SI Vault
Robert H. Boyle
July 24, 1961
Psychologist Ernest Dichter is the big daddy of motivational research. Probing the psyche of sports, he finds the umpire is a father figure and harness racing needs hair on its chest
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July 24, 1961

Not-so-mad Doctor And His Living Lab

Psychologist Ernest Dichter is the big daddy of motivational research. Probing the psyche of sports, he finds the umpire is a father figure and harness racing needs hair on its chest

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Persons answered as they did because they believed the favorites "always win" in harness racing. "To the average person," the doctor wrote, "the excitement of gambling is comprised of extremes: 'You make a killing' or 'You go home broke.' Either result brings about 'satiety,' the feeling that you have had your fill. Gambling loses in its appeal where the extreme element is absent." The respondents also were "disturbed by a driver restraining the horse on which their money is riding. The 'expert' may know that restraint is part skillful driving, but the average spectator merely feels that the driver is not 'all out to win' for him."

Finally, the harness racing term standardbred fared poorly when compared with the word Thoroughbred. In the word-association test, Thoroughbred evoked "Beautiful, sleek, blue bloods, sired by the finest, best breeding, sport of kings," while standardbred meant "something inferior."

Dr. Dichter presented a "blueprint for action." First, facilitate identification. "Immediate efforts should be devoted to building a positive image of the Harness Racing patron.

"The Harness Racing Fan should be portrayed as youthful, vigorous, masculine, fun-loving, and slightly roguish. He should be city-bred (to counteract the 'country bumpkin' identification), modern in outlook and appearance, but also down-to-earth and an 'average guy.'

"In your advertisements, utilize people 'having fun' rather than the horse and sulky.... Whenever the horse and sulky are portrayed, this should be done in such a way as to suggest motion and speed. The driver should be shown leaning forward, rather than in a sitting and upright position, to counteract the impression that he is holding the horse back.

"Portray strongly masculine situations, such as a 'day off' with the 'fellows.' In such advertisements, stress pleasant social situations and care-free feelings.... Advertisements portraying men and women should present the women as 'dates,' 'sweethearts,' and 'girl friends.'... The important thing is to dispel a man's fear that his wife will nag him about his gambling and a woman's fear that, instead of enjoying herself, she will worry about his losing too much. Promotion and publicity directed at women alone, particularly any ad directed at women, are likely to create undesirable effects. Harness Racing at present suffers from a lack of strong masculine identification and such promotion may reinforce this prejudice.... Even though this approach might seem to exclude women, many of our studies have shown that women find any activity which is supposedly for men twice as appealing."

The Los Angeles tracks acted immediately. Ads showed the driver leaning forward. Clothing designers whipped up styles that would turn wrinkled old men into virile charioteers, and before long, presto, drivers appeared in snug jackets, trim, close-fitting trousers and racing helmets (to convey the image of speed and danger). In case the public missed the point, the Western Harness Racing Association snapped up the most masculine model it could find, dressed him in white pants and flashy boots and slapped his picture on billboards. In a series of "get acquainted" ads, the association used 10 of its most successful—and youngest—drivers. Youth took over in press releases. "If 26-year-old Jones wins a race, we write a release emphasizing his age," says a publicity man. "If an older guy wins, we don't mention the age."

Ads also spruced up the fan. On billboards roguish young men and their dates leaped from their seats at the track to exclaim, "It's Fun Time—Harness Racing." The association dreamed up a snappy slogan: "Win, Place, What a Show."

There are too many variables affecting attendance and handle to measure the value of Dr. Dichter's report in dollars and cents, but the association is well pleased. "He got us thinking," General Manager Pres Jenuine says. "He showed us what other people thought of our operation and the thing we're selling."

The doctor couldn't agree more. With satisfied clients like this., it's strictly rooty-toot-toot at the institute.

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