Chicago innovation #14: Consumer preference research

A cousin of social science research, consumer preference research, got its start in Chicago:

It was 1928. Benton was working at Chicago’s Lord & Thomas advertising agency when owner Albert Lasker told him to land Colgate-Palmolive by impressing the outsized toiletry powerhouse with market research. Benton worked night and day for two months to record housewives’ preferences for the products of each company.

The firm used the pioneering survey in its initial Colgate-Palmolive campaign and landed the account before the survey was completed.

This drew criticism from an early sociologist:

Sociologist Gordon Hancock hated the idea. It was tantamount to cheating.

In a statement that must have brought grins to the faces of that up-and-coming generation of ad men, Hancock decried in 1926: “Excessive scientific advertising takes undue advantage of the public.”

This was, of course, the point.

This tension between marketing and sociology still exists today. The two areas use similar methods of collecting data such as surveys, focus groups, interviews, and ethnographies or participant observation. However, they have very different purposes: marketing is intended to sell products while sociologists are trying to uncover how social life works. The tension reminds me of Morgan Spurlock’s documentary The Greatest Movie Ever Sold that questions the marketing complex.

This comes in at #14 on a list of the top 20 innovations from Chicago; I highlighted the #5 innovation, balloon frame housing, in an earlier post.


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