Vance Packard, The Hidden Persuaders, 1957.


22. The Question of Validity

"A good profession will not represent itself as able to render services outside its demonstrable competence."
-- American Psychological Association.

Much of the material in this book, especially that relating to the probing and manipulating of consumers, is based on the findings and insights of motivational analysts, with their mass-psychoanalytical techniques. Some of the conclusions they reach about our behavior are so startling that readers are often justified in wondering just how valid their probing methods are anyhow.

In merchandising circles there has been both overaccept-ance and overrejection of these methods. Some of the blasts at M.R. -- particularly from those with rival persuasion techniques -- have been withering. Certain marketers still felt that offering a premium was far more effective in promoting sales than all this hocus-pocus about depth. The director of marketing for the Pabst Brewing Company told the Premium Industry Club sadly that "the psychologists have become the oracles of the business. Double-domed professors and crystal gazers are probing the minds of buyers. They are attempting to prove that sales are controlled by the libido or that people buy merchandise because subconsciously they hate their fathers." Actually, he said, "Customers like premiums and like to get something for nothing. There's a little larceny in all of us. .. ."

During the mid-fifties many ad men filled the air above their Madison Avenue rookeries with arguments over the question of the validity and potency of M.R. Researchers, too, joined in by cannonading each other all through the fall of 1955 and early 1956. The fireworks were touched off by Alfred Politz, who had two years earlier announced himself available for motivational studies but who had built up a very large organization based on more traditional methane

He began by expressing great faith in the value of psychological probing in depth, but added that because of the need for interpreting findings and the fact that M.R. was still in its infancy, "a great deal of pure unadulterated balderdash has been passed off on gullible marketers as scientific gospel." He charged that the motivation analysts were taking the Madison Avenue folks for a ride with their "pseudo science" and were being well received because they offered simple answers. <nd "Madison Avenue doesn't like anything heavy or complicated."

Later he charged that some of the M.R. outfits were using as interviewers unemployed actors, not trained scientific workers. And one of his bristling aides contended that "you can't judge from a psychiatrist's couch how a consumer will behave in a dime store." The better, more sensible way to judge, he explained, is to recreate as closely as you can the buying situation. His firm does this by maintaining a "Politz store."

The main target of the Politz cannonading was widely assumed to be the mountaintop castle of Ernest Dichter and his fast-growing Institute for Motivational Research. The institute retorted by calling Politz's criticism an "emotional outburst" and added: "It might be of interest to research the motivations of some of the recent heated attacks on motivational research by individuals with vested interests in alternative research techniques."

Others in the social-science field pointed out that some of the researchers were sometimes prone to oversell themselves -- or in a sense to exploit the exploiters. John Dollard, Yale psychologist doing consulting work for industry, chided some of his colleagues by saying that those who promise advertisers "a mild form of omnipotence are well received." In the same breath, however, he stressed that M.R. is not a fad and will not disappear, provided that advertisers and agency people were willing to concentrate on improving its performance.

Burleigh Gardner, director of Social Research, made another telling point about the uses being made of M.R. One of the movement's main problems, he said, is the fact "many people make superficial use of it, largely as a talking point for their agency or company." And almost every market-research firm, he said, is quick to say, "We do it."

As the controversy over M.R. first became heated in the early fifties' the Advertising Research Foundation set up a special Cormnittee on Motivation Research, as I've indicated, to appraise the situation. Wallace H. Wulfeck, the chairman, after surveying many of the ventures into M.R., began taking a middle ground. He said that those who attacked M.R. as "fakery" were just as wrong as those who claimed it worked "miracles." He stressed that M.R. must be approached with caution as it is still experimental, but he seemed completely confident that M.R. techniques, when perfected, would become standard procedures in market research.

I will set down here, briefly, some of the more serious criticisms made against M.R. as a valid tool (at least as it has been used) along with evidence indicating its values. Here are four of the major complaints made against M.R. and its practitioners.

1. Overenthusiastic supporters have often implied it is a cure-all for every marketing problem and challenge. Actually, of course, it is false to assume that there is any single or major reason why people buy -- or don't buy -- a product. A host of factors enter in, such as quality of the product, shelf position, and sheer volume of advertising.

In this connection it should be noted that many of the findings of M.R. about a product, while perhaps fascinating, are not particularly useful to marketers. Researcher Albert J. Wood pointed out to the American Marketing Association:

"Unless all advertising is to become simply a variation on the themes of the Oedipus complex, the death instinct, or toilet training we must recognize that the motives with which we deal should be the manipulable ones. . . . The manufacturer has no way of compensating the consumer for the fact he was insufficiently nursed as an infant." (Others might dispute this last assertion by pointing out that some of the products valued for the oral gratification they offer definitely make insufficient nursing in infancy a manipulable motivational factor.)

Researchers point out that the intensity of our subconscious motivational influences has a clear bearing on the usefulness of a subconscious factor to a manipulator. As Professor Smith points out: "The fact that a given product is thought of favorably, or regarded as a sex symbol, or reminds respondents of their mother has limited value unless we know something about the intensity of the feeling it creates and whether this feeling is apt to be translated into the desired practical reactions at the consumer level."

Most of the analysts themselves when pressed or when talking casually drop remarks indicating their awareness that M.R. is far from being a one-and-only answer, at least as yet. For example:

Mr. Cheskin conceded: "Sometimes I think we can go in too deep."

The psychological director of a large research firm said: "We still are in the very beginning, with more promise than delivery."

The chief psychologist of another research firm cautioned: "You've got to be able to take this thing with a little grain of salt."

The research director of an ad agency deeply involved in M.R. (it has made nearly a hundred motivational studies) said: "Motivational research is not the whole answer. In 20 to 30 per cent of our investigations we don't find anything useful at all."

Even Dr. Dichter and his aides occasionally drop cautionary remarks, as when he said, "M.R. is still far from an exact science"; and an aide pointed out that people make buying decisions on both rational and irrational bases.

The market-research director of one of the nation's largest psychological testing firms said: "Even the best techniques are only adding a little bit to our understanding of why people do what they do."

Professor Smith in his book surveying the M.R. field summed up by saying that the best way to look at M.R. is as "a plus factor."

2. Another charge made against some of the motivational analysts is that they have lifted diagnostic tools from clinical psychiatry and applied them to mass behavior without making certain such application is valid.

This aspect of M.R. has bothered Dr. Wulfeck, of the Advertising Research Foundation, as much as any other. Some of the clinical techniques such as the Rorschach ink-blot test are not infallible even when used on an individual basis with clinical patients. There is always room for error at least in interpreting the meaning of a given ink blot, or interpreting an answer given in a sentence-completion test.

When conclusions are drawn about mass behavior on the basis of a small sampling of test results there clearly is a chance for error. Individuals vary considerably in their motivational make-up. In the minds of most objective observers the size of the sample used in any given piece of motivational research is crucial. Unfortunately motivational testing is expensive. A good deal of timd must be spent by a skilled practitioner with each subject if there is to be a real exploration in depth. Thus there is a temptation to keep the size of the sampling small. As Dr. Wulfeck pointed out in late 1954, however, "The question of the size of sample is of considerable importance." At that time he said that the largest sample he had encountered in the depth approach was two hundred. And he added: "Is that enough?" (Since then Louis Cheskin, of the Color Research Institute, has stated that the smallest sample he uses for a national brand test is six hundred persons. )

3. A further aspect of motivational research that bothers many people is that results depend too much on the brilliance and intuitiveness of the individual practitioner. Little has been achieved as yet in standardizing or validating testing procedures.

Dr. Wulfeck's group has, as one of its aims, the determination of the validity or nonvalidity of various M.R techniques. One such testing, he advises, has >>een under way at Columbia University recently, with the help of foundation money The validity of sentence-completion tests toi M R use is being scrutinized. Alas, that was the only attempt being made in 1956 to validate M.R. procedures Dr Wulteck pointed out sadly that while merchandisers spend millions of dollars on campaigns based on M.R insights it is hard to get companies to support research that merely validates research techniques. "People who have the money to finance this kind of research," he said, "are more concerned with the solutions to everyday problems than they are with trying to find ways to improve our methods."

Some scientists are disturbed by the fact that projective tests -- by their very nature -- typically are not subject to statis tical proof. They feel more comfortable if they are dealing with a method that gives its answers in terms that can be counted up statistically. The way a person responds to a der Ji interview, for example, can't possibly be toted up The same applies to the ink-blot tests.

Psychologist William Henry, however, contends that traditional researchers overstress this need for statistical proof. He says: "There are comparatively few quantitative studies that demonstrate statistically the value of either the Rorschach or the T.A.T. (two projective tests). Yet I don't know one clinician -- and I know many who have worked with these instruments -- who doesn't feel on the basis of his general psychological training that he gets far more reliable information from these tests than he does from those instruments that have the respectability of the statistical psychologists' approval conferred upon them."

Some of the depth approaches are more subject to "scientific" procedures than others. Mr. Cheskin likes to insist that his probings, based on association and indirect preference tests (where the subjects aren't even aware they are being tested),. are more reliable than so-called depth interviews. (His old rival Dr. Dichter was a pioneer of the depth interview.) Cheskin says that the kind of M.R. he uses is "as pure a science as physics, chemistry, or biology."

Most of Cheskin's work is with package testing. He pointed out that he tests one factor at a time, such as name, color, shape, images, etc., and only after this tests them all together. And before he even tests a package in the field it is subjected to ocular-measurement lab tests that determine eye movement, visibility, readability. As for the depth interview, he says the person being tested, even though in depth, knows he is being interviewed and so sets up defense mechanisms and rationalizes his answers at least to some extent. Also, he added, the results in depth interviewing depend on the "skill of the interviewer."

Actually the skill of the interviewer is not the only area for error. As an executive of the Psychological Corporation pointed out, equally trained research experts can look at the same projective test results and come up with different interpretations.

Further, there is evidence that some of the researchers have played fast and loose with their test results. Emanuel Demby, an executive of Motivation Research Associates, has pointed out that criticism is justified in certain situations. Those he specifically cited were where the findings reported by the researchers are self-serving; or if all the substantiating data on which the judgment is based is not provided to the client; or "if the report is written before all tests are m as has happened in a number of cases." He, too, added, however, that the depth approach to consumer behavior was "a fact of modern life."

4. Finally, it is charged that the findings of the depth probers sometimes are not subjected to objective confirmation by conventional testing methods before they are accepted and applied. The big danger, as one critic put it, is to call "the initial idea a conclusion."

Business Week, in its analysis of M.R. procedures, concluded that any study of behavior that "aims at some degree of scientific certainty is likely to have two steps: First, a pilot study -- a fast informal survey of the subject to get the feel of it. Second, a rigorous, careful investigation to find out whether the conclusion really stands up, and under just what conditions it is true. For many advertising problems a shrewd suspicion of the facts is plenty good enough. So advertisers' motivation studies are likely to stop with the first step."

Some of the researchers, it should be added, do rigorously test their M.R. findings by conventional methods before accepting them as fact. One of the pioneer motivational workers, Herta Herzog, director of creative research at the huge McCann-Erickson ad agency, now reaches her conclusions in four stages. First, she uses conventional research methods to spot likely prospects for the product in question. Second, her staff depth-probes three to four hundred of them. Third, the findings of the probing are tested by a more conventional "structured" questionnaire on a large group of people (up to three thousand). Fourth, when ads have been drawn up based on the M.R. findings, they are tested on selected consumers in various areas of the United States to see if the M.R.-inspired conclusions are correct.

By 1957, the thinking of the most responsible practitioners of motivational research seemed to be that M.R. is most useful as a starting point, or as a clue spotter, and that the findings of M.R. should be validated by other methods whenever possible. Even its critics agree that M.R. has an important place in market research at the idea-gathering or hypothesis stage.

Some merchandisers contend that even the unvalidated ideas and clues the analysts can offer are immensely valuable. Business Week opined: "Any copywriter . . . could produce better ads if he had talked to a dozen or four hundred customers first than if he had contented himself with batting bright ideas around the table at Twenty-One." The research director of a food company who often consults Ernest Dichter told me he likes to get "Ernst" just talking about a problem such as a cake mix. Sometimes this can be as helpful as a formal survey. "If he sparks one good idea, it's worth at least $2,500 to us," he explained. However, not everyone in the merchandising field accepts Dr. Dichter's findings as infallible, but Tide in a 1955 article stated that even his informed guesses were "brilliant."

The president of National Sales Executives, Inc., likewise pointed out that the findings of the social scientists are valuable in two ways: "First, the probers often come up with answers that, when tried, have worked. Second, even if recommendations haven't panned out exactly as hoped, they have lifted managements out of mental ruts."

Perhaps the most compelling evidence that motivation research must be taken seriously, at least by the public being probed and manipulated, is the fact that merchandisers themselves still are taking it very seriously indeed. More and more are basing campaigns on it. Tide stated in its February 26, 1955, issue:

"In ten years motivation analysis will be as common as nose-counting. By 1965, if the present trend continues, few national marketers will launch an advertising campaign or introduce a new product without first conducting a thorough study of consumer motivations." This, in fact, can already be said of one of the nation's largest advertising agencies. Every single account now gets a motivational run-through!

These same marketers are the kind of people who would abruptly kill off a million-dollar TV program without a qualm if its rating dropped a few points. They would not use M.R. if they had any better tool for persuading us to buy their products. (In 1956 survey maker A. C. Nielsen, Jr., revealed a survey finding that in general marketing executives in the past have been right or substantially right only 58 per cent of the time!) Executives have concluded that the depth approach, whether they like it or not, can provide answers they can't afford to ignore.

In late 1954 Printer's Ink asked its Jury of Marketing Opinion what its members thought of motivational research. Sixty-four answered the questionnaire. Of them thirty-two said they were using or have used motivation research. The journal concluded: "Most of those who have tried M.R. like it." As to specific testing methods, here are the number who said they had used each:

Depth interviews 27
Panel reaction 12
Group interviews 12
Projective techniques 9
Word association 7
Thematic apperception 4
Attitude tests



Rorschach 1

(There seems to be some confusion or duplication in those responses because the Rorschach, for example, is one of several projective techniques.)

To sum up, while there was considerable argument about various probing techniques there is little argument that the depth approach in general is here to stay. Advertising Age quoted an economics professor at the University of Illinois as stating: "Few today question the value of psychiatry or of psychology in explaining behavior patterns."

This, of course, does not mean the M.R. practitioners ara dead right or even mostly right in each case. M.R. is a new and still inexact science. Dr. Wulfeck says it is about as far advanced as public opinion polling was in the early thirties -- in short far from infallible. A great deal must still be done to refine, standardize, and validate procedures and train qualified practitioners. Dr. Wulfeck is confident that as more work is done the tools will become more precise. Business Week pointed out that M.R. practitioners were already achieving indisputably solid results. It cited as an example the work being done at the Survey Research Center of the University of Michigan. The center's psychological research, it said, "is providing a continuing, trustworthy measurement of consumer attitudes that shape the course of business. This measure is already an important indicator of the business climate." (The Federal Reserve Board is guided by it to a large extent.)

The alternative to the depth approach, in the words of a research analyst for Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, "is to fly by the seat of your pants."

Business Week's study of M.R. summed up the situation in this emphatic way:

"Today's emphasis on people's motives, the search for a science of behavior, is more than just a fad. Far from blowing over, you can expect it to keep getting more important -- because it meets business needs arising from a real and important change in the American society over the past two or three decades."

Then the report added this hopeful or ominous comment-depending on your viewpoint: "It seems rather likely that, over the course of time, the present studies will develop into something considerably more elaborate, more rigorous. That will happen if businessmen get accustomed enough to psychological techniques to want to use them on something besides advertising themes."

That was written in mid-1954 As I've indicated, businessmen and others are now seeking to apply these potent techniques in mind-molding projects far removed from the merchandising of products.

As the use of the depth approach, despite its fallibilities, has met increasing acceptance and spread into other fields, the moral implications of its increased use need to be faced.