DR. CLOTAIRE RAPAILLE wants to get under your skin.
Rapaille is a French psychologist-turned-marketing consultant who specializes in mining the subconscious drives of American consumers. He’s earned millions of dollars shaping the ad campaigns for Folger’s coffee, Crest toothpaste, Jack Daniels and Chrysler’s PT Cruiser.
Last month, Rapaille inspired a segment of “60 Minutes,” which showed him knocking around his Versailles-like home in Tuxedo Park, N.Y., ruminating in his heavily accented English about “the reptilian brain” that controls our shopping decisions, and presiding over focus groups whose participants roll around on the floor, free associating about childhood memories.
Fifty years ago, the idea of an eccentric scientist psychoanalyzing the consumer class was enough to inspire Pavlovian nightmares about mind control, a la “The Manchurian Candidate.”
Today, the marriage of social psychology and advertising provokes only mild curiosity. Freudian analysis is just one of the more far-fetched tricks used by advertisers to gain market share in an increasingly cluttered, anything-goes ad world. And these days, advertisers need all the tricks they can conjure up.
PSYCHOANALYSIS WAS FIRST INTRODUCED to the marketing profession by Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, a figure at the center of a compelling new BBC doc about marketing, “The Century of the Self.”
Freud’s descendants, it turns out, have distinguished themselves more in the field of PR than psychology. His great-grandson, Matthew Freud, runs Freud Communications, a thriving public relations firm that’s now part of French ad giant the Publicis Group.
Written and directed by Adam Curtis, and currently playing at the Cinema Village in New York, “Century of the Self” explores the various ways in which Freud’s ideas about the unconscious mind have been used since Bernays’ day to track the hidden desires of consumers and ply them with consumer products they often don’t need and can’t afford.
Bernays, who invented the phrase “public relations,” is remembered for such achievements as popularizing smoking among women in the 1920s and for creating the propaganda campaign that helped topple the socialist government of Guatemala in 1954. When Bernays published his influential book “Engineering Consent” in 1955, Madison Avenue agencies were rushing out to sign up Freudian analysts to do market research.
Curtis’ doc, which features an amazing wealth of archival footage — of old ads and focus groups, bizarre group-therapy sessions and Madison Avenue shrinks — comes to this conclusion: We’ve become “selfish, instinct-driven consumers” and “slaves to our own desires.”
What Curtis doesn’t acknowledge, however, is that the rise of the self, as he puts it, has become a double-edged sword for marketers. The harder advertisers work to stoke our desires for consumer goods, the more cynical we become about the marketing process and the easier it becomes for us tune it out.
DR. ROBERT CIALDINI, the author of “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion,” offers the following solution: Stick to a few basic time-honored principles that “compliance professionals” have been using for decades.
One such principle is social proof — we tend to comply with a request if it’s validated by people around us, which explains bestseller lists, canned laughtracks on TV shows and lines around the block at movie theaters.
If the Hollywood studios want to use social proof to hype an as-yet-unreleased movie, Cialdini says, why not structure TV ads around footage from a favorable focus group? If it worked for the Pepsi Challenge, why wouldn’t it work for “The 40 Year Old Virgin”?
Unlike the compliance professionals he studies, Cialdini says his interest in the field stems from the fact that all his life he’s been an “easy mark for the pitches of peddlers, fund-raisers and operators of one sort or another.”
His book, Cialdini says, was written for consumers “to show them how to recognize and resist these tactics.”
Here’s the irony: Cialdini’s book has sold more than a quarter-million copies, but it’s been most popular with sellers, not shoppers.
“Not a single consumer group has ever called me,” Cialdini says. “Not a week goes by that I don’t get a call from advertisers, merchandisers, marketers, lobbyists and lawyers saying come and talk to us about how we can harness these principles.”