Marketing to Pregnant Women: Ernest Dichter and the Playtex Nurser in 1962

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Lara FreidenfeldsI am a women’s historian, working on a new book, Counting Chickens Before They Hatch?: Miscarriage in American Culture. I visited the Hagley Museum and Library archives aiming to learn when, why and how marketers began targeting pregnant women as valuable customers. In the narrative of my book, marketers hardly come across as the “good guys.” Nowadays, their targeting techniques press pregnant women to invest emotionally in their pregnancies the moment they receive a positive home pregnancy test, long before the substantial risk of miscarriage has passed. I dove into Ernest Dichter’s papers, searching for the beginnings of this marketing practice in his detailed market research reports. I pictured a cynical male researcher, showing companies every way possible to manipulate its female customers.

To my surprise, after reading Dichter’s papers for a few days, I really liked the man. He and his team were like anthropologists, listening carefully to their informants, putting themselves in women’s shoes, and writing respectfully about their hopes, fears and ways of life. They reported on the aspiring middle-class women who read Family Circle in the 1960s, eager to educate themselves about child-rearing and the homemaking possibilities that came with some disposable income. For Youngs Rubber Corporation, they recorded what wives told them about the annoyances of contraceptive diaphragms, and their desire for their husbands to get out the condoms and take some responsibility. And, most useful for my purposes, they wrote an extensive 1962 report about how women chose to feed their babies, why they picked bottle feeding or breastfeeding, and what it all meant to them. Playtex had introduced its innovative bottle, the Nurser, and wanted Dichter’s feedback on a television advertising blitz and advice on best marketing techniques going forward. Dichter and his team went into women’s homes, to interview them and ask them to try assembling a Nurser bottle; they held focus groups of pregnant women and new mothers; and they conducted a large survey. They found that women had strong feelings about breastfeeding and bottle feeding, and diplomatically implied that Playtex should not try to influence breastfeeding mothers to bottle feed.

Dichter’s team also discovered that pregnant women were the most likely audience for this new bottle. Pregnant women were attuned to everything that might help them do well by their expected babies. They were especially emotional and vulnerable to marketing messages. And they were naïve. Unlike the more skeptical mothers of young babies, who thought the Nurser’s innovative design looked overly complicated and impractical, pregnant women found it fun and interesting, and predicted it would be convenient.

Playtex, via Dichter, had learned that it was important to get ‘em before the baby arrived. As much as I liked Dichter, his sensitive and compelling interviews with pregnant women gave Playtex and others strong incentives to wholeheartedly pitch to women before they actually had their babies. By 1962, the era of marketers targeting pregnant women, earlier and earlier, had begun.

Lara Freidenfelds, Ph.D., is an independent scholar in Chatham, New Jersey. She has previously published The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America. She presented a chapter from her forthcoming book Counting Chickens Before They Hatch?: Miscarriage in American Culture at a Hagley Research Seminar on Thursday, April 10, 2014.