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Ernest Dichter’s Marketing Insights


Ernest Dichter was an Austrian-American psychologist and marketing expert in the 1950s.

And from what I’ve read, it seems like he was quite a creepy guy. He called his focus groups his “living laboratory”, and lived in a castle of sorts.

But he was also a total genius. He coined phrases like ‘put a tiger in your tank” (for Exxon), and ”be smart, get a new start with Ivory soap.”

Put A Tiger In Your Tank

I am not forcing anyone to do anything. I am simply exploring their motivations.” – Ernest Dichter

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Introduction– “A Little, Jaunty, Balding Psychologist”

In the 1960s, Swimsuit Illustrated did a lengthy piece (over 3500 words!) about a “little, jaunty, balding psychologist” named Ernest Dichter.

“One of the most unusual persons making the sporting scene these days is a little, jaunty, balding psychologist named Ernest Dichter. Dr. Dichter—the title comes from a Ph.D. earned in Vienna in Freud’s heyday—is the acknowledged father of motivational research, a relatively new and spooky specialty using depth interviews, word-association tests and psychodramas to discover the hidden desires lurking in our minds.”

It is the doctor’s job to probe the mass psyche for manufacturers who want to know how to sell products, and this has led on a surprising number of occasions to a study of the subconscious in sport.

The doctor has, for instance, investigated…

  1. the “emotional factors” inhibiting attendance at harness races
  2. the significance of the term home in baseball (think about that for a while)
  3. the impact of Esther Williams’ personality on swimming pools.
  4. Personality is a big thing with the doctor. He once compared the “personalities” of an orange and a grapefruit and found, among other things, that the orange “evokes association of friendliness” whereas the grapefruit exudes “elegant reserve.”

Here are some of Dr. Dichter’s interesting findings:

“Athletes put themselves in the ball.”

"Bowlerbowling" by Xiaphias
“Bowlerbowling” by Xiaphias

Dr. Dichter generally begins a motivational research project by sitting back in his office chair and thinking out loud about possible psychological answers to the problem at hand. The doctor is a great idea man.

In a recent “ad lib” interview on sports, he offered the hypothesis that bowlers are actually “knocking down people—little men, women, I don’t know,” and that golfers are flying along in the air with the ball.

“Watch their expressions,” he said. “They’re putting themselves into the ball. ‘We just fly and soar into the blue sky!’ ”

1. 1955 study of boat buyers:


One of Dr. Dichter’s biggest sporting projects was a study of boat buyers in 1955. The word boating itself, he reported, had “such a tremendous emotional impact on respondents (regardless of age or sex) that they poured forth an endless stream of emotional material.”

Dr. Dichter traced the outpouring back to “pleasant memories of one’s first childhood experiences via a toy sailboat—with Mother Nature.” These memories give boating “a deep, underlying emotional meaning.”

Dr. Dichter warned the boating industry it faced the considerable “psychological task” of converting this emotion into cash. “Optimism is not enough to realize the future’s potentialities,” was the doctor’s dictum. “Sound psychological know-how must be applied to the zip and zest the entire boating industry is now showing….

“We find that prior to the age of abundance boats were owned by wealthy men who were also knowledgeable regarding boatcraft and prideful of their reputation as old salts. Today the people who contribute the most heavily to boat and motor sales are the average man and woman….

Boats are an emotional investment:

“Our studies indicate that today’s boat buyer is first of all making an emotional investment when he decides to walk into a boat store and look over the fleet. He wants to belong to a leisure club, either imaginary or real, rather than a leisure class. He, therefore, expects the dealer to cater to his ambition and not to snub him because of his lack of expert boating knowledge.”

Role of the ego:

Male boat buyers were seeking outboard power “in almost a sexual way.” The doctor went so far as to chart males on a “power profile.” For his first boat, a man wanted a 3-horsepower engine, for his second a 5, his third two 10s, his fourth 20 to 25 and for his fifth—well, the doctor noted rapturously, the “sky is the limit.”

Although the male wanted power, he was also concerned about “the needs of the other members of the family who might not get an opportunity to experience the sensual, motor activity of steering the boat.” These “silent passenger-members” have “a strong need of ‘calm—and peace.’ ” Their need for peace and Pa’s passion for power set up what the doctor called “a psychological need for equipping boats with…’whispering power.’ ”

“People buy Veblen goods to gain social status and psychological gratification:”

In closing, the doctor cautioned against price cutting. The boat buyer wanted to pay the full price, the doctor said, to gain “social status and psychological gratification.” By contrast, “a marked-down price may leave him in doubt of the exact social position which the boat confers upon him.”

2: How to sell Esther Williams’ themed swimming pools

Esther Williams Swimmer
Esther Williams was a competitive swimmer and actress, popular in the 50s.

Dr. Dichter waded into deeper water in a study for a company selling Esther Williams swimming pools. To begin with, he probed not the pool but the personality of Miss Williams herself.

Start by selling with the “Personality Image”

Her “personality image,” he explained, “matches the psychological image of a swimming pool.” He quizzed 177 persons, asking such questions as what section does Esther Williams probably first turn to in a newspaper (the majority said sports). When he gathered all the answers, he announced that Miss Williams, and ipso facto her pool, was…

  • All American
  • Healthy
  • Wholesome
  • Family-Oriented

The doctor was just as happy with his other findings on the subject of pools. “The motor age is beginning to backfire!” he wrote. More and more persons, he found, were “seeking rationalizations for not leaving home” and, what’s more, they were “talking out their dreams about pools.”

A “fertile psychological market” was there for the picking, and the doctor offered 32 suggestions on how to pick it clean.

Among them, the doctor exhorted the company to develop distinctive psychological appeals.

Here are just 4 of the suggestions:

  • Implied treatment: “You might suggest that water in the Esther Williams swimming pools is specially treated with some kind of an additive, XQ35, somewhere along the line of the GL70 toothpaste approach. With this, there can be used such specific terms as, perhaps pine pure—permanently glowing—lagoon blue, etc.”
  • Sensory inputs: The doctor also suggested adding special odors to the water, and he offered a few slogans: “The pool with the smell of the sea!” “Velvet soft to the touch” and “I feel fresh—smell fresh.”
  • Connection With Greatness: The doctor advised the company to play up its connection with Esther Williams. “Because of the great psychological importance of the first pool experience, make sure that an Esther Williams representative is on the spot when the pool is opened,” he wrote. “Have him turn on the water.”
  • Public Signalling Mechanism: “Another feature of consideration for the pool owner and one which, at the same time, can help spread the word about Esther Williams pool would be to supply the pool owner with an inexpensive flagpole, a series of nautical type pennants and an Esther Williams disk that can be used similarly to the red ball on skating rinks. ‘The swimming flag or the swimming disk is up’—can be the cry of the neighborhood.”

3: How to sell baseball gloves:


Dr. Dichter’s biggest plunge into sports came not with pools but in a far-ranging study he did for a sporting goods manufacturer who posed him such questions as:

  • How important are sensory appeals in baseball gloves?
  • How important is a player’s autograph on a glove?
  • Are there any differences between adult and youth sports motivations?
  • What is the typology of the adult athlete?

Undaunted, the doctor duly supplied the answers in Report 1041D:

“Men and boys have different sporting motivations.”

First of all, the company had “failed to acknowledge the cleavage between adult and youth sport motivations….

Young boys,” the doctor wrote, “seek different gratifications from sports activities compared to those sought by their fathers.

“Teenagers are anxious and fear failure.”

To the teen-ager and the younger boy, sports represent anything but undiluted pleasure…. He is anxious to perform well in order to belong to the ‘gang.’

He is in constant fear of failure, and requires the kind of reassurance that [the company’s] ads and promotion do not provide in the measure he needs.”

After letting this sink in, the doctor moved on to the adult, who, by contrast, “sees sports as an opportunity to relive his own youth through his children. He is a nostalgic athlete, and as our findings indicate, he falls into three types….

3 Types Of Adult Sports Interest

  1. The Vicarious Athlete. He wants his son to have ‘the best’—something which he never had because his family couldn’t afford it or because [of] his own youthful lack of interest at the time. He sees the best as enabling his son to perform well, and, therefore, himself winning victories vicariously.
  2. The Genuine Athlete. He likes to encourage his children to participate in sports because he believes in the value of such activity and sees it as an integral part of the ‘healthy life.’
  3. The Indifferent Athlete. More of an intellectual type. He usually has a smattering of knowledge about modern child psychology and, therefore, his main goal is to develop his relationship with his son…. On the surface, it appears that anything that can further his relationship with his son would appeal to the indifferent athlete. This is true in every instance except where it threatens the adult’s self-image. A small minority of our father-respondents, under deep probing, ‘confessed’ that the reason they did not encourage sports so much was because they themselves were not very proficient in athletic activities. They developed anxiety feelings with regard to the way they would appear to their sons if they did not perform well.”

“Adults want to recapture their youth.”

Generally, fathers felt their “sports activities should be limited—in scope and vigor—by the time ‘your hair began to recede and you had that middle-aged spread.’ Golf and fishing seemed to be the ‘most permissible’ exercises for adults—according to their surface opinions. But, upon deeper probing, we found that these same respondents would have liked to be able to play baseball and football with other adults. The motivation, we found, was to recapture their youth, to obtain reassurance that, somehow, they were not really getting older.

Health concerns

“Resistance to this wish to project themselves actively into their past stemmed from anxiety about ‘hurting myself,’ about causing damage to their hearts.” The doctor quoted one worried father of three: “I’d like to get out on a baseball field and wallop the ball over the fence. But what about the old ticker? I’ll stick to tennis if I want to be an athlete.”

As he does with any answer, the doctor found this significant. “Note,” he said, “how this respondent saw only baseball as a danger to his heart while regarding tennis as harmless. To combat this stereotype of ‘over exercise’ [the company] might emphasize the health aspects of outdoor sports, stressing the fact that exercise helps remove excess fat.”

The autograph problem– are signatures to be trusted?

Gloves posed a number of problems. Autographs on both cheap and expensive models confused youngsters. “A glove with a star ball player’s signature provides a means of identification with a grown-up person,” the doctor wrote. “In a sense, it is a psychological certificate of qualification for ‘grown-up-hood.’

“This is true mostly of the younger boys (from eight to 12),” he continued. “Not one of our older teenage respondents would admit outright he was interested in star players’ signatures on his glove. In fact, he responded…with a summary dismissal of signatures as ‘kid stuff.’…

Upon deeper probing of skeptical older teen-agers, we found that some of the rejection of the star’s signature was due to unbelievable advertising. (‘Sure, it’s got Mickey Mantle’s signature on it. But who says he uses the glove?…’) It is important to note here that the objection is not to the autograph itself, but to what is seen as an unreliable endorsement….”

The doctor offered an easy solution: reserve “the star player’s signature on the more expensive glove and put a printed name rather than a signature on the cheaper one.”

“Subconscious intangibles (and sensory stimuli) affect sales.”

“For 90 per cent of our sample,” he wrote, “a baseball glove was almost synonymous with leather. In their ‘baseball glove language,’ there were countless spontaneous references to the ‘feel,’ the softness, the pliability of the leather…. Tactile sensory satisfactions are a major appeal of gloves. The deep well, according to most of our youthful respondents, is important not only because it ‘makes it easier to hold the ball,’ but also because, according to some, it gives a ‘pleasanter feel’ when you’ve ‘got the ball snuggling in there.’ This pleasant tactile sensation is also provided ‘when the fingers are inside the soft leather.’ ”

Accordingly, the doctor recommended lengthening the fingers to add to the feel appeal. He also urged that the well be deepened not only because of the feel and the snuggle but because youngsters obviously received a certain sonic satisfaction when they heard a ball smack into the glove. Build in the sound, he advised.

The doctor approved the symbol of a steer in the well of the glove. The steer had connotations of “fierceness” and “strength.” Wrote the doctor: “This is a dynamic figure which stimulated some need for activity. As one 17-year-old observed: ‘I like to smack my fist right into the hole. I can bang the steer right in its face.’ ”

“Baseball mirrors life.”

Dr. Dichter expanded his thoughts about baseball in a study on the psychology of the fan. His most startling observation was that baseball, with home plate, mirrors life. It is, he wrote, “not too difficult to find the parallel between the home in which you live and home plate on a baseball diamond.

Home plate is the only base that can be physically blocked against the attacker. The catcher defends home plate against the runner, not merely with skill and speed, but also with every fiber of his body. Home plate has a special importance for the team at bat, too—it is where each member of the team begins. And each one, if he is successful, returns as the hero after having travelled the world round. If he is unsuccessful, he may never leave home at all, or he may start and, finding the way too difficult, will be banished.”

Baseball, the doctor reported, has a scapegoat in the umpire, “the stern father figure.” Dressed in “a sinister-looking outfit,” the ump is “a perfect target for hostile feelings.”

4: How to make “boring” harness racing sexy and youthful

Trotting racer at the Krieau, Vienna, Austria.

In February 1960, Dr. Dichter’s released a report on sport– a 103-page job titled A Motivational Research Study Aimed at Increasing Public Interest in Harness Racing and Building Attendance at the Los Angeles Racing Tracks.

On behalf of the Western Harness Racing Association, the doctor probed 250 persons in the Los Angeles area with depth interviews, sentence-completion tests and a battery of drawings. (One depicted a family of four—Mom, Dad, two tots—outside a harness track. The doctor asked respondents, “What kind of woman is the wife?”)

The interviews revealed that although Angelenos were “factually aware” of harness racing tracks in the area, many showed an “aloofness” and a reluctance to attend. These attitudes, said the doctor, sprang from “emotional factors which are partly based upon fact and partly upon false impressions and lack of information.”

Emotional factors affecting harness racing, according to Ernest Dichter:

  • Harness Racing was for “old cronies”: “…the present image of the Harness Racing Fan does not permit identification for the average person. There is a prevailing belief [in Los Angeles] that Harness Races appeal to a group ‘apart,’ comprised of ‘old cronies’ who have a special understanding and affinity for this sport, dyed-in-the-wool fans, horse fanciers and people who enjoy ‘watching’ horse races rather than betting on them.
  • Undesirable to be a Harness Racing Fan: “The Harness Racing Fan is not only seen as someone who is different from oneself and one’s close friends and associates, but [he] is also seen as someone one does not wish to be like. We find him described as a dull, noncompetitive, conservative type individual, getting on in years, lacking excitement qualities and the type of gumption or bravado which is often seen as an expression of masculinity.”
  • “Just a horse show”: Harness Racing is seen as “something of a Horse Show. People talk of the beauty and form of the horses in motion and the enjoyment of watching them.” On the surface, the doctor wrote, this is complimentary, but it “tends to exclude from attending those who are more interested in wagering than in looking at beautiful horses. Again we find that the common man…feels he would be out of place at the Harness Races.”
  • The betting opportunities were unsatisfactory: “Whereas there is a very strong and positive association between Thoroughbred Racing and the fun and excitement of gambling, Harness Races are found unsatisfactory in this respect by a sizable group of people. In response to our word association test, which asked people to say anything that ran through their minds as they heard the words ‘Harness Races,’ 43% of the respondents reacted with some expression of criticism of the gambling opportunities. This is a high percent when we consider that these responses were entirely voluntary and unsolicited.”
  • “The favorites always win”: “To the average person,” the doctor wrote, “the excitement of gambling is comprised of extremes: ‘You make a killing’ or ‘You go home broke.’ Either result brings about ‘satiety,’ the feeling that you have had your fill. Gambling loses in its appeal where the extreme element is absent.”
  • The driver might not be ‘all out’: The respondents also were “disturbed by a driver restraining the horse on which their money is riding. The ‘expert’ may know that restraint is part skillful driving, but the average spectator merely feels that the driver is not ‘all out to win’ for him.”
  • “Standardbred” seemed inferior: Finally, the harness racing term standardbred fared poorly when compared with the word Thoroughbred. In the word-association test, Thoroughbred evoked “Beautiful, sleek, blue bloods, sired by the finest, best breeding, sport of kings,” while standardbred meant “something inferior.”

Dichter’s actionables for improving the image of harness racing:

  • First, facilitate identification. “Immediate efforts should be devoted to building a positive image of the Harness Racing patron.
  • Make it youthful and relatable. “The Harness Racing Fan should be portrayed as youthful, vigorous, masculine, fun-loving, and slightly roguish. He should be city-bred (to counteract the ‘country bumpkin’ identification), modern in outlook and appearance, but also down-to-earth and an ‘average guy.’
  • Show people having fun. “In your advertisements, utilize people ‘having fun’ rather than the horse and sulky…. Whenever the horse and sulky are portrayed, this should be done in such a way as to suggest motion and speed. The driver should be shown leaning forward, rather than in a sitting and upright position, to counteract the impression that he is holding the horse back.
  • “Portray strongly masculine situations, such as a ‘day off’ with the ‘fellows.’: In such advertisements, stress pleasant social situations and care-free feelings…. Advertisements portraying men and women should present the women as ‘dates,’ ‘sweethearts,’ and ‘girl friends.’… The important thing is to dispel a man’s fear that his wife will nag him about his gambling and a woman’s fear that, instead of enjoying herself, she will worry about his losing too much. Promotion and publicity directed at women alone, particularly any ad directed at women, are likely to create undesirable effects. Harness Racing at present suffers from a lack of strong masculine identification and such promotion may reinforce this prejudice…. Even though this approach might seem to exclude women, many of our studies have shown that women find any activity which is supposedly for men twice as appealing.”

The Los Angeles tracks acted immediately. Ads showed the driver leaning forward. Clothing designers whipped up styles that would turn wrinkled old men into virile charioteers, and before long, presto, drivers appeared in snug jackets, trim, close-fitting trousers and racing helmets (to convey the image of speed and danger).

In case the public missed the point, the Western Harness Racing Association snapped up the most masculine model it could find, dressed him in white pants and flashy boots and slapped his picture on billboards. In a series of “get acquainted” ads, the association used 10 of its most successful—and youngest—drivers. Youth took over in press releases. “If 26-year-old Jones wins a race, we write a release emphasizing his age,” says a publicity man. “If an older guy wins, we don’t mention the age.”

Ads also spruced up the fan. On billboards roguish young men and their dates leaped from their seats at the track to exclaim, “It’s Fun Time—Harness Racing.”

The association dreamed up a snappy slogan: “Win, Place, What a Show.”

There are too many variables affecting attendance and handle to measure the value of Dr. Dichter’s report in dollars and cents, but the association is well pleased. “He got us thinking,” General Manager Pres Jenuine says. “He showed us what other people thought of our operation and the thing we’re selling.”

And that, ultimately, is at the heart of what marketing is about.


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Visakan Veerasamy

Visa is ReferralCandy's Blog Editor. He also co-founded Statement.sg, a fashion ecommerce label selling witty t-shirts. He's been thrice named a Top Writer on Quora. He hopes to enjoy a glass of whiskey onboard a commercial space flight someday.

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