Modern qualitative research practice is rooted in the psychoanalytic orientation of the early US researchers. We have developed and added to this thinking, but still claim to ‘go deeper’, under the surface structures, to find the true meaning of consumer communications. Yet we are ambivalent about using the concept of the unconscious.

This article argues that we need to confront this ambivalence. The unconscious did not disappear with Freud. It is implicit in the ideas of later psychologies, and discoveries in neuroscience are now showing the true extent of unconscious processing and decision-making. Like it or not, the idea of the unconscious continues to influence our work today.

What’s more, we need to be concerned with the unconscious because it also plays a major role in framing the context in which we work - the consumer society.

The Enduring Unconscious

The concept of the unconscious goes as far back as Plato. He suggested that the mind is like a chariot drawn by two very different horses; one noble and refined, the other base and impulsive. This essential idea has been explored in philosophy and art over the centuries, but the credit for the popularisation of the unconscious goes to Sigmund Freud.

Despite becoming deeply unpopular as a theory in the latter half of the twentieth century, some Freudian ideas, such as projection and defence mechanisms, have remained influential, including within qualitative research practice. Other ideas, such as the structure of the psyche, have metamorphosed into other theories.

For example, psychodynamic theory arose as a way of seeking integration between variants of psychoanalytic theory. Elements of it occur in many current theories, from Transactional Analysis, to Family Systems, to NLP.

Psychodynamic theory has three common themes:

  • As a result of our upbringing, trauma, social expectations, etc., the psyche is split into different parts (which can be named and defined in many ways, from 'unconscious' to 'sub-personalities')

  • These different parts have different agendas and so conflict arises

  • The conscious part of the mind is not fully aware of these deeper dynamics but they influence attitudes and behaviour

Similarly, many theories in humanistic psychology, (important to qualitative market research, in ways we do not always recognise 1), refer to an unconscious part of the psyche. This is often renamed as a real or true self, hidden under the layers of the false self created as a form of self-defence.

Most recently, discoveries in neuroscience require scientists to embrace the concept of the unconscious, albeit in a more contemporary model. The brain does an immense amount of pre-conscious filtering; processing, sorting and categorising of stimuli of which we have no awareness. Because conscious awareness is a limited channel, the brain likes to automate behaviour wherever possible, resulting in phenomena like the ‘time gap experience’ - driving a familiar route without even being aware of it until you reach your destination. Neuroscientists have shown conclusively that unconscious stimuli influence feelings and conscious decision-making, in fact providing justification for the claims and methods of qualitative research.

So, the idea of the unconscious is alive and well. What part does it play in the current practice of qualitative market research?

The Motivational Unconscious

Mike Imms paper on the Roots and Theoretical Basis of Qualitative Market Research in the UK 2 traced the history and influence of psychoanalytic theory on early research and marketing in the US.

European psychoanalysts displaced by the Second World War found a career in the US working with ad agencies, newly developing media companies and in the public sector. Ad agencies brought in social psychologists, psychoanalysts and cultural anthropologists to analyse commercials and give talks to their staff. Herta Herzog, Paul Lazarsfeld and most famously Ernest Dichter (‘Mr Mass Motivation’ himself) worked with agencies, government departments and corporations.

Some, notably Dichter, made interpretations about unconscious motives, identifying the symbolic, and often the sexual significance of a range of consumer items. 3 Dichter is reputed to have shown that the sports car symbolised the mistress, the saloon car the wife. It was he who suggested that the housewife should add an egg to the Betty Crocker cake mix, to act as an unconscious gift to her family.

Motivational researchers, however, tended to oversell themselves, and some clients became sceptical and suspicious. Vance Packard’s 1957 book The Hidden Persuaders 4 helped create an effective backlash, suggesting that psychology was being used to manipulate consumers. It caused a national outcry over ‘... the depth manipulators ... (who) ... try to invade the privacy of our minds.’ (page 216)

The Unspoken Unconscious

The early excesses of the motivational approach were curtailed. In Imms’ paper, however, he concludes that this period left a ‘psychological legacy’ for qualitative market research. The psychological theories that displaced psychoanalysis as reference points for qualitative research still acknowledge the existence of the unconscious, albeit framing it in a very different way.

A review of qualitative researcher websites and directory entries today shows a common thread that reveals this legacy. Concepts emerge such as ‘exploring motivations’, ‘getting closer to the consumer’, ‘understanding the consumer mindset’, ‘encouraging emotional as well as rational reactions’, and ‘digging deeper’. As Valentine and Evans point out 5, ‘the notion of ‘going deeper’ has now become a taken for granted meaning of ‘good’ moderation.’

We commonly work with the idea that respondents cannot frame their thoughts easily in words. Sometimes they are not even aware of how much they know about a brand, nor their feelings on the subject, until the researcher explores it with them. In-depth qualitative research requires us to access material that is not readily available to consciousness, and/or is not easily expressed by the respondent.

This material includes:

  • Stored, relatively unprocessed material: Things brought to mind using specific techniques, for example collages and associations to elicit brand imagery.

  • The habitual: Processes that have been automated by the brain. This comprises much regular behaviour, including driving and some forms of shopping. Once you have learnt to ride a bike, it is awfully difficult to explain it in words.

  • The cultural: Assumptions about the right way to do things that are invisible to the person who owns them; the socio-cultural frames people use to interpret the world.

  • The illogical or unreasonable: Believing that if you eat a chocolate bar really quickly the calories won’t count!

  • The emotional: Feelings, moods, impulses that affect apparently rational choice processes

  • The Reality Builders: Prejudices, self-justifications, distortions for the sake of congruence, self-beliefs, reference groups, defence mechanisms - all the things that make an individual’s version of reality.

  • Archetypes, myths and dreams: Celebrities, heroes, rituals, tragedies, the underlying stories of our lives.

Broadly speaking, these are all aspects of the unconscious, although few researchers would ever claim to be working with the unconscious, sub-conscious, pre-conscious or any other variety.

Frank Tallis, in his history of the unconscious 6 , points out that scientists and laymen alike are not keen on the idea that we may have unconscious processes affecting our judgements and decisions. The Freudian view of the unconscious, with its emphasis on the baser instincts, is particularly hard to take.

The idea of the unconscious threatens us because it opposes our sense of ourselves as rational actors in the world. Small wonder then that research literature makes little overt reference to the unconscious, and why researchers stop short of saying what they are ‘digging deeper’ into.

It is time to redefine and rehabilitate the concept. We are working with inputs and processes that occur without conscious awareness, and the researcher’s toolkit of techniques and methods is designed to elicit and explain these.

We need, however, to do more than acknowledge the role of the unconscious in the context of qualitative research. It has also played a pivotal role in the creation of the wider consumer society and, as such, it underpins our entire professional enterprise.

The Engineering of Consent

Although we describe Freud as having popularised the unconscious, he did little in the way of self-promotion, other than setting up some poorly attended evening meetings in Vienna and publishing some rather difficult papers.

His ideas did, however, gain huge popularity. Freud hated America, calling it a ‘gigantic mistake’, but America loved Freud. He was invited to receive an honorary degree from Clark University in Massachusetts; and in 1911 the Psychoanalytic Society of New York was founded. It became fashionable for writers, artists, and producers to undergo analysis themselves, and soon people were reading about the unconscious in novels, watching movies influenced by Freudian ideas, and gradually integrating the concepts into everyday life.

How could an academic with such difficult and controversial ideas win over a country in such a major way? Part of the answer is to be found in the extraordinary story of Edward Bernays, Freud’s nephew. Born in Austria, he moved to New York and developed a career as a press agent for visiting show business celebrities. He joined the propaganda arm of the US war effort in the First World War. It turns out that Bernays played a pivotal role (with Freud’s daughter, Anna) in introducing Freudian ideas to US politicians, policy makers, leaders of industry and marketers. 7, 8

In return for a gift of cigars, Freud had sent his nephew one of his books. The result was that Bernays used Freud’s insights to turn ‘propaganda’ (discredited after the war as dishonest and exploitative) into the new profession of ‘public relations’. A key feature of this new activity was that public relations was largely invisible to those being influenced by it, and aimed to control public opinion by manipulating unconscious desires.

American politicians and planners were aware of Freud’s ideas about the power of the primeval unconscious urges, and believed that these had manifested in the brutality of Nazi Germany. They were concerned that the melting pot of the USA could contain similar dangers and felt that they could try to control this hidden enemy by diverting these urges into the acquisition of consumer goods. They believed this was the best way of maintaining democracy - and it had the happy by-product of driving the expanding economy. Bernays worked closely with politicians and corporations to develop what he called "the engineering of consent" - controlling the minds of the public without their awareness.

He suggested that "those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons ... who pull the wires which control the public mind." 9

Ironically, Freud’s work was aimed at bringing hidden motives to consciousness to help people lead happier lives - while Bernays used the same set of theories to mask the motives of his clients and keep the public unconscious of the forces that were being used to mould their minds and desires.

Bernays was instrumental in developing the notion of the consumer as somebody who bought a product not because they needed it, but because they would feel better if they had it. He realised that anyone who wanted to influence the public had to appeal to people’s irrational and selfish needs, and he systematically linked mass-produced goods to unconscious desires. He helped develop ‘self-expression’ from a psychoanalytic method of healing to a cultural method of living.

Bernays - or the Father of Spin, as he is now known 10 - used Freudian insights to plan groundbreaking marketing campaigns and publicity stunts. He was largely responsible for making it socially acceptable for women to smoke (to his later regret). He was widely recognised as a talented and influential PR man, working for Procter & Gamble, General Motors, General Electric, and for Eisenhower, Thomas Edison and Eleanor Roosevelt.

But things began to change. Psychoanalysis was falling out of favour and, by the 1960s, several new psychologies had been developed. These either rebelled against Freud, or emphasised the Humanistic approach to personal development. The new thinking said that the inner self did not need to be repressed and controlled - rather, it should be encouraged to express itself.

This was the rise of the ‘me’ generation. Where would this leave the newly emerged PR and marketing? Rather than proving a threat, these ideas were seized upon as opportunities to sell to the public ways of expressing their newfound individuality. It was now less about appealing to the hidden desires and more about using products as symbols of the self.

While many other factors were also important in developing today’s consumer society, Bernays - harnessing ideas about the unconscious - was part of a process that has led to brands being integrated into our self-concept. Today, we accept that people define themselves by what they buy and use, and their relationships with brands are the subject of much of our research.

The Research, Consumer, Self and Society

The story of Edward Bernays links the unconscious with consumerism and politics in an unfamiliar conjunction. It suggests that part of our self - the unconscious part that we often deny - has been used to help create the consumer society in which our selves are now embedded. This is not necessarily negative - consumerism, capitalism and democracy are closely linked. But this culture provides the background framework for the phenomena we study, and I believe it should also be subjected to critical analysis.

For example, a side effect of establishing this individualistic relationship with brands is that, in the UK particularly, consumers feel disempowered in relation to social issues. In a recent article in Research Magazine 11 , Sarah Castell points out that because brands encourage us to relate differently in different moments of identity, the self becomes fragmented, and personal limits of responsibility and influence are unclear.

Without a culture that emphasises the social contract, British consumers are aware of the ills of consumer society, but feel powerless, ‘because they can no longer participate in any group that can create social constructs.’ She goes on to suggest that brands should extend their corporate social responsibility to enable the consumer to have social responsibility. I would question the willingness and ability of brands to do this, and indeed whether it should be their role.

Personally, I feel increasing discomfort at the idea of working with products that seem to rely on making people more self-centred, impulsive, and overweight into the bargain. The discomfort is enhanced by my own awareness of how I use brands as props for my identity and social currency. From looking closely at the idea of the unconscious we have arrived at some significant questions about our role as qualitative market researchers - are we just helping the economy grow by finding out what people want, or are we implicated in a consumerist mass market ‘engineering of consent’? I used to feel proud of the fact that I was helping consumers to find their voice in society; now I am listening more to those anti-consumerist voices.

What’s the answer? Despite the implications of books like Douglas Rushkoff’s Coercion 12, I do not believe in the conspiracy theory of consumerism. I don’t feel a need to blame anyone, but I believe we should think about these issues.

Some Questions

I’ll end by doing what researchers do best - asking some questions:

  • What are the broader positive and negative consequences of the products and brands we work on?

  • If there were a morality of consumerism, on what would it be based?

  • Should we take the postmodern view that consumers are self-aware and choose when and how to consume, or can they be rightly seen sometimes as victims of a greedy capitalist system?

  • Could we attain a state of ‘no logo’ (a personal identity without brand references) on a personal level, and if so, by what means would we construct others and ourselves?

Finally, and importantly... are our clients concerned with any of this? These are not idle questions. I hope that the qualitative community is motivated to respond.


1 Chrzanowska, J., Interviewing Groups and Individuals in Qualitative Market Research, Book 2 in G. Ereaut, M. Imms and M. Callingham (eds.).Qualitative Market Research (7 volumes) London: Sage, 2002

2 Imms., M., A reassessment of the roots and theoretical basis of qualitative market research in the UK, Market Research Society Conference, London: MRS, 1999

3 Dichter, E., Handbook of Consumer Motivations, 1964

4 Packard, V., The Hidden Persuaders, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1957

5 Valentine, V., and Evans, M. The Dark side of the Onion, Market Research Society Conference Papers, London: MRS, 1993

6 Tallis, Frank, Hidden Minds, London: Profile Books, 2002

7 Tyrell, Ivan, A seething mass of desires: Freud’s hold over history, Human Givens., Vol 9, no3, 2002

8 Curtis, A., 2002 The Century of the Self, BBC series 2002

9 Bernays, Edward, Propaganda, The Kennikat Press, 1928

10 Tye, Larry, The Father of Spin: Edward L Bernays & the Birth of PR, New York: Crown Publishers, 1998

11 Castell, Sarah, The fantastic elastic self, Research Magazine, December 2002, issue 439, 2002

12 Rushkoff, Douglas, Coercion, Great Britain: Little Brown and Company, 2000