(b. 14 Aug. 1907 in Vienna, Austria; d. 21 Nov. 1991 in Cortlandt Manor, New York), psychologist, marketing research executive, and originator and leading exponent of motivational research in advertising, communications, management, and politics.
Dichter was the eldest of three sons born to a poor family headed by William Dichter, an itinerant salesman, and Mathilda Schneider, a homemaker. While his father was serving in the Austrian army during World War I, his mother taught the children to use the black market, bartering possessions for food, to keep them from starving. Eventually Ernest was sent with other poor Viennese children to Holland, where he became seriously ill before returning home at the end of the war. At age fourteen he left school to help support his family for several years, but he later earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Vienna. He then went to the Sorbonne, receiving a licencié ès lettres in 1930, and returned to the University of Vienna for a Ph.D. in psychology, which he received in 1934. Dichter married Hedy Langfelder, a concert pianist and piano teacher, in 1935. Their marriage produced a son and daughter and lasted until Dichter died in 1991.
Dichter’s early interests were in psychoanalysis and other forms of depth psychology, but he wanted to apply them in a practical manner. He began doing psychoanalysis and vocational guidance, but as the Nazis rose to power, the Dichters, who were Jewish, decided to flee Vienna. In 1937 Dichter went to Paris and tried without success to get visas to the United States. In desperation, he went to the American consulate and met with Vice Consul Llewelyn Thompson. He persuaded Thompson to intervene in Washington to allow the Dichters passage to the United States, telling Thompson that he had ideas for motivational research that could improve American business and solve social problems by uncovering the real reasons for people’s actions—which were not necessarily the reasons people told themselves and others—and motivating them to change. In 1938 the Dichters emigrated to America.
Shortly after settling in Manhattan, Dichter began his first motivational research project, analyzing the public’s interest in Procter & Gamble’s Ivory soap. Rejecting questionnaires with yes-or-no answers, Dichter talked with people in depth about their bathing habits. He learned that children liked baths best on their birthday or Christmas and that young women bathed very thoroughly before going out on weekends. He concluded that ritualistic meanings of bathing as a way to wash away sins continued to influence people and advised Procter & Gamble to tell consumers, “Be smart and get a fresh start with Ivory soap.” The campaign became a classic.
His next studies, for Esquire magazine and the Chrysler Corporation’s Plymouth automobile, were also huge successes. In 1940 for Chrysler, Dichter found that men believed they acted alone when buying cars, but in reality their wives and girlfriends wielded considerable influence. He also found that men viewed sedans as “wives” and convertibles as “mistresses.” After Chrysler followed Dichter’s advice to market itself more to women and use convertibles as “bait” to draw men into showrooms, Plymouth sales increased internationally and Dichter became famous.
For the next three years, Dichter worked full-time for the advertising agency J. Sterling Getchall, analyzing scores of products and consumer motivations for buying or not buying them. In 1943 he joined the Columbia Broadcasting System as a research psychologist and became an American citizen, helping in World War II by analyzing Hitler’s speeches and developing counterpropaganda. In 1946, he went out on his own, establishing an independent research organization in Manhattan and widening his reputation through lectures and books (The Psychology of Everyday Living, 1947; Successful Living: A Practical Guide to Help You Influence People, 1947). In 1953 he moved his Institute for Motivational Research to a twenty-six-room mansion in Croton-on-Hudson, New York. Within a few years he had a staff of sixty-five and nine other offices in the United States and abroad that offered a wide range of services to commercial, political, and civic organizations.
Dichter’s successes drew other practitioners to motivational research, and it became a standard service of advertising consultants. But its methods, which relied heavily on interviewing skills and were not easily replicable, and Dichter’s overpowering personality and influence, also made it controversial. In 1957, Vance Packard’s best-selling The Hidden Persuaders focused negative attention on Dichter and motivational research, comparing it to “the chilling world of George Orwell and his Big Brother.” Four years later, Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique charged Dichter and others with confining American women to the role of housewife and reliable consumer by glorifying that role through advertising and then making women feel guilty for not living up to it. Dichter always denied manipulating people and claimed what he practiced was persuasion. “No one forces anyone to purchase a product or believe anything,” he said in a 1977 interview (quoted in the New York Times, 23 Nov. 1991).
Interest in motivational research declined in the 1960s, but Dichter remained successful. He continued doing corporate work, but over the next two decades he turned more toward management, political and government consulting, and social concerns. He also wrote many books, including The Strategy of Desire (1960), The Disease of Nationalism (1967), The Naked Manager (1974), Total Self-Knowledge (1976), and How Hot a Manager Are You? (1987). He also taught marketing at Nova University, Mercy College, and Long Island University.
Dichter’s many honors included election to the Market Research Council’s Hall of Fame and the American Marketing Association’s (AMA) fifty-year membership award. His awards from foreign countries included the Golden Medal of Merit from Vienna. His professional memberships included the AMA, American Psychological Association, American Sociological Association, and World Association of Public Opinion.
Dichter was a consultant for several corporations when he died of heart failure at age eighty-three in Cortlandt Manor. He is buried nearby in Putnam Valley.
During his career, Dichter conducted more than 6,500 studies and wrote hundreds of articles and seventeen books for professional and popular audiences. He consulted for some of the world’s most influential businesses, including General Motors, AT&T, Johnson & Johnson, Philip Morris, and the New York Times; governments and political candidates both domestic and foreign; advertising agencies; and nonprofit organizations. His insights into sexuality and other motivations helped Exxon put a tiger in its tank and Mattel sell its Barbie doll; they also convinced men it could be sexy to give blood and brought more people into public libraries. Although motivational research mostly went out of fashion, Dichter’s influence has continued into the twenty-first century through related techniques like psy-chographics and archetype research, and many of his published works have become standards of the marketing literature.
Identical collections of Dichter’s books, articles, studies, and correspondence are at the Institute for Publicity and Communications Science, University of Vienna, and in the library of the Institute for Motivational Research, which existed in dormant form under Hedy Dichter in 2000. Dichter wrote his autobiography, Getting Motivated: The Secret Behind Individual Motivations by the Man Who Was Not Afraid to Ask “Why?” in 1979. Books that extensively review Dichter’s work include Rebecca Piirto, Beyond Mind Games: The Marketing Power of Psychographics (1991), and M. G. Lord, Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll (1994). Critical coverage is in Vance Packard, The Hidden Persuaders (1957), and Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (1963). A two-page biographical essay is in Current Biography (1961). Dichter discussed his research methodology and personal history in a 1986 interview with Rena Bartos, “Ernest Dichter: Motive Interpreter,” in Journal of Advertising Research 26, no. 1 (Feb.-Mar. 1986): 15-20. Lynne Ames interviewed Dichter’s widow, Hedy Dichter, in “The View from Peekskill: Tending the Flame of a Motivator,” New York Times (2 Aug. 1998). Posthumous tributes to Dichter included “A Remembrance of Ernest Dichter,” by Emmanuel H. Demby, Mark Feting News 26, no. 6 (Jan. 1992): 21; and an editorial in Advertising Age (2 Dec. 1991). An obituary is in the New York Times (23 Nov. 1991).
Madeleine R. Nash