ONLINE-ONLY article - Consumer research in 1958

David Duncan adds a personal and historical perspective to Chris Hackley's article from the August issue.

In 1958, after five years as an occupational psychologist with the National Institute of Industrial Psychology, I joined Attwood Statistics Limited as a Statistician and made an entry into the world of marketing and consumer research. I gave a brief account of this as part of the Society's centenary celebrations (see Duncan, 2001). Here I will attempt to describe the experience in more detail for the psychologists of 2007.


My first discovery was that involvement of psychologists in consumer research and advertising was not a new thing. Harvard's Hugo Munsterberg (1913) was the original enthusiast, convinced that psychology could be usefully applied to anything, including films and advertising. His early death in 1916, at the age of 54, cut short any possibilities of his contribution to advertising after World War I, although his work came to the attention of Brian Muscio (1920) and led indirectly to the foundation of The National Institute of Industrial Psychology in 1921.

Munsterberg's work would also have been noticed by J.B. Watson (1925), the pioneer of behaviorism. When Watson left the academic world in his 40s, he joined J. Walter Thompson, a major advertising agency, and had a further successful career. His influence can be seen in the "drip-drip" philosophy in advertising, in which consistent repetition of a message conditions the consumer to buy the product advertised. This may have been less effective than he claimed, but it certainly sold advertising space.

This philosophy still survives, although in last month's issue Chris Hackley described some more recent alternative approaches, which are probably more effective as they take account of and reinforce consumer culture.

In the early 1930s the London branch of J. Walter Thompson had the Rowntrees advertising account, and Seebohm Rowntree persuaded them to involve NIIP for psychological advice on pack design, product testing, and advertising appeal of a new chocolate assortment, called "Black Magic" on NIIP advice. That the assortment and its appeal survived unaltered for the next fifty years is a measure of how dangerously successful their intervention was.

So dangerous was it that competitors quickly raised a "me too" demand. In defence, Seebohm Rowntree prevailed upon NIIP to take the disastrous decision to make consumer research "ultra vires". He also persuaded Nigel Balchin, the NIIP Project Manager, to become Market Research Manager for Rowntrees. Even "Caring Capitalism" can become "Selfish Capitalism" on occasion! On the advertising side, the research encouraged J Walter Thompson to establish The British Market Research Bureau in 1933, which cooperated successfully with Nigel Balchin in the establishment of other long-lived brands, for example "KitKat'. Two executives of The British Market Research Bureau who were involved in these developments  were Bedford Attwood and Richard Gapper, for whom I came to work in 1958.

CONSUMER CONTROL BY RATIONING AND TAXATION The outbreak of war in 1939 led immediately in Britain to a period of strict Government control of consumption with rationing of food, clothes, fuel and petrol which did not completely disappear until fifteen years later. In addition, Purchase Tax levied at up to 33% discouraged acquisition of luxuries and capital goods. Statisticians, economists and a few social psychologists were recruited into government ministries where their knowledge of population sampling and consumer behaviour was used to design and implement working national schemes of rationing. This experience made consumers in Britain wary of any attempts to control their consumption by advertising, and strengthened their loyalty to existing brands.

This was in complete contrast to US experience, where no such restrictions existed. Packard's "Hidden Persuaders" (1957) may well have had some validity in prosperous America, but for Britain at that time it grossly overclaimed the importance of psychology in advertising and marketing, in efforts to control or even influence consumer behaviour. On the other hand, it had dramatic effects in increasing the employment of psychologists in market research, marketing and advertising.

There were two strands in this demand. Advertising agents were well aware of the ineffectiveness of their advertising, which consumers found difficult to believe. Of new product launches, 80% failed to gain consumer acceptance in spite of heavy advertising support. So advertising looked to psychology to provide new appeals and insights.    

Ernest Dichter,an American Freudian psychologist, built a successful business in London providing such a service, and there was a ready acceptance of clinical psychologists. Marketing managers, on the other hand, were also depressed by these poor results and looked to psychology for competent research into consumer culture. Henry (1957) provided a competent account of British possibilities.

In 1948 Bedford Attwood, supported by Richard Gapper, using their experience of organising rationing, set up a national panel of 2000 housewives who reported weekly on standard forms all their retail purchases. Regional supervisors were responsible for recruiting and controlling a national force of
500 interviewers who in turn recruited to the panel and made a weekly collection of their diaries. A production force of tabulators turned these diaries into reports which were sold to customers, ideally all the competitors in a consumer field. Although the sample was small it provided information on consumer behaviour not otherwise obtainable, and was used by marketing managers to compare with their sales figures and information on factory output.                       i Davies and Palmer (1957) give a good account of the procedures available at the time.


In 1958 I was recruited as Statistician to the Household Panel of Attwood Statistics Limited. The role of the Statistician was to monitor the quality of the panel data, assist in its presentation to clients, explain discrepancies from client data on factory output or sales reports and defend it against attacks from other sources of information. The statistics were simple, the significance of the difference between two percentages being the most advanced formula used. I was impressed by the loyalty of consumers to their chosen brands and used the runs test and other nonparametric statistics to demonstrate this. One telling discovery was that when the national newspapers went on strike, the loss of advertising had no effect on household  consumption, except that the sale of toilet rolls tripled!

After only a month, Packer's book had its effect, and the author's  knowledge of psychological techniques became more important than his statistics, and he became Manager of Attwood Statistics ad hoc Surveys Division. Apart from statistical techniques, the most significant contributions were the depth interview and the focus group. Both of these were discovery techniques which assumed from the outset that there were really important unknowns, consumer attitudes, which had to be discovered. The depth interview was non-directive in nature, much longer than the inquisition of the selection interview, but with much tighter quality control. Content analysis of the resulting tape recordings quickly revealed the competence of the intervewer. Tony Lunn was an outstanding depth interviewer whose subsequent career developed from this ability. Focus groups were controlled by a field guide and recorded by tape, palantype or videotape, and underwent careful content analysis. Ford Motor Company pioneered this technique in the motor industry, as a result of which the slab-sided Anglia model was abandoned. The body of the new Consul tapered towards the top, had four forward gears and a boot wide enough to take four sets of golf clubs!

In contrast, the proprietor of the instant cake mix assumed that advertising slogans which had been successful in USA could be used without alteration in Britain. It took only two recordings of focus groups of British housewives to convince him that "A cake that you bake is a gift from  the heart" and "Nothin' says lovin' like something from the oven" would not be a winning formula for promoting his brand.

A pernicious habit of advertising agencies was to attack some aspects of an established brand, claiming that a new image would boost sales. Market research would cost less than 5% of a new advertising campaign, but could prove that 95% of heavy buyers of the product did not want any changes in it. Far from promoting client control, the contribution of psychology was to define more accurately what consumers of a product really wanted. The Chairman of Unilever once declared, "We know that 50% of advertising money is wasted, but we don't know which 50%.

The enthusiastic acceptance of psychologists into marketing and advertising fifty years ago in no way compromised its reputation as a useful profession, and played a large part in stemming the waste of money in advertising.

Davies, A.H and Palmer,O.W. (1957). Market Research and Scientific Distribution. London:Blandford Press. Duncan, D.C.(2001). The joys of psychology. Chapter 19 in G.C.Bunn, A.D.Lovie and G.D. Richards (Eds) Psychology in Britain. Leicester: British Psychological Society.
Hackley, C. (2007). Marketing psychology and the hidden persuaders. The Psychologist, vol 20 No 8.
Henry, H. (1957). Motivation Research. London.           Munsterberg, H. (1913). Psychology and Industrial Efficiency. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Muscio, B. (1920). Lectures on Industrial Psychology. London; Routledge.
Packard, V. (1957). The Hidden Persuaders. London: Longman.
Viteles, M.S. (1962[1933]). Industrial Psychology. London:Jonathan Cape.
Watson, J.B. (1925). Behaviorism. New York:Norton.

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