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The birth of lifestyle marketing in the late 70s


By the late 60s, the idea of self exploration was spreading rapidly in America. Encounter groups became the center of what was seen as a radical alternative culture based on the development of the self free of a corrupt capitalist culture. And it was beginning to have a serious effect on corporate America because these new selves were not behaving as predictable consumers.

Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in California, worked for corporations and government. It had done much of the early work on computers and was also working for the department of defense on what would become the "Star Wars" project. In 1978 a group of economists and psychologists at SRI decided to find a way to read, measure, and fulfill the desires of these new unpredictable consumers.

As Jay Ogilvy, Director of Psychological Values Research (SRI 1979-88), described: “The idea was to create a rigorous tool for measuring a whole range of desires, wishes, values, that prior to that time had been kind of overlooked. They say in business, you know, 'What gets measured, gets done'. We were basically telling manufacturers, if you are really going to satisfy not just the basic needs but individuated wants, whims and desires of more highly developed human beings, you are going to have to segment, you are going to have to individuate.

To do this, SRI turned for help to those who had begun the liberation of the self. In particular, one of the leaders of the human potential movement, a psychologist called Abraham Maslow. Through the observing the work of places like Esalen, Maslow had invented a new system of psychological types. He called it the hierarchy of needs, and it described the different emotional stages that people had went through as they liberated their feelings. At the top was self-actualization. This was the point at which individuals became completely self-directed and free of society.

The team at SRI thought that Maslow's hierarchy might form a basis for a new way to categorize society. Not by social class, but by different psychological desires and drives. To test this, they designed a huge questionnaire with hundreds of questions about how people saw themselves - their inner values. The questions were designed to see whether people fitted into Maslow's categories.

According to Amina Marie Spengler, Director Psychological Values Research Program (1978-86): “We were trying to find out what people really felt like. So we asked these really penetrating questions and we hired a company that administers surveys to do them and they said they had never seen anything like it. Usually you have to send out a postcard and then in six weeks another postcard and then you have to call the people up, you know to get the return rates up, we had an 86 percent return and they only sent out a postcard. People loved filling out this questionnaire. We got several questionnaires back with a note attached saying: do you have any other questionnaires I can fill out? Because we were asking people to think about things that they had never thought about before and they liked thinking about them. Like what they felt inside, what motivated them, what was their life about, what was important to them. It was sort of like, wow.

The answers were then analyzed by a computer. It revealed there were underlying patterns in the way people felt about themselves which fitted Maslow's categories. And at the top of the hierarchy was a large and growing group which cut across all social classes.

The SRI called them the inner directives. These were people who felt they were not defined by their place in society but by the choices they made themselves. But what SRI discovered, was that these people could be defined by the different patterns of behavior through which they chose to express themselves. Self expression was not infinite, it fell into identifiable types. The SRI team invented a new term for it: lifestyles. They had managed to categorize the new individualism. They called their system "Values and Lifestyles", VALs for short.

SRI created a simplified questionnaire with just 30 key questions. Anyone who answered them could be immediately be fitted into a dozen or so, of these groups. It allowed businesses to identify which groups were buying their products and from that, how the goods could be marketed so they became powerful emblems of those groups inner values and lifestyles. It was the beginning of lifestyle marketing.

As Amina Marie Spengler also described: “So it allowed people not just to look at people as demographics groups of age and income or whatever, but to really understand the underlying motivations. I mean, most of marketing was looking at people's actions and trying to figure out what to do, but what we were doing was we were trying to look at people's underlying values so that we could predict what is their lifestyle, what kind of house did they live in, what kind of car did they drive. So the corporations were then able to sell things to them by understanding them, by having labels, by knowing what people looked like, by where they lived, by what their lifestyles are.

If a new product expressed a particular group's values, it would be bought them. This is what made the Values and Lifestyles system so powerful. It's ability to predict what new products, self-actualizers would choose. This power was about to be demonstrated dramatically. VALs was about to show not just what products they would buy, but the politicians they were going to choose to elect.


Taken from the documentary The Century of the Self by Adam Curtis.

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