Projective Testing Methods

Motivation Research: Ernest Dichter

Ernest Dichter, PhD, would set his name in stone as the Father of Motivation Research.

The Father of Motivation Research

Ernest Dichter, PhD arrived in America in 1938 with “$100 in his pocket” and a set of ideas that would revolutionize marketing and consumer culture (Economist, 2011). With the help of his former teacher, Dichter journeyed into market research. However, unlike Lazarsfeld, Dichter’s style was more focused on qualitative research, utilizing both depth-interviews and projective tests to target the core motivations behind consumer behavior. Dichter was known to record “every phrase, every gesture, and every intonation” of the interviewee (Dichter, 1960, p. 285).

Only a year later, Dichter would set his name in stone as the Father of Motivation Research during two influential projects that would shake up corporate America’s views on how to conduct market research. While working for the Compton Advertising Agency on the Ivory soap account (a Procter & Gamble product), Dichter used extensive depth interviews to make the same point about soap that Bernays had made a decade prior about cigars: soap was more than soap. Dichter realized that people viewed soap as an erotic experience and cleansing ritual often involved with the preparation for a date, or to simply get rid of bad feelings. In turn, Dichter suggested aligning the brand image with this new evidence and released the following slogan for Ivory soap’s next ad campaign, “Be smart, get a fresh start with Ivory soap” (Dichter, 1960 p. 33). 1939 would prove to be a busy year for Dichter, as he took on a project with Chrysler to sell Plymouth cars that would “launch his career in the advertising business” (Horowitz, 1986, p. 18). Again Dichter deployed the depth-interview to uncover the hidden relationships between a person’s life history and their car history. He discovered that men held convertibles in high symbolic regard, despite the fact that they only accounted for ~2% of car sales at the time (Horowitz, 1986). Dichter suggested advertising the convertible in the dealership display windows to draw customers in, then present them with the sedan as the reasonable option, and it worked. 

These shifts from product focused marketing towards user experience and alignment with brand image were fresh and well received. The notion that a brand had a personality was unheard of, and clients lined up one after another in the hopes that Dichter would tweak their advertising to match it. His influence would become known across the nation. This era of motivation research was described by famed journalist Tom Wolfe as a time when “everyone either had an analyst or quoted Ernest Dichter” (Wolfe, 1970). 

Ideal Logotype

In his 1960 book The Strategy of Desire, Dichter mentioned an experiment using the word association test. He hypothesized that: there was an ideal logotype for a specific concept, the concept’s image was determinable by a word association test, and that there was a specific relationship between verbal images and graphic forms. Using a sample of 50 subjects, Dichter administered the word association test for the concept term lamb, which was embedded in a list of other words like so: water-dog-lamb-etc. (Dichter, 1960). Participants then identified the word that they associated with the listed terms. Additionally, there were five variations of the terms with different typefaces and color backgrounds. The participants were instructed to pick which card fit best with the word in question. The results determined the winner: the word lamb was associated with the qualities of softness and warmth, which in turn were best represented by pastel colors and free-flowing rounded type. Dichter concluded that color and form in advertising must be consistently related to the association with the concept image being communicated. 

It is innovative approaches and applications like these that made Dichter so successful. His ability to simplify projective tests for commercial application made them widely accessible to corporations. However, he was not the only one to experiment with projective tests.


Dichter, E. (1960). The strategy of desire. Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday.p. 33-285. 

Horowitz, D. (1986). THE BIRTH OF A SALESMAN: ERNEST DICHTER AND THE OBJECTS OF DESIRE. Pam 2011.039, Published Collections Department, Hagley Museum and Library. p. 1-79. 

The Economist. (2011). Retail therapy. Gale In Context: Global Issues. vol. 401, no. 8764, p. 120.

Wolfe, T. (1970).  Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s From the June 8, issue of New York Magazine.

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