The Consumer Researcher Visits Radio City: Dancing in the Dark

Morris B. Holbrook, Columbia University
ABSTRACT - Oh, he isn't like his kind, or like anyone else at all. He's a born dreamer with a raft of great dreams, and he's very serious about them. I've told you before he wanted to get away from his father's business, where he worked for a year after he graduated from Harvard College, because he didn't like being in trade, even if it is a great company that trades with the whole world.... So I kissed him and told him he was the handsomest in the world, and he is. And he said he wasn't worthy because he had so little to offer, and was a failure at what he'd hoped he could be, a poet. So I kissed him and told him he was too a poet, and always would be, and it was what I loved most about him. --Sara's description of Simon, A Touch of the Poet (Acts I, IV), Eugene O'Neill, 1957
[ to cite ]:
Morris B. Holbrook (1985) ,"The Consumer Researcher Visits Radio City: Dancing in the Dark", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, eds. Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Moris B. Holbrook, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 28-31.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, 1985      Pages 28-31


Morris B. Holbrook, Columbia University

[The author gratefully acknowledges the support of the Columbia Business School's Faculty Research Fund. He thanks Eric A. Greenleaf, Elizabeth C. Hirschman, and Sarah M. Holbrook for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper. Incidentally, Mr. Greenleaf disagrees with the negative view of commercialism implied by some parts of this paper. He correctly points out that often academics may need to consult in order to eat. I agree completely and have acknowledged this point in the "Three Bears" piece. I only wish to insist that one should maintain a distinction between eating and researching. In no way do I mean to imply that my own work lies entirely on the right side of that distinction. The best one can hope for is to do some researching between banquets and, when possible, to abstain from excessive snacking between meals. Just as someone who has grown obese through persistent overeating might object to being called "fat" or "fleshy" or "big," some whose livelihoods entail large amounts of consulting may object to parts of this paper. I apologize in advance to such readers and assure them that my intent is to be provocative, not offensive. Accordingly, as a gesture of contrition, all royalties paid on this paper during its first year of publication will be donated to the Rockettes Retirement Fund.]


Oh, he isn't like his kind, or like anyone else at all. He's a born dreamer with a raft of great dreams, and he's very serious about them. I've told you before he wanted to get away from his father's business, where he worked for a year after he graduated from Harvard College, because he didn't like being in trade, even if it is a great company that trades with the whole world....

So I kissed him and told him he was the handsomest in the world, and he is. And he said he wasn't worthy because he had so little to offer, and was a failure at what he'd hoped he could be, a poet. So I kissed him and told him he was too a poet, and always would be, and it was what I loved most about him.

--Sara's description of Simon,

A Touch of the Poet (Acts I, IV),

Eugene O'Neill, 1957


In college, I experienced a phenomenon that has since been confirmed by psychologists studying intrinsic motivation--namely, that attaching an extrinsic reward (say, grades) to some activity that might otherwise be pursued for its own sake (say, the study of English Literature' can erode the whole basis for its value with disastrous consequences for enjoyment. Accordingly, I resolved to take up some course of schooling that I thought could not rob its subject matter of intrinsic value, largely because that subject matter seemed to lack all such intrinsic value in the first place. I therefore turned to the study of business.

In the course of studying business, however, I have learned gratefully that one aspect of that field of investigation does possess intrinsic value for me. Specifically, the phenomena of consumer behavior strike me as interesting and worth exploring in their own right, apart from any practical implications that might stem from such inquiries. For me, consumer research Os an end in itself and not just a means to somebody else's ends. I therefore tend to resist the intrusion of concerns for managerial usefulness, marketing applications, or consulting opportunities and have argued accordingly in my conference paper entitled "Why Business Is Bad For Consumer Research "

I confidently expect that many will disagree with my reasons for pursuing consumer research and my arguments for why the intrusion of managerial interests distorts that process. I invite such readers to interpret my remarks in the spirit of fun-loving debate in which they are intended. I recognize that two sides of the issue exist. I merely wish to stick up for the side that I believe has been unjustly neglected,even downtrodden.

At last winter's marketing-theory conference, I pointed out that the view of science and scholarship as ends in themselves lends their pursuit some components of artistic creativity and confers on their value some aspects reminiscent of esthetic appreciation. As related autotelic, ludic, or self-justifying forms of endeavor and experience, art and esthetics provide close parallels to the development of theory in consumer research. One such parallel, not fully explored in my earlier paper, concerns the possible intrusion and distorting influence of commercialism.

Recently, I attended the performance of a spectacle aptly entitled "Gotta Getaway'" at the Radio City Music Hall. Everything about this show seemed calculated to appeal to the broadest possible audience. It included a star (Liliane Montevecchi) with long experience at the Folies Bergeres in Paris, New York, and Las Vegas. It contained acrobats, magicians, and trained animals. It featured a pipe organ of such staggering sonic proportions that its slightest nuance could be felt as well as heard while its crescendos reached literally bone-shaking intensity. But, most of all, it displayed the nonpareil Rockettes--thirty-two dancing beauties who ascended triumphantly from the orchestra pit on an automated platform and pranced through their famous chorus-line routine with every member of the troupe carrying a torch and sporting a costume that matched with remarkable verisimilitude that worn by the Statue of Liberty.

Judging from the enthusiastic response of the packed Music Hall, the Radio City audience loved this performance. Apparently, only I experienced discomfort. My discomfort stemmed not from any incapacity for enjoyment-I like tame tigers, jugglers, dancing girls, and liberty as well as the next fellow--but from my irresistible inclination to compare this apotheosis of mass appeal with the role of commercialism in consumer research.


In describing the activities of artists and craftsmen, sociologists (Becker and Gans) and consumer researchers (Hirschman and Wallendorf) portray a continuum from high to popular culture. One extreme concerns Art (with a capital "A"); it is produced by artists pursuing creative objectives for their own sake in accord with artistic integrity and is appreciated by those with refined tastes and delicate sensibilities. The other concerns entertainment (with a small "e"); it is produced by professionals who aim at crafting an accessible product capable of winning mass acceptance so as to achieve commercial success by appealing to the common denominator in shared tastes.

Sociologists almost always follow this distinction with an immediate disclaimer against elitism. We are not claiming, they say, that high culture or Art is "better" than popular culture or entertainment. One person's esthetic experience is just as valid as another's. All we claim, they say, is that one type of appreciation requires effort and sophistication, whereas the other is easy and cheap. The former appeals to people with keen sensitivities and the ability to deal with complexity, while the latter attracts those with common tastes and a confirmed intolerance for ambiguity. And certainly there 's nothing wrong with that. God must have loved the common people because He or She made so many of them. Amen.

Similarly, in consumer research, one finds parallels to the continuum between high and popular culture. We have our effete corps of researchers with intellectual integrity who pursue interesting issues for their own sake wherever they may lead and whose work is appreciated; by a small number of ivory-tower academicians devoted to scholarly pursuits. By contrast, we also have expert investigators concerned with practical applicability who pursue managerial issues of relevance to real marketing problems at least partly for the sake of the financial remuneration to be gained from practitioners who can use such results to bolster their bottom lines.

Just as in the contrast between high and popular culture, the distinction between academicians and practitioners or between scholarship and consulting again raises the dread specter of elitism. Who dares to say that research motivated by intellectual curiosity is in any sense "better" than that motivated by managerial applicability? How dare anyone prefer the scholarly to the practical or the merely academic to the useful? Cod must have loved consultants because, like the aforementioned common people, She also made so many of them.

My answer to this familiar charge of elitism follows directly from the analogy between consumer research and artistic creativity. Like a work of art, a piece of consumer research may be relatively great and enduring, or it may be comparatively shallow and ephemeral. Just as in the arts, this difference often hinges on the distinction between the pursuit of truth for its own sake and the pursuit of commercial success. Consider what happens when artists forsake their most pure creative visions and turn instead to attempts at seeking a larger audience by trading artistic integrity and esthetic value for the advantages of easy execution and immediate accessibility. Consider, for example, the deterioration or gifted jazz musicians like Wes Montgomery or Herbie Hancock who have diluted and cheapened their styles to seek mass appeal. Compare the supreme gracefulness of Jean-Pierre Rampal playing the Bach suites with James Galway's clumsy stumbles through pop hits such "Annie's Song." Recall the difference between the serious novels and murder mysteries by Georges Simenon or Graham Greene. Ponder the contrast between the perennially magisterial singing of Mahalia Jackson, who steadfastly refused to touch pop music, and Aretha Franklin's steady decline from a once sublime gospel singer into a dull and repetitive disco act.

Like many artists through the ages, Mahalia Jackson faced a choice about where to aim on the cultural continuum. She could continue devoting her life to the art of singing gospel songs. Or she could earn a lot of money and make the executives at her record company very happy by recording some pop tunes. We know what Mahalia Jackson did. She told the practitioners to leave her alone; she found guidance in her own pure artistic vision; and she followed what she believed to be the truth Consumer researchers might learn something from Mahalia's bright and shining example, if we dared.

When considering the continuum from high to popular culture, those concerned with protecting the world against elitism often find consolation in their version of the life of William Shakespeare. After all, wasn't Shakespeare a great dramatist and didn't he write for the common man? Of course he was and of course he did. He filled his plays with all sorts of silliness and ribaldry that the masses could appreciate. He employed fools and jesters to make lewd comments and to tell dirty jokes. But these concessions to popular taste did not win Shakespeare his magnificent reputation as the greatest of English playwrights. In fact, in Hamlet, he goes out of his way to parody the kind of acting that the mob appreciates. Moreover, he lets Polonius proclaim the lapse of truthfulness that may accompany an attempt to govern one's life on t he basis of commercial gain and practical business concerns:

Neither a borrower nor a lender be,

For loan oft loses both itself and friend,

And borrowing dulleth edge of husbandry.

This above all, to chine own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man.

--Polonius' farewell to Laertes,

Hamlet (I, iii, 75-80),

William Shakespeare, 1601

Any conclusion that Polonius spoke for Shakespeare would be risky given that character's status as an old fool. But we do not need to speculate on how Shakespeare felt about business because he wrote a play devoted to this subject. I refer, of course, to The Merchant of Venice where business is seen as a force that prompts the worst possible behavior from those who get involved--if not from Antonio (the generous merchant), then certainly from Shylock (the usurious moneylender whose vengeful interest lies in extracting a pound of Antonio's flesh). Apparently, Polonius was right: "Neither a borrower nor a lender be."

When business calls to consumer researchers and urges us to eschew the unfettered pursuit of truth in order to seek commercial gain, it extracts its pound of flesh. It turns our vision away from something honest and pure toward something slightly soiled by self-interest and acquisitiveness. I would argue that, however difficult the course might be, we should move in exactly the opposite direction - away from a preoccupation with practicality toward concerns worth pursuing for their own sake as ends in themselves. This, too, is a recurrent literary theme. It has often been treated metaphorically as the difference between talking and singing or between walking and dancing. However wistfully, we want our research not merely to walk and talk; we want it to sing and dance:

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank'

Here will we sit and let the sounds of music

Creep in our ears; soft stillness and the night

Become the touches of sweet harmony.

Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven

Is thick inlaid with patens of bright gold.

There's not the smallest orb which thou behold" t

But in his motion like an angel sings,

Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;

Such harmony is in immortal souls....

The man that hath no music in himself,

Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,

Is fit for treasons, strategems, and spoils;

The motions of his spirit are dull as night,

And his affections dark as Erebus.

--Lorenzo to Jessica,

The Merchant of Venice

(V, i, 54-63, 83-87),

William Shakespeare, 1597


A play by Cecil P. Taylor called And A Nightengale Sang... (1977) recently enjoyed a successful off-Broadway revival in New York. Its central theme deals with the psychological transformation of a character named Helen. Helen begins the play as a sad, pathetic wallflower, who feels weighed down by practical family responsibilities and who refers to herself as a "cripple" because she walks with a slight limp. But then Helen falls in love with a young soldier named Norman, who takes her away from her burdensome family duties, teaches her to dance, and thereby transforms her into a person full of life and happiness. The dancing scenes provide Taylor's metaphorical comment on the difference between the practical world and the world of artistic vision. When the playwright died, a friend paid him a tribute to which any consumer researcher might aspire:

Your life could never be the same again having known him. He gave the lens a small turn and brought things into focus, teaching you that some things that had obsessed you were virtually worthless, empty, but that there were others which should never be betrayed.


April 1984. D . 20

In C. P. Taylor's play, the dance serves as a metaphor for what is worthwhile and should never be betrayed. The same imagery recurs in the old Fred Astaire movies. In Cole Porter's Silk Stockings (1957), for example, Cyd Charisse as Ninotchka represents cold, hard, pure scientific truth. Ninotchka is a Russian agent, who concentrates on inspecting factories and power plants and who regards music as "necessary for parades." Fred Astaire was never more artistic, graceful, and eloquent than when teaching Ninotchka how to dance. And Cyd Charisse was never more glorious than in the intimately choreographed scene in which she puts on her first pair of stockings and dances around her boudoir.

Stocking and dancing imagery also pervades Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel (1930). As Lola Lola, the heartless cabaret performer, Marlene Dietrich uses her stockings as one unseemly tool to win the affections of Professor Immanuel Rath, played by Emil Jannings. Lola is a real operator- self-interested, glamorous, enticing. She already knows how to sing and dance, as indicated by the constant repetition of her sultry torch song "Falling in Love Again." Indeed, in a cruel role reversal, she teaches the professor to perform and forces him to dress in a clown's costume and stand upon the stage, crowing like a rooster while a magician breaks eggs on his bald head and humiliates him in front of his fellow professors, his former students, the Assistant Mayor, and other townspeople who once held him in respect. This barnyard imitation, this tragic music-hall dance, conveys Professor Rath's debasement and expresses the sacrifice of everything he had valued. Early in the film, the professor showed indignant outrage when he found one of his students looking at photographs of Lola Lola. Now, after himself falling under Lola's spell, he reach>_ n,s nadir when he hawks these same dirty pictures to an unruly and abusive nightclub audience. "How's business?" asks Lola. 'Only sold two cards," he complains, "...ignorant crowd " "I live off that 'ignorant crowd,"' she protests. "Better," he replies, "to die like a dog than to live like that.

Which type of consumer researcher would we rather be--Emil Jannings as the professor who pursues the cruel and sordid but eminently businesslike Lola or Fred Astaire as the dancer who miraculously transforms the coldly scientific Ninotchka into a warm and loving paramour? After her transformation, Ninotchka rejects her absurd Russian comrades and delivers lines that suggest an answer:

For the first time in my life, I looked at something and thought, "How beautiful," instead of "How useful".... Let them settle their business, and we will get back to beautiful things.

Epilogue: Among School Children

I shall close with one final comment on the relevance of the dance metaphor to our lives as consumer researchers. As I have suggested, our research is like a dance. It can aim high and leap after truth, or it can aim low and sink like a stone. We can pursue knowledge like beauty for its own sake and soar like Nureyev and Baryshnikov, or we can wrap our feet in utilitarian slippers of lead and perform soggy pirouettes beneath a sea of managerial practicalities. As Charlie the Tuna found out to his dismay, the pursuit of Truth and Beauty gets nowhere on the ocean floor. Sorry, Charlie. Practitioners don't want tunas with good taste. They want tunas that taste Rood.

Whichever path we choose--the road more or less traveled-we become part of what we do. We assume the characteristics of our research focus. In the words of one great but anonymous philosopher:"Wherever you go in life, that's where You'll be."

This point becomes especially important for those of us who serve as teachers, particularly in Ph.D. programs. The kind of research we do shapes our personal character, and that character may in turn affect our doctoral students. Not only do we become what we do, but our example may guide others. They may model their dance, in part, on our own.

Such thoughts and feelings concerned W. B. Yeats in his poem "Among School Children." He saw the interconnectedness and unity of things--as in the leaf, blossom, and trunk or "bole" of a tree--and evoked the process by which we become what we do:

Labour is blossoming or dancing where The body is not bruised to pleasure soul, Nor beauty born out of its own despair, Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.

O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer, Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole? O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, How ran we know the dancer from the dance?

--"Among School Children,"

William Butler Yeats, 1928