Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein: an ACR Retrospective

Joel B. Cohen, University of Florida
[ to cite ]:
Joel B. Cohen (1995) ,"Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein: an ACR Retrospective", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, eds. Frank R. Kardes and Mita Sujan, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 545-547.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, 1995      Pages 545-547

ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN: AN ACR RETROSPECTIVE

Joel B. Cohen, University of Florida

As I thought about whether to accept Jerry Kernan's invitation to write and deliver this paper at a session to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of ACR's founding, my first reaction was "Who the hell wants to hear any of this?" I mean, we weren't exactly the Continental Congress coming together to build a new nation.

Coincidentally, I had recently been drafted to serve on and then to chair a committee asked to take stock of ACR: had it been faithful to its original agenda; had it become too much like the organizations from which it originally sought to distance itself; had it simply become an outlet for not-quite-ready-for-prime-time papers, thereby putting advancement of members' careers ahead of larger disciplinary objectives? Frankly, the only enthusiasm I observed for a penetrating analysis of such issues was among a small core of "old guard" members, some of whose views you are hearing today, as well as in some previous presidential addresses and other writings. A far more mainstream voice came through loud and clear: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Several productive members of the field went out of their way to tell me that it "ain't broke." They can make a good case. Just look at how many people are coming to the conference and appearing on the program. No longer dominated by a core of behaviorally-focused academic departments and their Ph.D. programs, ACR has opened its doors wide, so much so in fact that even seven concurrent sessions are not enough. We have now added a "research notes"/poster session format to accommodate the many people wishing to give papers. In fact, I think that the Program Committee itself has more people on it than the number presenting papers at the early conferences. Bill Wilkie, in the third edition of his Consumer Behavior text, points out that ACR has now grown to some 1,500 members from 30 nations. Change ACR? Hell, it would make more sense to sell stock in it!

Accordingly, I advised our current President that an assessment dominated by a contingent of "founding fathers" would probably not represent the larger ACR membership. If such an assessment is to be carried out, either the elected leadership should do it, or a much more broadly representative committee should be appointed.

But, as I thought about Jerry's invitation, I decided that this was probably the appropriate forum to present some personal views about ACR. Okay, but no dusty scrapbooks or photograph albums. No tape of Barbra Streisand singing "Memories." People start looking at their watches and contemplating other places to be when they are subjected to one person's nostalgia. Spice it up a bit. I need a scriptCperhaps a movie plot will do.

Do you remember those old Abbott and Costello flicks? They're sort of lovable guys who mistakenly think they're in control of their own destiny and bumble their way into situations they hadn't foreseen. But they mean well, and sure enough things sort of work out. Oh, not the way they intended, of course, but pretty well.

A lot of people are doing Frankenstein these days, but nothing like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. In serious renditions, Dr. Frankenstein is assigned some transcendent symbolic significanceCegotistical man challenging the forces of nature. You know, like Jurassic Park. And, of course, the monster can represent all sorts of profound things. But in simpler Abbott and Costello times, he was just some big, overgrown galoot who, devoid of purpose and out of control, wandered over the landscape.

Nah, I can't see the tie-in to ACR either. Still, if we go back twenty-five years, maybe we were Abbott and Costello. Be my guest if you want to cast the movie. I can assure you I had no one in mind for any role. So let's think of them as symbolic stand-ins for a small contingent of actually quite disparate characters.

The movie opens. Here we are, thinking great thoughts, in Columbus, Ohio. Cut: boring. Next scene. The members of our merry band, a.k.a. Abbott and Costello, have found that they agree on a few important things. First, and most important, they were convinced that the scholarly study of consumer behavior was worthwhile, per se, and not because therein lies marketing success. More effective marketing, just like better medical practice or more effective applications in general, typically results from the gains that science makes in understanding the factors and processes at work. But increases in brand shares could not be the sine qua non used to justify research on consumer behaviorCof that we were clearly in agreement.

Lest some of the younger members of the field think this view is roughly equivalent to a cultural truism, I can recall that the expression of this position in a public forum led a widely respected senior colleague to respond that people who took that view did not belong in marketing departments. Moreover, this response was not particularly surprising at the time. A cursory review of the current marketing literature will amply testify to the importance of the brand manager's perspective in determining what problems marketing academics see as important. So make no mistake about it: ACR has always been a rather exotic enterprise, deigning to believe that an activity producing two-thirds of our annual GNP might be worth studying in its own right.

PREMISES AND PROMISES

A key premise was that consumer behavior was indeed a unique domain for study, whose scope implied that it should be approached from a variety of perspectives and orientations. We thought the discipline could be built on a combination of good descriptive research together with judicious use of theory and research from the larger social and behavioral sciences. This view implicitly made the careful choice and conceptualization of the behavioral contextCand hence its representation in research studiesCpivotal factors in evaluating that research. Needless to say, we also agreed that the discipline would be significantly advanced if there were a regular forum for presenting and discussing such research.

We were hardly of one mind as to the types of knowledge we wished to contribute by studying consumer behavior, but by and large we respected the disagreements we knew existed. Many clearly wanted to learn more about how consumers responded to various activities of the marketing system, some because of an implicit interest in changing attitudes and behavior, some to improve marketing practice, and a few to better evaluate the system's overall performance. Others thought about consumer behavior as a prototypical representation of mainstream human experience. Hence, the study of consumer behavior might be a way to examine many of the important theoretical issues that behavioral scientists (particularly social psychologists) were grappling with at the time. Others were just plain fascinated with what it was consumers did and wanted to carry out the kinds of empirical work that would more adequately describe such behavior. Still others saw the systematic study of consumer behavior as a way of injecting far greater realism into public policy discussions, which have always been dominated by the premises and assumptions of economic theory. All told, this was quite an agenda, and we hoped to learn from each other as we went along.

Cut to scene of fledgling monster on scaffolding being hoisted by pulleys to the roof of a castle. The prospect of giving life to this, our creation, became quite compelling. And since we're Abbott and Costello, we giddily charge ahead. Someone says, "Hey, why don't we . . .?" A brief pause to order another pitcher of beer and then "Yeah, let's do it!" We believe the slogan, "If you build it, they will come," so why not schedule a conference and guarantee an entire block of rooms using a personal credit card? We hatch a vaguely conceived plan to give the AMA an incentive to support our efforts rather than risk the emerging behavioral wing of the field breaking away. At the same time, we reach out to other disciplines and government officials because we know we must establish our own identity: we cannot remain in AMA's orbit and achieve our broader substantive agenda. So we put the "plan" into action, really just making it up as we go along.

Someone hatches a scheme that sounds a bit like a John Le CarrT spy novel. New journals are emerging everywhere: the horn of plenty holds sway for the moment in academia. So we allow word to leak out that suggests we may be talking to publishers about starting our own journalCsomething we know we can't afford to get off the ground on our own. We make subtle inquiries through AMA editorial offices about break-even levels, the number of subscribing libraries, manuscript flow necessary to support a high quality journal, etc. We casually wonder if a new behavioral journal would have much of an impact on the Journal of Marketing Research, itself still an infant. When asked directly about our plans, we are evasive, almost secretive. AMA officials hold meetings and move quickly to preempt plans we do not have to start our own journal. They offer the needed financial support in return for keeping us within the fold and for what they perceive (correctly, it turns out) to be the potential of such a journal.

But having seen Abbott and Costello movies, you know that the journal caper has some twists and turns that our bumbling heroes have not thought through. "Hey, isn't it nice that AMA agrees with us that readership could be expanded if other disciplines were formally invited aboard?" Don't worry about the details. So ACR becomes undoubtedly the only association whose members contribute 80% of the articles and a comparable proportion of individual subscriptions in return for a 8% voice in the running of the journal. "Hey, Abbotttt!" is what Lou used to say when he figured out that he messed up.

And now the monster was afoot. We had set it loose. It was clearly hungry and quite rambunctious. It needed directors and emissaries and special committees. We respectfully watched it grow. And it continued to grow, becoming a seven concurrent session monster with odd-looking appendages. Its appetite had become prodigious, and so it went in search of more exotic fare, including special conferences and publication opportunities. And people were honored when it praised them and gave them awards.

But all this begs the question, "Is the monster running amok and in need of collaring or has he simply had the ups and downs of most adolescents, but now is on track to becoming a model citizen, albeit somewhat different in temperament and behavior than originally envisioned?" And if by chance it is the former, who's going to walk up to him and get him to shape up?

ASSESSING THE NATURE OF THE BEAST

There seems little question that ACRCover the past twenty-five yearsChas been a vital force in putting the study of consumer behavior on the academic map. Contributions from a variety of disciplines are easily found, the infusion of each stemming from the field's long-standing interests (e.g., attitude formation and change, judgement and decision making), but also benefitting from marketing academics' sojourns across campus and the willingness of some academic departments to step up to the plate in pursuit of this objective.

Still, some would argue that the field seems embarked on a quest to learn more and more about less and less. Another spin on this complaint is that we have developed few broadly comprehensive models or middle-range theories, and beyond extensive borrowing of concepts and methods, we have not really looked at consumer behavior with much originality of purpose. These and related criticisms have been voiced many times over our brief history.

At a less abstract level, I can vividly recall the questions I asked virtually all prospective faculty members until some time in the late '70s, when I became so discouraged by the answers that I simply gave up. I asked simply, "What are you personally interested in learning about? How will this project increase your understanding of that topic/issue?" I thought of these as essentially batting practice questions and a good way of getting started. But, by the late '70s, instead of being hit out of the ball park, these questions stopped people dead in their tracks. What I usually heard was, "Well, I don't exactly know what you are asking, but let me describe my 2x3x3 factorial with 2 covariates." When this first began to happen, I usually interrupted and said that I would be happy to hear about the operational aspects of the research later, then I repeated the question. At this point, I usually heard something like, "Oh, I see what you are getting at." Then they would proceed to tell me that they were interested in such and such interaction or the impact of a particular moderator, that sort of thing. Early on, I had the energy to be relentless. So I often said, "Suppose things came out exactly as you predicted. What would you have learned that you regard as worthwhile?" At that point, there was often a painful silence.

Here is what I believe I have learned about progress in our field from these and related experiences (e.g. writing the Annual Review of Psychology chapter, journal and conference reviewing). The science of doing consumer research has dramatically improved over the years: indeed, it has become a fixation in our stronger Ph.D. programs. That, of course, is good news: research rigor has grown by leaps and bounds since ACR first started holding conferences. At the same time, our field has fragmentedCin keeping with mature disciplinesCand so researchers often start their inquiries by zooming in on previously circumscribed relationships. Understandable, perhaps unavoidable, but there is a risk of losing contact with the issues that spawned the research in the first place.

It might be appropriate to question whether the discipline has achieved the assumed degree of maturity. Perhaps we are largely kidding ourselves when, with minor variations, we do the same study which might have been done in a field that gave no consideration whatever to what consumers do and how they do it. In other cases, researchers almost seem to have gone out of their way to find projects that are at best tangential to consumers' experiences and settings, as if to demonstrate greater vision and the value of creative self-expression.

Then too, our field has proven to be a particularly fertile ground for the research equivalent of "one-night stands" and what I shall call "peacock displays." Permit me to describe two types of one-night stands. The "grab them while they're hot" types of papers show an entrepreneurial talent for scooping other people when something that seems particularly clever appears in a respected discipline. Unfortunately, the researcher hasn't seemed to take the time to figure out what level of contribution, if any, is likely. So, once the scoop has occurred, it's back to keeping one's eyes and ears open for the next opportunity. The second type of one-night stand follows from reading a study carried out elsewhere and thinking, "I can do that." So you do, with a twist or two, of course. Another line on the rTsumT. The opposite of "one-night stands" is programmatic research, of which not enough good things can possibly be said.

"Peacock displays" are somewhat different. All through the animal kingdom, species strut, dance, display prominent coloring and emit sounds in order to signal their special qualities to others. But we've really had too much of that over our twenty-five years. Okay, your paper demonstrated a reading acquaintance with ancient Sanskrit; or perhaps you have an uncanny ability to observe Jungian archetypes in your colleagues; or perhaps you are prepared to resist all logical arguments and empirical evidence that you do, in fact, exist. Please! If a mastery of Sanskrit or the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle would somehow be useful to our field, rather than substituting the trappings of knowledge for genuine insight, let's seek the depth of a real expert, someone who has made this their life's work. If you truly think some perspective, some approach, some research method has value in our quest to better understand consumer behavior, others are more likely to agree with you if you translate this conviction into a substantive contribution. In today's vernacular, don't just "talk the talk, walk the walk." Flagellating ourselves in public because in our heart of hearts it doesn't seem possible to know anything for certain is an utterly useless activity. And it's a transparently self-serving basis for asking others to accept whatever opinion you woke up with today.

I think it would be worthwhile for those seriously interested in the development of this field to think about how it has been evolving and where it might be headed. To that end, let me return to what it is we hoped to learn about and contribute by coming together under the auspices of the Association for Consumer Research. We might ask, for example, "How have we done in understanding consumers' responses to various activities of the marketing system?" It is not my intention to try to provide any type of definitive answer to such a broad question in these few pages, and I well understand that other people may have a different impression. As a start, however, my sense is that we have pretty much operationalized marketing variables and response contexts in ways that are much more convenient but which sacrifice essential elements of reality. Some limitations are often duly noted but not addressed in follow-up studies.

How about what I would term the "basic behavioral science orientation," which looked at consumer behavior as possibly the ideal "laboratory" for carrying out behavioral research? Well, one problem here is that we have too often been content to settle for consumer behavior "cover stories" rather than submitting such theory to the more searching, severe examination that real-life dilemmas and settings would allow. All too often, we do not clearly decide whether particular research is intended to: (1) provide a better or more complete explanation of a particular action or outcome important in our discipline; or (2) help us understand or qualify a relationship among a set of theoretically important constructs. In the former case, we cannot sensibly avoid assessing conceptual relevance to the behavioral episode we are trying to understand. In the latter, we have an obligation, first, to act consistent with the recognition that all theories are naturally situated in particular contexts, and, second, to determine if particular behaviors of consumers would provide a meaningful opportunity for furthering understanding. Accordingly, setting out to run a study as a "test" of a theory (in an "up" or "down" sense) is a quixotic enterprise. Instead, a series of studies should be seen as an opportunity to more fully explicate a theory's internal structure and the factors that qualify and moderate its role in a larger theoretical network. I do not believe that our discipline's report card on these fundamental research decisions is particularly impressive.

I think few would disagree with a negative assessment of our field's efforts to describe the behaviors of consuming units and to evaluate system-wide performance. Large-scale field projects are time-consuming and often costly, but even beyond that, there has not been much attention to the use of secondary data. A recent infusion of interest in rich, descriptive research might help remedy this state of affairs, but that depends largely on the criteria used to select behaviors for study. To this point, I can see little to be overly optimistic about in that regard.

Finally, mainstream consumer behavior researchers have tended to shy away from public policy issues unless these could be fairly closely wedded to traditional research paradigms. While this has allowed us to sidestep the burden of grappling with complex and subtle questions, our framing of such issues has tended to place our research on the periphery of meaningful public policy topics and discussions.

WHAT ROLE FOR ACR?

This brief overview of the field's performance against knowledge goals that were important to us when ACR was established was not presented as or meant to be an indictment of ACR. Professional associations tend to be responsive to the wishes of their members. The question then becomes, "To what degree should ACR explicitly adopt a leadership role and try to influence the type of research in the field?"

I am by no means convinced that ACR could have a strong impact on individual researchers' decisions, even if it wished to. Still, I will end this paper by making the point that I think it is important to take stock of where we have been and where we appear to be going. There are many who feel, perhaps vaguely, that the study of consumer behavior has been losing momentum and vitality. If enough of a consensus is reached that we can be and should be doing better, then it is up to us, both as individuals and as a professional organization, to raise our sights and think more in terms of contributions to the field than simply conference papers and publications.

Beyond that, I've had a lot of fun bumbling along with a cast of characters whose enthusiasm, optimism, and selfless pursuit of the common good got this show on the road.

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