The Hidden Persuaders

Have you ever wondered how marketing companies come up with their advertising campaigns? As consumers, we are a mess of contradictions; Motivational Research sorted us out years ago.

Meet Vance Packard


According to Wikipedia, Vance Packard “was born in Granville Summit, Pennsylvania, to Philip J. Packard and Mabel Case Packard. Between 1920-32 he attended local public schools in State College, Pennsylvania, where his father managed a dairy farm owned by the Pennsylvania State College (later Penn State University). In 1932 he entered Penn State, majoring in English. He graduated in 1936, and worked briefly for the local newspaper, the Centre Daily Times. He earned his master’s degree at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 1937. That year, he joined the Boston Daily Record as a staff reporter and a year later, he married Virginia Matthews.

“About 1940, he became a reporter for the Associated Press and in 1942, joined the staff of The American Magazine as a section editor, later becoming a staff writer. The American Magazine closed in July, 1956, and Packard moved over to Collier’s where he worked as a writer. Collier’s, too, closed by the end of 1956, allowing Packard to devote his full attention to writing books. In 1957, The Hidden Persuaders was published and received national attention. The book launched Packard’s career as a social critic and full-time lecturer and book author. In 1961 he was named a Distinguished Alumnus of Penn State University. He died in 1996 at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital in Massachusetts.”

Motivational Research

In 1957, Packard published a book about M.R. (Motivational Research). He wrote it using anecdotal passages, and although not a scholarly presentation, it proved to be a very popular book: popular with everyone but the people behind the use of M.R. to sell us the ‘package’.

In the mid-50’s merchandisers began to get concerned that the buying public were feeling a bit jaded about their advertising slogans. In fact, the resistance was becoming so strong, that it soon became apparent that production would quickly outstrip sales, and that wasn’t a good thing for a growing economy.

Packard’s book concentrated on Ernest Dichter and his methods.

‘Ernest Dichter (14 August 1907 – 21 November 1991) was an Austrian-American psychologist and marketing expert known as the “father of motivational research.” Dichter pioneered the application of Freudian psychoanalytic concepts and techniques to business — in particular to the study of consumer behavior in the marketplace. Ideas he established were a significant influence on the practices of the advertising industry in the twentieth century. Dichter promised the “mobilisation and manipulation of human needs as they exist in the consumer”. As America entered the 1950s, the decade of heightened commodity fetishism, Dichter offered consumers moral permission to embrace sex and consumption, and forged a philosophy of corporate hedonism, which he thought would make people immune to dangerous totalitarian ideas. According to a New York Times article in 1998, he “was the first to coin the term focus group and to stress the importance of image and persuasion in advertising”. In Vance Packard’s book on Dichter and his practices, he recalls meeting Dichter in his castle and finding children watching televisions while resident psychologists, crouching behind special screens secretly filmed and studied their every action so that they could inform advertisers how to manipulate their unconscious minds. Dichter called such focus groups his “living laboratory”. One such session led to the invention of the Barbie Doll: “What they wanted was someone sexy looking, someone that they wanted to grow up to be like,” Dichter reported, “Long legs, big breasts, glamorous.” To Packard, Dichter’s gothic mansion was a sinister factory that manufactured and implanted self-destructive desires.’ (Wikipedia)

The Marlboro Man


Cigarette smoking was a case in point: it wasn’t good for you, but you could be persuaded to keep it up, in spite of the health risks.

Dr. Dichter brooded a great deal over this old-fashioned Puritanism of the average America who “uses all types of soft drinks, cigarettes, liquor, and what not … yet at the same time seems to be consistently worried about what he is doing.” As a result of his brooding and probing Dr. Dichter arrived at this general conclusion: “Every time you sell a self-indulgent product . . . you have to assuage his guilt feelings . . . offer absolution.”

The smoking of cigarettes for many people had become deeply enmeshed in such guilt feelings. The feelings had been generated in part presumably because the smoking habit had been sternly repressed in their childhood, and partly from their very genuine suspicion that cigarettes were coffin nails. The cancer scare of the early fifties was just the final prod that sent sales skidding.

Some cigarette producers, including Philip Morris, tried to get the smoking public to use cigarette filters, but that proved a hard sell because President Roosevelt use to be photographed with one clinched between his teeth, and that turned people off.

The investigators found about a dozen reasons why many people continue to smoke despite their guilt feelings about the habit: they smoke to relieve tension, to express sociability, as a reward for effort, as an aid to poise, as an aid in anticipating stress, as proof of daring, as proof of conformity, because it is an accustomed ritual, and so on. They found that many people like to have a cigarette in their fingers when they enter a roomful of people as it makes them seem less nervous, more sophisticated.

Perhaps the major discovery of the investigators, however, is that Americans smoke to prove they are people of virile maturity. They see smoking as proving their vigor, potency. The report explains: “This is a psychological satisfaction sufficient to overcome health fears, to withstand moral censure, ridicule, or even the paradoxical weakness of ‘enslavement to habit.’”

A spectacular transvestism in the opposite direction was carried out in 1956 by Marlboro cigarettes, which used to be lipstick red and ivory tipped, designed primarily for women. Marlboro felt a little unhappy about its sexual designation because men smokers still outnumbered women two to one. When the cancer scare drove millions of men to show interest in filter tips, the Marlboro people decided to do a sexual flip-flop and go after the men, while holding onto as many women as they could. Their first move was to have Louis Cheskin, of the Color Research Institute,design a more masculine package. He did, in bold red and white. But that was only one of several significant changes. The Marlboro ads began featuring rugged, virile-looking men deep in work. To get the virile look desired the company used many non-professional models for the pictures (sailors, cowboys, and, reportedly, some men who worked at the company’s ad agency.) And the headlines of the ads began talking of Marlboro’s “man-sized flavor.”

The Marlboro Man was born.

The Car

It didn’t take the M.R. people long to sort out what car buyers were doing with their purchases. (Remember, this was in the 50’s when big cars were the main focus.)

People who want to seem conservative, to tell the world they are very serious and responsible, tend to buy Plymouth, Dodge, DeSoto, Packard, four-door sedans, dark colors, minimum accessories and gadgets.

People who want to seem sociable and up-to-date but in a middle-of-the-road sort of way tend to favor Chevrolet, Pontiac, Buick, Chrysler, two-door coupés, light colors, moderate accessories and gadgets.

People who want to express showiness, to assert their individualism and modernity, tend to buy Ford, Mercury, Oldsmobile, Lincoln, hardtops, two tones, bright shades and hues, a range of extras, gadgets, fads.

People who need to express unusual status or individual needs favor Cadillac (ostentation, high status), Studebaker, Hudson, Nash, Willys, convertibles (impulsiveness), very bright colors, red, yellow, white, latest gadgets and accessories.

The following video is proof of the snobbery involved between the top and the bottom of the car owner hierarchy.

Our Hidden Needs

Why do we buy some products and not others? It turns out that the reasons are usually hidden from our conscious minds. The Motivational Researchers sought to find out what they were.

In searching for extra psychological values that they could add to products to give them a more potent appeal, the depth merchandisers came upon many gratifying clues by studying our subconscious needs, yearnings, and cravings. Once the need was identified, and certified to be compelling, they began building the promise of its fulfillment into their sales presentations of such unlikely products as air conditioners, cake mixes, and motorboats. Here we will explore some of the more picturesque applications in merchandising eight of our hidden needs.

Selling emotional security
Selling reassurance of worth
Selling ego-gratification
Selling creative outlets
Selling love objects
Selling sense of power
Selling a sense of roots
Selling immortality

Packard gives great examples of each of this needs.


Well, you knew it had to be here, didn’t you?

The potency of sex as a sales promoter was not, of course, an original discovery of the depth merchandisers. Sex images have long been cherished by ad men purely as eye stoppers. But with the depth approach, sex began taking on some interesting twists, ramifications, and subtleties. Penetration to deeper levels of consciousness was sought. Simple cheesecake and get-your-man themes of old, while used for routine selling, were regarded as limited-penetration weapons.

So sex-for-sex-sake proved to be only a lead-in to the differences in the way men and women shop.

On May 18, 1956, The New York Times printed a remarkable interview with a young man named Gerald Stahl, executive vice-president of the Package Designers Council. He stated: “Psychiatrists say that people have so much to choose from that they want help—they will like the package that hypnotizes them into picking it.”He urged food packers to put more hypnosis into their package designing, so that the housewife will stick out her hand for it rather than one of many rivals.

Mr. Stahl has found that it takes the average woman exactly twenty seconds to cover an aisle in a supermarket if she doesn’t tarry; so a good package design should hypnotize the woman like a flashlight waved in front of her eyes. Some colors such as red and yellow are helpful in creating hypnotic effects. Just putting the name and maker of the product on the box is old-fashioned and, he says, has absolutely no effect on the mid-century woman. She can’t read anything, really, until she has picked the box up in her hands. To get the woman to reach and get the package in her hands designers, he explained, are now using “symbols that have a dreamlike quality.” To cite examples of dreamlike quality, he mentioned the mouth-watering frosted cakes that decorate the packages of cake mixes, sizzling steaks, mushrooms frying in butter. The idea is to sell the sizzle rather than the meat. Such illustrations make the woman’s imagination leap ahead to the end product. By 1956 package designers had even produced a box that, when the entranced shopper picked it up and began fingering it, would give a soft sales talk, or stress the brand name. The talk is on a strip that starts broadcasting when a shopper’s finger rubs it.

Social Classes

In the 1950’s, people were aware of class differences, even though the American ethic said that they were of One Nation.

Warner laid down his concept of a layered America as a society of six classes. These classes, he felt, were distinct, and in each class you got a uniformity of behavior that was fairly predictable. He defined his social classes not only in terms of wealth and power but in terms of people’s consumption and sociability habits. This broader approach to differentiation has received support from other perceptive observers of American society. Russell Lynes, the Harper’s editor and writer, in his famous dissection of upper brows, lower brows, and middle brows, used the tossed salad as a more reliable indicator of a person’s status brow-wise than the size of his bank account. And David Riesman in his now classic The Lonely Crowd makes the point we are seeing the emergence of a new social system with criteria of status that were not considered in traditional systems of class structure.

Warner’s six classes shape up roughly as follows, in terms of typical constituents:
1.The upper upper—old-line aristocrats in a community.
2.The lower upper—the new rich.
3.The upper middle—professionals, executives, owners of some of the larger businesses in a community.
4.The lower middle—white-collar workers, tradesman, a few skilled workers.
5.The upper lower—mostly skilled and semiskilled.
6.The lower lower—laborers and unassimilated foreign groups.

Status Symbols


Cars were not the only status symbols: houses, clothing, food, entertainment were also part of the mix. But how to sell you what you probably didn’t know you wanted?

The depth probers studying the most effective ways to sell status symbols to American strivers concluded that most of us are vulnerable to one of three merchandising strategies.

One is to offer bigness. Millions of Americans were believed to equate, subconsciously, biggest with best, best at least at making a big impression. A kitchen-range maker found himself in trouble because he accepted as fact the explanation many people gave for preferring a large kitchen range rather than a smaller one of equal efficiency. The customers had explained, almost unanimously, that they had bought the bigger stove in order to have more work space. With this in mind the company put engineers to work, and they brought out a moderate-sized stove with all working elements engineered more compactly to permit an unusually large work space. The stove was a dud. Salesmen couldn’t move it off the floor. The firm called in a Connecticut market-research firm with staff psychologists who examined the problem and concluded: “People are willing to pay a great deal more for a little space they don’t really use because what they are interested in is not so much the space itself as the expensive appearance of a large range.”

A second way merchandisers found they could sell us their products as status symbols was through the price tag. By seemingly inverse logic, many discovered they could increase their sales by raising their price tag, in the topsy-turvy merchandising battle of the mid-fifties.

This battle for the Biggest Price Tag was waged with particular vehemence in the car field where, Tide magazine observed, “the almost insane drive by the consumer for a social prestige car has kept auto makers racing to produce the most luxurious vehicle.” As Ford Motor Company prepared to unveil its Continental with an up-to-$10,000 price tag insiders explained that the real goal was, for prestige purposes, to get a higher-priced car in the Ford line than General Motors had in the Cadillac. It would serve as a “rolling institution” and its prestige would rub off on the lowlier Ford makes. Tide summed this up by saying that “at $10,000 the Mark II Continental Is Ford’s Challenge to G.M’s Caddy, Top U.S. Prestige Car.” The problem was not to outsell the Caddy but to top it in elegant overtones. There were rumors that “applicants” for the car would have to submit applications and be screened for financial status and social standing. The Ford people never confirmed this, but they did suggest that the Lincoln dealers would be selective in determining who would get the car in each community and who wouldn’t. After the car went on sale reports from dealers stated that 90 percent of the people buying paid spot cash. (Cadillac responded to the challenge in 1957 by bringing out a $12,500 car.)

The third strategy that merchandisers found was effective in selling products as status symbols was to persuade personages of indisputably high status to invite the rest of us to join them in enjoying the product. The testimonial can be a mighty effective selling device, Printer’s Ink pointed out, cynics to the contrary. This is particularly true where the celebrity has some plausible ground for being interested in the product. Testimonials by celebrities were not a new discovery, but in the early fifties they were placed on a systematic basis. The man who did it was Jules Alberti, a dapper man who set up Endorsements, Inc., after World War II on a $500 investment. At first the ad agencies shunned the idea of being so forthright about procuring testimonials, but soon the logic of the service he was offering proved overwhelming, and by 1956 he was grossing nearly a million dollars a year and four hundred ad agencies had used his good offices in lining up endorsements, all of which, he insists, are true. In 1956 he said that testimonials should be written either by the celebrity himself or have the help of a top-flight copy writer who really believes what he is saying. Mr. Alberti complained that too few ad men really believed what they wrote any more and asked how men who let cynicism and disbelief creep into their thinking could produce really persuasive and believable copy. Professor Smith mentioned that many people nowadays express skepticism about testimonials but added that although people consciously deny being impressed by testimonials there is a strong suspicion that unconsciously they are impressed with them.

“What’s in your wallet?”

The Boston Tea Party

So what’s wrong with a simple cup of tea? Too weak for real men? The M.R. people have a solution for that, too.

In his explorations Dr. Dichter concluded that there was still another handicap that should be faced. That was an awkward fact of history—the Boston Tea Party. He purported to find, in tracking down tea’s difficulties, that Americans had been subconsciously resistant to tea ever since that night nearly two centuries ago when colonial patriots in a burst of exuberance tossed a cargo of British tea into the Boston harbor. The continued, admiring gloating over this act of rebellion in American schoolrooms, he concluded, has over the centuries imbued young Americans with an anti-tea attitude. Dr. Dichter advised tea people that a part of their corrective campaign ought to start right in American classrooms and with the writers of American histories. Americans should be taught, he said, that the Boston Tea Party was not a protest against tea but rather a dramatic expression of the importance of tea in the life of Americans in revolutionary times. At first thought this thesis may sound preposterously farfetched. A study of colonial life in pre-Revolutionary days does reveal, however, that American consuming habits were closely tied to tea and that many women in particular felt they couldn’t live without it.

The problem of straightening Americans out on the real meaning of the Boston Tea Party was admittedly a long-term project, but there were some things tea merchants could do right away, Dr. Dichter felt, to get out of their downward spiral. He urged the Tea Council to put some muscle in the tea mage, make it more of a virile brew and get it out of the current image as a gentle medicinal sauce for ladies and sissies to sip. The insipid colors in ads were soon replaced by brilliant masculine reds, and the old promise of being a pickup for tired nerves was replaced, in the words of writer in The Reporter magazine, by “sounds like a police sergeant clearing his throat—‘Make it heft, hot and hearty . . . Take tea and see.’ . . . Consumers were led to feel that tea-drinking is no more unmanly than felling an oak or killing a moose.” Heft, obviously hot men were shown drinking iced tea right out of a pitcher.

By all accounts I’ve seen, tea sales began rising with the pounding home to Americans of this new image. The figures vary, but in test areas sales rose as much as 25 percent, and the most conservative estimate I’ve seen is that tea sales rose 13 percent during the two years following the introduction of this new personality for tea. Per capita consumption by 1957 was up close to a pound a year.

My Conclusion

So, quite a journey, eh? Here we thought that we were immune to manipulation by advertisers. They’ve been at it for almost 60 years, and it doesn’t show any signs of abating.

If you wish to know first hand what these practitioners of the Hidden Persuasion are up to, I can heartily suggest that you get a copy of this book and read it for yourself.


Picture credits: Book cover courtesy of Wkipedia
Marlboro Man courtesy of Philip Morris
Das Kapital One courtesy of

About cdsmiller17

I am an Astrologer who also writes about world events. My first eBook "At This Point in Time" is available through most on-line book stores. I have now serialized my second book "The Star of Bethlehem" here. And to give my blog pages something lighter, I'm sharing some of my personal photographs, too.
This entry was posted in reviews and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Hidden Persuaders

  1. Pingback: Subliminal Seduction | cdsmiller17

  2. Pingback: Modern Servitude | cdsmiller17

  3. Pingback: To Blog or Not to Blog | cdsmiller17

  4. Pingback: Media: Are YOU Getting the Point Yet? | cdsmiller17

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s