Mad Men and Bicycles

Mad Men and Bicycles

 “Deleted Scenes” are small pieces of historical research that, through no fault of their own, were cut from the published Bike Battles book, or never made it past research notes.  But they live on as blog posts!  

On the pilot episode of the television show Mad Men, Don Draper solicited an expert psychological report on the motivations of smokers. It’s an internal report, commissioned by his advertising agency from a jaded Adlerian, Dr. Greta Guttman. She is severely dressed, and sounds a bit like Erma Kleb from the James Bond film From Russia With Love (1963); professional, pointedly asexual and somewhat out of place in the sexually-charged, highly stratified offices of Sterling Cooper.  Sal Romano calls her “our man in research.”

The character Greta Guttman

The character Greta Guttman

With a thick German accent, Guttman offers some expert advice to Don Draper, who is struggling to understand why Americans smoke, even while he puffs away in his office: “Before the war, when I studied with Adler in Vienna,” she lectures him, “we postulated that what Freud called the ‘death wish’ is as powerful in life as those for sexual reproduction, and physical sustenance.” Draper is unimpressed: “Freud, you say. What agency is he with?” But the report’s connection of smoking to oral fixations and death wishes aren’t going to work for Don; he dustbins it, even if Pete Campbell digs it out in a bit of ultimately-pointless skullduggery. “Has anyone else seen this?” asks Draper.  “Of course not, it’s your account,” responds Guttman. The report is confidential and internal, never meant for public view, and once Don has put Pete in his place for the first of many times, it might as well never have existed.

Don Draper and Pete Campbell

Don Draper and Pete Campbell

What would a confidential Mad Men report for the postwar American bicycle industry have looked like? It was a pivotal moment for American cycling – bicycles had briefly been very important for adult riders and strategic rationing during WWII, but the automobile was quickly becoming transcendent in the postwar suburban landscape. What if bicycle manufacturers commissioned a European-influenced expert psychologist to tell them how to market to Americans in that crucial time? That report would be an amazing document, if it were to exist today – not only would it give us some very specific expert opinions about the American purchasing public’s assessment of bicycling, but also some idea of how the manufacturers worked against negative associations that held back cycling.

Furthermore, being an internal business document that could give comparative advantage to one firm or another, it would be amazing if that document was available for public view in the present. Business historians know well that the internal records of firms from the 20th century rarely become available for scholars to examine; businesses are generally skittish about donating material to public view that might portray them in a negative light or prove ripe for litigation. Unlike government agencies or institutions, businesses do not have an obligation to provide their internal records to journalists, scholars or citizens. They have no commitment to the public discourse, and their records really only come to light in the case of catastrophic bankruptcy, epic litigation, or some strange misfortune.

The 1953 Dichter report

The 1953 Dichter report

But, with all that having been said, I am right now looking at a report from the Institution for Motivational Research, Inc., dated 1953, and addressed to Chicago advertising firm Ivan Hill Inc. The report, never meant for public view, provides talking points an advertising exec – Ivan Hill is here in the Don Draper role – whose prospective client is the Bicycle Institute of America. Just as Draper was preparing for a pitch meeting with a tobacco firm, Hill appears to be preparing for a pitch meeting where he will present ideas for the BIA on marketing bicycles to Americans in the postwar world; and it is very clear that it’s going to be an uphill slog.

The 1953 report is the work of Ernest Dichter, a Ph.D. Viennese psychologist who left Austria for America before the war and advised American advertisers in the postwar years. If Ivan Hill is in the Don Draper role, Dichter is Greta Guttman. Through his Institute for Motivational Research, Inc., Dichter offered expert advice in understanding what motivated consumers, and how advertisers and industry could steer purchasers through means both subtle and overt; Dichter and his work were a mainstay of American advertising for decades. Historian Daniel Horowitz’ The Anxieties of Affluence: Critiques of American Consumer Culture, 1939-1979 lays out that history, and argues that Dichter “articulated an American ideology of consumption as an essential component of people’s aspirations for psychological well-being.”[1]

A photograph of Ernest Dichter from the Hagley, http://www.hagley.org/librarynews/ernest-dichter-papers-hagley-library

A photograph of Ernest Dichter from the Hagley, http://www.hagley.org/librarynews/ernest-dichter-papers-hagley-library

The 4 pages of the report “Ideas for the Bicycle Institute” are an account of the negative associations of the bicycle in the American consciousness; for American consumers it is clearly a toy for children, and Dichter can’t figure out how to change that. The report’s limited goal is not even to sell to adults; Dichter just want to stop the negative implications of childish toys on children’s likelihood to desire a bicycle. The central problem, posits Dichter, is that the bicycle “is not an accepted national toy or vehicle for transportation as it is in other countries.” This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to sell bikes to teenage boys, “particularly if he has reached a certain age when it is considered foolish, or childish to want a bicycle.” The association with unserious play is particularly irksome to Dichter because it is clear to him that this is not a global constant; other cultures think of the bicycle entirely differently. “A European youngster considers the demand for a bicycle an almost utilitarian request and therefore can be much more insistent” in asking his parents for a purchase.[2]

But still, Dichter thinks that associations can be changed: “The bicycle assumes a role here that skis used to have,” the report goes on to reason. “Only twenty or twenty-five years ago, very few people were interested in skiing and they were considered on the nutty side for being interested.”[3]

Another part of the report proposes to respond to parent’s concerns about bicycle safety by making the arguments that educational filmstrips would promote through the next several decades: that bicycle riding was not an end in itself, but was instead good practice for future automobile drivers. “yet when told that this is an excellent means of educating them to obey traffic laws “ . . . “actual experience with the whole concept of driving and the management of traffic.”[4] As it turned out, this argument appeared to drive a great deal of postwar bicycle education in America; bicycle riders as proto-automobilists was a recurring theme in educational films and books in the decades up to the 1970s.

The last two pages of the report are a grab-bag of ideas, including suggestions that the bicycle might be sold to boys as a key to freedom and self sufficiency, and a gateway to mechanical prowess. The report, by the way, only mentions boys; Dichter’s rigid conceptions of gender roles and influence in recapitulating those roles through advertising would later earn him condemnation in Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.[5]

Text from the first page of the report.

Text from the first page of the report.

The last suggestion of the report begins oddly constrained, proposing to use schools as a means of “introducing bicycles and glamorizing them.” But in the same sentence it seems to branch out to a much large project of reconceiving the auto-centric, postwar suburban built environment. First, thinks Dichter, rural school teachers “might be interested to use bicycles to come to school on, instead of driving cars.” But then, he proposes, “special parking places for bikes could be provided in the School parking area, and in community shopping areas.” This engineering-minded proposal is a thought process near to the ideals of present day urbanists, Complete Streets advocates, and Bicycle Friendly Community applicants, who think of rebuilding the physical world as a means of encouraging bicycling behavior. The report ends with this appeal: “If even as little were done as to influence architects to provide space for bicycles in homes, to give the youngster a place in the garage where he knows his bicycle has a permanent place, all these factors might prove to be of great value.”[6]

In the final analysis this internal report is both remarkable and depressing. It’s remarkable in that it is an unfiltered, expert observation of the way that Americans thought of the bicycle in the postwar era. But, at least for bicycle advocates, it’s also depressing: the report is evidence that the bicycle-as-toy mentality was deeply rooted by the 1950s. Even Madison Avenue advertisers, who generally seemed to think that they could change thought processes if there was money to be made, faced serious limitations on how they could encourage Americans to think of the bicycle as practical transportation. For much of the postwar era, attempts to market bicycles to adults were feeble and ineffective, and this report provides evidence as to why this was the case. At any rate, like Dr. Greta Guttman’s cigarette/death wish report, there’s no evidence that Ivan Hill went on to use these insights in his Bicycle Institute of America pitch meeting. Both appear to have been consigned to the dustbin of history, with no weasel-faced Pete Campbell to dig them out.

The dustbin of history.

The dustbin of history.

 

——

Read it yourself: The report comes from the Dichter papers, collected by the Hagley Library in Wilmington, Delaware, the nation’s premier archive of business and technology history. Read more about the Dichter papers here.  You won’t need to visit the Hagley yourself (though I strongly recommend the experience), as the report has been digitized and made a part of the Adam Mathew database “American Consumer Culture, 1935-1965”; your local research library may have purchased access, or might be able to request a copy through Interlibrary Loan.

[1] For more details see the Hagley’s finding aid: http://findingaids.hagley.org/xtf/view?docId=ead/2407.xml; an essay on the acquisition of the Dichter papers at http://www.hagley.org/librarynews/ernest-dichter-papers-hagley-library; and Daniel Horowitz, The Anxieties of Affluence: Critiques of American Consumer Culture, 1939-1979 (Boston: U. Massachusetts Press, 2005), 77.

[2] “Ideas for the Bicycle Institute,” March 26, 1953, Institute for Motivational Research, Inc., in the collection “American Consumer Culture: Market Research and American Business, 1935-1965,” Adam Matthew Digital, http://www.amdigital.co.uk/m-collections/collection/american-consumer-culture-1935-1965/, page 2. Hereinafter “Ideas for the Bicycle Institute.”

[3] “Ideas for the Bicycle Institute,” 2.

[4] “Ideas for the Bicycle Institute,” 3.

[5] Horowitz, 56; see also “Sex And Advertising: Retail Therapy: How Ernest Dichter, An Acolyte Of Sigmund Freud, Revolutionised Marketing,” The Economist (December 17, 2011); http://www.economist.com/node/21541706

[6] “Ideas for the Bicycle Institute,” 4.

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