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The Strategy of Desire

Dichter was a consulting psychologist for the Columbia Broadcasting System from 1943 to 1946 and president of the Institute for Motivational Research starting in 1946. In 1956, he formed Ernest Dichter Associates International. He was the author of many books, such as The Psychology of Everyday Life (1947), The Strategy of Desire (1960), Handbook of Consumer Motivation (1964), Motivating Human Behavior (1971), The Naked Manager (1974), and Packaging: The Sixth Sense-A Guide to Consumer Motivation (1975). His books and pioneering work for various corporations and entities led to him being called “the father of motivation research.” If he wasn’t the “father” of motivation research, he most certainly was one of the founding fathers of the discipline.

I had the pleasure of writing a new introduction to a recent reprinting of The Strategy of Desire and this chapter is an enhanced version of that introduction.

Dichter’s Methods

The “Editor’s Note” in his book on packaging offers us insights into how Dichter worked. It reads, in part, as follows (1975:7):

Dr. Ernest Dichter is Chairman of the Board of Ernest Dichter Associations International Ltd., a research organization that specializes in applying the social sciences to a variety of problems. The organization deals primarily with human motivations, advertising, politics and selling, and issues of social significance such as urban renewal, productivity, and drug addiction. The main emphasis is on creating new approaches, thinking a problem through, and using special methods of interviewing people-so-called nondirective depth approaches are used as opposed to asking superficial, direct questions.

What Dichter did, in essence, was to use psychoanalytic theory and depth interviewing in new ways. He didn’t use psychoanalytic theory to deal with neuroses, personality problems, and relationship difficulties of individuals but to deal with unconsciously held attitudes and beliefs that help explain that most mysterious topic—why consumers act and buy the way they do. As Dichter explained in The Strategy of Desire (1960:12):

Whatever you attitude toward modern psychology of psychoanalysis, it has been proved beyond any doubt that many of our daily decisions are governed by motivations over which we have no control and of which we are often quite


This would suggest that these motivations are, in Freudian terms, buried in the unconscious level of our psyches. As I pointed out earlier in this book, Freud’s topographic hypothesis divided the psyche into three parts: one part of which we are aware—consciousness, a preconscious (material buried just beneath our consciousness that can be accessed), and the unconscious (material buried in our psyches and unavailable to us, but accessible to trained experts through dream analysis and depth interviewing).

I used a visual metaphor for these three levels: an iceberg. The part floating above the water, that we can see, is the area of our psyches of which we are conscious. The layer of the iceberg just beneath the waves, that we can dimly perceive, is the preconscious area of our psyches. And buried in the darkness, hidden from the sun (and our consciousness) is the unconscious. What we have to recognize, psychoanalytic theory tells us, is that the unconscious frequently shapes our behavior and thus we are often controlled by imperatives of which we are unaware that are buried deep in our psyches.

Let me offer an example, taken from his book, the Handbook of Consumer Motivation, that might seem frivolous, since it is about cigarette lighters. It shows Dichter’s methods. Remember that his findings are based on depth interviews with people who did not realize they were offering information of value to marketers.

He writes (1964:341):

The reliability of a lighter is important because it is integrally connected with the basic [that is unconscious] reason for using a lighter.

Now if you were to ask people why they use cigarette lighters, the answer they would give would generally be “to light cigarettes.” That is the manifest or conscious explanation of why people use cigarette lighters. The latent or unconscious, and more significant reason, has to do with other matters. Dichter explores these latent or unconscious factors and offers the following (1964:341):

The basic reason for using a lighter [is]... the desire for mastery and power.

The capacity to summon fire inevitably gives every human being, child or grownup, a sense of power. Reasons go far back into man’s history. Fire and the ability to command it are prized because they are associated not only with warmth, but also with life itself. As attested to by the Greek legend of Prometheus and many other myths, the ability to control fire is an age-old symbol of man’s conquest of the physical world he inhabits. A cigarette lighter provided conspicuous evidence of this ability to summon fire. The ease and speed with which the lighter works enhances the feeling of power. The failure of a lighter to work does not just create superficial social embarrassment, it frustrates a deep-seated desire for a feeling of mastery and control.

Thus, at the next level down, the preconscious level of the psyche, cigarette lighters are connected with a desire to demonstrate mastery and power. To recapitulate, at the conscious level, we use cigarette lighters to light cigarettes. At the preconscious level, we use cigarette lighters to demonstrate our power and mastery of fire. But there is a level below this that explains even more about the significance of cigarette lighters—that is the level of the unconscious. Dichter explains the unconscious imperatives behind cigarette lighter use (1964:341):

Research evidence suggests that a still deeper level the need for certainty that a cigarette lighter will work matters as much as it does because it is also bound up with the idea of sexual potency. The working of the lighter becomes a kind of symbol of the flame which must be lit in consummating sexual union.

Dichter makes this argument, remember, on the basis of “research evidence,” which we can assume to mean depth interviews of a number of people who use cigarette lighters. Any Freudian could probably have guessed that cigarette lighters are connected to sexuality since, for Freudians, just about everything is ultimately connected to sexuality.

What Dichter’s work on cigarette lighters does is point out that many phenomena that might seem trivial—such as why people use cigarette lighters—are often connected to extremely important matters.

In Strategy of Desire Dichter anticipates the reactions many people to his work. He writes (1960:95):

Some readers may consider this analysis as farfetched. What proof do we have that any other kind of explanation would not serve as well? We conducted several hundred interviews, we use projective tests where people could freely associate with the designs or with real lighters of different designs. This approach then approximated a controlled experiment.

As a result of the insights gained by his research, the company that employed Dichter changed its advertising campaign and increased sales of its lighters.

With this information in mind, let us turn our attention to some of the main topics Dichter deals with in The Strategy of Desire. Dichter will argue, we will see, for a much broader conception of what social science research should be, and will attack what he considers to be a narrow and oversimplistic empiricism that dominates much social science thinking and research.

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