Filling a Vacuum: A Review of Freud on Madison Avenue: Motivation Research and Subliminal Advertising in America (University of Pennsylvania Press) by Lawrence R. Samuel
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Filling a Vacuum:
A Review of Freud on Madison Avenue: Motivation Research and Subliminal Advertising in America (University of Pennsylvania Press) by Lawrence R. Samuel

"It is extraordinary to discover that no one knows why people want goods," opens Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood's 1979 book, The World of Goods. "Demand theory is at the very center, even at the origin of economics as a discipline. Yet 200 years of thought on the subject has little to show on the question."1 Another team of social science leaders, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton, made a similar observation of the social disciplines only a few years later: "What things are cherished, and why, should become part of our knowledge of human beings. Yet it is surprising how little we know about what things mean to people…. Social scientists tend to look for the understanding of human life in the internal psychic processes of the individual or in the patterns of relationship between people; rarely do they consider the role of material objects."2 Such surprising declarations, however, echo John Kenneth Galbraith's distressed observation, made in the heat of the postwar consumption boom, that economics had been so production oriented it had failed to provide a theory of consumer demand. "It is held to be neither useful nor scientific to speculate on the comparative cravings of the stomach and the mind," he observes, noting further that the economist "has no need to inquire how these wants are formed."3

In fact, it is fairly easy to see how, until the 1950s, consumption was likely to be overlooked by the social sciences. As Jeffrey Sachs has observed, most of the world lived in poverty before the Industrial Revolution.4 In the Western nations, despite dramatic periodic setbacks, the average individual's ability to purchase increased over the next hundred years, aided by both higher incomes and the affordability of mass-produced goods. Still, the everyday habits of ordinary people continued to be fairly simple. With the end of World War II, however, a consumer culture boom occurred in the United States that was unlike anything the world had ever seen. Given the intense production focus of economics, the puritanistic attitudes typical of American culture, and the popular understanding of "rationality" in purchase, we should not be surprised that this seachange in the level of consumption led to a great deal of moralizing, sermonizing, pathologizing, and judgment. What those of us working in the history and criticism of consumer culture have perhaps not yet grasped is that the strange collection of theories and practices known as "motivation research" rushed in to fill this vacuum—and that this occurred, in some ways, because the academy would not stoop to address the question.

Lawrence R. Samuel's excellent new book, Freud on Madison Avenue, documents the rise of motivation research, as well as its reception and resistance among the market research community, the press, and the academy. The book is written in a crisp, straightforward style, with only the occasional amusing aside to steal attention from what is a well-formulated story, illustrated by fully researched characters and documented with exemplary attention to detail. This no-nonsense treatment contrasts greatly with many earlier works on advertising and its history, especially where motivation research is concerned. Wilson Bryan Key's Subliminal Seduction and, of course, Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders used caricatures of motivation research to charge the consumer economy with malevolent intentions of the worst sort. Many books from the 1980s and 1990s, such as Judith Williams' Decoding Advertisements, axiomatically separated advertisements from the real people and historical beliefs that made them. The political imperative to mystify and demonize each text often reached toward Freudianism, which made allusions to motivation research an easy proof point to put behind charges of systemic manipulation.

After so many years of dark nuance and exaggeration, it is a relief to have a book that reveals the motivational research story in such a calm way. After reading it, I was pleased to find that I had learned a great deal, had gained a completely new perspective on what had previously seemed to...