John B. Watson, Salesman: Psychology Meets big Business


The study of human behavior played a prominent role in the success of business in the early 20th century and continues to foster commercialized enterprises today.

The post-WWI era in the United States represented a time of refined mass production in the business sector, improved by advances in technology that spilled into the lifestyle of many Americans. Automobiles broadened the boundaries of every day travel, just as movie theaters expanded the limits of a citizen’s hopes and dreams.

Business needed a national market for its products, and came to view the people purchasing those goods as not just customers, but as consumers. Consumers had needs, and it was the mission of business to discover and inform the purse strings just what those needs were.

During this same period, John B. Watson was also studying human behavior. In contrast to early psychological theorists, Watson believed the relationship of human action was quite simple. His basic premise was that people respond to actions around them; observation of these responses leads to accurate predictions of behavior. At one point, Watson believed he could channel the development of a child by the appropriate influences enforced, and relished the prospect of controlling human emotion through proper conditioning. Behaviorism became a foundation for modern psychological techniques even after Watson left the field in 1920.

Timing is always a critical element in success, and the advertising branch of the business industry was primed for the cognitive theories of John Watson. What a marriage this became between the manipulative mental maestro and the long arm of marketing. Watson carried the same scientific research techniques to J. Walter Thompson Ad Agency that he used in his laboratories. His first order of business in the advertising industry was to get to know the customer. Surveys were conducted to learn the desires and needs of the consumer, and products began to appear to meet those requirements.

Along with demographic analysis, Watson encouraged the advertiser to target the emotions of the consumer, while downplaying the practicality of the purchase. Love and fear were accented as strong sales vehicles in advertising. The practice of including instructions for proper usage of a product was encouraged to create a connection between the manufacturer and the customer. This was begun long before liability lawsuits necessitated this inclusion. Watson was also strongly in favor of capitalizing on the public’s fascination with celebrities. The testimonial of a movie star or a beautiful woman added pizzazz to the most mundane product, and created a link between the consumer and the model through use of the item.

So it seems that the $40 billion advertising industry, the one that charges $2.6 million for a thirty-second Super Bowl spot, was all the brainchild of a few behavioral psychologists. Who would have ever thought that?