History of Projective Tests

Motivation Research: A Timeline

A choice timeline of projectives tests used in market research

A Choice Timeline of Projective Tests Used in Market Research 

  • 1936—Researcher Dale Houghton developed the Irritation-Association-Method of Advertising Evaluation to explore how certain products relieved pain points and satisfied the user’s needs. The author noted that an essential purpose of product advertising is to stimulate the creation of a mental association between a desire and the product as the method for satisfaction (Houghton, 1936).  Using a sample of 1,775 the researcher discovered that Ovaltine and non-branded hot milk were two major associations people made for a product that relieved sleeplessness. However, although ~30% of people first thought of Ovaltine, only ~10% used it.  The same usage percentage could be found for hot milk, though Ovaltine was thought of more than 3x as frequently. The author speculated that Ovaltine’s advertising campaign could explain the disproportionate association to usage, and that an advertising campaign for hot milk could increase its usage. 

  • 1943—The Department of Agriculture began attitudinal investigations to better understand the American farmer, particularly to gain a more detailed understanding of the causes behind complaints and dissatisfaction. Researchers used depth interviews to discover that it was not physical factors (like land or machinery) that presented further growth and production, but uncertainty of price stability (Skott, 1943). 

  • 1944—A free association technique was applied to study the different attitudes towards cola products and their associations to other brand names. Participants were read a brand name—Pepsi Cola, Coca Cola, Dixie Cola—and asked to write down the first word associated with it. The researcher found that only 63 unique responses to the tree trade names suggested that there are a limited number of associations (Foley Jr., 1944). Interestingly, most subjects (22%) associated the Pepsi Cola name to Coca Cola, while only 10% of Coca Cola associated with Pepsi Cola, showing that Coca Cola is the best known brand. This is because when people think of any Cola brand they tend to associate it with Coca Cola. Another interesting statistic from the experiment was that people associated the term bottle with Coke (22%)  and Pepsi (11%) (Foley Jr., 1944). Again, the higher frequency of association between Coca Cola and the term bottle suggested that Coke’s unique bottle shape created a unique perceptual impression. 

  • 1947—Researcher Henry William administered an abbreviated version of the Thematic Apperception Test  to determine how stereotyped symbolism (e.g., feelings and associations) behind greeting cards should inform their formal design (William, 1947). For example, a card for a Mother should be represented by warm colors like pink and red, and the form of the card should have circular, round edges while avoiding the use of columns. For example, baskets and open doorways with light peeking through could be featured (William, 1947). Cards for a Father, on the other hand, should feature darker colors like green and brown alongside more angular, elongated, and rigid designs. For example, images of the woods and nature (e.g., outdoors).  

  • 1948—Famous subliminal advertising and motivation researcher James Vicary expanded the word association test to allow participants to write down the first four words they associated with a stimulus. His logic was that successive associations allowed for the discovery of more reproductions that reveal deeper thinking patterns of participants in regard to the target stimulus (Vicary, 1948). For example, when testing people on their associations to the term advertising, Vicary discovered that several terms (crooks, fools the people, and quack)  adjacent to the word hucksters underlie a “huckster complex” or distrust in advertising (Vicary, 1948, p. 93). Vicary believed that this method could be used for brands to reveal choice words for advertising and those that should be avoided and labelled it a “reconnaissance tool” for PR to track changes in public opinion (Vicary, 1948, p. 98). 

  • 1950—Perhaps the most influential usage of a projective test in market research is Haire’s shopping list test, which has been replicated no less than seven times (Hill, 1968 Webster and Von Pechmann, 1970, Lane and Watson, 1975, Anderson 1978, Vidal et. al., 2013, Pinto et. al., 2018, Sass et. al., 2021). Haire wondered how the subjective qualities of a product influenced purchasing decisions and decided that projective tests were the ideal technique to zero in on them. While the mainstream techniques aimed at the physical features of a product, Haire wanted to find out how consumer reactions could inform advertising, or as he aptly phrased it, how they could “sell the sizzle, rather than the steak” (Haire, 1950, p. 649). Haire designed a brand association test that was administered to 50 housewives. Participants viewed one of two identical shopping lists, except that one list contained Nescafe instant coffee while the other had traditional grind and drip Maxwell House coffee. Participants were then asked to describe the type of person that would buy the products from the list in question. Haire found that 47% of the participants described the Nescafe buyer as lazy, but only 4% for Maxwell (Haire, 1950). Overall, Haire discovered that the participants felt that instant coffee violated the social convention that coffee is a symbol for intimacy and care for one’s family. If coffee is not made at home, then one does not really care for their family. The fears of being seen as “lazy”  or “not a good wife” were projected into the test by the women (Haire, 1950, p. 655). Further, Haire discovered that women who projected negative traits towards the Nescafe list were less likely to have actually owned/bought the brand, connecting the projected characteristics to the actual purchasing behavior. 

  • 1953—McClelland et. al., created an independent measure of a person’s need for achievement (i.e., motivation) amenable to quantitative analysis through a modified, shortened version of the Thematic Apperception Test, which they labeled the nAch TAT (McClelland et. al., 1953). The researchers used four cards—two cards from the original TAT and two of their own—that showed the following situations: a work situation (to men working at a machine), a study situation (a boy seated at a desk with a book in front of him), a father-son situation (TAT 7BM), and a young boy dreaming of the future (TAT 8BM). After viewing each card a participant was prompted to tell a story about what happened during the situation. People who made references to competition with a benchmark were scored towards the achievement score, for example “someone in the story is trying to better themselves in relation to some goal such as doing a better job or getting ahead in the world” (McClelland et. al., 1953, p. 195). Interestingly, the researchers found that people with a relatively higher nach (i.e., achievement) score performed better at word unscrambling tests—because they can find novel ways to perform and improve at tasks—and also tended to recognize the words success and strive faster than lower scored subjects when they were flashed as stimulus for only 0.1 seconds (McClelland et. al., 1953). Additionally, the researchers found personality correlates to the nach score when they were unable to complete a task: those with moderate scores viewed an incomplete task as a failure and became defensive while those with higher achievement scores viewed it as a challenge. 

  • 1956—A modified picture frustration test (Rosenzweig, 1945) was used by Zober in marketing research alongside depth interviews to reveal consumer attitudes. The picture frustration led the participant into the situation  through a series of images with balloon copy overhead. The final balloon where the frustrated situation occurs is left blank for the participant to fill in and thus project their top of mind attitudes into the cartoon. In one case study at a local grocer, the researcher found that the store’s poor reputation was a result of an overload of choices in meat and a clustered store design that led to crowding (Zober, 1956). The store had a wide variety of meats available, however the poor design made it difficult for customers to locate the quality meat. The researcher also found that the store’s advertising seemed to be styled towards city folk despite being in a rural area. Adjustments to these factors led to an increase in store sales (Zober, 1956). Additionally, another case study focused on a milk company that believed people held poor attitudes towards their product because it was low in buttermilk fat and under-filtered. As such, the company planned on altering their product. However, the modified picture frustration test revealed that the participants thought that “all milk is the same because it is processed the same under state law” (Zober, 1956, p. 266). The company concluded that their customers did not have a poor attitude towards the product, but they viewed the milk as too expensive. 

  • 1957—Pictorial projective techniques were delineated from non-projective pictorial tests by Bradley and Lysaker. The researchers claimed that prompting a respondent to answer a question (in relation to a given picture) such as “What do you think [they] should do?” is not projective because what someone should do engenders conventional wisdom (Bradley and Lysaker, 1957. P. 339).  However, if the question were reframed to “What are [they] likely to do?” then it would qualify as projective because it allows the respondent to personally identify with the situation and thus project themselves and their personal actions and feelings into the situation. They concluded that it is not the sole use of pictures that qualifies this method as projective, but how the pictures are implemented instructionally. 

  • 1958—A comparative study of direct questioning and a stimulus picture projective interview on 148 farmers revealed that direct questioning provided only vague responses to the farmers’ attitudes toward science and new technologies like weed spray and commercial fertilizer. It told them even less about what reference group (e.g., county agents, family, friends, scientists) influenced their buying choices (Beal and Rogers, 1958). However, the projective picture test, where farmers were shown a picture of a new technology in use and then interviewed about their feelings towards it, gave more robust results. The researchers discovered that there was a significant relationship between a farmer’s positive relationships towards a scientist and the adoption and buying of new farm commodities and practices. 

  • 1960—The picture drawing test (i.e., an expressive projective technique) was deployed to help solve a store layout and design problem and provide supermarket planners with a plan to prevent shopper frustration. 50 housewives were: interviewed prior to the projective task to get a baseline of their conventional ideas for a supermarket layout, then asked to draw a supermarket and were finally interviewed on the contents (e.g., order of departments, space given for each department, and departments omitted) of their drawings. The results showed that supermarkets look different to different consumers, although the commonality was that their ideas of supermarkets were very distant from the actual design. For example, the produce department was drawn as the first section in the majority (40%) of the drawings, while meat was drawn first only 20% of the time (Krugman, 1960). In terms of size, the produce  department and meat department were respectively given 80% and 50% more space than the dry groceries, even though the actual layout only allotted either section 33% more space (Krugman, 1960). 

  • 1966—A study of consumer preferences was conducted to aid in the egg industry’s design of products. The researchers used an indirect projective interviewing technique where the participant listened to a recorded conversation between five women about overwrapped egg cartons. Two of the women made positive comments, two spoke negatively, while the last person said, “Well, in my opinion…” leaving the statement to be finished by the respondent, (Branson and Courtney, 1966, p. 15).  The results showed a clear preference for overwrapped eggs due to the quality provided by the sanitation and protection. In a similar indirect projective test paradigm, set up to determine the egg display, the researchers found that participants preferred a vertical display. 

  • 1976—The photographic test for attitude measurement (PHOTAM) projective technique was created by anthropologist Marilyn Gates to measure attitudes towards agricultural change (e.g., traditional ag, modern ag, authority, material and non-material wants, aspirations, and leisure) in 68 Mexican campesinos (i.e., peasants). The test was made up of 21 photos of campesinos in recognizable situations representative of their lifestyle. For example, the photos were taken in Mexico focusing on familiar environments to the campesinos. Participants viewed the photos and then told a story about what was happening. Unlike typical TAT responses, the respondents drifted towards personal, first person accounts of the real-life situation which the author claimed were more revealing of direct projected attitudes than imaginative narration (Gates, 1976). Overall, the results showed that the campesinos held mixed feelings: while they were generally open to change and progress, they feared losing their traditional beliefs. Additionally, some members were frustrated by the disparity between their aspirations and the realities, leaving the author to presume that they would migrate to the city in pursuit of a modern lifestyle (Gates, 1976). However, despite this misalignment in vision, the irrigation projects introduced to the campesinos bolstered their achievement motivation and increased their “confidence level and self-esteem (Gates, 1976, p. 654). Most importantly, Gates showed that a projective method is amenable to objective quantification and demonstrated the validity of the PHOTAM approach, helping to dismiss the idea that projectives are altogether invalid empirically, instead calling into the question the fashion in which they are empirically conducted. 

  • 1977—A survey of 1,200 firms found that 36% of Consumer and Market Research & Consulting firms were actively using projective techniques (Greenberg et. al., 1977). 

  • 1985—A modified version of the TAT was created to study grooming behavior (GTAT). 59 participants responded with narratives for two stimulus picture cards: a woman in curlers applying makeup and a man blow drying his hair. In true Dichter fashion, the researcher concluded that grooming represented more than a habitual behavior, but a dynamic force that is essential for success. For example, Rook wrote that “the blow dryer is a symbolic weapon. It empowers the young man to mimic peer group appearance norms and assert himself confidently in the social scene” (1985, p. 260). Whether or not the stories turned out to be positive or negative, grooming proved to be a projective playground for the participants to display their identities and what they strived for. 

  • 1985—Market researcher and projective test researcher Sidney Levy called into question the potential applications for projective techniques in market research by stating that “the design of methods seems mainly limited by the researchers’ inventiveness,” (Levy, 1985, p. 80). Levy walked his talk by showing off his diverse portfolio of projectives. In one project, Levy created a brand personality projective test where participants compared two different brands with types of animals, cars, and people (i.e., cartoon drawing of people). In another experiment, Levy used dreams and daydreams to probe participants' fantasy life. Participants used a new product for several days and reported on their dreams. Additionally, participants were asked to imagine having a dream about the product to elicit projection. Levy also used TAT like cards to encourage participants to tell stories about a cartoon picture card of two women shopping for soup and two boys buying hot dogs. While the face value of the ideas might sound shallow to the inexperienced researcher, the exercise details how a person believes others will judge them for using a product, their attitudes towards people who use the product, and additional pros and cons for using the product (Levy, 1985).   

  • 1991—A recursive type of projective interviewing was created called autodriving, where three families were photographed preparing and eating dinner. Then, they were interviewed using the photos as a stimuli, and then finally the participants were shown the photos again in another session along with the audio recording of the interview and were asked to comment on the data (Heisley and Levy, 1991). The technique aided in detailing product associations and role relations among the families and their dynamics. For example, participants would often correct the behavior seen in the pictures as they projectively interpreted their actions.  

  • 1992—To discover how transformational ads create associations with experiences, researchers Akers and Stayman utilized a sentence completion test to compare different brands of beer. For example, one sentence read “After a day hike in the mountains you returned to drink some cold ____)” (Akers and Stayman, 1992, pp. 247). The results of this particular example showed that Coors was most associated with the outdoors, mountains, and an active lifestyle. Overall, the researchers found that the differences in personal liking for beer—a product that back then was largely viewed as tasting the same—are created by the advertising campaigns rather than the beer’s flavor. 

  • 1992—Again Levy et. al., showcased a diversity of projective tests in a series of experiments on gift returns. The researchers asked participants to fill in the blank for the following sentence completion test: “Returning presents to a gift store is:____” (Levy et. al., 1992, p. 49).  While mixed views emerged, a few common themes were that the act of returning a gift was uncomfortable, and that people don’t think highly of gift returners. In a modified version of the TAT, a card of four people standing in a return  line, and the participants were tasked with imagining what a fifth person would think of the situation. The researchers found that giving an acceptable gift enhances personal intimacy, but a gift of poor choice strains that relationship (Levy et. al., 1992). In a social sense, a good gift can create a sense of familiarity between ourselves and others, while a bad gift can create self-other distance.

  • 1995—Harvard researcher Geralt Zaltman debuted his metaphor elicitation technique (ZMET). The projective technique, which is based on several interesting premises—like that thoughts occur as images, and that metaphors are essential units of thought—prompts participants to take photos or collect pictures that are expressive of what the topic in question means to them personally before being interviewed (Zaltman and Coulter, 1995). The method included several steps where the participants: tell stories about how each selected pictures are relevant to the topic, discuss important ideas that could not be found or represented by images, sort the pictures into categories, explore what sensory data (sight, smell, touch) represent the concept, create a short vignette or a movie script of the concept to detail location, time, and people involved, and finally a digital summary collage. The method has been refined and altered to date. 

  • 2003—Researchers in the food science sector used projective collages to study consumer attitudes towards ready made meals versus home cooking. Collages about ready made meals revealed similar sentiments to Haire’s shopping list results on instant coffee: instant meals are not something to present to the family. As such, the collages reflected more negative attitudes (e.g., tiredness, frustration) and were less vibrant. On the other hand, home cooked meals engendered a sense of pride and community (Costa et. al., 2003). Interestingly, the participants identified a gap between the ready made meals' quality, such as a lack of vegetables, and their expectations to have some control over the preparation and presentation of the food. The authors claimed that solving these issues would propose technical issues, however a modern company seems to have filled the gap. Hello Fresh, a meal-kit provider, delivers fresh food that is ready to cook, bridging the gap between a true ready made meal and the consumer’s expectations for some control over the food’s outcomes. 

  • 2007—Hofstede et. al., used a projective collage and a brand association to profession test with beer brands to show that two different projective techniques (i.e., expressive and associative) can produce similar results (2007). The convergence between the methods was demonstrated by the fact that competence and excitement were the most critical personality elements of a beer. 

  • 2011—A novel projective technique was created to measure consumer perceptions of brand image concepts and desired qualities. The multi-test system involves a step-series not dissimilar to the ZMET, though unique in its content, where participants: choose a set of pictures with symbolic meaning, are interviewed about the selected pictures, are given an eyes-closed word association test as they are re-shown the pictures, verify the influence of color in the selection of their photos after closing their eyes and imaging the brand, relate the brand to a set of objects with different textures and materials, as well as different types of music (Cian and Cervai, 2011). 

  • 2012—Using a picture association test, researchers explored how celebrity endorsements in advertisements influence product perceptions. Six ads in total were used, two being real ads and four being fake celebrity endorsements created by the researchers. The results showed that the introduction of a celebrity could have many effects on the product including: shifting the perceived target market, overshadowing the brand image with the celebrity’s personality, and the extension of these effects (i.e., a halo effect) to the brand families such as the other products available (Tantiseneepong et. al., 2012).

  • 2013—A comparative study of three online projective tests (word association, bubble cartoon, and Haire’s shopping list) determined the outcomes of each type using a sample size of 320. The researchers concluded that the word association test is most appropriate for identifying positive characteristics of the ready made salads, while Haire’s shopping list uncovered consumer beliefs and values (Vidal et. al., 2013). They concluded that the bubble cartoon was the most effective qualitative method because it was product specific but elicited more detailed responses about the consumer’s feelings. 

  • 2020—A draw a picture projective test was used to identify the traits associated with internet mavens (aka influencers): people who sway consumer attitudes and behavior through their media channels. Participants were simply asked to depict an online influencer as they were…where they are, how they act and think, etc. Using thematic analysis, the researchers found that the typical influencer has an online following, have knowledge of brands and engage with them, be tech savvy, and share their experiences (Farzin et. al., 2020). 

  • 2021—Another comparative study of projective methods found that product personality profiling and a shopping list task have unique advantages. The researchers compared consumer perceptions of different eggs with a sample of 840 participants. The researchers concluded that while the product personality profile better targeted the buyer, the shopping list detailed their profile (Sass et. al., 2021).


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