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.

Dr. Rapaille probes the subconscious for insight and cash
Dr. Rapaille probes the subconscious for insight and cash

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 very good 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.

Based on Rapaille's research, Folgers came up with the now-famous TV commercial featuring a GI who returns home for Christmas and wakes up mom by sneaking into the kitchen and brewing a steaming pot of Folgers. The company has been selling on smell ever since.

Thirty years ago Rapaille was a 29-year-old child psychiatrist working in France and Switzerland, trying to figure out why autistic children had a difficult time learning language. He made two important discoveries -- that words are imprinted and that said imprint is given meaning, context, and permanence when coupled with emotion. He also learned that children from different cultures imprint words differently. In France the first memory of wine is different than in the United States, for example, because of the different ways the cultures view alcoholic beverages.

It was exciting stuff, but Rapaille nonetheless failed to make any progress with autism. "Because these children don't experience emotion the same way we do, they had a hard time to learn the language," he says. And he got frustrated trying.

In those days Rapaille also taught at a university in Geneva. One day a student asked if his father could attend a lecture, and Rapaille agreed. After class the man introduced himself as a Nestlé executive and suggested Rapaille could help the company sell instant coffee in Japan. At the university Rapaille earned "less than a maid," he says. Nestlé offered him a handsome salary, computers, assistants, and time to put his imprinting theories to the test. He took a sabbatical and never returned.

The notion that different cultures imprint differently explains why our group is made up of second- and third-generation Americans: Rapaille is studying how cultures around the world really feel about globalization. The U.S. is the first stop, then it's on to England, Europe, Asia, and points in between.

Back across the hall, Castellano turns up the lights a notch, signaling the end of our psychic train ride to the land of no choice. Castellano asks for memories, specifics, details, feelings. Then we get to work scribbling experiences on white note pads. I write about the time Mom decided it was time for me, then a teenager, to do my own laundry. If I wanted clean clothes, there was no choice. Ideally we are still in a near-trance as we write, tapping the same current of creativity that flows freely right after a good sleep.

Then we pile our pads on the floor in the middle of the room and file out to collect the $75. An hour has passed. Easy money. Or did we sell our souls cheap?

After sifting through our subconscious droppings, Dr. Rapaille and the corporate types gathered across the hall conclude Americans, or at least this group, believe we're the last, best hope for mankind; that the rest of the world wants to be like us; and that God is behind us. We also believe foreigners don't always play by the rules and that globalization is a good thing if it doesn't cost us our jobs.

What will come of all this is unclear. It is certain that big corporations are salivating like Pavlov's dog for Rapaille's pronouncements. If someday you suddenly find yourself feeling warm and fuzzy about globalization, thank the good doctor.

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