The McCann Time Capsule: Dr. Herta Herzog and ‘Fake News’

The McCann Time Capsule: Dr. Herta Herzog and ‘Fake News’

Herta Herzog’s achievements in the field of marketing and media research are legendary, both predating and over the course of her 25+ year career at McCann. That renown includes research into a topic that is much in the spotlight today—so-called “fake news.”

Herzog’s pre-McCann research included focusing on what might be called the Mother of All Fake News—the Orson Welles 1938 radio broadcast of the H. G. Wells novel “The War of the Worlds.” That Halloween night broadcast, delivered as if it were really happening live rather than as a pre-announced dramatization, has gone down in mass media history for having famously panicked the American public. It also led to the first research study examining media-induced mass hysteria, which was published in the 1940 book “The Invasion from Mars” by Princeton psychologist Hadley Cantril with bylined research assistance from Herta Herzog and Hazel Gaudet.

Dr. Herzog was working at Columbia University’s Bureau of Applied Social Research when she was hired by McCann in 1943, one of two Viennese Ph.D. psychology researchers (the other being Hans Zeisel) brought in that year to give the agency an edge in radio research. In addition to the “Invasion from Mars” study, she had already also developed some groundbreaking marketing approaches to understanding audiences. Her “What do we really know about daytime serial listeners?,” published in the book “Radio Research 1942-43,” had already established her as a leading researcher in understanding media audiences. She was, as the International Encyclopedia of Communications says, “a pioneer of communication research...[whose] career has spanned the entire history of modern mass communication research.”

She first joined McCann in charge of radio-TV research, then set up the Motivation Research department, and later became the New York agency’s Director of Research. In the 1960’s she took on two big roles—as one of the partners at Jack Tinker & Partners, the industry’s first creative/ strategy think tank which was set up by McCann in May 1960, and then a year later in July 1961 as Chairman of Marplan, the McCann/ IPG separate research division. In that Marplan role, she also became our company’s first woman to head a division, and in 1986 became one of the few women inducted into the Marketing Research Council’s Hall of Fame.

The scope of Herzog’s achievements are outlined on the Women in Media Research website, which includes her key role in developing the practice of focus groups. 

“She was one of the most talented qualitative media researchers of her era, and played an important role in introducing methodologies and developing concepts drawn from academic research and incorporating them into marketing and advertising. She was a pioneering student of the social psychology of radio who played a major role in the development of the paradigm later known as ‘uses and gratifications,’ which investigates how audiences psychologically and socially engage with mass media.  She also played a major role in the development of the in-depth method known as ‘the focused interview’ (later ‘the focus group’), and arguably deserves credit for inventing it.”

Or as the author Malcolm Gladwell put it more succinctly in his 1999 New Yorker article on L’Oréal, Clairol and the development of hair coloring marketing, she was “perhaps the most accomplished motivational researcher of all, who trained dozens of interviewers in the Viennese method and sent them out to analyze the psyche of the American consumer.”

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