An article on the Psychology Today website sent me down memory lane recently, prompting me to revisit an interview I conducted with Ernest Dichter in 1989 for an early Trade Talk column, less than a year after starting here at Quirk’s. 

The April 2022 Psychology Today article, “How Ernest Dichter brought psychology to business” by Lawrence R. Samuel, gives a brief but informative overview of the impact that Dichter’s focus on consumers’ underlying motivations had on advertising in the 1940s and beyond. Some credit him with coining the term “focus group” and there is debate as to whether he created the concept of motivational research or if his lifelong championing of the ideas behind it just made it seem that way. Nevertheless, the explorations of the deep-seated factors driving our decision-making as consumers he conducted for clients like Ivory Soap and Chrysler certainly changed the face of advertising.

As Samuel writes in his article, “Anyone working in fields in which psychology intersects with business – marketing, marketing research or advertising – should be familiar with Ernest Dichter. Before Dichter, what Franz Kreuzer and Patrick Schierholz called ‘announcement advertising’ was the norm, with factual argument the prevailing method by which to promote products. Dichter turned ad agencies into psychology labs, bringing the social sciences into what were basically factories of communication. With his depth interviews, Dichter was the first person to seriously challenge the Claude Hopkins school of ‘reason-why’ copy, which had dominated advertising since it was recognized as a legitimate field. ‘His research provided advertising with a kind of radar to find its way through the darkness of the collective subconscious,’ wrote Marcel Blenstein-Blanchet, founder of the ad agency Publicis.”

Impish sense of humor

Dichter was in his early 80s when I interviewed him, just a few years before his death in 1991, and looking back I marvel at how, in those pre-internet days, I had simply sent a letter to his office in New York’s Hudson Valley to arrange the interview and then called on the appointed day, speaking first to his wife Hedy Langfelder and then to him. For someone so accomplished he was generous with his time and I enjoyed his impish sense of humor.

(This is also a good time for a shameless plug for Paul Scipione’s book “A Nation of Numbers,” which I edited and Quirk’s published, if you’re interested in reading more about Dichter and others who helped shape the early decades of marketing research.)

The subject of my Trade Talk column was his recent trip the then Soviet Union to uncover “the soul of the Soviet consumer” following the burgeoning of capitalism after Mikhail Gorbachev’s loosening of cultural and governmental restrictions. Granted, it’s been over 30 years – times change – but especially in light of the current state of Russia and the war in Ukraine, it’s hard not to feel a sense of loss reading the column’s observations about the Soviet Union, knowing that what was nascent then (newfound freedoms, entrepreneurship, a sense of possibility) is now likely lost.

What’s heartening, though, is the creativity Dichter exhibited in trying to get the insights he was looking for – and also how fresh the aims of motivational research (however you want to define it) seem today, in light of the movement away from depending on the (in)accuracy of what respondents say they feel or have felt or are doing or have done.

As I observed back then:

The work of a motivational researcher is devoted to uncovering the hidden reasons why consumers make decisions – reasons hidden especially to the consumers themselves. It is a difficult task, Dichter says, because to get at the “truth,” you must ask the right questions in the right manner.

“When you want to know why, you run a number of risks,” he says, “because by asking people for the reasons behind their actions, you can get erroneous, rationalized answers. And by making it too verbal, you also risk getting wrong answers, because you’re asking the respondent to diagnose his behavior himself. The Greeks already knew that the most difficult job is to know one’s self.”

Across his long career, Dichter showed researchers the value of striving for new and different ways to hunt for the “why.”