Summary and Critique: The
THE HIDDEN PERSUADERS by Vance Packard
The Depth Approach. This book is about the large-scale --
and sometimes impressively successful -- efforts to use insights
from psychiatry and the social sciences (and provided all too
willingly by cooperative psychologists and social scientists)
to channel our unthinking habits, our purchasing decisions, and
our thought processes. The use of mass psychoanalysis to guide
campaigns of persuasion has become the basis of a multimillion
dollar industry. Some of the attempted manipulation is simply
amusing. Some of it is disquieting, particularly when viewed us
a portent of more intensive and effective efforts that may lie
probers and motivational researchers see us as bundles of daydreams,
misty hidden yearnings, guilt complexes, and irrational emotional
blockages. They're looking for the whys of our behavior, our hidden
weaknesses and frailties, so that they can more effectively manipulate
our habits and choices in their favor, not only in merchandising,
but also in politics and industrial relations. One of them, Louis
Cheskin, says that the techniques of Motivation Research [henceforth
MR] are "designed to reach the unconscious...mind because preferences
are generally determined by factors of which the individual is
depth manipulators are starting to acquire a power of persuasion
that now justifies public scrutiny and concern, especially because
their activities have seriously antihumanistic implications; they
are a setback in our long struggle to become rational and self-guiding
The Trouble with People. MR is a response to the difficulties
that marketers kept encountering in trying to persuade Americans
to buy all the products their companies could produce.
of these was the consumer's apparent perversity and unpredictability,
which cause marketers to question three of their basic assumptions:
that people know what they want, that they will tell you the truth
about their wants and dislikes even if they do know them, and
that they can be trusted to behave rationally.
difficulty was that people are too easily satisfied with what
they have. In an era of soaring GNP, productivity, and discretionary
income, many in business believed that for the good of the economy,
people had to consume more and more, whether they wanted to or
not. By the mid-fifties, psychological counselors were urging
merchandisers to become "merchants of discontent" -- to create
wants that people didn't know they had, so that their possessions,
well before they actually wore out, would become "psychologically
in a time of increasing product parity, consumer had to be given
reasons -- not necessarily rational -- for preferring one brand
So Ad Men Become Depth Men. Ad men recognized three different
levels of human consciousness: (1) conscious (rational)
-- we know what we think and can explain our thinking; (2) preconscious
-- we may understand our feelings, sensations, and attitudes (our
prejudices, assumptions, fears, emotional promptings and so on)
but would not be willing to explain them; (3) subconscious
-- we not only are not aware of our true attitudes and feelings
but would not discuss them if we could. MR was concerned with
exploring the second and third levels.
did not take root as a really serious movement until the late
'40s and early '50s. The most famous practitioner was Ernest Dichter,
PhD, Director of the Institute for Motivational Research. As early
as 1941 Dichter was exhorting ad agencies to see themselves as
"some of the most advanced laboratories in psychology." He said
the successful ad agency "manipulates human motivations and desires
and develops a need for goods with which the public has...been
unfamiliar -- [and] perhaps may be even undesirous of purchasing."
insists that products must not only be good; they must appeal
to our feelings "deep in the psychological recesses of the mind."
He tells companies that they must discover the psychological hook
and that they've either got to sell emotional security -- or go
about MR reached a crescendo in 1953 and '54, as marketers began
recruiting social scientists by the hundreds to conduct depth
And the Hooks are Lowered. By 1957, a great many marketers
were using MR. Two of the more common techniques are:
interview. The investigator tries, patiently but casually,
to get the consumer into a reverie of talking and musing absent-mindedly
about the pleasures, joys, enthusiasms, agonies, nightmares, deceptions,
[and] apprehensions the product recalls to him/her.
tests. The subject is asked to interpret a symmetrical ink-blot,
or to tell a story about a picture, or to make up captions for
a cartoon, or (the "Szondi test") to pick out, from a group of
pictures, the person he/she would like take a trip with (the subject
doesn't know that each person suffers from a different mental
MR investigators also use lie detectors, word-association and
sentence-completion tests, hypnosis, or subthreshold (subliminal)
5. Self-Images for Everybody. The growing sameness of products
(and the complexity of their ingredients), had made it very hard
for either marketers or consumers to make reasonable distinctions
among products in the same category. The answer was to help people,
in an easy, warm, emotional way, to make unreasonable distinctions,
by giving each product a distinctive, highly appealing image.
of narcissism indicated that nothing appeals more to people than
themselves, so why not help people buy products that were projections
of themselves? The image builders reasoned that they could thus
spark love affairs by the millions, and the sale of self-images
soon was expediting the movement of hundreds of millions of dollars'
worth of merchandise to consumers, particularly gasoline, cigarettes,
Rx for Our Secret Distresses. The merchandisers concluded
that billions of dollars' worth of sales depended heavily on successfully
manipulating or coping with our guilt, fears, anxieties, hostilities,
loneliness, and inner tensions. Guilt proved to be one of the
major problems the motivational analysts had to grapple with,
for though self-indulgent and easy-does-it products such as candy,
soft drinks, cigarettes, liquor, cake mixes, and laborsaving appliances
were becoming a significant sector of the total market, Americans
still were basically puritans at heart. Therefore, the marketing
of such products had to assuage guilt feelings and offer absolution.
advertising began to reflect the insights of MR: people were shown
smoking while under pressure or as a reward for tough jobs done.
Similarly, candy was marketed as a way to reward oneself, or,
when sold in bite-sized pieces, as self-indulgence in moderation.
Household appliances were portrayed as offering a way to spend
more time with the children, and cars, a legitimate release of
aggression through speed and power.
Marketing Eight Hidden Needs. In searching for extra psychological
values that could add to product appeal, merchandisers came upon
many gratifying clues by studying our subconscious needs, yearnings,
and cravings. Once a compelling need was identified, the promise
of its fulfillment was built into sales messages [see Table 1].
The Built-in Sexual Overtone. The MR people went beyond the
old cheesecake and get-your-man themes, with more subtlety, deeper
penetration into the subconscious, and more emphasis on poetry,
fantasy, and whimsy. Thus the famous "I Dreamed I Stopped Traffic
in My Maidenform Bra" played upon hidden exhibitionistic desires.
And the enormously successful hardtop car fulfilled a man's desire
for both wife (sedan) and mistress (convertible), for conventionality
depth researchers also found both men and women in need of reassurance
about their respective sexuality. Thus, lingerie ads began showing
women admiring themselves in mirrors, assuring herself that she
is fully feminine, and urging the buyer to do the same. And a
host of products (e.g., cigars, True Magazine) were successful
because they reassured men of their virility.
same product was found to have different meanings to men and women.
While a house is an expression of a woman's self, it is, to a
man, a haven, a symbolic Mom. One ad even showed a house with
outstretched, loving arms.
products underwent "transvestitism," the most spectacular being
Marlboro, which started out as a women's cigarette, but, with
new filter, packaging, and advertising, was reborn as an aggressively
male product that addressed some of the core meanings of smoking
-- adulthood, vigor, potency.
Back to the Breast, and Beyond. MR also sought to exploit
the subconscious desire of many adults for the pleasant mouth
satisfaction they felt as infant breast feeders and small children.
found to be loaded with hidden meanings. Ice cream, for example,
symbolizes uninhibited overindulgence, so advertisers were advised
to show it overflowing the dish.
may use food as a reward or punishment, depending on what they
choose to serve. Food has special meaning for fat people (they
use it as a substitute for other forms of gratification) and for
people under stress -- so hospitals were counseled not to offer
strange or unusual foods.
gum, cigars, and cigarettes ("Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet")
-- and the oral gratification associated with them -- were all
subjects of the motivational researchers' attention.
Babes in Consumerland. The prodigious amount of supermarket
impulse buying is apparently due to the fact that many women,
during supermarket shopping, fall into a light trance (perhaps
the result of the profusion of goods that once were available
only to royalty). Accordingly, marketers went to work to make
their packages as hypnotically attractive as possible, e.g., by
making the shopper's imagination leap ahead to the finished product.
Impulse buying was also stimulated by "splurge counters" laden
with delicacies and, in department stores, by counters labeled
simply "Why Not?".
Class and Caste in the Salesroom. The social classes of greatest
interest to marketers are the lower-middle and upper- lower, since
these account for most of the population and the purchasing power
in a typical community.
sights were trained on "Mrs. Middle Majority," who lives under
a strong moral code in a highly restricted world. The sponsors
of daytime TV personalities that brought warmth and connection
into that world (e.g, Arthur Godfrey, Garry Moore) were richly
people in the lower social brackets don't seem to want to climb
the social ladder, they can be persuaded to move up in their consumption,
so merchandisers began to pay close attention to the consuming
preferences that went with the various social classes (thus, for
example, a more expensive candy box was designed for the lower-class
purchaser, for whom the packaging was highly significant).
Selling Symbols to Upward Strivers. Another opportunity arose
from the fact that most Americans are social strivers (though
no one cares to admit it). Our purchasing habits change as we
adopt the choices of the group we seek to enter. The merchandisers
played to this tendency by investing products with new and exciting
messages of status. Most Americans are vulnerable to one of three
Offer bigness. Has been vigorously exploited in automotive
Offer price exclusivity, e.g., Joy perfume advertised as "the
costliest perfume in the world."
by high-status celebrities. These were not new, but in the
50's they were employed more systematically than before. Of course,
restraint must be exercised: products cannot be presented as too
high-toned, lest consumers wonder, "Am I good enough?"; and the
appeal cannot be too narrow (e.g., dog food ought not be sold
with thoroughbred dogs, since most people don't have them).
Cures for Our Hidden Aversions. In many cases, consumers'
resistance was based on seemingly unreasoned prejudices, which
MR was able to uncover, thus enabling products to be "rediscovered."
Cases in point:
with their "old maid" and "laxative" connotations, were repositioned
as a delightful, sweet "wonder fruit."
of instant coffee as efficient and timesaving was found to imply
that the housewife who bought it was lazy and a poor planner;
the new advertising emphasized that the product was "100% pure
coffee" that satisfied "your coffee hunger."
and dried milk, heretofore touted simply as worthy substitute
products, were marketed on their own virtues.
Coping with Our Pesky Inner Ear. The acute sensitivity of
our inner eye and ear in receiving unintended messages impelled
marketers to look for the "residual impression" in selling messages.
maker was advised not to show the door open without a housewife's
hand on it, since this implied the waste of electricity.
Morris was advised to stop touting its cigarettes as "less irritating":
what remained in the consumer's mind was "irritating."
In a similar
vein, questions arose as to whether a TV show could be so arresting
that viewers wouldn't pay attention to the commercials. When a
mystery show was replaced by a panel show, sales of the sponsor's
product went up.
The Psycho-Seduction of Children. MR was also concerned with
developing product and brand loyalty early in life and thus creating
eager consumers for the future. But even before children could
buy, the merchandisers sought to harness kids' influence on their
parents. Some companies offered prizes to kids who could bring
parents into the showrooms.
researchers were asked to help assure that TV shows would have
a strong impact on children. They suggested that a show need not
offer amusement or pleasure, as long as it helped the child express
his/her inner tensions and fantasies in a manageable way, i.e.,
by triggering fear, anger or confusion, then offering a way to
resolve these feelings, as with Howdy Doody and other shows
which offered children a safe way to work off resentment against
the adult "ruling class."
analyzed kids' crazes -- in particular, the Davy Crockett phenomenon
-- to discover why they rose and fell, and perhaps ultimately
to create them.
New Frontiers for Recruiting Customers. As marketers were
looked for ways to create new, broader, or more insatiable demands
for their products, a key area of interest was men's clothes.
Psychologists concluded that men's reluctance to appear conspicuous
could be overcome by persuasion that (1) played on their increasing
desire to impress their peer group and (2) gave women permission
to indulge their already strong inclination to "mold and perfect"
their men's public image.
to create psychological obsolescence by making the public style-conscious
and then switching styles extended to typewriters, phones, and
home appliances, where color was the primary sign of newness.
also began changing the seasons around, selling spring finery
to women in January, when "psychological spring" begins.
and Father's Days were converted into occasions for buying splurges.
amount of leisure time held out the prospect of vast consumer
expenditures, and marketers focused on luring consumers into "relaxing"
with such money-burning activities as do-it-yourself projects
and hobbies, participatory sports, boating, and even shopping.
Politics and the Image Builders. In the 1950's the character
of American political life changed radically, as both parties
used professional persuaders and modern marketing techniques to
help sell their candidates.
campaigns featured carefully-staged conventions and campaign appearances,
five-minute (instead of 30-minute) TV speeches, and saturation
advertising. The persuaders found that a vote, like a purchasing
decision, was often based on irrational, illogical factors that
MR could uncover, specifically, (1) the performance of the candidate,
especially its sincerity, and (2) the personality of the candidate,
especially the extent to which he is perceived as a father figure.
Nixon benefitted from all of these techniques and was regarded
as the first of a new breed of "media politician."
Molding "Team Players" for Free Enterprise. The rise of the
idea that the individual had no meaning except as a member of
a group -- ironic in a country where individualism and free enterprise
had always been watchwords -- was reflected in many areas of American
life and was of keen interest to those interested in manipulating
the emphasis on team play coincided with the appearance, in plants
and offices, of social scientists, who brought their insights
and techniques to bear on "the perversity of man." MR consultants
offered various services: evaluation of candidates for executive
positions, finding out what employees think about their jobs and
the firm, evaluating performance. Increasingly, companies screened
their job applicants and employees for the appropriate team-play
of the research was aimed at improving employee satisfaction,
much of it was surreptitiously aimed at evaluating up-and-coming
executives' respect for authority, spotting potential mental illness,
and scrutinizing men's home lives and wives to see if they would
interfere with or support job performance.
The Engineered Yes. By the mid-'50s, public relations counselors
saw that they could cultivate positive opinions about their companies
with the same techniques as the ad men were using to sell products.
enthusiastically applied to fund-raising, where the depth approach
revealed that self-aggrandizement, ego-gratification, and self-interest
(and, to a lesser degree, public interest, and the social benefit
that accrues from associating with the best people) were the deeper
reasons why people give to or volunteer to serve charitable causes.
Care and Feeding of Positive Thinkers. Much of the optimism
coming out of the business community in the mid-50's was the work
of PR people guiding top management in the proper manner, timing,
and approach in making announcements of economic expansion and
voicing expressions of confidence, thus helping win the public's
mind over to optimism. This "psychological marketing" was considered
key to economic growth, for if consumers started watching their
dollars and becoming more cerebral about their purchases, it would
become more difficult for the depth merchandisers to tempt people
into impulse buying, status-symbol buying, leisure buying, and
many other forms of self-indulgent consumption. Similarly, small
retailers and investors were thought to need repeated doses of
The Packaged Soul? The persuasive techniques of MR and the
values that it advances (consumption, groupthink) hold some disturbing
implications, which are already evident in current [i.e., mid-50's]
communities" complete with furniture, ready-to-meet neighbors,
and already-formed recreational groups;
- a trade
school that trains workers not only in mechanical skills, but
in a co-operative outlook;
- the depth
probing of little girls, in order to discover their vulnerability
to advertising messages for home permanents;
- the notion
that human behavior could, like airplanes and missiles, be electronically
controlled, since "the human brain [is]...essentially a digital
The Question of Validity. MR was not without its critics and
skeptics [see Table 2]. But the consensus of the most responsible
practitioners was that MR was useful as a starting-point or clue-spotter,
but that it should be validated by other methods whenever possible.
And executives have concluded that MR can provide answers they
can't afford to ignore; it is, therefore, here to stay.
The Question of Morality. The defenders of MR claim that anything
that raises the GNP is good, or that people have become so skeptical
that their psyches are not damaged by the constant assaults, or
that there's nothing sinister about giving people what they really
want, whether it's new products or better working conditions.
Still, there are profound moral questions about using mass media
to play on people's hidden fears and weaknesses to sell them products,
to manipulate small children, to treat voters like customers in
need of father figures, to cultivate wastefulness by promoting
psychological obsolescence, and so on.
disturbing ethical issues are:
assumption of the right to manipulate human personality; this
involves an inherent disrespect for the individual;
elevation of consumerism; while Dr. Dichter contends that it's
important to give people permission to enjoy life, possessions
don't necessarily make people happy -- and besides, America is
too great a nation to have to depend on such devious practices
to sustain its economy;
advertising and PR organizations should draw up codes of ethics,
and individuals should learn to recognize the devices of persuasion,
so that if they are behaving in response to irrational motivations,
at least they will be aware that they are doing so.
1: Eight Hidden Needs
Home freezers, a way to store more food than people could possibly
eat, were sold as symbols of security, warmth, and safety.
Soap and detergent advertising reassured the housewife by exalting
the importance of her role in keeping things clean.
Steam shovel sales improved when ads began showing more prominent
pictures of the operators, upon whose recommendations sales
Cake mix marketers reformulated their product to allow the housewife
to add eggs or milk, thereby giving here a more active role
in the process.
promoters of pianist Liberace made much of his resemblance to
a beautiful child.
A staple of automotive marketing, with promises of "that extra
margin of safety in an emergency" providing a rationale for
Mogen David wine was marketed with references to the family-centered
occasions of which it was a part.
Life insurance ads showed the deceased, while physically gone,
still shielding, providing for, comforting and governing his
2: Major Criticisms of MR
supporters have too often implied that MR is a cure for every
marketing problem, whereas in reality there is no single reason
why people buy -- or don't buy -- a product.
- MR has
lifted diagnostic tools from clinical psychiatry and applied
them to mass behavior -- with no certainty that such transference
is valid. And since MR is expensive, there is a built-in motivation
to limit the size of the sample population.
depend too much on the brilliance of a single practitioner;
testing procedures have not been standardized or validated.
Also, different research experts can interpret the same test
- The findings
are sometimes not subjected to objective confirmation by conventional
testing methods before they are accepted and applied. There
is often no rigorous follow-up study.
PERSUADERS Critical Commentary
COMMENTS ON THE BOOK AND ON THE ARGUMENTS IT MAKES:
is a word with strong negative connotations. The techniques
Packard describes can also be viewed simply as a refinement
of techniques of advertising, communication, and persuasion,
in order to address needs of a different kind -- needs which
represent the next stage of consumption patterns, instigated
by the synergistic effects of mass production and widespread
- Any new
knowledge is typically seen at first as sinister and forbidden.
But Packard sometimes goes too far in presenting simple truths
in this light. Of course we buy products on the basis
of the ways in which their characteristics interact with our
own. Of course we use material possessions to advertise our
status, our prestige, our awareness of style and fashion. When
didn't we? Of course we want our working conditions to
respect our dignity and self-esteem. And of course workers
should be trained in how to get along with others (cf. Packard's
negatively-presented trade-school example, Ch. 21, which actually
presages TQM, team concept, quality circles, etc.)
This is why some of the case-studies seem either obvious or
forced (e.g., vanity presses as an example of ego-gratification),
while others have, as Packard admits, a positive side (as when
psychologists found that the need for recognition was a factor
in worker discontent).
As Foote Cone & Belding Chairman John O'Toole said in a Time
interview (2/8/82), "critics such as Vance Packard...made the
[advertising] profession out to be sinister, like brainwashing.
In fact, advertising is simply salesmanship. It is unabashedly
partisan and persuasive; it doesn't pretend to be gospel."
- A related
point: Packard denigrates virtually all attempts to increase
people's cooperation and compliance. Thus, he ridicules MR studies
that try to "find ways to make us less troublesome and complaining
while staying in hospitals."
But if an organization -- or a society -- is to function, there
must be a balance between these and individualism. Packard ignores
the fact that making people cooperative and compliant is often
the result of removing genuine irritants or demeaning conditions
that obstruct a necessary cooperative effort.
occasionally makes his points with case studies that are either
trivial (e.g., that MR caused Socony Vacuum to change its name
to Socony Mobiloil because of associations with vacuum cleaners;
surely this requires no probing for subtle, hidden meanings!).
the morality of consumerism...the argument against "gadgets/consumption"
is framed simplistically, inasmuch as Packard attempts to impose
a moral framework on an activity that is essentially amoral.
Frivolousness is in the eye of the beholder. Those who condemn
consumerism always take it upon themselves to decide what others
do and do not "really need," ignoring the fact that many new
products really do help people control their environment, use
time more effectively, improve their health and fitness, and
so on, in ways that they may not have known about.
The conflict between Epicureans and Stoics is an old one that
will probably never be resolved. The social consensus veers
toward one or the other -- eras of consumption alternate with
eras of restraint -- in response to various forces, the most
powerful of which may be the state of the economy. In any event,
neither side should attempt to impose its values on the other.
that are still relevant/valid:
at bay," needing reassurances of their virility; cigars
as symbols of same.
significance of ice cream (nostalgia, voluptuousness).
objections to advertising that targets children.
rationalizing of children's TV shows ("calling a cowboy
movie 'American history' and a space show 'scientific'")
recalls contemporary attempts to do the same with the Jetsons
and other shows.
over laugh tracks on TV.
of political campaigns; candidate as product. - Importance
of President as father figure (Eisenhower in the '50s, Reagan
in the '80s).
of "psychological marketing" and consumer confidence.
that are no longer relevant/valid:
foods fulfilling a need for "penance" (may be true for some
consumers; most will not tolerate compromise on taste).
of greater need for leisure products because of increasing
leisure time, shorter work week (people are not working
less; may even be working more).
over "social engineering" of "team players" (while teamwork
is important, the real challenge is not to create conformity,
but to disrupt it -- cf. the current emphasis on "renewal,
"diversity," "intrapreneurship," "thriving on chaos,"
PACKARD AND HIDDEN PERSUADERS IN THE '80s AND '90s.
- Eric Clark,
in his 1989 book The Want Makers: The World of Advertising
-- How They Make You Buy is less gloomy and alarmist about
advertising than Packard, but he believes that advertising is
"Today advertising is vast, increasingly global and more and
more 'scientific in its methods. Its domination over the kind
of programs we watch, the content of the newspapers and magazines
we read, grows each year. It helps determine the politicians
we elect the medicines we are offered, the toys our children
demand, and the sports that are to thrive or decline. All of
this is new in its size and its range, its implications and
its dangers. Election appeals have become interchangeable with
Coca-Cola commercials; products themselves are no longer simply
sold by advertising -- increasingly they are the advertising."
- In an article
called "Psyching Out Consumers," Newsweek (2/27/89) says
"The motivational techniques first described in Vance Packard's
1957 best-seller are making a comeback. These methods fell by
the wayside as advertisers turned to making decisions based
largely on research that emphasized who might buy a product,
not why. Now, with the same basic information available to all
marketers, ad agencies are compelled to go beyond mere numbers
to maintain a competitive edge. Moreover, many products are
so similar that differentiating one brand from another is critical."
- In a review
of William Meyers' The Image Makers (New York Times,
(12/23/84), Stephen Fox says that
"Mr. Meyers believes the psychographic revolution began in the
'50s, when it displaced the 'impulsive,' 'intuitive' practitioners
who [had] dominated the business, Actually, however, advertising
swings back and forth. In the '50s and '70s there was an emphasis
on market research and quantification; the '80s, like the '60s,
have been marked by an emphasis on creativity and advertising
as art...Psychological methods such as motivation research were
widely discussed, if not widely used, by advertising in the
'50s precisely because they fitted the social-science fashions
of the day."
Regarding the validity of both Meyers and Packard's arguments,
"In the sense that The Image Makers is largely an updating
of The Hidden Persuaders, Mr. Meyers repeats Vance Packard's
fundamental error -- interviewing interested parties wit professional
stakes in psychological approaches to advertising and then taking
their self-serving claims too literally."
- In December,
1991, The Public Pulse reported that despite decades
of criticism, beginning with Packard, "neither the somewhat
sinister connotations attached to terms like 'ad men' and 'Madison
Avenue,' nor the recent explosion of marketing and advertising
channels, have turned consumers against advertising in general.
By a 59-35% margin, more of the public view the advertising
industry favorably than unfavorably -- and assessment virtually
unchanged over the past decade...But Americans are far more
critical [of] advertising practices. Asked about 14 specific
advertising and marketing practices ...[of] American business,
they consider the negative ones [to be] far more common than
the positive ones."
- In an
article entitled "Beyond the Hidden Persuaders (Forbes,
3/23/87)," Jeffrey Sonnenberg says that
"Many of the tools Madison Avenue's new motivators use would
be familiar to Packard. The Thematic Apperception Test, for
example, is still with us. But it has been sharpened by experience
to tap more efficiently emotions and feeling about products
that many of us are normally unable or unwilling to share.
"So-called focus groups remain an important tool, too...But
the scale and sophistication of it all is beyond anything Packard
could report. Today every major ad agency has a research department
that keeps sociologists or psychologists or anthropologists
on retainer...Thanks to advances in the social sciences and
the advent of personal computers, there is not only more information
available to researchers today than 30 years ago, but that information
is analyzed far faster and in greater detail."