Why a Therapist Should Care About a Client's Favorite Brand of Shampoo By Howard Rosenthal, EdD on 10/27/10 - 9:16 AM

When I was a youngster my father owned a company that manufactured shampoos and hair conditioners.  His bestseller was the original Rum & Egg Shampoo, a product he invented himself.  Now here’s where the story gets a little humorous (or perhaps not so humorous depending on your vantage point).  We would routinely receive correspondence from folks who just loved the Rum & Egg . . . heck, they thought it was the best darn shampoo on the face of the planet.  In fact, they’d go a step farther and trash another brand or two of Rum & Egg and say something like, “Why can’t Brand X or Brand Y make Rum & Egg like yours? The product they manufacture is pure junk.”

These folks wanted the original Rum & Egg. Anything else was a poor copy of the real thing. Now you might be thinking that we were patting ourselves on the back for making such a great product. Well if that’s what you thought then hold onto your horses because I haven’t gotten to the punch line yet.  Moments after the first call we receive another telephone message. This time it would be from an irate customer who would be ranting and raving about how inferior our product was, “Why in the heck can’t you guys make a decent Rum & Egg Shampoo like Brand X or Brand Y?  I’ll even send you a bottle of their brand so you can see how good the competition’s product really is.” 

These folks had invariably seen the Brand X or Brand Y advertisements that stressed that their rum and egg products clearly surpassed the original formula. And send us a bottle, they did!  Now what the aforementioned dummies (um excuse me, I mean customers) didn’t know was that most of the time it was the exact same stuff!  Let me put it in a different way.  We’d fill a thousand bottles to the brim with Rum & Egg and some bottles would get our label, others Brand X, and others Brand Y, Z or whatever.  We never had a clue which bottles received which labels. Hello folks: you’re all buying the same stuff . . . it's called a private label product. Often the same shampoo or conditioner would even be made under the same name with ten different colors, ten different brand names and ten different perfumes.  (Sorry to disappoint you, but in cosmetics generally the most expensive part of the product is the package and the perfume, in that order.)

But this principle goes way beyond hair care products. At one time made in Japan meant junk, but that’s hardly been the case for the last twenty years.  Now Japanese always stands for superior quality . . . or does it? A few years back researchers took models of automobiles and VCRs that were sold either with US nameplates (Dodge or RCA) or Japanese badges (Mitsubishi or JVC).  Like the shampoo saga, the products were actually identical. Customers were given the Japanese brand and the American issue and told to rate them. Perhaps you’ve already guessed that the products sporting a Japanese label – never mind that in reality they were the same – were rated much better.  Consumers made comments like, “The Japanese model just rode quieter,” or “the picture and the sound were markedly better.” Had you performed the experiment in the early 1950s the products with the US nameplate would surely have won by a landslide. 

Now what does all this have this do with the art and science of psychotherapy?  I thought you would never ask. A number of years ago I was at a conference where one of the top-guns in the world was not only lecturing but was going to perform therapy with a real client for the audience. Since I was the program coordinator for an agency I brought several of my therapists with me. Anyway, Mr. Hot Shot top-gun therapist was kind enough to perform a therapy session for the audience. He spent most of the session yelling and screaming at the poor client. One of my therapists leaned over and said, "You'd fire us if we ever talked to a client like that. Well, wouldn't you?" I didn't answer.

When the brief session ended a counselor in the audience raised her hand and asked the client a question, "What would you think if you walked into an agency or private practice and the therapist treated you like this?" "Well," the client admitted, "I would think it was a bit odd or perhaps totally crazy." The counselor in the audience was now extremely perplexed. "But I don't get it. You seemed perfectly happy and even impressed when Dr. so and so just did it." "Oh that's different," replied the client. "I know he's one of the greatest therapists in the world. He did it for some complex theoretical reason. He knows what he's doing."

I leaned toward the therapist at my agency and whispered, "Yes, I would have fired you." So here's the quintessential question: If you said exactly (I mean precisely word-for-word) what a well-known therapist said to the same client would you get the same results? Since a world famous therapist is one heck of a placebo the best answer is: not on this planet.  Therapists, quite frankly, are a lot like brands of shampoo, electronics, and  automobiles.

File under: Musings and Reflections