Dichter, Ernest (1907-1991)

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Ernest Dichter, the "father of motivational research," was born in 1907 in Vienna. He studied psychology at the University of Vienna, where he received his doctorate in 1934. He left his native Austria in 1938 via France after persuading the U.S. consul in Paris to give him a visa. He argued that he could help the U.S. solve its problems by getting to the root of why people behave in certain ways.

Mr. Dichter made his reputation in advertising in the 1950s, as the ad industry turned more and more toward persuasion to sell the increasing number of products and brands that were pouring onto the market. He offered aspects of Freudian psychology, with heavy emphasis on the symbolism of products. Thus, according to Mr. Dichter, what was important in selling cigarette lighters was the idea that the flame represented a desire for mastery and power.

His detractors laughed, but believers hung on Mr. Dichter's every word-and acted on them as well. It reached a stage, one advertising man recalled years later, when some advertisers would not listen to advice unless it came from a man with a thick Viennese accent and professorial mien; dozens of Dichter-soundalike practitioners suddenly emerged.

The Compton Agency was one of the first to call on Mr. Dichter. Its Procter & Gamble Co. product, Ivory soap, was not selling as well as the agency thought it should. Mr. Dichter interviewed 100 people at YMCAs and came to the conclusion that bathing was not just a matter of washing away dirt but a psychological cleansing, too.

P&G backed his insight and paid Mr. Dichter $400 for his work. The result was the slogan, "Be smart and get a fresh start with Ivory Soap . . . and wash all your troubles away." It was the first time, Mr. Dichter believed, that motivational research was actually used to sell a product.

Hired by Chrysler Corp. to help sell Plymouth cars, he uncovered the key role women play in men's buying decisions and recommended ads in women's magazines. The success that followed brought Time's accolade, "Viennese psychologist discovers gold mine for Chrysler."

Mr. Dichter was also responsible for the internationally famous Esso/Exxon "Put a tiger in your tank" slogan, introduced in 1956 and a consequence of his insight that people associate cars with power.

That same year, Mr. Dichter was featured in the best-selling book "The Hidden Persuaders" by Vance Packard, which depicted an advertising industry as maneuvering consumers into buying goods they neither wanted nor needed. Mr. Dichter, a practical man, later admitted he saw Mr. Packard's book less as an attack than as a big break. "I got invitations of work from all over the world."

He opened a dozen offices and began working with his new international audience. In London, for example, he explained that the British consumed vast amounts of candy to channel their suppressed emotions.

Even in his late 1970s, his client list still ran to hundreds. Companies that employed him included CBS, General Mills, Alberto-Culver Co., AT&T Corp., Coca-Cola Co. and Sears, Roebuck & Co.

His reputation fluctuated wildly. Over the years he found himself attacked, ridiculed, consigned to history and rehabilitated. His motivational research lives on in qualitative research, and his message that advertisers sell images is now considered a truism. Focus groups (he claimed to be the first to coin the term) have become commonplace. No one today doubts that what people do-including what they buy-is often irrational and their motivations unclear.


Born in Vienna, Aug. 14, 1907; received doctorate in psychology from the University of Vienna, 1934; emigrated to the U.S., 1938; founded the Institute of Motivational Research, New York, 1946; elected fellow of the American Psychological Association; named Man of the Year by Market Research Council, 1983; died in Peaksville, N.Y., Nov. 22, 1991.

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