Supermarket Freud: Ernest Dichter and the Sex of Food
When you vacillate between two types of bread at the store, you might think you’re just weighing the pros and cons. But to Ernest Dichter–the father of “motivational research,” you’re actually applying your sense of self to your purchasing decisions. And though it might sound dubious, Dichter’s habit of applying Freudian theories to market research was a heavily adopted tactic in the marketing heydays of the 1950s.
It was Dichter’s belief that consumers make purchasing decisions not just because of demographics, but deeply-rooted psychological associations. He taught that if marketers understood not only the practical but the psychodramatic methods consumers choose one product over another, that they could better market their products to a customer’s subconscious desires.
Dichter’s theories fell out of fashion in the 1960s, but have regained traction in today’s highly competitive marketing environment. Whether you believe in the sex of food or you dismiss it as psychobabble, Dichter provided an alternative look into why we buy.
Dichter taught that every product had a gender and that appealing to a product’s gender would make it more attractive to the primary buyer. In the early 1950s, marketing slogans were mostly reserved for stating the benefits of a particular product: “Use this soap for a better clean.” But Dichter changed the game by essentially giving inanimate products certain human-like characteristics. Suddenly, soap wasn’t just utilitarian: It could be sensual or stern; childish or nostalgic. Today, we’d call his approach “branding,” but at the time it was a fairly radical idea.
Dichter was a disciple of Freud and applied many of Freud’s theories to his motivation research. Sex and gender identity was heavily interwoven with seemingly run-of-the-mill products. Dichter once wrote a discourse about the wedding cake as a sex metaphor. “Perhaps the most typically feminine food is cake … the symbol of the feminine organ,” he wrote. “The act of cutting the first slice by the bride and bridegroom together clearly stands as a symbol of defloration.” He also postulated that cake should always look fresh, since it was clearly feminine and represented an outward projection of a woman.
Sex Sells (and Sex Buys)
Not everyone was enamored with Dichter’s theories and some dismissed them completely. After being hired to consult for Pepsi (a decidedly male product), Dichter railed about the company’s typical depiction of a Pepsi on ice. He worried that ice made customers think of death and therefore, they were discouraged from buying the product. He was immediately fired.
Still, his theories–in less aggressive forms–are still utilized to this day. Dichter tapped into a completely new method of gathering market research. Instead of asking “Who will buy this product?” he asked “Why would someone buy this product?” Doing so enabled marketing firms to analyze market research, conduct focus groups and surveys, and better predict sales than utilizing demographics alone. All of this combined gave way toward a host of marketing execs who were bolstered with a confidence toward better market research ROIs and ROMIs.
Far-fetched theorist or marketing genius? Dichter has been hailed as both. Some might call him the Freud of the supermarket, but we know him as the first person to truly understand the concept of retail therapy. Your lunch meat might have a gender (and it might not) but the reason you choose ham over baloney might be more than just a taste preference.