Anniversary Session What Do We Want to Be When We Grow Up?

William D. Wells, University of Minnesota
[ to cite ]:
William D. Wells (1995) ,"Anniversary Session What Do We Want to Be When We Grow Up?", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, eds. Frank R. Kardes and Mita Sujan, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 561-563.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, 1995      Pages 561-563



William D. Wells, University of Minnesota

Good evening. It is indeed a pleasure to be here. Just being present at this Geezerfest is an uncommon privilege.

This is going to be about Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. Yesterday refers to 1969 and the decade before and after. Today refers toCwell, today: where we are and where we might be heading. Tomorrow is about effectiveness and independence.

Being a twenty-fifth, this birthday begs for tokens of longevity. To honor this tradition, I will confer some tastefully appropriate, expensively framed certificates upon a few distinguished persons.


To start with yesterday, I'd like to tell you how I first met Hal Kassarjian. It was at an American Association for Public Opinion Research conference at the Hotel Sagamore on Lake George about a decade before the Ohio State workshop. While waiting for the opening reception, I wandered along the lake shore, basking in the warm Spring weather.

At the end of the hotel pier sat Hal Kassarjian, dangling a string into the Lake George water. Noting he had not caught any fish, I asked him what he used for bait. He raised the string to show no bait, and no hookCjust a string. A little surprised at this, I asked, "How are you going to catch a fish without a hook?" His response was classic Kassarjian: "What the hell would I do with a fish if I caught one?"

Scott Armstrong says we can't predict anything (Armstrong 1991). I say we can. I could have predicted Hal's advice to graduate students, and his judgments as JCR co-editor.

Still dwelling on the past, we fast-forward to the Ohio State workshop. In the spirit of prediction, let's ask why that event was so propitious. Why did that specific conferenceCand the two or three years that followedCcreate the moment we are celebrating?

Certainly, the time was right. Within the business world, advertisers and agencies had built productive research factories. Within government, a reinvigorated FTC had launched a new crusade against deceptive marketing communication. Within academia, marketing departments had expanded rapidly. Within marketing, consumer behavior had attracted new research attention.

Engel, Kollat and BlackwellCthe conference hostsChad just published their encyclopedia (1968). Nicosia (1966) and Howard and Sheth (1969) had just presented general theories. In Howard and Sheth's case, it was not just your ordinary inventory. It was "The Theory of Buyer Behavior." So, consumer research was in the air, along with tendencies to overestimate and motivating feelings that this new discipline was important.

But there was more to it than that. Throughout the Ohio State workshop, Engel, Kollat and Blackwell, and Kassarjian, Kernan and Cohen, and everyone else, maintained that this new enterprise had reached new competence. It was more than just an academic curiosity. It was ready to face reality and contribute to important real decisions.

So the Constitution promised that ACR would "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." The Constitution also promised that ACR would focus on "a better understanding of consumer behavior from a variety of perspectives" (Pratt 1974).

Based on those pattern-breaking promises, ACR's Second Annual Conference attracted presenters and discussants from the American Institute for Architects, Consumers Union, the Consumer Research Institute, E. I. Du Pont, GTE Sylvania, the Federal Trade Commission, the National Bureau of Standards, the U. S. Department of Commerce, and the Commerce Committee of the U. S. Senate (Gardner 1971).

At that conference, Mary Gardner Jones, an FTC Commissioner, summarized the real-world perspective (Jones 1971). In describing "The FTC's Need for Social Science Research," Commissioner Jones told us that the FTC needed to be certain that its "always meager resources are used with maximal effectiveness, both in determining areas in which the Commission's resources should be applied and in insuring that the actions which it does decide to take will, in fact, achieve the end result sought to be obtained" (Jones 1971, 2). She went on to call for "precise knowledge of the actuality of consumer behavior" and valid means for "measuring the effectiveness of programs or actions" (Jones 1971, 4).

Although Commissioner Jones spoke for government and not for industry, her wish list was fully general. ThenCas nowCboth government and industry needed to leverage their limited resources. ThenCas nowCthey needed precise knowledge of actuality and valid means for measuring programs or actions.

Accordingly, the Third Annual Conference attracted even more real-world attention. The Third Conference featured presenters and discussants from Air Canada, AT & T, Bozell & Jacobs, the Bureau of the Census, the Consumer Research Institute, Elrick & Lavidge, the Federal Trade Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, the Ford Motor Company, General Electric, the Leo Burnett Company, Management Horizons, Market Facts, National Analysts, the National Science Foundation, Procter & Gamble, the Standard Oil Company, Westat Research, and the U. S. Department of Agriculture (Venkatesan 1972).

Like Commissioner Jones the year before, these outsiders all asked for help. One after another, they reaffirmed a healthy need for valid substance and effective method.

This is not to say they came empty-handed. They brought models and methods, insight and encouragement, new ideas and novel ways of looking at familiar situations. Many told about important first-hand experiences. Some offered collaboration and co-authorship, and previously inaccessible real-world data. These contributions made our conference more auspicious for the academicians who were present.

During that conference, Jagdish Sheth upped the ante. Sheth said, "Within a very short period of time, we seem to have firmly laid the foundation for building a distinct discipline of buyer behavior which will neither be a subsystem of marketing nor that of any of the other older social sciences" (Sheth 1972, 565). He went on to predict that consumer research would produce method and substance that would alter the course of psychology, sociology and economics, and that consumer researchers would work with "researchers from hard sciences such as physics, mechanics and biochemistry in search for solution of social and environmental problems" (Sheth 1972, 571). Remember, optimism was rampant, and overestimation was not uncommon.

Although Sheth's bet might seem far-fetched, it followed from the founding promise. Then, as now, academic researchers had incentive and occasion to abandon isolation. Then, as now, they had reason to unravel the complexities of real transactions. In Sheth's view (and in my view) then and now, a sharp focus on reality would immunize us from the "crisis of relevance" that had impoverished the other older disciplines (Sheth 1972, 565-573; Wells 1993).

Thus, from both inside and outside, the great hope for ACR was that it would turn out to be more than just one more string dangling in the academic water. The great hope was that consumer research in general, and ACR in particular, would fish for real fish. The criterion was to be external credibility, and the venue was to be the real behavior of real consumers.

Joel Cohen reiterated independence as ACR's first president. Like Sheth, Cohen predicted that consumer research would become "a distinct field of inquiry, and not merely a branch of marketing, psychology, economics or any other social science" (Cohen 1973). This may have been the first and last time Cohen and Sheth agreed on anything.

Jerry Kernan reinforced tripartite distinctiveness five years later. In discussing "Consumer Research and the Public Purpose," Kernan (1979) positioned ACR as the enterprise that would "orchestrate the natural talents of academia, government and industry so as to enhance consumer welfare" (Kernan 1979, 1).

The bottom line (a fresh clichT back then) was that consumer research in general and ACR in particular would be different from, more realistic than, and more effective than their predecessors. Unlike the older other disciplines, consumer research would solve real problems. Unlike the older other professional associations, ACR would reap the benefits of cross-cultural collaboration.


We now fast-forward to the present celebration.

One benefit of senior citizenship is you are expected to get crotchety. Maybe I shouldn't say "senior citizenship." It's Politically Incorrect, and present company might be prematurely sensitive.

Hal Kassarjian prefers "old fart," but that's not quite right either. Would you call Alice Tybout an "old fart" even if you were not one of her graduate students? Even if you would call Alice an old fart, how about Frank Kardes and Mita Sujan? Think about that for a moment. We'll come back to it.

One benefit of reaching the state of having become chronologically advantaged is that you are expected to get crotchety. I will therefore spend the next few minutes asking whether we have met our founding forecasts: Twenty-five years into the mission (another fresh clichT back then) is ACR different from, more realistic than, and more effective than its academic predecessors?

Maybe that's not even the right question. The Ohio State workshop listed 13 papers (Engel 1994). This year's program listed 320 papers, research notes, discussions and addresses. It would have listed even more if Mita Sujan had not fled the country. We're clearly doing something right. ACR is alive and thriving.

Yet, when laid against the founding promise, several vacancies are obvious. For one thing, we're not as different we used to be. Whatever happened to ACR Live with Rich Lutz as Dan Aykroyd and Jim Bettman as Steve Martin? Whatever happened to the ACR football game?

I thought the football game was permanent . One yearCthis was before e-mailCno one brought a football. That didn't stop our athletes. They played the game without one.

Scott Armstrong says we can't predict anything. I say we can. I say that anyone who saw that game could have predicted that researchers would regret the ambiguity of memory-based inferences (Cohen and Basu 1987; Mizerski, Golden and Kernan 1979).

Whatever happened to real transactions and naturalistic settings? Although we have avoided white rats, we have not avoided MBA candidates and college sophomores. Although we have avoided Econometrica, we have not avoided a crisis of relevance. We're astonishingly willing to settle for virtual researchCstudent subjects, fictional products, artificial stimuli and a litany of "limitations." We still suffer from the ravages of physics envy and the LISREL complex. We still have trouble with the difference between rigor and rigor mortis.

Whatever happened to multiple perspectives and multidisciplinarity? Where are the reports from the American Institute for Architects, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Commerce, the Food and Drug Administration, Du Pont, General Electric, Procter & Gamble, the television networks, airlines, advertising agencies? Where is Mary Gardner Jones now that we need her to tell us that real-world decision makers pine for precise knowledge of actuality and valid means for measuring programs or actions?

Whatever happened to independence? Where are the constructs and methods that other disciplines line up to borrow?


A first move toward becoming different from, more realistic than and more effective than our predecessors would be to get outsiders back into this now insular association. They would bring models and methods, insight and encouragement, interesting ideas and novel ways of looking at familiar situations. They would recount important first-hand experiences. They would offer collaboration and co-authorship, and previously inaccessible real-world data. They would make our conferences more auspicious for the academicians who are present.

Of course they would tell us we're too academic. That's a given. Of course they would scoff at theories based on college students. Of course they would deny that p<.05 is the answer to a research question. They would puncture academic myths, demand external credibility, and push us hard toward useful outcomes.

They would not be 100 percent right. But they would not be 100 percent wrong either. Like consultants who help firms reconstitute, they would force us to revise our self-deceptions.

Scott Armstrong says we can't predict anything. I say we can. I say if we readmit outsiders we will have reason and occasion to unravel the complexities of real transactions. If we fish for real fish with real bait and real hooks we will catch precise knowledge of actuality and valid means for measuring programs or actions.

If we do that we will be different from, more realistic than and more effective than our predecessors. We will have grown up. We will have become a distinct and honored discipline that is not a mere subsystem of any of the other older social sciences.

That was a motivating promise yesterday. It's a viable option today. It could revalidate our enterprise tomorrow.


I almost forgot the certificates. After thinking about this for a while, I finally decided that "old fart" isn't so insensitive after all. In addition to being P. C.Cphysiologically correctCit captures an irreverence that is one of our most valuable traditions.

In preparing these awards, I considered the professorial dignity of the recipients. Instead of calling them just plain old farts, I followed the academic custom of illuminating the honor with archaic script and really bad spelling. So, on the occasion of ACR's twenty-fifth birthday, here are Olde Farte diplomas, honoris causaCfor Hal Kassarjian, Joel Cohen and Jerry KernanCwith all the rights, privileges and immunities thereunto appertaining.

That still leaves the problem of President Tybout and Co-chairs Kardes and Sujan. I must confess I've not solved that dilemma. Perhaps someone else will solve it. Or perhaps time will solve it, and Alice, Frank and Mita can become Olde Fartes on the fiftieth.


Armstrong, J. Scott (1991), "Prediction of Consumer Behavior by Experts and Novices," Journal of Consumer Research, 18 (September), 251-256.

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Cohen, Joel B. and Kunal Basu (1987). "Alternative Models of Categorization: Toward a Contingent Processing Framework," Journal of Consumer Research 13 (March) 455-472.

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Wells, William D. (1993), "Discovery-oriented Consumer Research," Journal of Consumer Research, 19 (March), 489-504.