Freud and the Intriguing History of Focus Groups

Focus groups may be seen as a dry scientific approach to market research. It may be so, but the actual origins of the focus groups are intriguing—replete with military intelligence, depth psychology, and a range of basic human instincts that of course include sex.

At its core, the history of the focus group is a fascinating journey into the innovative mind of one of the founding fathers of modern marketing.

Focus groups before they were focus groups:

The genesis of focus groups is generally attributed to sociologist Robert Merton in 1946 at the US Bureau of Applied Social Research at Columbia University. It began as a form of  to determine the social and mental effects of mass communications on the general public. Merton was a pioneer in the area of group studies. He conducted significant research on the effects of radio broadcasts, as well as Army training and morale films.

Basically, it was all research into understanding the effectiveness of propaganda.

The focus group hits puberty:

Enter Viennese psychologist and marketing guru Ernest Dichter, soon after the war ended and Merton’s “group studies” were standing around doing nothing. Dichter took this nascent methodology and ran with it into the next decade. He actually coined the term “focus group.” His ideas formed the modern manifestation of the focus group for market research.

Dichter was an acolyte of Sigmund Freud, and thus saw humans are driven by unconscious, irrational and often visceral desires. This went against the grain of market analysis in those days—a domain of quantitate research and face-value customer inquiry.

Dichter disagreed with these methodologies, chiding them as “nose counting.” He claimed that people’s shopping cravings were hidden like an iceberg below an ocean of the subconscious. Only through interaction and insight could a researcher decipher the true longing and concerns of consumers; and these were tethered to sexual cravings, parent issues, archetypal social fears and what not! As Dichter wrote in his book Strategy of Desire:

You would be amazed to find how often we mislead ourselves, regardless of how smart we think we are, when we attempt to explain why we are behaving the way we do…What people actually spend their money on in most instances are psychological differences, illusory brand images… If you let somebody talk long enough, you can read between the lines to find out what he really means.

Focus groups were, according to Dichter, the solution to leverage the deepest requirements of consumers. That’s what he employed primarily in his studies, calling his style of examination “motivational research.” He rapidly became one of the most successful marketers of the mid-20th century.

Even more, focus groups were a chance to conduct therapy on consumers, not just gather information. Dichter didn’t just wish to unearth the desires of participants in focus groups, but rather sought primal urges that could potentially be manipulated for the future.

The golden age of focus groups:

Here some of the successful marketing campaigns Dichter executed (and his psychological reasons behind them).

– Chrysler Plymouth convertible: Men widely wanted this car, seeing it as a symbol of virility and youth, but ultimately acquiesced to their wives’ wishes (usually walking out of the dealership with a sensible sedan). To solve this, Dichter advertised the convertible directly to women, describing it as a “home” product that stabilized the family.
– Ivory Soap: Dichter proposed that every product had a soul (“branding,” as we might call it today). One had to tap into that soul to understand its function. Ivory Soap’s soul was at its core composed of sensuality and privacy. Its purpose was to grant woman some “alone time” in the bath tub, a break from their families and a purist society.
– Barbie Doll: Dichter was convinced dolls were a projection of a little girl’s future self. He was able to persuade Mattel to make Barbie as beautiful and curvaceous as possible (or “sexual,” as he explained). After all and after puberty, people are mostly thinking of one thing…
– Betty Crocker Instant Cake Mix: Dichter discovered that adding an egg to the recipe seemed to bestow women with a sense they were participating in the cooking experience (unnecessary as the mix already included dried egg, but this catapulted the sales of the product). His reasoning was that the egg symbolized ovaries, and thus women felt they were metaphorically giving birth to something wonderful.

It is said that sex sells, but to a Freudian like Dichter the truth is that sex buys. Our sexual urges and identities are with us every moment, even when purchasing mundane items, Dichter thought. He always advocated, not always successfully, that his clients heavily employ phallic symbols, curvatures in design and pleasured-looking models—all coyly hidden in a conservative era.

As mentioned, it wasn’t just sex that dominated humans, but fundamental Maslovian and tribal wants. As one historian explained:

Dichter’s approach was rooted in a deep intuition and a keen understanding of basic human needs, rather than scientific method or quantitative analysis. He knew that people use objects to express their identities, and he recognized that objects hold different meanings for different people. Factors such as income, social position, race, gender, age and ethnicity all figured into his qualitative analysis of what consumers revealed in the focus groups. In defense of his touchy-feely techniques, Dichter often said, “Insight is my answer.”

The fall and rise of the focus group:

By the 60s, Dichter’s motivational research fell out of favor for market research studies. The rise of computer analysis and other factors swung research back to more quantitative realms (not to mention Freudian thinking also became unpopular). Dichter himself was relegated to a small-time consultant and occasional lecturer, a footnote of a glorious era.

Yet Dichter’s legacy remained, and his ideas have made a comeback in the Information Age (as has qualitative market research). The “soul” (or branding) of a product is more important than ever. Understanding the subconscious of a person is back in style in the business world—as companies study the brainwaves, eye movements, instinctive reactions, and other less-obvious aspects of customers. Google and other companies are spending a fortune on predictive analytics, attempting to predict consumer future behavior based on past data.

As our own research revealed:

According to leading neuroscientists, 95 percent of all thoughts, emotions and learning occur before people are cognizant of it. Therefore, most of what goes into our purchasing decisions can be attributed to our subconscious. Visual perception influences our buying decisions the most. KISSmetrics found that nearly 93 percent of buying decisions are based on visual stimuli. Six percent was based on touch and the remaining was divided up into sight and smell.

Steven Jobs famously said: “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” He didn’t mean that a company ought to force-feed products to consumers. Rather, there existed a vast terrain in their subconscious that needed to be examined before any marketing campaign. Jobs was notorious for listening to consumers keenly and on a number of different levels.

Lastly, focus groups are more key than ever for marketing analysis, especially since they can now be conducted online with accurate results.

In a way, the internet has become a vast couch of Freudian therapy—full of memes and sex and blurred commerce. Dichter, who died in 1991, would probably be very proud of the internet, even if his conscious mind might not admit it was proud…

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