Stefan Schwarzkopf, Adam Arvidsson, Ronald A. Fullerton, Peter Lunt & Katherine Parkin: Ernest Dichter (1907 – 1991) and motivation research An international perspective

Einleitung: From Vance Packard’s invectives against the “hidden persuaders” in the 1950s to recent television series in Britain and Germany, the link between psychoanalysis and consumer behaviour has fascinated cultural critics, journalists and social scientists on both sides of the Atlantic. Popular representations of the all-powerful psychologist- cum-salesman have both attracted vocal support as well as increasing scepticism from different sections of the social science and humanities community. Yet, these representations merely reflect a continuing debate within academic circles as to the influence of persuasive communication on consumers, the meaning of “motivation” and the role of the unconscious in the processes of buying and consumption.

In the case of the Austro-American motivation researcher Ernest Dichter (1907-1991), the fascination with the idea of marketers using psychoanalytic tools to make consumers happy without themselves knowing it, meets the timeless fascination with people who transgress social, cultural and national boundaries and whose actions forge a trans-Atlantic, global culture. The Austrianborn Ernest Dichter, who shaped American marketing and consumer research in the postwar era, joins the long line of Europeans who transformed the culture of the American market. From the German John Jacob Astor, America’s first multimillionaire, James Gordon Bennett, the Scotsman who founded the New York Herald and helped popularise the idea of journalism for the “penny” masses, to the Austrian architect Victor Gruen, the inventor of the American shopping mall, European immigrants have welded America as a consumer society and remind us of the essentially European roots of the “American dream”.

The conference at the University of Vienna in December 2005 attempts to explore the role of Ernest Dichter as a highly influential and controversial thinker who became one of the first international celebrities and target figures of anti-consumerist criticism. The conference participants will open up historical, social studies and communication studies approaches to Ernest Dichter, the self-styled “Father of Motivation Research”. Contributors from the United States, Great Britain, Denmark, Germany and Austria will study Dichter as protagonist and “symbol” of his era, they will analyse Dichter’s political, psychological and marketing thought as well as critically evaluate the significance of Dichter’s theories today.

Ernest Dichter was born in Vienna in 1907 as the oldest of three sons. He grew up in an impoverished Jewish family of Polish and Sudeten-German immigrants. As a student at Vienna University in the early 1930s, Dichter met the last protagonists of Vienna’s cultural zenith of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Psychoanalysis in particular became an intellectual challenge for the young student of psychology. He became increasingly pressurised by the police of the “Austro-Fascist” state and decided to emigrate to the United States in 1936. Dichter became a successful market researcher and began to develop the theory of a “dynamic psychology” together with fellow psychologists. For Dichter and his colleagues, this meant a discovery on two levels. On the one hand, Dichter began to conceptualise the human soul as a hidden “realm of desires”, full of taboos and secrets. On the other hand, Dichter discovered the “soul of the products”, which was also structured as a space of complexes and taboos. In the United States as well as in Europe, Dichter became a highly influential figure, both within a narrow business context and in the public sphere. As a political and business consultant, he fascinated – and infuriated – colleagues, clients and politicians for almost twenty years. He advanced to become a symbolic figure of his time, who served as a projection screen for public criticism of advertising and post-war consumer culture.

Ernest Dichter’s research into the “hidden” or allegedly unconscious communication between products and consumers was first exposed to a mass audience by a no less intriguing American: the journalist Vance Packard and his international bestseller “The hidden persuaders” (1957). Translated into all major European languages, Packard’s polemic book branded Dichter as a “super-advertising-scientist” whose skills in tapping the unsuspecting depths of consumer psyches could turn people into sexualised, aboulic marionettes of unscrupulous advertisers. So powerful was the image of the advertiser as “hidden persuader” that Dichter himself recorded a remarkable rise in the number of firms wishing to employ his services after Packard’s publication, while the German advertising manager Harry Damrow felt the need to entitle his 1981 memoirs “I have not been a hidden persuader”. …