Marketing and Minds in the Early 20th Century

How psychology enhanced advertising

by Molly Bales

When John B. Watson, the famed American psychologist, abandoned his research to work for the then largest advertising agency in the world, he applied his groundbreaking work in behaviorist theory in an entirely new way (Kreshel, 1990). Within the same decade, Edward Bernays employed Freud's theory of psychoanalysis in his famous Lucky Cigarettes marketing scheme. It is no coincidence that these two men in the 1920s, a psychologist and a propagandist-turned-public-relations-counselor, jumped at the opportunity to combine psychology and advertising. Around the turn of the twentieth century, the field of psychology was slowly discarding the notion of a soul and starting to view the mind mechanistically. From this new view emerged behaviorism, the philosophy that one could study the mind through external human behavior instead of internal mental states. Behaviorists began to believe they could not only study the mind through behavior but also control it by manipulating external stimuli. Though works in the popular media such as the film Parallax View and Aldous Huxley's novel Brave New World expressed fears of mind control and brainwashing from the misapplication of psychology, the advertising industry saw psychological theory as a scientific method for influencing human behavior. Thus, in the early twentieth century, the seemingly incompatible fields of psychology and advertising collided.

The German physiologist and biologist Jacques Loeb provided the intellectual backdrop for psychology's incorporation into marketing through his mechanistic conception of life. Loeb first examined heliotropism, growth in response to light, and then extended his research to plants'reactions to other stimuli such as gravity, chemicals, and electric current (Lemov, 2005). He eventually applied the same principles to animals, shining light to control cockroaches'movement and to starve moths to death. Manipulating life and behavior fascinated Loeb: he once reported that he "wanted to take life in [his] hands and play with it" (1912). Indeed, Loeb even experimented with multiple tropisms at the same time to create a two-headed worm. While at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, Loeb invented artificial parthenogenesis by inducing a sea urchin to reproduce by placing it in an acidic solution, garnering instant fame (1912). Loeb's biological creations and technique developments reinforced his mechanistic conception of life and led him to believe that he had discovered the key to man's ultimate rule over nature: "a technology of living substance."

Loeb's research in "physico-chemical" mechanisms led him to believe that plant, animal, and even human behavior were nothing but a series of "stimulus-response reactions" (Lemov, 2005). By emphasizing the deterministic quality of these reactions, Loeb rejected not only Descartes'dualistic attitude toward mind and body, but the notion of will at all. Without human will as a limiting factor, the construction of a human simply requires the right set of ingredients. In this way, Loeb believed he could create behaviors and attitudes through scientific theory. Thus, Loeb's physico-chemical explanation for the basis of life laid the groundwork for behaviorism and made human control a real prospect.

Loeb taught John B. Watson physiology and biology when Watson was a graduate student at the University of Chicago and thereby personally introduced Watson, the future "crystallizer of behaviorism" (Lemov, 2005), to the mechanistic conception of life. Watson built upon Loeb's behaviorist foundation. In 1903, Watson graduated from the University of Chicago, having written his dissertation on rat behavior. Watson discovered more "stimulus-and-response reactions" that he believed could explain any behavior. In 1913, Watson published Psychology as the Behaviorist Knows It, popularly called "Behaviorist Manifesto" (Lemov, 2005), that established him as the 'father of behaviorism.'In this 'manifesto,' Watson shared Loeb's belief that humans were just as susceptible to stimulus-response reactions as animals.

Watson famously claimed he could "take any one [infant] at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select." As proof of his theory, Watson extended his rat research to human babies and, in 1920, conducted the experiments that made him instantly famous and later infamous (Lemov, 2005). In Watson's "Little Albert" experiments, Watson tested a nine-month-old infant's fear response: he presented a variety of stimuli to the child, anything from a burning newspaper to a white rat, and recorded the baby's initial responses. Because Albert was so stable, Watson resorted to hitting a four-foot long, suspended steel bar with a hammer to evoke a fear response from the child—on the third time the bar was struck, Albert started crying uncontrollably (Watson, 1920). When Albert was eleven months old, Watson began testing the ability to condition the child to fear other things by associating them with the loud noise. Watson placed a white rat in front of Albert and made the loud noise every time. The series of experiments resulted in Albert's fear of the white rat, a dog, and even a fur coat. A month later, Albert still feared those stimuli, though less intensely. Watson's "Little Albert" experiments showed that even humans could be conditioned to feel fear, or other emotions, given the correct conditioning process. The "Little Albert" experiments are criticized today, mainly for ethical reasons, but at the time, these experiments were considered by many to be substantial proof of behaviorism. Watson's work with infantile subjects at Johns Hopkins came to an abrupt halt as he was dismissed for an affair with his research assistant.

Watson always seemed to have an affinity for business, writing that he enjoyed being a consultant. He even offered a course in "The Psychology of Advertising" while teaching at Johns Hopkins (Buckley, 1982). Disgraced by his university due to his public affair and naturally drawn to business, Watson deserted academia for the advertising industry. He landed a job at the J. Walter Thompson Company as a "contact man" (Kreshel, 1990), today called an account executive. Though Watson claimed he had to "more or less junk [his] psychological training" (Kreshel, 1990), his public acclaim as a psychologist certainly helped him climb the business ladder. Shortly after starting as an average employee and withstanding the rigors of Thompson's standard training program, Watson became vice-president of the company or perhaps more accurately "high-visibility ambassador-at-large" for then-president Stanley Resor. With all the invitations Resor received, he counted on Watson to speak at functions on his behalf. Many of Watson's speeches hinged on behaviorist theory and its application to salesmanship. Watson's scientific approach to marketing problems lent some validity to the Thompson agency and to the national advertising industry as a whole. Viewing man as a machine, Watson figured he simply had to press the right buttons to trigger human "buying behavior" (Buckley, 1982).

Watson's contributions to advertising practice are highly contested (Kreshel, 1990), but one of his clear accomplishments includes revitalizing testimonials. Testimonials had been looked down upon in the advertising business for quite some time, but Watson and Resor believed they still held promise. Watson used the direct testimonial to associate products "with an appeal to authority or a desire for emulation" (Buckley, 1982). In indirect testimonials, Watson used symbols to arouse fear, rage, or love, which Watson considered the three fundamental emotions.

Watson most impacted the advertising industry by placing emotional arousal above factual content on the commercial totem pole. Choosing emotion above information or style above substance is particularly linked to contemporaneous psychological theory in two ways. First, prioritizing emotions before facts emphasizes a very important premise of behaviorism, that humans, like animals, react by instinct. Instead of believing that humans transcend animalistic instincts and make rational decisions as higher-order beings, Watson asserted that humans were simply more complex animals (Buckley, 1982). Indeed, modern scientists now know that basic functioning brain regions like the basal ganglia or the hypothalamus existed long before the distinctively human, higher-order brain regions of the neocortex evolved. Secondly, emotions are more closely linked to stimulus-response mechanisms; thus, advertising that emphasizes emotion will be more likely to elicit a response than would fact. Some of Watson's supposed achievements are highly contested and traced to developments that began long before his advertising career. Nonetheless, Watson proved a key player in the intersection between advertising and psychological principles.

As previously mentioned, Watson's entrance into advertising did not single-handedly integrate psychology and the business world. Rather, the behaviorist philosophy Watson supported proved "useful to 'the educator, the physician, the jurist, and the businessman" (Buckley, 1982). For one thing, it made psychology more pragmatic. Given the technology of the time period, it was not possible to study the brain's functioning as an organ. For that reason, much of early psychology was devoted to philosophical speculation on the inner workings of the mind. In fact, before the behaviorist movement, psychology at many universities was included in the philosophy department, not in the science department (Lernov, 2005). By focusing on external stimuli instead of internal mental states, behaviorism's methodology earned psychology "status as a science" in that psychology could then be "observed and verified by overt behavior" (Buckley, 1982). Just as a natural science is credited with the ability to predict and control natural phenomena, psychology with its renewed scientific status was credited with the ability to predict and control the human mind. Behaviorists hoped that their work could make people happier and better. To behaviorists, the human mind was a blank slate upon which they could inscribe the formula for success.

Despite its significant impact on the advertising industry, behaviorism was not the only psychological philosophy exploited for its market value in the 1920s. Sigmund Freud, uncle to the "father of public relations" Edward Bernays, based his theory of psychoanalysis on introspection instead of external stimuli. Thus, psychoanalysis also found its niche in the business world. Freud influenced popular culture as much as he did psychology, evident in his legacy of dream interpretation to terms like 'Freudian slip'. Freud emphasized the importance of the unconscious (classified today as the subconscious) in the human mind. To Freud, the unconscious was a wild beast held by the reins of the conscious mind, and whether individuals realized it or not, their actions were influenced by the unconscious (Freud, 2005). Freud attributed most behaviors to repressed sexual desires. For instance, Freud interpreted one of his patient's obsessions with squeezing blackheads as "his castration complex upon his skin" and "a substitute for onanism" (Freud, 2005). Though the popularity of Freud's theories eventually waned, his nephew Edward Bernays envisioned the power Freud's ideas could have over the masses.

Bernays'familial connection to Freud comes as no great shock to anyone who understands how Bernays became the so-called "father of public relations." Bernays famously dubbed his work the "engineering of consent" (Justman, 1994), and he clearly approached his craft as a scientist. Just as behaviorists envisioned that their theory could make the world better, Bernays considered himself the "practical Freud, emancipating people from the past and correcting the malfunctions of an industrial society." In 1932, The Atlantic Monthly wrote of Bernays, "Unlike his distinguished uncle, he is not known as a practicing psychoanalyst, but he is a psychoanalyst just the same" (Justman, 1994).

Indeed, Bernays'campaigns often involved psychoanalytic theory. During the 1920s, cigarette smoking among women was a social taboo, associated "with louche and libidinous behaviors and morals" (Amos, 2000). Lucky Cigarettes wished to overcome this social stigma and asked Bernays to employ his powers of persuasion. Bernays consulted a psychoanalyst (not Freud because he was in Vienna at the time) who charged him a hefty fee to explain how women related to smoking. According to the psychoanalyst, cigarettes were a phallic symbol representing masculinity and power. If cigarettes could be associated with women's power, then they would attract females. So in the 1929 Easter Sunday parade, Bernays had the Great American Tobacco company hire debutantes to pretend to protest against women's inequality. The 'suffragettes'strutted down Fifth Avenue, lighting their "torches of freedom" on cue (Amos, 2000). The event was highly publicized, and Lucky Strike cigarettes experienced a huge spike in sales. According to psychoanalytic theory, by placing this phallic symbol in the mouths of young wealthy women, Lucky cigarettes associated their product with women's liberation. In this way, Bernays manipulated public opinion as he pleased.

John B. Watson and Edward Bernays were thus instrumental in the integration of psychology into advertising. These individuals, as part of the greater popularization of science, exploited the psychological discipline's predisposition to application in everyday life. Psychology is the study of the mind, and the mind is the source of emotion, thought, and behavior. Therefore, it is the disciplinary nature of psychology to affect the way humans view themselves and interact with others. Though behaviorist and psychoanalytic theories may be out of fashion, the idea that man shares drives or instincts with animals is valid. John Watson and Edward Bernays preyed on human's 'animalistic'tendencies by appealing to basic drives such as hunger and sex. By learning how to influence others, Watson and Bernays made themselves more powerful. From natural philosophy's role in exegesis in the twelfth century to atomic theory's implementation in creating the atomic bomb in the twentieth, man has constantly explored ways that science can benefit human life. Advertising is yet another avenue through which man can manipulate his environment in order to preserve himself.


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