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Home arrow Marketing arrow Marketing and American Consumer Culture: A Cultural Studies Analysis

A Psychoanalytic Approach to Marketing

The basis of modern media effectiveness is a language within a languageone that communicates to each of us at a level beneath our conscious awareness, one that reaches into the uncharted mechanism of the human unconscious. This is a language based upon the human ability to subliminally or subconsciously or unconsciously perceive information. This is a language that today has actually produced the profit base for North American mass communication media. It is virtually impossible to pick up a newspaper or magazine, turn on a radio or television set, read a promotional pamphlet or the telephone book, or shop through a supermarket without having your subconscious purposely massaged by some monstrously clever artist, photographer, writer, or technician. As a culture, North America might well be described as one enormous, magnificent, self-service, subliminal massage parlor.

Wilson Bryant Key, Subliminal Seduction (1973: 11)

Whatever your attitude toward modern psychology or psychoanalysis, it has been proved beyond any doubt that many of our daily decisions are governed by motivations over which we have no control and ofwhich we are often quite unaware.

Ernest Dichter, The Strategy of Desire (1960: 12)

Here, then is the psychological foundation from which symbolism arises. In God nothing is empty of sense.... So the conviction of a transcendental meaning in all things seeks to formulate itself.

J. Huizinga. The Waning of the Middle Ages. Garden City, NY:

Anchor Books. 1954.

© The Author(s) 2016

A.A. Berger, Marketing and American Consumer Culture, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-47328-4_3

Abstract Freud’s work on the unconscious is explored and its relevance to marketing is explored. The unconscious is compared to an iceberg with around fifteen percent of the psyche devoted to consciousness and the subconscious and eighty-five percent devoted to the unconscious, which shapes much of our decision making. The ideas of Gerald Zaltman, a marketing professor at the Harvard Business school, about the role of the unconscious are considered. This leads to a discussion of Freud’s ideas about the relationship between id, ego, and superego in the human psyche and the defense mechanisms ofthe ego in its never-ending battle with the id and superego. A Fidji perfume advertisement is discussed, which leads to a look at Freud’s ideas on male and female symbolism and the role ofsymbolism in dreams and other aspects ofbehavior.

Keywords Psyche • Consciousness • Preconscious • Unconscious • Id • Ego • Superego • Symbolism

Wilson Bryant Key and Ernest Dichter point out something important if we are to understand how marketing works—people’s behavior is often shaped by unconscious forces of which they are unaware. And Huizinga’s point is worth thinking about, namely that there is a “transcendental meaning in all things.” It was Sigmund Freud whose ideas about the human psyche are behind Key’s and Dichter’s statements. I will offer, here, a brief overview of some of Freud’s ideas which are relevant to our interest in marketing.

Sigmund Freud on the Unconscious

Freud offers a classic description of the unconscious in his essay “One of the Difficulties of Psychoanalysis”:

You believe that you are informed of all that goes on in your mind if it is of any importance at all, because your consciousness then gives news of it. And if you have heard nothing of any particular thing in your mind you confidently assume that it does not exist there. Indeed, you go so far as to regard “the mind” as coextensive with “consciousness,” that is, with what is known to you... Come, let yourself be taught something on this one point. What is in your mind is not identified with what you are conscious of; whether something is going on in your mind and whether you hear of it, are two different things. (Freud 1910/1963: 188, 189)

It was then, and still is, difficult for many people to recognize that there can be contents of their minds of which they are unaware.

We can understand Freud’s concept of the unconscious better by using the metaphor of an iceberg as a representation of the human psyche. That is, the psyche is like an iceberg. The part of the iceberg we see is con- sciousness—what we are aware of in our minds. This represents fifteen percent of the iceberg. Just below the water, for six feet or so, we can dimly make out a thin band of the iceberg. Freud called that the preconscious. We don’t recognize what is in our preconscious but can, if we focus our attention on something in our preconscious, dimly make it out.

But most of the iceberg, about eighty-five percent of it, is the unconscious, a part of the iceberg shrouded in blackness which we cannot penetrate. What is important to recognize is that the material in our unconscious shapes much of our behavior, which suggests that the decisions we make about all kinds of things are not based on rationality but on unconscious imperatives. The drawing of the iceberg below shows these relationships.

Freud saw psychoanalytic theory as an interpretative art, and this mode of interpretation can be applied to understanding how marketing functions as well as to psychological problems of individuals. As he wrote (1963: 235-236):

It was a triumph of the interpretative art of psychoanalysis when it succeeded in demonstrating that certain common mental acts of normal people, for which no one had hitherto attempted to put forward a psychological explanation, were to be regarded in the same light as the symptoms of neurotic: that is to say they had a meaning, which was unknown to the subject, but which could easily be discovered by analytic means.

Freud explained that we resisted knowing the contents of our unconscious and repressed recognizing the importance of our sexuality and the Oedipus Complex. It is the hidden meanings and symbolic significance of words and images that a psychoanalytic approach to advertisements and marketing theory attempts to discover.

Gerald Zaltman also deals with the unconscious in his book How Customers Think: Essential Insights into the Mind of the Market. He suggests that there is a “95-5 Split” in our minds. He argues that only five percent of our cognition is found in “high-order” consciousness and ninety-five percent is in our unconscious, in what he calls “the shadows of the mind,” by which he means below the level of our awareness. He adds that unconscious memories also play an important role in shaping our conscious experience. It is these unconscious aspects of our psyches that are of interest to Zaltman as a marketing scholar, since they play a major role, but one that is unrecognized by us, in our purchasing decisions.

Zaltman offers some examples of what is called “The Unconscious Mind in Action” a few pages after his discussion of the “95-5 Split.” He writes about a “Mind of the Market” study (2003: 54):

In judging sincerity, both consumers and creative staffs unconsciously use criteria related to neotony, or people’s fascination with infants and baby animals. Neotenous characteristics include large, round eyes and high foreheads that remind us of infancy, innocence, and naivete. People perceive messages transmitted by a baby-faced person as more sincere because they see babies as innocent and honest. However, neither the consumers nor the creative personnel in this study were consciously aware of the power of neoteny.

This passage is interesting because it shows that unconscious forces are operating in the minds of the creatives who create advertisements and consumer.

There is an interesting advertisement for United Airlines that shows the back of a man’s head. There is a vertical line down the middle of his head dividing it into two realms: the Id and the Superego. We read:

The Id

The Superego

Crave Dom Perignon

Better get to work

Long for a good movie

Better call the office

Thirst for Mozart on CD

Better call the client

Covet caviar canapes

Better write the brief

Yearn for filet mignon

Better make the brief better

This advertisement alludes to Freud’s famous hypothesis about the endless battle that goes on between the Id and the Superego, mediated by the Ego. These terms and Freud’s theory are explained below.

The Id, The Ego, and The Superego: Freud’s Structural Hypothesis

Freud later suggested that there were three forces at work in our psyches, what is known as his structural hypothesis. This theory suggests that our psyches have three components: an id, an ego, and a superego. Charles Brenner, who wrote an influential book on psychoanalytic theory, described the structural hypothesis in his book An Elementary Textbook of Psychoanalysis (1974: 38):

We may say that the id comprises the psychic representatives of the drives, the ego consists of those functions which have to do with the individual’s relation to his environment, and the superego comprises the moral precepts of our minds as well as our ideal aspirations.

The drives, of course, we assume to be present from birth, but the same is certainly not true of interest in or control neither of the environment, on the one hand, nor of any moral sense or aspirations on the other. It is obvious that neither of the latter, that is neither the ego nor the superego, develops till sometimes after birth.

Psychoanalytic theory suggests that the ego performs a delicate balancing act between id forces (our drives, “I want it all now”) and the superego forces (our sense of guilt, conscience, and similar phenomena).

The id provides energy but it is unfocused and dissociated. It has to be controlled to some degree since we must live in society. The superego provides restraint but if too strong, it inhibits us too much and we become overwhelmed by guilt. The ego stores up experiences in the memory, by which it guides us and mediates between id and superego forces. People who have overly powerful ids or superegos generally have psychological problem. Marketers are, of course, interested in what drives human behavior and it is reasonable to suggest that they focus their attention on enhancing id elements of the psyche and suppressing superego elements.

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