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The Soul of Things

This chapter is of particular interest because in it Dichter offers a number of insights, gained by depth interviews, about the real importance of many objects in our everyday lives. He starts by pointing out that objects have a luminous power and that we relate to them and they affect us, matters that we tend to dismiss. He writes (1960:86):

Modern psychology has overlooked to a very large extent the real expressive powers that objects have. Objects have a soul. People on the one hand, and products, goods, and commodities on the other, entertain a dynamic relationship of constant interaction.

Individuals project themselves into products. In buying a car they actually buy an extension of their own personality. When they are “loyal” to a commercial brand, they are loyal to themselves ...

He adds to this insight a few pages later (1960:91):

The objects which surround us do not simply have utilitarian aspects; rather they serve as a kind of mirror which reflects our own image. Objects which surround us permit us to discover more and more about ourselves.

This knowledge of the soul of things is possibly, Dichter suggests, a “new and revolutionary way of discovering the soul of man” (1960:91).

What are some of the insights that Dichter has discovered in his research into the objects that are part of our lives? Let me list some of the more interesting findings:

  • 1. Chest of drawers are tied to the continuity of our lives.
  • 2. Cupboard spaces, seemingly never adequate, are capsules of our family lives.
  • 3. Tea was originally seen as feminine and something only to be drunk when ill.
  • 4. Oranges are seen as friendly and grapefruit as reserved.
  • 5. Copper is “ageless” and iron is old-fashioned.
  • 6. Women see cotton as “chaste,” “innocent,” and “feminine.” Men see cotton as connoting cheapness and shoddiness and lack of durability. Wool is masculine.
  • 7. Textiles are seen as insulating and preventing contamination; they also promote social contact.

These findings are the tip of the iceberg, of course. But what they show is that people relate to objects in complex ways and that objects have meanings for people of which they generally are not aware.

Let me cite another interesting example. Dichter has done research on automobiles and what their secret significance is. He mentions an automobile that came out with a flat bonnet (hood) was a big flop. It was thought the failure of the car was due to technical reasons but Dichter discovered something else (1960:116):

Actually, what had happened was that this car manufacturer had run afoul of one of the irrational factors at work in human nature. The normal shape of a car has a lot to do with its symbolic significance, that of a penetrating instrument. It symbolizes speed and power, it has, furthermore, in a psychological sense, considerable significance as a phallic symbol. In a sense, therefore, when the model with the blunt bonnet came on the market, it violated this symbolic significance of the shape of the car, and it was rejected instinctively by people who did not know quite why. In other words, to them it lacked a certain sense of potency and penetrating power.

Dichter’s argument, then, is that irrational factors often overwhelm rational ones in our decision making, and it is important to understand this general principle, and to obtain information relating to a particular product or appeal, before manufacturing a car or running a campaign to get people to donate more blood. The car actually had better air-flow than other models but psychological and emotional considerations doomed it. We live in a world of emotions and symbols, which are connected to our impulses and emotions, which explains why Dichter titled one of his chapters “We Think as We Please.”

In this chapter he deals with various factors that affect our thinking, arguing that assuming human beings are essentially rational beings doesn’t take into account such things as the power of non-verbal communication, the moods people have, the fear ofembarrassment in people, the power consumers get by being “undecided,” the psychological filters people use (through which they interpret things that happen to them), and the power that symbols have to shape human behavior. Interestingly, he concludes that based on his research that “anything can come to represent almost anything else. There is probably nothing intrinsic, inherent, or absolute in any symbol” (1960:129). This statement is very similar to Saussure’s semiotic analysis that tells us that the meaning of signs is arbitrary and based on convention.

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