Rosser Reeves and the Death of Motivational Research

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Advertising executive Paul Feldwick reflects on the history of his profession’s entanglement with psychology and hidden persuasion.


In 1989, working for a London ad agency that had recently merged with DDB Worldwide, I made my first ever trip to Chicago. There I met with the venerable Dr Bill Wells, a former academic who was then head of marketing services at DDB Needham in that city. Bill was old enough to remember the first appearance of The Hidden Persuaders in 1957, and talking to him over lunch one day (a meal then generally taken in Chicago at around 11.30 a.m.), I speculated that its publication must have been quite a blow to the growing fashion for psychological research in ad agencies. Not at all, said Bill; he recalled that it massively stimulated the demand for qualified psychologists, and he and his friends all got better paid jobs on the back of it. It’s easy to suppose that Vance Packard’s book rang the death knell for ‘Motivation Research’ (MR), as it was then called, and perhaps in the longer term there’s some truth in that. But the actual sequence of events was not so simple.



The Hidden Persuaders came out in April, 1957, and as Lawrence Samuel’s well-researched history, Freud on Madison Avenue, confirms, its initial effects were to encourage rather than dampen the industry’s enthusiasm for MR. Pierre Martineau’s influential, pro-MR book, Motivation in Advertising, didn’t appear until September the same year, while Martin Mayer’s classic Madison Avenue USA, which extensively covers MR as a flourishing trend, came out a year later. It was also not until September of 1957 that the story of James Vicary’s experiments with ‘subliminal advertising’ were openly reported. (Packard only includes a rather garbled version of the story, taken from a 1956 hearsay article in The Times of London, in which ice cream rather than Coke or popcorn is the product promoted in split second flashes on the cinema screen). For all the success of Packard’s book, it was the subliminal scare that ignited a full scale moral panic, with US and UK authorities rushing through legislation to ban it even before it could be shown up as the hoax it was.




An analysis using Google’s Ngram Viewer, which reviews the use of words in a massive corpus of published texts, shows that use of the term ‘motivation research’ peaks in 1959, and then drops vertically from about 1961. There may be many reasons for this, but I’d suggest one key factor may have been the publication in that latter year of Rosser Reeves’s book, Reality in Advertising.



Reeves was a multi talented man – his published works include a still-respected classic on shooting pool, and volumes of poetry, as well as his book on advertising. Schooled in the ‘hard sell’ tradition of Claude Hopkins, soon after the war he started an agency with Ted Bates which was to become one of the great success stories of the fifties and sixties. The Ted Bates agency, under Reeves’s direction, was famous for intrusive, brash, hard selling TV spots which infuriated the public, but nevertheless seem to have delivered effective results for their clients – probably through a combination of large media budgets and simple, memorable slogans and images consistently repeated over long periods of time.




Reality in Advertising was designed – just like its forefather, Claude Hopkins’s Scientific Advertising of 1923 – as a shameless plug for the writer’s ad agency. But its title surely points to another agenda as well. Just as Scientific Advertising as a title deliberately echoes Frederick W. Taylor’s bestselling business book of a few years earlier, Scientific Management (1917), so Reeves’s title can only really be explained as a similar twist on Pierre Martineau’s Motivation in Advertising. And it becomes clear as we read the book, that one of its goals is a vigorous attack on motivation research. In a chapter called ‘The Freudian Hoax’, Reeves asserts boldly that
There are no hidden persuaders. Advertising works openly, in the bare and pitiless sunlight.



As I suggested in my 2015 book, The Anatomy of Humbug, Packard may have laid the groundwork, but it was Reeves who delivered the crucial death blow to MR. By effectively distancing not just his agency, but by implication the whole ad industry from the movement, Reeves helped set the tone for any future professional discourse that was possible about advertising – and that didn’t include any mention of the subconscious. For the next fifty years both agencies and advertisers were obliged to pretend that advertising only influenced people by attracting their conscious attention, giving them facts, and making them memorable – an honest salesman who worked ‘openly, in the bare and pitiless sunlight’.


It came as a great surprise to me then, a few months after the publication of The Anatomy of Humbug, when I received an email from a semi-retired adman in California. After complimenting me on my book, which was pleasing, he mentioned that he happened to own the copy of Motivation in Advertising, which Rosser Reeves had given to Ted Bates in January 1958. The email read ‘Great memo inside. Basically he says, this is really important book, deals with many of our theories, part of a new school, what our clients are talking about, a must read.’


I’ve since asked politely if I could have sight of the memo, but sadly, for whatever reason, have had no reply. So this remains tantalizingly anecdotal. But if I read it right, it sounds as if Reeves in 1958 was very far from being as anti-MR as he later presented himself in his book. I wonder what changed his mind? My guess is that Reeves was both smart enough to understand the merits of MR, and to recognize that by 1961 the tide was beginning to turn against it – also that it actually sat rather uncomfortably with the ‘hard sell’ commercials his agency specialized in. Rather than change a winning formula – or sit on the fence – he calculated that to come out against MR with both guns blazing was the best strategy to promote his agency. To what extent he genuinely believed this, I don’t know. Perhaps research among the Reeves papers, which are kept in the University of Wisconsin at Madison, would fill in some of the gaps in this story. I’d like to go sometime, but it’s not likely to be soon, so if anyone else wants to take it on, please do. I’d love to read your thesis.


Paul Feldwick is the author of The Anatomy of Humbug: How to Think Differently About Advertising, a consultant, and an executive coach. He was formerly Head of Planning at BMP, and later became Global Brand Planning Director for DDB Worldwide. He has been Convenor of Judges for the IPA Effectiveness Awards, Chair of the AQR and of the APG. He has Master’s degrees from The University of Bath School of Management and from Ashridge Business School.




Feldwick, P. (2015). The Anatomy of Humbug: How to Think Differently About Advertising. Kibworth Beauchamp: Matador.

Hopkins, C. (1923 /1986). Scientific Advertising. Chicago: NTC Business Books.

Martineau, P.(1957), Motivation in Advertising: Motives that Make People Buy. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Mayer, M. (1958) Madison Avenue, USA: the Inside Story of American Advertising. London: The Bodley Head.

Packard, V. (1957). The Hidden Persuaders: An Introduction to the Techniques of Mass-Persuasion through the Unconscious. London: Longmans, Green & Co.

Reeves, R. (1961/1986). Reality in Advertising (sixteenth printing). New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Samuel, L. (2010). Freud on Madison Avenue: Motivation Research and Subliminal Advertising in America. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press.