American Consumer Culture: Market Research and American Business, 1935-1965

This summer Penn Libraries added to its digital collections, American Consumer Culture: Market Research and American Business, 1935-1965, a rich trove of market research reports and supporting documents of Ernest Dichter, “the era’s foremost consumer analyst and market research pioneer,” and his Institute for Motivational Research. These materials derive from research commissioned by advertising agencies and global businesses from around the world. “Immensely influential, Dichter’s Freud-inspired studies put the consumer “on the couch” and emphasised the unconscious motives behind consumer behaviour. The Institute of Motivational Research employed trained social scientists and used established methodologies to conduct psychological research. Dichter’s career reached its peak after Vance Packard’s bestselling exposé The Hidden Persuaders (1957) presented Dichter as a mastermind manipulator who could exploit the emotions of consumers for the benefit of any advertising agency or big brand.” –from the Archive’s Nature and Scope section

With this resource communication students (as well as researchers of consumer culture, marketing, advertising, and psychology) can not only access final reports and pilot studies for the great campaigns of advertising’s golden age, but also peer behind the scenes via proposals and letters back and forth between the Institute and its clients. The campaigns under scrutiny cover a wide range of industries—automobiles,cleaning products, electronics, energy and utilities, food and drink, hair and beauty, personal products, tobacco, toys and games, and more.  Research on communication industries are also in the mix–advertising itself, broadcasting, media and publishing, and motion pictures. That the Institute employed a variety of research methods, some in their early stages of development, is especially appealing to social scientists who are able to isolate methods (interview, focus group, case studies, test, questionnaire, and diary) regardless of products or brands by a simple key word search strategy. Of course, one can also search the archive by titles, brand names, companies, and commissioners. Searches can be restricted by industries, document types (letters, reports, etc.), or language.  Bear in mind the scope of this resource is not limited to the United States as Dichter had offices in Paris, Rome, Zurich, and Frankfurt.

I did a brand search on Volvo and retrieved two reports from 1969: Why Does an American Buy a Volvo? A proposal For a Motivation Research Study; and How To Make It Even Better—A Motivation Study of Ten New Opportunities for Marketing Volvo in the USA.  Keywords assigned to the latter report are: automobile, marketing, car, brand choice, reputation, price, pricing, word-of-mouth advertising, corporate image, market segmentation, symbolism, name.

Political campaigns also called on Dichter and his people so I thought I’d try a quick “anywhere” search on the word “presidential.”  29 results appeared including reports on what can be done to make more Americans vote (1952), the personality characteristics of undecided voters (1969), and FDR’s radio history (1945) which contains a table illustrating the parallel between the number of radio sets in use and the number of ballots cast in
presidential elections from 19breck-small20-1940. This is really an interesting resource to browse (check out the Ad Gallery) and if you are going in for something specific you may be richly rewarded without having to travel to the Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington where Dichter’s papers reside.

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