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The Strategy of Desire

Dichter divides his book into two sections. Part One is titled “Persuasion Started with Eve” and contains chapters with titles such as “The Mask of Behavior,” “The Discovery of Motivations,” “Command or Persuasion,” “The Soul of Things,” and “We Think as We Please.” Part II is called “Strategy in a Conflict Era” and has chapters on “The Psycho-Economic Age,” “The Fear of Change,” “The Search for Identity,” “The ‘Burden’ of the Good Life,” and “Search for a Goal.” There are also two appendixes. The first one has information on the techniques of motivational research and the second one offers a case history of research Dichter conducted on “The Psychology of Car Buying.”

I’ve listed these chapters because I believe they offer a picture of the topics Dichter explored; they are much more wide-ranging than finding out what motivates people to purchase this or that brand of some product. We get a sense of Dichter’s range in the introduction to the book where he writes (1960:15):

We have learned to perfect the techniques of persuasion and communication. Often the assignment given our organization for conducting motivational research was a very sober and concrete one. How could we convince people that they should buy more of a brand of soap, chewing gum, or beer? Often the aim is far loftier. How could we get people to give more blood, to vote, to participate in elections?... How could we get people to give to charity or keep the city clean? How could we stop the new wave of antiSemitism? How could we get more people to join the Air Force? In some instances, the problem was concerned with broad philosophical goals. How could we create better understanding between the races?

To accomplish such goals, Dichter tells us, we have to learn to think in new ways. We can motivate people two ways—one is what he calls

“theological,” invoking the Ten Commandments and that kind of thing, and the other is “social scientific,” using new developments in our understanding human motivation to achieve socially constructive goals.

Dichter’s Methods: A Case History on Baby Food

Dichter attacks what he considers to be the simplistic methods of some social scientists who focus only on empirical data.

As Dichter explains (1960:17):

The Aristotelian belief in empiricism and deduction from observation, from objective data, is highly questionable in light of modern epistemology and semantics. Effective scientific research, I believe, must start with a hypothesis.

That is, for Dichter social scientific research is based on problem solving and a pragmatic approach to solving problems, especially since we live in what Dichter calls an “age of psychology,” in which motivation research and the methods of modern communication and persuasion assume an important role. “Motivation research,” he tells us, “thus represents the application of social science techniques to the problems of human motivations” (1960:19). These problems of motivation, we must keep in mind, cover everything from convincing someone to purchase a jar of soup to getting people to see their doctors regularly in order to permit the early detection of cancer to fighting racism and anti-Semitism.

Dichter offers a case history that is instructive. He was asked by a baby food manufacturer to figure out how to best advertise its products. The assumption most people made was that the best approach was to say how the baby food would contribute to the health of babies. Based on 350 interviews with mothers, Dichter discovered that what mothers wanted most was to make the feeding chore “more convenient and pleasant.” The baby food manufacturer could do this by promising that its brand of baby food would be more likely to be enjoyed and less likely to be rejected by the child.

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