`Mad Men' and the Odd Power of Focus Groups: Echoes
When Don Draper wants to get inside the consumer's head, he turns to Faye Miller, a beautiful and brainy market-research consultant.
In a memorable scene from Season 4 of "Mad Men," AMC's hit drama about the advertising industry in the 1960s, Miller gathers the unmarried secretaries at Draper's firm into a room for a friendly chat about Pond's Cold Cream. Draper and a few others watch from behind a mirror.
By creating an aura of intimacy, Miller masterfully gets the young women to open up their personal lives. They confide their fears about relationships and spill all of their beauty secrets. Draper watches in awe.
The idea was to use the women's revelations to improve Pond's product and its advertising. And everything about this emotionally charged scene -- the coterie of consumer surrogates, the exchange of confidences, the detached gaze of the hidden observers -- evokes the distinctive power of the "focus group," the interview technique that gained currency on Madison Avenue after World War II.
The focus group first appeared in the 1930s, and it was perfected by two Columbia University sociologists, Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert Merton, as a tool for learning more about radio listeners.
Previously, American businesses -- from magazines to ad agencies to automakers -- had used multiple-choice surveys to collect market data. The focus group was more direct and personal. The interview format allowed consumers to describe their ideas and experiences, and gave researchers direct access to their needs and desires.
It also gave birth to a new field called motivational research, or M.R., which was tailor-made for the burgeoning consumer culture of the postwar era. As the U.S. recovered from the war and the Great Depression, the population was enjoying higher incomes and an improved standard of living. As people from a wider range of ethnic and economic backgrounds stepped through the portal of consumer society, manufacturers and retailers scrambled to find better ways to understand their tastes.
Motivational research allowed marketers to tap into their subconscious. Psychologists trained in Freudian theory would ask consumers why they preferred a Chevrolet to a Ford, or why they enjoyed making flapjacks with Aunt Jemima buttermilk pancake mix. The experts would then interpret the answers for their clients, and explain the consumers' underlying motivations.
"Mad Men's" Faye Miller is the female embodiment of the best-known motivational researcher of the postwar era, Ernest Dichter. From the 1940s through the 1980s, Dichter ran a number of consulting firms dedicated to M.R. The most famous was the Institute for Motivational Research, established in 1955. Over the years, his clients included major businesses such as Chrysler, DuPont and Procter & Gamble.
Dichter's approach was rooted in a deep intuition and a keen understanding of basic human needs, rather than scientific method or quantitative analysis. He knew that people use objects to express their identities, and he recognized that objects hold different meanings for different people. Factors such as income, social position, race, gender, age and ethnicity all figured into his qualitative analysis of what consumers revealed in the focus groups. In defense of his touchy-feely techniques, Dichter often said, "Insight is my answer."
His insights proved invaluable to companies that wanted to imbue their brands with "personalities." Dichter famously helped Exxon to understand that drivers would love the idea of a tiger in their tank, and advised Mattel on the introduction of the Barbie doll. He told the readers of his newsletter about the gendered attributes of food, and encouraged them to promote tea to women and coffee to men.
While studying clothing for DuPont, he coined the term "Peacock Revolution" to describe the casual menswear that originated with Pierre Cardin in Paris and was adapted in the U.S. by blue-collar workers who liked tight, flashy clothes -- much like John Travolta in "Saturday Night Fever."
He helped General Mills see why Betty Crocker cake mixes should require the addition of an egg; it was important to interject a bit of creativity into the industrialized kitchen. And he explained the homemaker's desire for creative expression by associating the egg with women's reproductive capacities.
Dichter's intriguing ideas about fantasy and whimsy, and his Freudian references to sex and emotion, attracted both journalists in search of snappy quotes and plenty of critics.
Magazines such as Time, Newsweek and Business Week described Dichter as the man who could look inside the consumer's head and unlock the subconscious longings that motivated his behavior.
Vance Packard made Dichter one of the main protagonists in "The Hidden Persuaders," an international bestseller, published in 1957, that lashed out against American consumer culture and Madison Avenue's role in creating desires. Packard told readers that Big Brother was watching them, aided by motivational researchers who were trying to figure out why they bought what they did.
Dichter's career peaked in the mid-1960s -- about the time the Pond's Cold Cream scene takes place. Like everything in the marketplace, Dichter's style of ad-hoc M.R. was in many ways eclipsed as computerization moved quantification to the foreground.
But he left an indelible mark on Madison Avenue. And clearly, if "Mad Men" is any indication, his ideas still wield a powerful influence on popular culture.
(Regina Lee Blaszczyk is a historian affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania and the author or editor of seven books, including "American Consumer Society, 1865-2005: From Hearth to HDTV." She is writing a biography of Ernest Dichter. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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