THE HIDDEN PERSUADERS AT HOME
MORDECAI RICHLER calls on a firm of motivation researchers, men who say they can sell you a brand of soap or a breed, of politicians by playing on your psychological weaknesses. Here's what Richter learned about his weaknesses — and theirs
THE CONSUMER — you and I, that is —may buy one brand of shaving cream in preference to another for the seemingly sane reason that it stings less, but there are others who would have it that there are darker reasons why we make such a choice. It’s difficult, even impossible, to argue the point, because these dark reasons are supposedly unconscious. Anyway, these others are in business and their business is called motivation research.
Motivation research claims to tell us the reasons hidden even from us why we buy, believe and even vote the way we do. Specifically, the type of sales problem it deals with is this: If, say. Diz and Biz, two brands of soap flakes, cost the same and do the same, wdiy do more women buy Diz than Biz? Probably, the motivation experts would say, because Diz has created a more favorable brand image. Acting on the notion that the reason you and I fancy a particular product is generally determined by an unconscious factor, motivation research uses techniques designed to reach anti influence the unconscious mind.
It’s not surprising, then, that some social critics find motivation research a sinister affair. Innocent people, they argue, are being psychologically tricked into buying things they have no need for. Worse still, they feel the day is not far off when motivation experts will be astute enough to sway an election by advising an eager and unprincipled candidate on what he should say, how much he should promise, and how often he should smile, in order to create the most favorable brand image.
Sinister or not. the fact is that in recent years more and more multi-million-dollar corporations, advertising agencies, and even political parties in the United States, Great Britain, and Canada have called on the services of motivation-research experts.
There are already several Canadian companies that specialize in motivation studies, and recently I was able to spend some time with one of them.
MRC Limited, a Montreal firm that specializes in research into marketing, motivation, and brand images, numbers among its clients the Canadian General Electric Co. Ltd., Distillers CorporationSeagrams, General Foods Ltd., Lever Brothers Ltd., O'Keefe Brewing Co. Ltd., and the Tea Council of Canada. Its offices are in a nondescript building in the suburbs. The area is comparatively new — one of those raw, postwar eruptions of a city that has begun to sprawl. Everywhere there are freshly finished apartments, stores, and houses, but they all look jerry-built, and there is nothing in them to delight the eye.
The Marketing Research Centre is on the first floor up. You walk down a hall that smells of disinfectant, past the open doors of a clothing manufacturer’s showroom, to the usual waiting room where a receptionist sits examini1« her fingernails critically and typing out a stencil for the latest marketing questionnaire. This one went like this: “Now this question is theoretical 1 know but let us suppose that for some reason you found there would be no more television broadcasts. Thinking of this situation, 1 wonder if you would tell me what you would miss most of all if television ceased?”
The man behind MRC, Bernard Hymovitch, PhD (McGill), has an impressive academic record. He founded the firm in 1954. In A Brief Description of MRC Services, a booklet he gave me, 1 read: “For a long time marketers had only one way in which to judge consumer reaction — sales. This crude measuring stick soon became inadequate. Marketers needed to know early, often before production began, the likely consumer reaction to new products, new packages, new policies. It was essential to study the consumer’s needs, desires, and wants.”
Hence MRC, with a graduate psychologist in control, the latest IBM equipment, resident economists, statisticians, sociologists, a research consultant in communications, field and . -Gy directors, an advertising and merchandise g laboratory (equipped w-ith specially designed optical instruments). and a part-time field staff of interviewers numbering upward of two thousand that has been set up in four hundred cities, towns and rural areas in ail ten provinces.
Mrs. Frances Lyman, the attractive young lady who is in charge of MRC field studies—that is. interviews that are carried on either by appointment or on a door-to-door basis—has a sign on her office wall that reads:
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“Tell me about the thoughts that went through your mind as you bought bread,” the interviewer asked
ALI BABA WAS A FORTUNATE MAN. INDEED He Only had 40 Thieves to Deal With.
I asked her what makes a good interviewer. She smiled sweetly. “Somebody who enjoys interviewing,” she said. “A good listener.”
“They have to knock on strangers’ doors all the time and ask prying questions.” I said. “Must they also be . . . well, brash?”
Mrs. Lyman hesitated. She looked pained. “What's that?” she asked.
“Well, do you think it an intrusion for interviewers to knock on doors — ”
“Oh, no, they carry identification cards.”
"Oh. Oh. I see.”
I arranged with Mrs. Lyman to accompany a door-to-door interviewer the same afternoon. The interviewer’s name was Dorothy Läufer and she was certainly not brash. On the contrary. Mrs. Läufer was extremely polite. She’s twenty-six, married, with two children, and has been interviewing part-time for MRC for more than two years. We went directly to an apartment building in a lower-middleclass area, and I waited in the shadows while Mrs. Läufer rang her first doorbell.
“Who’s there?” an old lady called out.
“You don't know me.”
The old lady opened her door a few inches, keeping the latch firmly in place.
“Good afternoon.” Mrs. Läufer said. “I'm an interviewer for MRC Limited, a national public opinion organization. 1 would like — ”
“No," the old lady said, slamming her door. Mrs. Läufer tried another bell.
“Good afternoon. I'm an interviewer from MRC Limited, a national public opinion organization — ” “I don't know anything about anything.” the lady said, closing her door. So Mrs. Läufer was obliged to ring a third doorbell. The young lady who answered seemed tempted, but she was just on her way out. “I’m so sorry.” she said. An instant after she had closed the door it opened again swiftly. It was her husband, a big, gruff man. “What's MRC. anyway?” he asked.
"A national public opinion organization.”
When the door on the opposite side of the hall opened Mrs. Läufer was able to get so far as to say, "We're conducting a bread survey.”
“Everybody uses bread,” the lady said with a big smile.
“That’s right,” Mrs. Läufer said. "This interview — ”
“I like bread. It's good for you.”
“ — will take a half hour of your time. Maybe more — ”
“I’m busy this afternoon. Sorry.”
We were finally admitted to an apartment in the next building, and Mrs. Läufer explained to a lady whom I shall call Mrs. Berger that we were conducting a bread survey. We sat in the living room. A five-year-old girl played on the rug. "Why do you use bread?” Mrs. Läufer asked.
“To fill out a meal.”
“Why not use something else instead?” “What would you use instead?”
“When you serve bread at a meal.” Mrs. Läufer said, "how is it served?” "How is it served? We put it on the table and everyone grabs a slice.”
The little girl began to crawl over me. "Sit down like a good girl,” Mrs. Berger said.
"I don’t wanna sit down.”
“Go to bed.”
"I don’t like you. Mummy.”
Mrs. Läufer smiled gently. “I'd like you to think back to the last time you bought bread. Think about it for a while and then tell me exactly what happened from the time you approached the bread counter.”
“I walked into the store, bought a loaf, and walked out.”
"Try to tell me about everything you did and also all the thoughts and ideas that went through your mind at the time.”
“What did I think of? How 1 could get home before the rain. I wanted to miss the rain.”
Back at MRC, 1 had my first real chat with Dr. Hymovitch. His office is large, but unpretentious. A sign on the wall
THIS IS A NON-PROFIT ORGANIZATION We Didn’t Plan It That Way But It Is!!!
Affable, intelligent Bernard Hymovitch is thirty-seven. He has, in past years, specialized in social, experimental and physiological psychology, and got his PhD from McGill in 1949 for his thesis. On the Development of Intelligence. He has been a lecturer or research associate at McGill. Sir George Williams, the University of Michigan and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. From 1952 to 1954, he was an associate professor at Boston University, where he taught social research methods as applied to the problems of communication in radio, television. and public relations. He does not like the term motivation research and. in fact, changed the name of his firm from Motivation Research Centre to Marketing Research Centre in 1957. "Motivation research has acquired an undesirable meaning.” he told me. "What we do here is marketing research, and a look into motivations is only part of the area we explore.”
1 told him the interview I had gone out on had seemed repetitious, even aimless, to me. He said that repetitions were thrown in to check for consistency. As another safeguard against interview faking there was a checkback on at least forty percent of the interviews. This reminded me of a girl 1 know who used to work for Dr. Gallup. Because she was too shy to knock on strangers' doors she used to fill out the questionnaires herself. At MRC. however, they are wise to such tricksters.
Field surveys, to enter briefly into the idiom of the trade, are often conducted on a national scale. Week in and week out. come flood or blizzard, the marketing research infantry of innumerable agencies are out from Halifax to Victoria, knocking on doors to find out why we prefer ground to instant coffee or one company’s tea to another. In Saskatoon they are testing five brands of cookies, trying to determine whether we prefer the peek-aboo package to the one with the yellow band round the middle, and in St. Jérôme. Que., the housewives are unconsciously revealing whether they find coffee in a blue package "warmer-looking" than coffee in a brown box. Put in the idiom of the trade, the study director is anxious to determine a particular product's visual performance and psychological impact, how high its brand identification is. and why there is consumer resistance to it.
"Does it all sound muddy to you?" Dr. Hymovitch asked.
'••Well. I — ”
"Never mind. At times it sounds muddy to me too."
Determined to begin at the beginning,
1 asked Dr. Hymovitch if I could see some interview forms, and also some of his company's final reports.
"Why, sure," Dr. Hymovitch said. "You can take a batch of them home with you.
Charitable donations aren’t made altruistically, says the report, but rather for social acceptance
One was compiled for a fund-raising organization to determine why people give money to charity. First, an elaborate questionnaire was drawn up, then interviewers were sent out to question a sample of several hundred executives, all of whom earned between $10,000 and $22,000 annually, to discover why they gave money to charity. The report proper runs to more than thirty pages and has a lot to say about ego-needs, anal - direction, and childhood compulsions. “We may assume,” the author asserts, “that the great majority of people in this sample have fairly strong, selfish, primitive needs.” Furthermore, he says executives do not give for altruistic motives, but “on the basis of achieving social acceptance, and avoiding criticism and censure.” Another thing is that they tend to give more readily to causes particular to their own faith. Finally, the report offers fund-raisers the following counsel: “Every attempt should be made to increase the pressure on the individual to give not out of conscience, but in order to avoid criticism or rejection.”
Everything starts in the field
Other MRC reports deal with problems like “an evaluation of the visual effectiveness of a proposed package for a new three-ounce jelly powder dessert package” or set out to establish statistically the perceived popularity of canned, packaged, and home-made soups.
All surveys start in the field. So I went out again, this time with a middle-aged French-Canadian housewife, on a chocolate-bar study. We drove to a lowermiddle-class home in the outskirts of Montreal where we had an appointment with a lady I shall call Mrs. Baxter.
“Get out your sweet tooth,” the interviewer said to Mrs. Baxter. “Oh, chocolates,” Mrs. Baxter said, clapping her hands together. “I’m trying to keep away from them.”
“You need chocolate, they say.” And, taking out her 23-page questionnaire, the interviewer got right down to business. “How do you feel about eating chocolate bars?” she asked, (NOTE, the questionnaire Said, PROBE TO DETERMINE WHETHER THE RESPONDENT IS FAVORABLE, UNFAVORABLE, OR NEUTRAL TO CHOCOLATE BAR CONSUMPTION.)
“I eat them . . . because I enjoy them,” Mrs. Baxter said.
“Same here,” the interviewer said warmly. “Now on what occasions or under what circumstances do you think it a good idea to eat chocolate bars?”
Mrs. Baxter pondered briefly. “When I feel like something sweet,” she said.
"What do you think milk chocolate is made of?”
"Why do you think some adults eat chocolate bars?”
“Perhaps some . . . well, for energy.”
“Mmm. That’s a point of view.”
Mrs. Baxter lowered her eyes. “I’m speaking scientifically,” she said.
“Now here is a list of major companies who make chocolate bars. Let’s talk about them one at a time. Suppose we start with Neilson’s. Would you tell me what you know about this firm?”
“It’s well-established. Would they want to know that?”
“1 can’t give you any hints,” the interviewer said severely. Then she handed Mrs. Baxter a bar produced by the Neilson company. "Whew,” Mrs. Baxter said.
“Now, here’s another question. Do you happen to recall any advertising for Neilson’s chocolate bars?”
The interviewer wrote that down. Her expression was noncommittal. "Suppose we talk about Rowntree’s now. What do you know about this firm?"
"It’s reliable. Old. and well-established. Isn’t it?”
"Can you recall any advertising put out by this firm?”
"Mm-mm-good. Isn't that Rowntree’s?” "No hints. Remember?”
Next we dealt with Lowney’s—another old-established firm, Mrs. Baxter felt — and the interviewer gave her an Oh Henry bar. "What kind of person do you think eats this bar?” she asked.
"A person who likes nuts. Say. it’s bigger than the other bars, isn't it?” Mrs. Baxter’s eyes narrowed. “The greedy type would like this bar. You know, somebody w'ho wants more for his money.”
"1 suppose so. It is a point of view. Do you recall any advertising for this bar?” "I certainly do. Oh Henry. Oh. Henry," she sang. "You know. On TV. The train.” "What does this advertising make you think of?”
"Oh. isn't it silly.” Mrs. Baxter said. "It always makes me think of my girl-friend’s husband whose name is Henry. Only she calls him Hank. It also makes me think of the writer.”
"A writer? Is he on TV? Willi the train?”
"No. no. A writer.”
“And his name is Lowney’s?"
"No, no. no. His name is (). Henry.”
"Oh. Oh, I sec. What do you think of Lowney's?”
Mrs. Baxter paused to smooth her skirt. "I think it’s an old, well - established firm,” she said. "Very reliable.”
“Do you recall any advertising slogans for Willards?”
"That’s right. What do you think of this slogan?”
"I think it’s very catchy." Mrs. Baxter said.
Back at MRC once more. I went to see Dick Gelfand, a study director, who showed me around the company’s research laboratory. Here, packages of instant pudding, coffee, and so forth, are scientifically tested for visual performance, psychological impact, brand identification. apparent size, and perceived masculinity. "Always,” Gelfand said, "with due reference to the semantic differential, the adjectival scale, and other stimuli.” "Glad to hear it," I said. "Now I’d like to ask you a question. Sales are dropping, a coffee company consults you, you make surveys and lab tests and finally come up with a new package. The ideal brand image! Then what happens? Do sales jump?” "Oh. no. Not always." he said. "There are so many marketing variables. Hostility to a brand name may be too profound for us to overcome. Or. while we come up with an improved package a rival company may knock a nickel off their price.”
1 referred this point to Dr. Hymovitch. If a coffee company’s sales were dropping, why bother with the packaging. 1 asked him; why not just knock a dime oft the price of a product?
"Consumers begin to suspect its quality, he explained. "They develop a resistance to it. Once, in fact, 1 recommended a pi ice rise on a product that was underselling the competition, and within three months sales had gone up."
Dr. Hymovitch foresees a vast change in the structure of advertising within the next ten years. In the past, the stress has been on relaxation and leisure (reward yourself with X beer — you deserve it: relax with Y cola), but today, he says, a reverse trend is setting in. This trend Dr. Hymovitch attributes to sputnik. It means that in the future the advertising emphasis will be on accomplishment, hard work. and study. Products will be associated with the industrious man. But once more he insisted that this trend is not being set by the ad men: they are only reflecting a change in the cultural attitude.
Meanwhile, as the rest of us waited for (he big change to set in. 1 suggested that rather than give premiums — i.e.. a plastic hairbrush that rips your scalp — why not just lower the price on. say, detergents and shaving cream?
"It you lower the price, you've got to stay with it. Dr. Hymovitch said firmly. "It's no solution.”