The Growing Power of Admen
Since 1940 advertising budgets have increased fivefold. With this expansion has come “motivational research,”a new probing in depth into the mental, moral, and even emotional processes of the buying public. VANCE PACK. ARD is the author of the pioneer study in this field, The Hidden Persuaders, which has been making a place for itself well up on the best-seller list.
by VANCE PACKARD
AMERICA’S advertising industry is moving into a commanding role in our society. Its executives are becoming masters of our economic destiny, the engineers behind some of our most successful political campaigns, major patrons of our social scientists, dictators of the content of most of the radio and television programs we hear, judges with life-and-death power over most of our mass-circulation magazines. Also, they have become our most powerful taste makers. In 1957 they made millions of Americans suddenly feel somehow inadequate because they did not own high-tailed automobiles.
They have, in short, become major wielders of social control in America in this second half of the twentieth century. Their power to do good or nongood is becoming massive, and many are using their power irresponsibly.
The growth of their power is seen in the amount of money entrusted to them to spend. In 1940 they had at their disposal $2 billion to conduct campaigns of persuasion. Today they have $10 billion. If you divide that figure by the total U.S. population, you come up with a fairly startling statistic. Approximately $60 is now being spent each year on each man, woman, and child in America solely to coax him or her to use products the admen are promoting.
This growing power of advertising men derives from the dominant role that selling plays in the dynamics of our economy. In the executive suites of thousands of corporations the main preoccupation is no longer with production problems but rather with selling problems.
The most obvious explanation for this shift of emphasis is the fabulous productivity of our automated factories. Since 1940 our gross national product has soared more than 400 per cent. In 1954 it was predicted that our GNP would hit the long-dreamed-of mark of $400 billion by 1958. Actually it shot past that figure in 1956 and is expected to reach $600 billion within the coming decade.
To absorb this fantastic outpouring of goods we shall have to step up our personal consumption of goods by almost 50 per cent. As the chairman of America’s leading advertising agency proclaimed recently: “We have to expand our levels of consumption in the next ten years by an amount nearly equal to the entire growth of the country in the two hundred years from colonial days up to 1940.” The big problem we face, he said, is to cut down the “time lag” in the process by which we ordinarily learn to expand our wants and needs, in order to “absorb this production.” Advertising men are the experts who can overcome this lag.
The real needs of most of us were satisfied long ago. About 40 per cent of the things we buy today are unnecessary in terms of any real need. Even our wants are pretty well satisfied. It has become a question of creating in our minds new, unrealized wants and needs.
Happily for the marketers, Americans by nature seem to relish learning to want new things. We are a restless people who like continually to hear of new things to do and buy. (Note the recent popularity of bejeweled fly swatters and mousetraps.) Emerson commented on this trail in Americans when he said that they, unlike Europeans, exhibit “an uncalculated, headlong expenditure.” This makes them the world’s prize consumers.
Recently the president of the Institute for Motivational Research (which conducts psychological studies for marketers) noted with satisfaction “our increasing willingness to give vent to our whims and desires” and offered the opinion that America is “experiencing a revolution in self-indulgence.”
A corollary problem of marketers in moving their goods into our homes is that of making us discontented with what we already have, since most of us already own perfectly serviceable automobiles, washing machines, refrigerators, and clothing. We must be persuaded that the old product has become hopelessly inadequate to meet our needs or desired style of living. Advertising men call this “creating psychological obsolescence.”
Another development adding to the power, glory, and prosperity of advertising men is the increased standardization of competing products. Perhaps connoisseurs can still detect significant differences in gasolines, whiskeys, cigarettes, beer, tires, cake mixes, and detergents, but most of us no longer can. Reports on blindfold tests conducted with cigarette smokers and whiskey and beer drinkers consistently reveal an inability of people to spot their favorite brand. A few days ago I heard a gathering of advertising men being advised that in blindfold tests people can’t even tell the difference between CocaCola and Pepsi-Cola!
It used to startle me to hear advertising men make casual statements that in many fields such as gasoline and cigarettes the products are “all the same.” Now it becomes apparent why they can be so complacent. It is the advertising man’s genius that makes products seem compellingly different in our minds.
A third reason for the increasing influence of admen is the growth of self-service selling at supermarkets, vending machines, and so on. More and more, machines or systems are replacing people at the selling counter. The product maker can no longer rely on word-of-mouth selling by a clerk, merchant, or attendant. Thus the customer must be pre-sold, through advertising, so that he will have the product’s image firmly etched in his mind as he enters the market place.
IN THE face of all these crying needs for more effective selling, America’s 3300 advertising agencies have come to constitute “a great sociological battering ram,” to use a phrase current with admen. Individually, advertising men have become “merchants of discontent.”
As advertising men by the tens of thousands bring their wiles to bear to stimulate sales of products, we are seeing a massive straining for greater impact. Some months ago a distiller sent a photographic team to the edges of the Sahara Desert in order to obtain a photograph of a martini-filled glass in a setting which would suggest dryness. The photographers faced a crisis when, in searching the fruit markets of Cairo for a sliver of yellow lemon peel to go with the drink, they discovered that lemons sold in Egypt are green. This problem was solved when they arranged for a yellow lemon to be flown over from Italy.
Advertising men now ponder the advisability of making the “entertainment” portion of their TV sponsored programs a little dull so that the commercials will seem more exciting by contrast. In pictorial presentations one trend has been to the absurdly incongruous, to catch our eye as we search for reading matter amid a jungle of ads. Men sell whiskey while seated sideways on white horses, men with beards sell tonic water, shaggy dogs sell rum, kangaroos sell airline tickets. Meanwhile one advertising man complained: “We are suffering from fatigue of believability.”
The advertising agencies, in their straining to become more persuasive, have been spending millions of dollars in research designed to learn more about the consumer. Batten Barton Durstine & Osborn has set up a division which it refers to grandiosely as “The National Panel of Consumer Opinion.”It consists of several thousand housewives carefully chosen to constitute a “scale model" of the American female populace. These women can earn merchandise premiums by answering questionnaires about products and about their daily habits. Meanwhile Dr. George Gallup, long a researcher for admen, inaugurated a method of probing the consumer which he called “activation research.”He set up a “sample bank” of people which he called “Mirror of America,” and began probing the people in order to isolate just what triggers the sale of a product.
The most commotion in advertising circles in recent years, however, has centered on a probing technique called “motivation research, which promises to put deeper impact into sales messages. This “depth approach” to consumers involves the use of psychiatry and the social sciences to get inside the consumers’ subconscious in order to discover the “psychological hook which will impel consumers by the millions to buy a certain product.
Most of the leading advertising agencies now have psychologists, psychiatrists, or both on their payrolls. McCann-Erickson recently spent $3 million on a single monumental study of consumer psychology. A Chicago advertising agency rounded up eight leading social scientists in the Midwest (two psychoanalysts, a cultural anthropologist, a social psychologist, two sociologists, and two professors of social science) and had them spend a twelve-hour day in a hotel room watching television programs in order to glean new insights into the appeal of the sponsored programs and the commercials.
Meanwhile several dozen research firms have sprung up, all promising proficiency in depth research. The most famous, the Institute for Motivational Research, commanded by a psychoanalyst from Austria, Dr. Ernest Dichter, occupies a mountaintop castle on the Hudson. The room where local children observe television programs is equipped with hidden tape recorders, one-way viewing screens, and soon, to catch their reactions. Several hundred residents of the area constitute a “psychopanel.” They have been depth-probed and cardindexed as to their hidden anxieties, hostilities, and so forth. If you want to know how much impact a sales message will have on hypochondriacs, for example, Dr. Dichter has a group of bona fide hypochondriacs on call for a trial run.
So far much of the depth-probing of consumers is more hunch than science, but still most of the nation’s largest producers of consumer products have been turning to it in an effort to increase their sales penetration. Giant corporations are raiding each other’s customers with campaigns mapped by doctors of psychology.
One of the nation’s largest advertising agencies now gives every single product it handles a motivational checkup. The merchandising journal Tide predicts that within ten years “few national marketers wilt launch an advertising campaign or introduce a new product without first conducting a thorough study of consumer motivations.”
SOME of the techniques used to probe consumer motives have been borrowed straight from psychiatric clinics and sociological laboratories: the depth interview (a miniature psychoanalysis without the couch), projective picture and word association tests, galvanometers (lie detectors), hypnosis, and social-layer analysis. When our motives are fathomed the experts then shape and bait psychological hooks which will bring us flopping into their corporate boats.
Among the more common strategies devised to lure us are: building self-images of ourselves into their product (playful gasolines for playful people); reminding us that their product can fill one of our hidden needs (security, self-esteem); playing upon our anxiety feelings; offering us ways, through products, to channel our aggressive feelings; selling us sexual reassurance; encouraging impulse buying; conditioning the young; selling us status symbols; making us style-conscious and then switching styles.
Several of the uses to which the insights are put strike me as constructive, or at least non-objectionable. The technique of gearing appeals to the social class most likely to enjoy your product would seem to be a step toward rationality in marketing. One of the notable cases of ill-considered selling occurred in Chicago when one of the leading brewers developed social pretensions for its brew, which had long been popular with the tavern-type clientele. The brewer’s advertising men, in an effort to give the brew more class, began showing it being sipped by fox hunters, concert pianists, and drawing-room socialites. Sales did pick up slightly in the better residential areas but began falling disastrously with old customers. The boys in the taverns found the brew didn’t taste right any more, though the formula was unchanged.
Social Research, Inc., looked into this fiasco when it depth-probed several hundred typical beer drinkers for the Chicago Tribune. It found that beer drinking in America is accepted as an informal, predominantly middle-class custom. So the brewers’ foundation in its ads has recently been stressing the back-fence character of beer drinking.
The recent history of beer marketing reveals another way in which motivational analysis can produce constructive, or at least more rational, results. You may recall that in the mid-fifties many beer producers started to proclaim that their beer was particularly low-caloried and hence relatively non-fattening. The campaign was inspired by the mania for weight reduction which was particularly feverish then. Reportedly there were some impressive gains in sales as a result, but the motivational analysts viewed the low-calorie campaigns for beer with misgivings. Dr. Dichter’s depthprobers, in testing the thoughts which sprang into people’s minds when they saw the words “low calorie, found people thought of self-deprivation, discomfort. He admonished brewers to play up beer as a pleasure, not a medicine.
Motivational analysts have also performed a constructive service by showing advertising men how to conquer unreasonable prejudice against a product. A classic job in this respect was performed on the prune by Dr. Dichter’s institute and advertising men of the prune industry. Prunes simply were not selling, and Dr. Dichter was asked to find why. His depth-probers found the prune, in our society, had become ridden with a host of connotations, all unfortunate. We thought of prunes in terms of dried-up old maids, boardinghouses, constipation, even witches. Under Dr. Dichter’s guidance the prune has now been “rediscovered” as the “California wonder fruit,” and admen now almost always show it in gay, zestful, youthful, colorful settings. The laxative angle is now mentioned in small type; and the prune industry, at last reports, is showing a hearty revival.
Still another way that the depth approach can perform a valid service is to help people achieve a feeling of self-worth through advertising. A producer of steam shovels found sales lagging. When a motivation study was made of prospective customers, it was discovered that steam-shovel operators play a large role in influencing the decisions of purchasing agents, and shovel operators did not like the shovel in question. A study of the ads that had been used to promote the shovel suggested a clue.
The shovel was always shown at work in all its monumental glory. Its operator was depicted as a barely visible figure inside the distant cab. The operators subconsciously felt their role was belittled. When the advertising men were advised of this source of irritation they began taking their pictures over the shoulder of the operator, with the operator shown as the confident master of the machine. This new approach reportedly brought a marked mellowing in the attitude of operators toward the shovel advertised.
SEVERAL of the techniques being used on us by certain of the advertising men (and their scientific allies), however, do give cause for concern. These are the techniques designed to catch us when our conscious guard is down. Here are some of the types of operation I have in mind.
1. Appeals designed to play upon our hidden weaknesses. At one of America’s largest advertising agencies, staff psychologists have been exploring the subconscious of sample humans in order to find how to shape messages that will have maximum impact with people of high anxiety, body consciousness, hostility, passiveness, and so on.
In Chicago a smaller agency has conducted a psychiatric study of women’s menstrual cycle and the emotional states which go with each stage of the cycle in order to learn how to sell cake mixes to women more effectively. The aim was to learn how to incorporate within one ad a double-barreled message which would appeal to women in the high phase of their cycle (creative, sexually excitable, narcissistic, outgoing, loving) and also at the same time to women who happened to be in their low phase (want attention, affection, things done for them). This could be achieved, the agency concluded, by offering the high-phase woman something new and the low-phase woman an easy-does-it meal.
2. Strategies involving the manipulation of children. The agency just mentioned also conducted a study of the psyche of straight-haired small girls to find how best to persuade them and their mothers that the girls might feel doomed to ugliness and unhappiness if they were not somehow provided with curly hair. The agency was trying to promote the use of home permanents on children and used many psychiatric techniques in probing the little girls.
The most inviting opportunity to manipulate children for profit, of course, is via television. Five-year-old children, admen have learned, make mighty line amplifiers of singing jingles (beer or cigarettes included). They can be taught to sing them endlessly with gusto around the house all day long and, unlike the TV set, they can’t be turned off.
3. The use of subthreshold effects to slip messages past our conscious guard. Some advertising men have been investigating, very quietly, the possibility of inserting “flash” sales messages in TV and movie film. The bits of film flash by so fast they are not “seen” by the conscious eye, but are reportedly seen by the subconscious eye. In late 1956 the London Sunday Times charged that advertisers had produced a notable rise in ice cream consumption at a cinema in New Jersey during experiments with subthreshold effects. The use of such surreptitious appeals on any substantial basis will raise an ethical question of the most serious nature, particularly if such hidden appeals are used to put across political candidates or points of view.
4. The deliberate sale of products for their statusenhancement value. Automotive advertisers have hammered so long and loud on the theme of bigness that many Americans feel socially insecure in a small or medium-sized car (unless it is their second car or a chic foreign-made car). Although the times cry for more compact cars for our crowded highways and traffic-clogged metropolitan centers, most U.S. car makers stress, in their ads, the luxurious bigness of their cars. A TV commercial for one of the medium-priced cars stressed how Big it was and then, in a bit of theatrics, the announcer exclaimed: “People are getting smart about car buying nowadays!” With that, the screen showed a crowd of “people” chanting, “We’re everybody. . . . We want a Big Car and style too.”
5. The creation of illogical, irrational loyalties. This occurs most conspicuously in the promotion of gasolines, cigarettes, whiskeys, detergents. The research director of a leading advertising agency which has made a study in depth of cigarette smoking states that 65 per cent of all smokers are absolutely loyal to one brand of cigarette, even to the extent of walking down five flights of stairs to buy their own brand rather than accept another brand offered by a friend. About 20 per cent are relatively loyal. Yet he found in tests where cigarettes were masked that people could identify their brand by only 2 per cent better than chance. He concluded: “They are smoking an image completely.”
In the building of images, cylinders of tobacco shreds wrapped in white paper have been invested with a variety of “exciting” personalities, to use one researcher’s phrase. One smoke may have an image of elegance, another is daintily feminine, still another has an image of hair-on-your-chest virility. One cigarette company deliberately changed its image to almost a teen-age personality — even though most of the heavy smokers are in the thirtyto-forty age group. The aim reportedly was to recruit more beginner smokers and develop loyalty in them which would pay off on a long-term basis.
6. The exploitation of our deepest sexual sensitivities. According to the Institute for Motivational Research the admen who conceived the cigarette slogan “Like Your Pleasures Big?” were not unaware that the phrase was a double entendre with “latent sexual meaning.” The same institute counseled motorboat builders that men could be appealed to on the fact that power boats can be used to express a sense of power in “almost a sexual way.” A Midwestern advertising agency has discovered that men can be persuaded to buy a new car by the implied promise that the new, more powerful car offers them a renewal of potency.
7. The application of the insights of depth-selling to politics. In 1956 many political candidates, including the heads of the ticket, were counseled by admen to present an attractive image to the public. The most popular models were father images and courageous young Davids. At one quite important level the presidential campaign settled into a battle between advertising agencies: Batten Barton Durstine & Osborn for the Republicans and the smaller agency Norman Craig & Kummel for the Democrats.
The advertising man’s approach to politics was perhaps best summed up by ad executive Rosser Reeves, who conceived the ceaseless barrage of halfminute spots on TV and radio in 1952 for the GOP. He said, “I think of a man in a voting booth who hesitates between two levers as if he were pausing between competing tubes of toothpaste in a drugstore. The brand that has made the highest penetration on his brain will win his choice.”
The Democratic candidate, Adlai Stevenson (who reportedly became very unhappy about some of the strategies conceived for him by admen late in the campaign), voiced his irritation at the symbol manipulators’ approach to politics (at least the GOP variety) by saying: “The idea that you can merchandise candidates for high office like breakfast cereal . . . is the ultimate indignity to the democratic process.”
To sum up, I feel that while advertising in general is a constructive — and indispensable — force in our economy, its practitioners are becoming uncomfortably powerful and many of them need to exhibit more responsibility in their use of their new power than they have been doing. This particularly applies to their use of the depth approach to consumers.
The responsible leaders of the industry should, I believe, review the current trends in advertising and admonish practitioners to proceed with greater consideration for the public’s welfare in certain areas. As a start they might consider the following broad trends which I believe should be viewed uneasily by thoughtful citizens:
Advertising men are pushing us toward conformity and passivity. Americans by the millions respond to their signals. Perhaps the trend to passivity is more serious than the trend to conformity. Max Lerner, in commenting on the implications he saw in some of the depth persuasion activities I described in my book, made one of the most perceptive and disquieting remarks I have encountered concerning the trend in selling. He wrote: “In motivation research ... the consumer is always passive. He is analyzed, dissected, acted upon, bought and sold. He is a commodity to be trafficked in. The human being as a commodity, that is the disease of our age.”
Many of the efforts of the advertising men provoke lasting anxieties. Economist Robert Lekachman recently speculated that we could only guess at the tensions and anxieties generated by the relentless pursuit of the emblems of success being encouraged in our society today.
The advertising men frequently are encouraging irrationality, as when they persuade us to buy products on the basis of images they have skillfully devised rather than on the merits of the physical product inside the package.
They are tending to demean many scientists who have been lured into serving them. Some of the social scientists collaborating with the advertising men maintain their standards of investigation; others strive to please, and often lay before their employers insights into our vulnerabilities which the advertising men do not hesitate to exploit.
Many of them are encouraging an attitude of wastefulness on the part of the public toward the nation’s fast-shrinking resources. One conspicuous way they do this is by deliberately striving to make us dissatisfied with the serviceable products we already own.
Finally they often seek to invade the privacy of the mind. They want to know too much about us, and the inner workings of our emotions, for comfort. We should be able to be a little irrational and neurotic at times without having to fear that we thus become vulnerable to outside manipulation.
If advertising is to represent progress rather than regress for man in his struggle for self-mastery, then these considerations must be honestly faced.