critical. * In a review of William Meyers’ The Image Makers (New York Times, (12/23/84), Stephen Fox says that “Mr. Meyers believes the psychographic revolution began in the ’50s, when it displaced the ‘impulsive,’ ‘intuitive’ practitioners who [had] dominated the business, Actually, however, advertising swings back and forth. In the ’50s and ’70s there was an emphasis on market research and quantification; the ’80s, like the ’60s, have been marked by an emphasis on creativity and advertising as art…
Psychological methods such as motivation research were widely discussed, if not widely used, by advertising in the ’50s precisely because they fitted the social-science fashions of the day. ” Regarding the validity of both Meyers and Packard’s arguments, Fox says: “In the sense that The Image Makers is largely an updating of The Hidden Persuaders, Mr. Meyers repeats Vance Packard’s fundamental error — interviewing interested parties wit professional stakes in psychological approaches to advertising and then taking their self-serving claims too literally. * In December, 1991, The Public Pulse reported that despite decades of criticism, beginning with Packard, “neither the somewhat sinister connotations attached to terms like ‘ad men’ and ‘Madison Avenue,’ nor the recent explosion of marketing and advertising channels, have turned consumers against advertising in general. By a 59-35% margin, more of the public view the advertising industry favorably than unfavorably — and assessment virtually unchanged over the past decade… But Americans are far more critical [of] advertising practices.
Asked about 14 specific advertising and marketing practices … [of] American business, they consider the negative ones [to be] far more common than the positive ones. ” * In an article entitled “Beyond the Hidden Persuaders (Forbes, 3/23/87),” Jeffrey Sonnenberg says that “Many of the tools Madison Avenue’s new motivators use would be familiar to Packard. The Thematic Apperception Test, for example, is still with us. But it has been sharpened by experience to tap more efficiently emotions and feeling about products that many of us are normally unable or unwilling to share. So-called focus groups remain an important tool, too… But the scale and sophistication of it all is beyond anything Packard could report. Today every major ad agency has a research department that keeps sociologists or psychologists or anthropologists on retainer… Thanks to advances in the social sciences and the advent of personal computers, there is not only more information available to researchers today than 30 years ago, but that information is analyzed far faster and in greater detail. ” | |