ACR Presidential Address: Happy Thought

Russell W. Belk, University of Utah
[ to cite ]:
Russell W. Belk (1987) ,"ACR Presidential Address: Happy Thought", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, eds. Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 1-4.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, 1987      Pages 1-4


Russell W. Belk, University of Utah

The world is so full of a number of things I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings (Stevenson 1905)

Learning from the format of sermons, I thought it best to begin my address with a quotation from a great source of wisdom and insight--A Child's Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson. For this short poem, "Happy Thought", distills the key issues that I believe consumer research ought to address. It is also short enough that it should not greatly tax my limited abilities as a literary critic.

With a tremendous sense of childlike wonder, Stevenson's short poem observes all of the wondrous things of the world. We may assume that this includes most nouns-people, places, and things--that exist, can be imagined to exist, or can be created in the world. They are all, significantly, external things that exist (or are imagined to exist) outside of the self. In other words, the things that are held to bring US happiness are out there, in the world. Furthermore, Stevenson makes clear that these things are diverse and abundant. Implicitly, they are there for the taking--available to all. For the sort of happiness that these things should bring us is the happiness of kings--those who can command any thing they wish and who have the power and resources to have their wishes fulfilled. If kings are the epitome of happiness, it is presumably for this reason. And in the view of the world expressed in Happy Thought", there is enough stuff in the world that we all can be royally happy. The child is being told here that fairy tales can come true and happiness can be theirs--all through the wonders of consumption. We have only to partake from the boundless cornucopia of the world to find happiness. and if we partake enough we will be as happy as kings. and thus, the consumer is king.

Written at the end of the 19th century, "Happy Thought" is a product of its age. As consumer historians have recently realized, this age followed the great consumer revolution in the U.S. and Europe (Fox and Lears 1983, Harris 1981, Leiss, Kline, and Jhally 1986, McKendrick, Brewer, and Plumb 1982, Williams 1982). Paralleling and emerging from the industrial revolution on the supply site, this great consumer revolution produced the fairy tale view of the world of goods that is expressed in Stevenson's poem. The poem depicts the resulting consumer view that in things lie happiness- a view that persists today in spite of growing skepticism. Having reigned for this long as the dominant consumer ideology, it is perhaps time that we begin to address the issue of the relationship between consumption and human well-being. Our mission as consumer researchers should in fact be, I would suggest, to examine the relationship between consumer behavior and the rest of life. If the world is indeed so full of a number of things, can we and should we be, through consumption, as happy as the imaginary kings in Stevenson's poem?


Perhaps the key reason that we have not addressed such issues is that we have tended to examine consumer behavior in isolation from other aspects of our existence. One key to gaining a better sense of balance in consumer research would seem to involve relating consumer behavior to the rest of human behavior. In another paper (Belk forthcoming), partly abstracted in a recent ACR Newsletter, I have argued that we should reject the overly rational model of consumers as computers. These comments will suggest an alternative in which consumers are viewed as human beings. More to the point, the present view recognizes that people, while technically consuming something from the moment of their conception to the moment of their death, if not beyond, are only consumers in an active and significant way for a small fraction of their lives. Some of the most significant activities for human beings--walking, talking, loving, working, playing, thinking, feeling, mating, learning, resting, sleeping, fighting, singing, grooming, dancing, and praying, involve consumption in only the most tangential of ways.

Sartre (1956) describes three interrelated existential states--having, being, and doing. Of these, only having directly implies consumption, and even then only for certain of the things that may be had. There is, in other words, much more to life than acquiring and consuming things. This very simple and obvious point somehow seems to have escaped consumer researchers. There seems no other explanation for the care and detail with which we have imagined that consumers make choices- as if they were the sole focus of daily life. However true this may be for some consumers some of the time, it is not true of most consumers most of the time. We need more complex models that recognize that consumption is merely one small aspect of human life. At the same time that we enlarge models to recognize the full complexity of the relationships between consumption and the rest of life, our models should pay particular attention to those consumers and moments that do hold consumption to be a dear and valued activity. In addition to being the instances in which consumption is of greatest importance to consumers, these are likely to be the instances in which consumption is most worth studying in order to inform us concerning matters of importance to the human condition. At a broader level we also need to examine how and to what extent consumption becomes elevated above other aspects of daily life (e.g., is consumption the new religion?), and what effects such increases in consumption importance may have on life satisfaction.


The view that emerges when consumer behavior is placed within the perspective of the rest of life, might be called macro consumer behavior. Macro consumer behavior concerns aspects of consumer behavior that are likely to have little interest to the decision making of a marketer or an advertiser, but have great interest to members of society and to their individual and collective well-being. The issues involved are ore timeless and are likely to have as much interest in 200 years as they do today. The issues considered in this perspective are also likely to have at least as much relevance in third world nations as they do in highly developed nations (e.g., Belk 1986, Belk and Nan 1986). This excludes most of the consumer research done to date.

In a world so full of wondrous things, both natural and humanly created, there is much to engage us both as consumers and as consumer researchers. In a world so sharply delineated between the consumption of haves and have-nots, there is much to concern us. And in a world so full of high level consumption, but so empty of human fulfillment, there is much to challenge us. And yet we have spent (some might say squandered) the first couple of decades of consumer research on what Saul Bellow calls "the dog-food level of things" (Bellow 1975, 264-265).

By "the dog-food level of things" Bellow meant that which is petty, stupid, or dull. And that is just what we have specialized in within consumer research. We have been so concerned with consumer micro behaviors such as examining an advertisement or choosing a brand, that we have ignored whole categories of significant consumer macro behaviors such as exploring a lifestyle or choosing a consumption level. In investigating consumer behavior we have been petty, stupid, and dull rather than profound, insightful, and interesting. We have, by and large, failed to relate consumer behavior to the rest of human existence and have thus failed to fully appreciate the meaning of consumption.

The meaning of consumption is more than just profit or loss for marketers and more than just product or service satisfaction for consumers. Beyond profit or loss to marketers there is profit or loss to society resulting from consumption. (Consider for instance the societal impact of the consumption of books and television programming.) And beyond product or service satisfaction there is life satisfaction and human well-being. (Consider for instance the impact of books and television on sense of self and consumption aspirations.) Besides the day-to-day choices of a consumer, there are the decade-to-decade consumption choices made by societies. There is much that is of great human consequence in consumption, and yet we have for the most part wasted our talents on the dog-food level of things.

The nature of micro consumer behavior issues is familiar to us all. We may not have fully solved such issues, but we have diligently, carefully, and rigorously addressed them. It is useful however to systematically contrast the nature of micro versus macro consumer behavior issues. Even though it is limiting to view variables as independent and dependent rather than as interdependent, this traditional distinction is useful in contrasting micro and macro consumer behavior. Consider first the orientation of micro consumer behavior.

UNDERLYING QUESTION: What arrangement of the marketing mix will have what effects on the purchase behavior of what types of consumers?

KEY DEPENDENT VARIABLES: Buying choices (variables or processes such as consumer information processing, dissonance, and satisfaction are only of interest as they affect buying).

INDEPENDENT VARIABLES: Marketing variables and individual differences (environment and culture are seen as external constraints).

These specifications may be compared to those of macro consumer behavior.

UNDERLYING QUESTION: What effects do marketing activities and buying have on culture and human well-being?

KEY DEPENDENT VARIABLES: Individual, social, and cultural effects.

INDEPENDENT VARIABLES: Advertising, distribution, product offerings, prices, acquisition, consumption, and disposition choices, and consumer spending patterns.

Although marketing variables remain independent variables of interest, the macro perspective makes consumer choices (no longer restricted to buying choices) an independent variable rather than the key dependent variable. In addition, the environmental and cultural variables, taken as external constraints in the micro perspective, become key dependent variables in the macro perspective. In other words, the macro perspective shifts the focus from the consumer to the human being. Rather than ask how certain arrangements in life affect consumption, it asks how consumption affects the rest of life.


Perhaps the best book to raise consciousness about macro consumer behavior is the photo essay Rich and Poor by Jim Goldberg (1985). Besides photographs of each group, Goldberg hat the subjects write comments interpreting the photographs--in effect, auto-driving them (Heisley and Levy 1985). While these comments lose a great deal without the accompanying Photographs, two captions may suggest the nature of the contrasts set up in the book and some of the macro consumer behavior issues they pose.

From a poor girl: I look ugly and serious I wish I Had Money then I can look and Be who I want to Be.

From a rich man: I am trapped in this very consuming game where I can't have anything that is average. I have to have a super car, a super wife, a super house. I have at the bottom of everything a lack of self-confidence. I am afraid of being a loser.

Both space and lack of research preclude a full delineation of macro consumer behavior issues or even a full discussion of a single issue. The following list is instead intended to further clarify what macro consumer behavior is seen to entail and to perhaps spur research on issues such as these. It is organized according to three aspects of consumption--acquisition, consumption/use, and disposal/disuse--and within these considers personal, interpersonal, and cultural effects (the three macro dependent variables noted above).


I. Acquisition Processes

A. Personal Focus

1. What is the relationship between the level and importance of consumption in a person's life and their happiness and sense of well-being?

2. How do consumers make tradeoffs between money, durables, time, discretionary nondurables, and experience?

3. Why do consumption pathologies such as anorexia nervosa credit abuse, and greed occur?

B. Interpersonal Focus

1. What motivates the economically "irrational" exchange of gifts?

2. How does acquiring a bodily organ transplanted from another person affect self-image?

3. What should replace the exchange paradigm in order to understand phenomena such as altruism and love?

C. Cultural Focus

1. How will the sudden development of a consumer culture affect China?

2. When did consumer culture originate in the world's cultures, for what reasons, and with what effects?

3. How do marketing activities such as advertising affect cultural values?

II. Consumption/Use Processes

A. Personal Focus

1. How do consumption objects become symbols of wealth, age, sex, political preference, and other statuses?

2. How do the consumption of experiences and things oppose and reinforce one another?

3. What types of people prefer intangibles to tangibles and why?

B. Interpersonal Focus

1. Is sharing a natural human inclination?

2. What are the consequences of various ways of distributing wealth. property, and possessions?

3. What function is played by shared consumption rituals and myths such as Santa Claus?

C. Cultural Focus

1. What are the effects of sharing consumption symbols such as the Statue of Liberty, places, and sports teams?

2. Is consumption now the central reason for the continued existence of families?

3. How are we affected by media portrayals of consumption?

III. Disposal/Disuse Processes

A. Personal Focus

1. What strategic discarding of consumption objects is done during geographical and status transitions?

2. Does increased sense of ability result in a decreased "security blanket" of goods?

3. How do consumers regard the conspicuous waste of prior generations of wealthy people as revealed in their mansions?

B. Interpersonal Focus

1. How does withholding or withdrawing material goods from children (as punishments) affect their attitudes toward these goods?

2. What strategies of identity preservation are evident in the disposition of possessions via wills?

3. What pleasures and hostilities may be involved in giving gifts to others?

C. Cultural Focus

1. Does the increase in secondary marketing systems such as flea markets and garage sales reflect a lessened sense of charity in failing to give used items to others or to redistribution agencies?

2. Will we continue to become more of a "kleenix culture" in which disposability is preferred to reuse?

3. How do certain items of "junk" become redefined as collectible, while others do not?

This is only a brief and suggestive list, but it should convey some sense of what macro consumer behavior entails. We have begun to research and consider only a few of these macro issues. Others have previously called for broadening consumer behavior (e.g., Zaltman and Sternthal 1974) and for considering consumer behavior from a macromarketing or aggregate perspective (e.g., Firat 1985, Firat and Dholakia 1982). These are steps in the right direction, but they do not go far enough in advocating the study of consumer behavior for its own sake (rather than that of marketing) nor do they consider consumer behavior as existing within the broader tableau of human behavior. By adding a macro consumer behavior perspective to our current micro consumer behavior perspective I believe we will have a significant discipline in the next couple of centuries. Without a commitment to macro consumer behavior I am not confident that consumer behavior will persist as a scholarly field of significance to humanity.

The adoption of macro issues for study in consumer research is a major shift requiring a new perspective. It is also likely to require new methods that go beyond the research methods and techniques that we have used in the past; but that is another topic that is beginning to be addressed in the field. This is not to say that some macro consumer behavior issues cannot be addressed by our traditional experimental -and survey research approaches. But the historical and cultural sweep of many of the issues in macro consumer behavior will demand new methods, broader scholarship, and more critical thinking than have been typical in our field.

Having begun with a short poem, it seems appropriate to end with one also. Since the first poem was a happy childlike poem, I'll close with a more somber childlike poem that suggests how ineffectual we are if we fail to address the human consumer issues that matter in the world.

Oh the rich man's got his troubles

And the poor man's got some too,

But if I had my way about it kiddies

I'd tell them both a few,

For the world is just as lousy rotten

As people damn well want it to be (Patchen 1960)

The question is: how much creative energy are we willing to put into rethinking our approach to consumer behavior research? If we adopt the research agenda of macro consumer behavior, as I feel we must, the challenge and excitement will be enormous. More importantly, we will have a chance to affect the human condition for the better. We will then have contributed something to the world that may indeed make it a happier place.


Belk, Russell W. (forthcoming), "A Modest Proposal for Creating Verisimilitude in Consumer Information Processing Models and Some Suggestions for Establishing a Discipline to Study Consumer Behavior, Philosophical and Radical Thought in Marketing, Richard Bagozzi, Nikhilesh Dholakia, and A. Fuat Firat, eds.

Belk, Russell W. (1986), "Macro Consumer Behavior Issues in Developing Countries," The Role of Marketing in Development: Global, Consumer. and Managerial Issues, Erodgan Kumcu, A. Fuat Firat, Mehmet Karafakioglu, Muhittin Karabulut, and Mehmet Oluc, eds., Muncie: Ball State University Publications, 14-15.

Belk, Russell W. and Nan Zhou (1986), Emerging Consumer Culture in the PRC," The Role of Marketing in Development: Global, Consumer, and Managerial Issues, Erodgan Kuscu, A. Fuat Firat, Mehmet Karafakioglu, Muhittin Karabulut, and Mehmet Oluc, eds., Muncie: Ball State University Publications, 137-145.

Bellow, Saul (1975), Humbolt's Gift, New York: The Viking Press.

Firat, A. Fuat (1985), "A Critique of the Orientations in Theory Development in Consumer Behavior: Suggestions for the Future," Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 13, Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Morris B. Holbrook, eds., Provo: Association for Consumer Research, 3-6.

Firat, A. Fuat and Nikhilesh Dholakia (1982). "Consumption at the Macro Level," Journal of Macromarketing (Fall), 6-15.

Fox, Richard W. and T. J. Jackson Lears, eds. (1983), The Culture of Consumption, New York: Pantheon.

Goldberg, Jim (1985), Rich and Poor, New York: Random House.

Harris, Neil (1981), "The Drama of Consumer Desire," Yankee Enterprise: The Rise of the American System of Manufactures, Otto Mayr and Robert L. Post, eds., Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 189-216.

Heisley, Deborah and Sidney J. Levy (1985), Familiar Interlude: Autodriving in Consumer Analysis," paper presented at the 1985 Association for Consumer Research Conference Las Vegas, October 19, 1985.

Leiss, William, Stephen Kline, and Sut Jhally (1986), Social Communication in Advertising: Persons, Products, & Images of Well Being, New York: Methuen Publications.

McKendrick, Neil, John Brewer, and J. R. Plumb (1982), The Birth of a Consumer Society, London: Europa Publications, Limited.

Patchen, Kenneth (1960), Because There's Bells Never Tolled the Truth," Because It Is, New York: New Directions.

Sartre, Jean-Paul (1956), Being and Nothingness, Hazel E. Barnes, trans., New York: Philosophical Library.

Stevenson, Robert Louis (1905), 'Happy Thought," A Child's Garden of Verses. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 34.

Williams, Rosalind (1982), Dream Worlds: Mass Consumption in Late Nineteenth Century France, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Zaltman, Gerald and Brian Sternthal, eds. (1975), Broadening the Concept of Consumer Behavior, Ann Arbor: Association for Consumer Research.