Getting Sleeeepy...

for profit in the offices of the French commercial genius psychiatrist Dr. Clotaire Rapaille

Twenty people, eight men and twelve women, lie sprawled in a conference room tucked deep inside the tony Boca Raton Resort & Club. Some are in their mid twenties, others on the backside of sixty. Some are coiffed, perfumed, and sporting business casual wear; others look like hockey fans right down to their too-tight jeans and feathered hair. All are white, except for one woman, who is black.

The differences are superficial. Everyone in this room is an American, and that's what counts. Not naturalized or a recent immigrant, but someone who grew up here, listening to parents speak American English, watching sitcoms, living in the 'burbs, eating frozen foods, dreaming of a learner's permit at age 15. It's an unremarkable commonality, but it qualifies each of us to be stretched out on the Oriental rug of the Veranda Salon, earning $75 for allowing the Man to muck about in our collective subconscious, searching for insights that will help sell computer chips, salty snack foods, and athletic shoes to the world.

Some people lie on their stomachs, others on their backs. Several middle-aged women sit cross-legged, backs to the wall, in an upright position that communicates suspicion of the unorthodox proceedings. One gray-bearded man dressed in a print shirt decorated with game fish refuses to play along. He pulls up a chair instead.

The lights are dim, almost out. From a boom box at one end of the room comes a languorous male voice, the spoken equivalent of a Kenny G riff. "Concentrate on your left foot," it oozes. "Allow the muscles and nerves of your left foot to relax. Feel the muscles and nerves of your left foot relaxing. Your muscles and nerves are smooth and relaxed."

They certainly are.

Limb by limb we become smooth and relaxed, our muscles and nerves at rest. Peaceful. Then the moderator, a woman named Joanna Castellano, whose voice is soft as a wave lapping at the shore, puts us on a mental train. Through the window we see our lives. The train moves backward, so the present spools into the past as we pick up steam. Back. Back. Back.

"Now I want you to try and recall your first experience with no choice," Castellano says. She pauses. "You are in familiar surroundings," she reassures us. "Safe." The train slows, then stops for a moment. "I'd like you to now recall your most important experience with no choice," she says. Soon we're moving forward again. The years click by and we pull into the present. "Finally I'd like you to think about your most recent experience with no choice. The last time you had no choice."

At a circular table in a room across the hall sits Dr. Clotaire Rapaille, surrounded by captains, first lieutenants, and perhaps a corporal or two of American industry. Rapaille looks Euro-dandy in his black jeans, black loafers, dark polo shirt, tousled blond-and-gray hair, and tiny round glasses à la John Lennon.

There's a patina of secrecy to the goings-on. I'm not allowed to ask these people who they are or what company they're from. They're A listers though, says Rapaille, heavy hitters from organizations for which any budding capitalist would be proud to work. There's no reason to doubt him.

Rapaille (pronounced "Rapay") is a French-born psychiatrist who makes a verygood living harnessing Jungian psychological principles to the cart of consumer culture. He owns homes in Boca Raton and New York, wears a gold Rolex watch, and spends much of his time traveling.

His specialty is something called "archetype research," which roughly translates to the kind of regression session I attended in late August. Rapaille travels the world in service of clients like Daimler-Chrysler, Citibank, General Mills, and Kellogg's. He has taken people back in time to uncover their subconscious attitudes toward everything from life insurance to barbecue sauce, new telephones to menstruation. His work has been chronicled in The Wall Street Journal, Salon.com, and numerous advertising trade magazines. His company, based in Delray Beach, is called Archetype Discoveries.

The heart of his research involves the misty past when a word or concept was first etched into our brains. Like little ducklings. That's why these are called "imprinting sessions," not focus groups.

"The first time you learn about a word, there is always a first time, how do you create the mental connection that you are going to keep using the rest of your life?" asks Rapaille in a charming French accent. "Memory doesn't exist. I know it is difficult to say that, but the past doesn't exist; memory doesn't exist. What exists are mental connections that will be established once, that we can reestablish. You reconnect neurons in the brain more or less the way you did the first time."

By taking group participants back to the moment those neurons first got together, it's possible to understand "... hidden cultural forces, unspoken or unrecognized needs that determine how a culture will behave and react towards a specific concept, service or product," according to Archetype Discoveries' brochure.

Take Folgers coffee, for example. About ten years ago, Folgers executives approached Rapaille and asked him to sharpen their ad campaign. They were selling their product based on the claim it tasted good. A sensible approach, but all wrong according to Rapaille. After taking people back to toddlerhood, he discovered that almost everybody's first impression of coffee is its enticing aroma. Better still, the memory of that aroma came bundled with some very powerful associations. "What we got from one group to another to another is "mother is preparing breakfast; she loves me; she is going to feed me; she cares; I am a happy kid; this is home -- the whole package," Rapaille says.

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