ACR: a Perspective

Robert W. Pratt, Jr., General Electric Company
[ to cite ]:
Robert W. Pratt, Jr. (1974) ,"ACR: a Perspective", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 01, eds. Scott Ward and Peter Wright, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 1-8.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, 1974    Pages1-8

ACR: A PERSPECTIVE

Robert W. Pratt, Jr., General Electric Company

[Robert W. Pratt, Jr. is Manager, Business Research & Forecasting Operation, Major Appliance Business Group, General Electric Company.]

INTRODUCTION

If this were Atlantic City, and I were stepping down today as reigning Miss America, I presume I would tell you that: "This has been the most marvelous, exciting, wonderful year of my life!"

While it would be inaccurate to characterize my last twelve months in precisely those terms, serving as ACR's President has been a unique and rewarding experience in many respects. For example, one valuable by-product of being in almost constant communication with a broad cross section of ACR members and potential members is, I believe, a heightened awareness on my part of current thinking of this country's consumer-research fraternity.

Regarding ACR, I have listened to numerous questions, constructive criticisms, complaints, and even compliments. These have come from members and non-members, and they have been expressed in a wide range of tones and inflections.

I've been asked, for example, "What is the Association for Consumer Research?" "What are its purposes?" "Is a new organization really necessary?" "In what ways does ACR differ from other organizations?"

And, I've been told that ACR is not living up to its promise, that it's too structured, too academic, too business oriented, too big, too small, and so on.

Constant participation in correspondence and conversations regarding these and other issues does force one to think, and I have devoted a great deal of thought to four fundamental questions:

1. First, from what conditions or circumstances is ACR's mandate derived? One part of the answer here relates to the issue of, "Why a new organization?"

2. Second, are the stated purposes of ACR both viable and of sufficient importance to justify the large expenditure of time and effort required to achieve them?

3. Third, how effectively is ACR meeting its stated objectives at this time?

4. Fourth, and most important, where do we go from here? What are the major challenges and opportunities ahead?

I believe it is in the spirit of this type of address to share with you my personal views on these questions, drawing importantly on my understanding and interpretation of events of the past year.

Conditions Underlying the Establishment of ACR

Why was ACR started in the first place? Viable organizations or institutions are not born in a vacuum. While the need for an organization must be perceived and implemented by individuals, motives underlying such implementation most often result from a recognition that there is a purpose to be served that is not being effectively met by existing institutions. I believe those who founded ACR perceived such a need and moved to meet it.

If we consider ACR as a response, the single most important stimulus underlying that response is the relatively recent emergence in the United States of a large and powerful middle class; this group -- comprising approximately 70 percent of all U.S. families -- is today the backbone of our economic system.

What makes the American consumer so important? Fundamentally, it is that he, and she, possess and exercise a wide range of choice, and inherent in the exercise of choice is power. Katona says it succinctly in the opening paragraphs of his book, The Mass Consumption Society (Katona, 1964, p. 3).

"The past few decades have seen the rise, here in America, of a new and unique phenomenon in human history, the mass consumption society. It is unique by virtue of three major features:

"Affluence. Not a few individuals, nor a thin upper class, but the majority of families now have discretionary purchasing power and constantly replace and enlarge their stock of consumer goods.

"Consumer Power. Cyclical fluctuations, inflation or deflation, and the rate of growth of the economy -- all now depend to a large extent on the consumer.

"Importance of Consumer Psychology. In OUT economy, consumer demand is no longer a function of money alone. Discretionary demand.....is influenced and sometimes even determined by consumers'.....motives, attitudes, and expectations."

The great majority of American consumers do have discretionary income, discretionary time, ready access to both savings and installment credit, and protection against uncertainty provided, for example, by insurance and pension programs. Individually and collectively these and other factors position consumers to be selectiveto exercise choice. Education, both formal and informal, underlies the process by which choices are made.

As a consequence, what Americans decide to do, both at the cash register and in the voting booth, has enormous influence over the behavior of institutions that make up our society, including business, education, and government. Directly and indirectly, consumers' thoughts and actions guide businessmen, congressmen, and educators alike -- a fact that begs this crucial question: "How well have our institutions responded to directives from consumers?"

Consider this question in historical perspective. As we emerged from the Depression and World War II, rapidly increasing levels of income were manifested primarily in a demand for more education and increased quantities of material goods. People wanted their children to have the education they had been denied, and they wanted more "things" for themselves. Both education and business delivered! In the case of business, the ability to design and manufacture products has been, and still is, a tremendous strength of American enterprise. And, as Henry Ford, II, stated: "Modern industrial society is based on the assumption that it is both sensible and desirable to go on forever producing more and more goods for more and more people."

Thus, in the early 1960's, the American people were seemingly satisfied with the performance of their economic and political system. It had, after all, met their basic demands.

Perhaps the culmination of this relatively single-minded drive to achieve the "good life" in a materialistic sense, and an awareness of the beginnings of new and diverse influences that were to take their place on the domestic scene, was sensed by the satirist, Russell Baker, when he wrote in the early 1960's (Baker, 1962, pp. 194-195):

"Economists now agree that the business of America is to consume. Consumption is the first civic duty of every man, woman and toddler. We now know that unless everybody keeps his consumption rate steadily increasing, the economy will stagnate, the Russians will beat us to the moon and Congress will be unable to afford its pay rise.

"Accordingly, no consumer need feel uneasy about his commercial excesses this season. The goal is total consumption, and the man who balks may eventually have to explain why to a Congressional Committee."

But consumers were beginning to balk. During the 1960's, our society began to change. There emerged a mood of reflective introspection -- a hard reappraisal of aspirations and achievements. Some have called these changing thought processes and their behavioral manifestations a revolution In a widely-read appraisal of the American scene, Revel wrote that "The revolution of the twentieth century will take place in the United States" (Revel, 1971, p. 1). His concept of revolution is worth considering. In an exclusive interview with the New York Times, Revel defines a true revolution as "a social, cultural, moral, even artistic transformation, where the values of the old world are rejected, where relations between social classes are reconsidered, where relations among individuals are modified, where the concept of the family changes, where the value of work, the very goals of existence are reconsidered."

This form of revolution is based necessarily on inquiry and dissent, and our contemporary society lacks for neither. Consider this brief sampling of issues that have been subject to intensive examination in recent years: use (or waste) of human and material resources; ecology and pollution; economic and technological growth and development; "bigness" in business and government; "consumerism" in its many facets; our inability to deal with poverty; and the relationship of individuals to society as reflected, for example, in issues of minority rights and in the questioning of basic cultural and religious values that underlie discussions of topics such as abortion and contraception.

These are complex and extremely serious issues, and we are learning that they will not be resolved either easily or quickly. Their resolution, even on a temporary basis, will undoubtedly require compromise based on thoughtful evaluation of impacts and interactions of the enormous number of alternatives open to us as a society. Each alternative carries with it a set of costs and consequences, and each set is perceived differently by different individuals as well as by different organized groups.

Under these conditions, responsible action must be based on information. Those concerned with policy decisions -- whether in government, business, or academia -- must understand the changing needs and aspirations of their respective constituencies; consumers, in turn, must understand how actions and potential actions will impact on their lives.

I submit to you that it- was the emergence of a large, relatively affluent, well-educated, and questioning middle class in this country that created the need for an ACR-type organization. Never have so many people had such a compelling need for accurate information both for and about consumers.

I find it difficult to envision a set of circumstances that would be more conducive to the establishment of a research organization committed to the development and dissemination of knowledge about consumers and consumer behavior. It was in this environment that ACR was conceived.

The Emergence of ACR

What are ACR's objectives? To answer this question, let me turn the clock back just enough to examine briefly the Association's history. It's probably time this was read into the record.

As organizations go, ACR is still in diapers. Initial discussions that led to formulation of the Association took place at a highly successful workshop in consumer research held at Ohio State University during the summer of 1969. I was not privileged to be among the forty participants. My first knowledge of interest in forming an Association was contained in a letter from Jim Engel dated September 16, 1969, in which he stated in part:

"...those in attendance unanimously agreed that we need a new organization cutting across the lines of various disciplines and organizations which are involved in or concerned with consumer behavior research. The organization is intended to bring in people from psychology, economics, all phases of industry, home economics, and other areas."

Jim went on to indicate that he had been elected Chairman of a Planning Committee, and that the proposed organization had tentatively been named the Association for Consumer Research. He asked if I would serve as a member of an Advisory Committee. I accepted the invitation because it seemed to me at that time, as it still does today, that the basic concept was one whose time had come.

So an organization was born. Its three basic purposes as stated in the Constitution are these

1. To provide a forum for exchange of ideas among those interested in consumer behavior research in academic disciplines, in government at all levels from local through national, in private business, and in other sectors such as nonprofit organizations and foundations.

2. To stimulate research focusing on a better understanding of consumer behavior from a variety of perspectives.

3. To disseminate research findings and other contributions to the understanding of consumer behavior through professional seminars, conferences, and publications.

Sounds simple and straightforward, doesn't it!

Why a New Organization?

Before turning to an assessment of accomplishments against these purposes, I think it is important to comment directly, if briefly, on the question of whether or not it was necessary to establish a new organization in the first place. This is a frequently-raised and important issue -- one I had initially intended to explore in detail in this talk. But, under close scrutiny, the seeming complexity turned out to be a mirage.

Two key characteristics of ACR are these: First, its purposes focus totally and exclusively on consumers and consumer research; second, membership is open on an equal basis to all professionals committed to this area of research, regardless of academic training or area of employment. Using these basic characteristics as criteria, I evaluated a long list of organizations with which I'm familiar. I found none that conflict directly with the basic purposes just stated. If you are skeptical, I urge you to apply this test yourself.

In general, research organizations have been constituted to serve specific needs within either academic disciplines or functional areas of activity. In my judgment, the exchange of knowledge and ideas across disciplines and across institutional settings is absolutely essential to the growth and development of the science of consumer behavior research

The difficulty of this task cannot be overestimated. We are asking individuals with divergent points of view and extensive vested interests in specific bodies of knowledge to share their viewpoints and their knowledge with others, many of whom, at least initially, may not appreciate either their viewpoints or their knowledge. Perhaps this is simply too difficult a task to pursue, but I remain convinced that the potential inherent in success justifies the effort.

I'm reminded of a paragraph in a letter recently written by an active ACR member, which said this:

"at an abstract level, at least, I believe in the goals of ACR - maybe different kinds of people really can talk to each other profitably. But at a more realistic level, let me tell you, it's really difficult to manage ACR's programs."

I couldn't agree more! Implementation of the three seemingly simple and straightforward purposes adopted by the ACR membership offers, I can assure you, very real and imposing challenges.

Recent Accomplishments

Thus far, I have talked about purposes in the relatively abstract terms in which they are presented in the Constitution. How well have these purposes been met? And what are the major challenges and opportunities ahead?

Since our first conference at the University of Massachusetts in the fall of 1970, ACR has made significant progress. Consider this sampling of recent accomplishments.

Membership has grown from approximately 125 in June 1972, to over 300 in January of this year, and it will approach the 500 mark at this Conference. Last August, the first Membership Directory was published.

The unexpectedly rapid rise in membership forced major changes in administrative procedures needed to conduct the Association's business. The "shoe box" approach became obsolete and, during 1973, new procedures have been designed that will greatly facilitate management of the Association in 1974 and beyond. Those of you who experienced problems this year will be relieved to learn that next January, for the first time, you will receive individual dues invoices, these will be prepared using an automated system that allows accurate and timely mailing at a relatively low cost. The move to this system is one part of a total program aimed at establishing a complete and comprehensive set of membership files.

Still in the area of administration, ACR has implemented a budgeting and financial-control system that permits Chairmen of standing committees and other officers to spend monies budgeted for specific purposes without securing approval from either the Treasurer or the Executive Committee. Going back to the till repeatedly for authorization to spend relatively modest amounts has been a nagging problem in past years.

The Constitutional requirement for an annual independent audit is being met. We are properly incorporated in the state of Maryland and, after considerable paper work, the IRS has approved our status as a nonprofit organization. Perhaps most important, despite an increased level of investment in growth and development activities, we are comfortably solvent.

A major concern in the past has been the lack of continuity in ACR programs, due in part to the fact that almost every position on the Executive Committee turns over every year. At this time, three officers are elected each year; every other position of responsibility is filled by appointment of the incoming Executive Committee.

It has been clear for some time that this lack of continuity carries with it an unnecessarily high risk; recruiting has been done under less than ideal conditions, and those accepting positions have had to develop and implement programs with insufficient time for planning and review. Accordingly, and despite the fact that it is slightly outside the guidelines provided by our Constitution, during 1973 individuals have been appointed to 1974 positions on the equivalent of an "elect" basis. As a consequence, at the business meetings yesterday and Thursday, next year's officers and Committee Chairmen were in a position to present their preliminary '74 budgets and programs for review and discussion. In short, they are already off the mark. In contrast, I had been in office five months before all appointed positions were filled.

Constitutional amendments are being prepared that, if adopted, will facilitate continuity of programs along the lines just discussed. These will be submitted to you by mail, and I urge you to give each of these amendments sour careful consideration.

To date, the Newsletter has served as ACR's primary vehicle for communication among officers, committees and the general membership. I know you will agree that this year's staff has produced three highly readable and informative issues; their fourth and final issue will go to press shortly. I should also note that this year's staff has accumulated a backlog of publishable material that will be passed along to next year's Editor.

ACR is one of ten professional associations sponsoring the new journal, Research on Consumer Behavior. We have provided active support and guidance for this project from its inception. Eight ACR members are on the newly appointed Editorial Board, including your 1974 President and Vice President

And last, but certainly not least, the Conference. Just as the Maryland Conference two years ago was the first scheduled without consideration of meeting dates or locations of other organizations, so this Conference is the first ACR has held at a commercial facility. While a commercial location adds substantially to the responsibilities of the Arrangements Committee, the fact that this initial trial in Boston has been successful will now permit new freedom in site selection. While I'm certain university facilities will continue to be considered, they no longer represent our full set of options.

At this time, the clearest expression of ACR's personality -- that is, what it is, and what it is not -- is found in the annual Conference program and the resultant Proceedings. Commencing with a survey of the full membership last February, this year's Program Committee has worked conscientiously to develop content and format that are responsive to both the wishes of members and the purposes of ACR. Innovations this year include these:

1. Scheduling of eight workshops designed to encourage communication of Knowledge and viewpoints among our diverse membership. Attempting to meld inputs from practitioners and theoreticians, as well as across disciplines, as these workshops are attempting to do, is extremely difficult. For the benefit of next year's Committee, I hope each of you will react to the present effort. Both criticisms and suggestions will be welcome.

2. To encourage submission of quality papers and/or current thinking that is still in an embryonic stage, this year's Proceedings will include, for the first time, either full papers or abstracts, as the authors choose. I was interested to learn that among the 28 papers selected in open competition (from among 84 submitted), most authors have elected to publish full papers.

So much for accomplishments. My recitation of these was not intended to push you toward a sense of complacency, and I'm sure it hasn't; it was intended to provide you with a perspective within which to consider your personal concerns regarding ACR and the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead.

The Challenge Ahead

Let me conclude these remarks by commenting on what I consider to be the single greatest threat (and indirectly the single greatest opportunity) confronting the Association; namely, the possibility that we will not overcome the obstacles that stand in the way of achieving the fundamental purposes this membership has established for itself. If these obstacles are not recognized and dealt with effectively, we will have failed as an organization.

Thinking beyond administrative and other matters that must be handled in order to function as a professional organization, it remains that the thrust distinguishing ACR from other organizations is its single-minded commitment to establish an environment in which interdisciplinary and interinstitutional communication can prosper. This is what ACR is all about!

It is my personal conviction that a conscious awareness of this goal should be reflected in the composition of both the Executive Committee and the Advisory Council, as well as in the decisions entrusted to these bodies by the membership, whether concerned with Conference program, membership, publications, or other matters. If the Association's core objective is not -overriding in decisions that lead to specific actions, I fear that ACR will fall far snort of meeting its promise.

In order to become the leader it should be in fostering the growing science of consumer research, the reality that is today's ACR must assume new dimensions. I believe progress has been made in this direction during 1973, and I want to take this opportunity to thank all of you who have contributed so importantly to this progress, including every member of the 1973 Executive Committee and Advisory Council, many of whom share this dais with me today. I'm confident that, with your support, Bill Wells and his colleagues will accelerate the rate of progress during 1974.

To capitalize fully on the opportunities open to the Association, to guide events rather than be guided by them, I believe we must carefully set our own course and then, as they say, "do our own thing" better than anyone else. To that end, I look forward to working with you.

REFERENCES

Baker, Russell. No Cause For Panic. New York: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1962.

Katona, George. The Mass Consumption Society. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1964.

Revel, Jean-Francois. Without Marx or Jesus. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1971.

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