Presidential Address: Consumer Research and the Public Purpose

Jerome B. Kernan, University of Cincinnati
[ to cite ]:
Jerome B. Kernan (1979) ,"Presidential Address: Consumer Research and the Public Purpose", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 06, eds. William L. Wilkie, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 1-2.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 1979      Pages 1-2


Jerome B. Kernan, University of Cincinnati

In an effort to march to the cadence established by my immediate predecessor, I shall foist no pedantic harangue on you. Rather, permit me a few comments--opinionated, to be sure--on what we as consumer researchers do and to compare that with what we might do to better serve the public purpose.

First, what is the public purpose? While we might disagree on emphasis, I suspect most of us could accept consumers as the focal point of this question and the maintenance of their "rights" as reasonable criteria for consumer research's contribution. In other words, whatever is the ultimate public purpose, some part of it having to do with consumers is measured by the extent to which their legitimate expectations are satisfied by the research establishment. Such "rights" were enunciated by JFK in a 1962 message to Congress as the rights to safety, to be informed, to choose, and to be heard. It requires no ideological commitment to allow that these are not putative rights. Indeed, all members of this organization--whether we work for corporations, government agencies or universities--have a stake in the consumer's welfare. Our jobs depend on it.


Allow me now to hop, skip and jump over the mentalities that seem to pervade our respective efforts. If we work for a corporation (unless we're in an extremely exceptional ambience) our research is problem solving--how to make things work better. If we work for a government agency our research tends toward how to support a policymaker's position. And if we work for a university our efforts are often-as-not guided by the preferences of editorial boards. Let me rush to assert that there is nothing whatever wrong with any of this. Corporations need their problems solved; policymakers need research support and academic journals do a generally excellent job of culling the uninspired effort. What bothers me is that with no appreciably greater effort we could reap considerably greater benefits. But it requires a bit of collusion.

Before I am accused of advocating felonious behavior, let me elaborate. Corporate researchers seek to predict behavior; government researchers want to prescribe it; and university researchers try to explain it. These may be turgid delineations, but they're not untrue. In any event, it would seem that everyone should wish to understand consumer behavior. And to do that (unless one simply repudiates the scientific method) it is essential that we first describe what consumers do. On that foundation, it is possible to lay an integral framework of explanation, prediction and prescription or, to put it another way, to orchestrate the natural talents of academia, government and industry so as to enhance consumer welfare.


We're awfully parochial. The cultures indigenous to the academic, corporate, and government researcher not only prescribe what each should do but also enforce these prescriptions with reward/punishment systems. Thus, the academic pursues promotion and tenure with theoretic contributions, the corporate researcher chases a vice presidency and its perquisites on a profit rocket, and those in government seek to transcend elected administrations with ineluctable research capabilities. We're comfortably settled into our respective systems; the inculcation is insidious.

But we can prosper in our respective cultures and cooperate. We need yield no integrity in order to systematize our efforts. Indeed, the only thing that we need change is our attitude, our approach to research. And the result, simply by putting the existing pieces together in a more efficacious way, can be a greater payoff to all concerned--including consumers. It's a deal "you can't refuse."


What I propose is nothing novel; to my knowledge is was advocated at least some twenty years ago by Coombs, Raiffa and Thrall (1954). For many reasons, however, it is rarely practiced--especially by academic researchers. If you doubt that, read a sample of journal articles; you'll be convinced.

Assuming that we've all seen the light as a result of Jacoby's (1976) comments, a typical piece of academic research starts with a theory (remember that commandment from graduate school?)--and that's where the source of the trouble resides. Never mind whether it's a high assay theory, so long as the researcher is intrigued by it. This theory, under the best of circumstances, is then "tested" in an experimental setting so antiseptically sterile that internal validity can be scooped up off the floor. Some ANOVA model is then rolled in and--surprise--statistically significant results are found. If you do an especially good job you get three-asterisk results (p =.001), which seems not terribly unlike the stars grammar-school teachers paste on their pupils' papers for work well done.

These highly significant results (main effects, interactions, whatever) are then "explained" in a highly-tortured "discussion" section of a journal article which, in the typical case, reduces to a thinly-veiled attempt by the author to co-opt the reader into the fantasy that prompted the research in the first place. That such research has no pragmatic value is not cause for scorn; it's either exploratory ("thanks for letting me ignore all those assumptions") or theoretical ("let's pretend") .

Let me reiterate my earlier comment. Academic research is not bad. But it can be made so much better if approached in a more systemic fashion. And rather than attempt a didactic epistle on the nature of 'better," let me offer you an example. Cialdini et al (1978) have approached research in this fashion (they call it "full-cycle" research) and thereby demonstrated how viable systemic research can be.

They begin with the everyday practice of low-bailing--for example, where a car salesperson offers a prospective buyer an engagingly low price in order to induce a commitment to purchase and then removes that incentive ("Sorry, but the sales manager won't approve this price"; etc). Now that's a practice to which we can all relate. It's a business tactic (you decide the valence), a source of consumer frustration (hello, government), and an interesting manifestation of psychological compliance (why do consumers fall for this ploy?).

Space prohibits a definitive account of the Cialdini research, but the highlights are that they demonstrated that low-bailing: (1) in fact works (it isn't a delusion of car dealers); (2) is conceptually different from the foot-in-the-door technique (which escalates the target task, rather than its cost); and (3) is effective only when prospects perceive a high degree of volition in their initial decision ambience. Three potential explanations were refuted experimentally--behavioral engulfing theory (Heider, 1958), dissonance theory (Brehm, 1956), and self-perception theory (Bem, 1972)--with only a commitment formulation (Kiesler, 1971) satisfactorily accounting for the pattern of experimental results. In simple terms, what this means is that a person who makes a free choice feels a responsibility to perform whatever action is attendant to that choice, even when the cost of that action increases beyond initial expectations.

Unpublished data support these findings. But more importantly, consider what this research represents. Never mind low-bailing, per se; it is simply one of many compliance-inducing techniques experienced by consumers in day-to-day situations. The systemic, the "full-cycle" notion to be emphasized here is that the research begins with--is inspired by--an ordinary, everyday phenomenon. A theory to account for that phenomenon is then invoked and, appropriately, inspires the experimental design. The results thus lose no internal validity, but gain at least a foothold on external, or "ecological" validity. People begin to care about statistical significance because it applies to relationships that are neither trivial nor sterile.

So academic research (as demonstrated by academic research) can serve a purpose other than "look how smart I am." But university researchers need help.


Corporate and government researchers frequently ask academics whether there is a "theory" to account for "this or that." A wholly legitimate inquiry--indeed, one that is needed in abundance! An alarming number of academics seem either ignorant of or oblivious to the nature of "this or that," however. If they are to complement their corporate and governmental counterparts' efforts, then, if they are to do "relevant" research, they need more insights into the texture of "this or that." Tell the academic, for example, when his/her experimental design is so tight that it's trivial. We're past the stage where we can afford demonstration exercises. We should be helping, not ignoring one another.

One of the principal reasons for ACR's existence is to prevent our different research cultures from hardening into a cold tyranny. We've been moderately successful. I'm no Pollyanna in the sense that I believe that we're all likely to come together tomorrow. Too much argues against that. But isn't it curious how the superior people seem to manage in spite of the obstacles? Marketing folk--principally through MSI--appear to have set up both a structure and incentive to move in this direction (Greyser, 1978). Can we afford to do less?


D. J. Bem, "Self Perception Theory," in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 6, Leonard Berkowitz, ed. (New York: Academic Press, Inc., 1972), 1-62.

Jack Brehm, "Postdecision Changes in the Desirability of Alternatives," Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 52 (May 1956), 384-389.

Robert B. Cialdini, John T. Cacioppo, Rodney Bassett and John A. Miller, "Low-Ball Procedure for Producing Compliance: Commitment then Cost," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36 (May 1978), 463-476.

Clyde H. Coombs, Howard Raiffa and Robert M. Thrall, "Some Views on Mathematical Models and Measurement Theory," in Decision Processes, Robert M. Thrall, Clyde H. Coombs and Robert L. Davis, eds. (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1954), 19-37.

Stephen A. Greyser, "Academic Research Marketing Managers Can Use," Journal of Advertising Research, 18 (April 1978), 9-14.

Jacob Jacoby, "Presidential Address: Consumer Research, Telling It Like It Is," in Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 3, Beverlee B. Anderson, ed. (Cincinnati: Association for Consumer Research, 1976), 1-11.

Charles A. Kiesler, The Psychology of Commitment. (New York: Academic Press, Inc., 1971).