Presidential Address: Meaning and Mattering Through Transformative Consumer Research
David Glen Mick (2006) ,"Presidential Address: Meaning and Mattering Through Transformative Consumer Research", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 33, eds. Connie Pechmann and Linda Price, Duluth, MN : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 1-4.
The Association for Consumer Research was born in 1969 and
is now approaching middle age. As with most of us personally, this stage of life often provokes introspection about our past and
present, our values, and the extent to which our remaining words
and actions can make any worthwhile difference in the world.
Today I am asking you to pause with me and consider the meaning
and mattering of ACR.1
But before proceeding, we know as earnest scholars that it is
imperative to define our central constructs. In the view of some
notorious researchers, middle age is defined as when you no longer
care about where you are particularly going, so long as you are back
home by nine p.m.
Back to the meaning and mattering at hand, our founders
undoubtedly had differing opinions about ACR's objectives and
operations. Two of their statements, however, I will draw attention
to. Bill Wells (1995, p. 562) has written that the "great hope" for
ACR was that "Unlike the older other professional disciplines,
consumer research would solve real problems." [emphasis added]
Jerry Kernan (1979, p. 1) proclaimed that the association's
penultimate goal was to "orchestrate the natural talents of academia,
government, and industry so as to enhance consumer welfare."
[emphasis added] Accordingly, the earliest ACR conferences often
involved not only academics, but also administrators from consumer-
oversight organizations, such as the Consumers Union and
the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Ideals and expectations
were high, that ACR could and should solve legitimate problems
and augment consumer welfare.
How do you feel about that vision? If you agree with it—even
if only moderately—how would you grade ACR's related performance
over the last 36 years? Where are we today?
One thing we all know for sure: in the arc of time, consumer
behavior and the ideology of consumption have diffused across the
world to every corner, to virtually every individual, to such an
astonishing scale, that living and consuming are more complexly
interdependent than at any other time in human history. Both the
serious problems and the genuine opportunities of consumption, for
billions of people and other living entities, have never needed ACR
and our collective talents more than now.
There are many riddles, many stresses, and much suffering in
our world. And so many of these conditions are instigated or
aggravated by consumer behaviors, or could be alleviated by new
and different consumer behaviors. The statistics are numbing, but
let's consider a few to assist us in our middle age, self-analysis of
In terms of one particular disease, 19 million people worldwide
have died of AIDS, and about 35 million are currently
infected. In terms of one particular handicap, internationally over
160 million people are visually impaired, of whom about 37 million
are blind. What has our organization done about diseases and
handicaps that consumer research could tend to?
On a seemingly more mundane topic—television—the average
child in America will have watched 100,000 acts of televised
violence, including 8,000 murders, by the time he or she finishes the
sixth grade. By the age of 65, the average American will have spent
nine years watching television. Television is now the most globalized
form of entertainment, and yet how little we understand about
the effects of TV. But it doesn't need to be this way.
And then there is food. Between 1962 and 2000, the percent of
obese Americans rose from 13% to 31%, with childhood obesity
tripling in the past two decades. The cost of overweight conditions
in the U.S., through effects on health, has been estimated at $117
billion annually. In the meantime, ACR has been mostly speechless
about this tragedy of indulgence.
And, of course, there is tobacco. Diseases from smoking cause
an estimated 430,000 deaths per year in the U.S. alone. And, as you
all know, the incidence of smoking in developing economies has
skyrocketed. Tobacco consumption has been a focus of some
consumer researchers over the years, but we need more, following
in the footsteps of Pechmann and Knight's (2002) award-winning
JCR article on advertising, peer influences, and adolescent smoking.
And there are thousands of consumers harmed each year
through product use and misuse. For example, in 2003 U. S.
children were involved in over 200,000 toy-related injuries treated
in hospital emergency rooms. Some of us study children, but rarely
about their susceptibility to product injuries, and the related role and
responsibility of their caregivers.
And lastly, but perhaps most alarming, there are the widespread
environmental concerns. We know almost certainly that this
planet cannot reasonably sustain the world population forecasted
for mid to late 21st Century if current consumption activities keep
mounting. Looking just at the U.S., the Environmental Protection
Agency has recently estimated that 40% of U.S. waterways remain
too polluted for fishing or swimming. Sadly, in several parts of the
world, where consumption levels are rapidly rising, airway pollution
and waterway pollution are already worse than in the U.S. But
it doesn't need to be this way. These trends, epidemics, and
pandemics—and so many more I have overlooked here—are not
solely for politicians, engineers, and health specialists to address, to
ease, or to remedy. Where is ACR?
It is important to be balanced, however. There is much contentment
and joy, and many marvels and triumphs in our world.
Consumer behaviors particularly have the capacity to support and
enhance life. These include reading, exercise, many outdoor activities,
hobbies of numerous kinds, festivals and celebrations, and an
array of artistic endeavors such as music, painting, and sculpting.
There are also caring for and maintaining possessions, gift giving,
sharing, donating, and recycling. These and many other consumer
behaviors, when conducted in sensible amounts, with conscientiousness
or flow, can undeniably contribute to well-being, including
physical health, authentic personal efficacy and human potential,
social justice and social integration, community networks,
family coherence and legacies, child nurturance and growth, ecological
stability, and so on. On the whole, there are many affirmative
consumer behaviors and related dimensions of life that consumer
researchers could not only derive deeper understanding of,
but also share the insights with the people who would most benefit
So, am I intimating that our modestly-sized, non-profit association
of loosely organized members, who serve mostly as volunteers,
can positively impact millions of consumers? Absolutely. Of
course, it won't be easy. As E. B. White once confessed, "I get up
every morning determined both to change the world and to have one
hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning the day
difficult." This is the sort of difficulty that is good. It is good for the
world, good for ACR, good for us and our children.
I feel sheepish, though, standing before you today. My own
research has been as inconsequential to consumers' well-being as
anyone else's in this field. Yet, when I received the honor of being
elected president of ACR, I felt it was time for me and for ACR to
revisit the meaning and mattering of our lives' work. As I thought
more about the unrealized potential of ACR in the contexts of
consumer suffering as well as consumer enrichment, I thought more
about our association's great hope. And as I did, an exhortation
from Eleanor Roosevelt kept haunting me. She said quite simply,
"Do the thing you think you cannot do."
This means, of course, that we must do more than just think or
converse about consumer welfare. As one Chinese proverb states
matter-of-factly: "Talk doesn't cook rice." We need to take some
actions. And another Chinese proverb reminds us, "A journey of a
thousand miles begins with the first step."
A first step was actually taken a year ago when Debbie
MacInnis and several others worked diligently to redesign the ACR
website into a more contemporary, sophisticated, and multi-functional
resource. This included planning a subsection titled "For
Consumers." Today it includes consumer-friendly summaries of
relevant research as well as numerous links to other organizations
and publications that can aid consumers. We need more ACR
members to assist the website editors in developing this subsection.
Please contact the chief editor, Vanessa Patrick, or me if you wish
Taking a second vital step, I asked four respected members of
ACR—Connie Pechmann, Linda Price, Rick Netemeyer, and Lisa
Penaloza—to organize this conference around a theme of consumer
welfare. An immediate stumbling block was figuring out what to
label this theme. So we generated and reviewed over 50 possibilities.
For example, we considered calling it Positive Consumer
Research. But that seemed too derivative from the movement of
positive psychology (Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi 2000). Besides,
positive contrasts with negative, and it wasn't negative
consumer research we were up against, but rather that which was
ineffectual for social and personal well being. We felt we needed
something fresh and stirring.
Ultimately, we all agreed on Transformative Consumer Research.
By transformative research we mean investigations that are
framed by a fundamental problem or opportunity, and that strive to
respect, uphold, and improve life in relation to the myriad conditions,
demands, potentialities, and effects of consumption. Though
transformative consumer research has an immediate practical orientation,
it does not forsake scrupulous methodology or perceptive
theory. In fact, it is mostly—if not only—through meticulous
description and compelling explanation that the findings can lead to
constructive, actionable implications. The word 'transformative"
also carries the additional meaning of an inspired summon to
researchers themselves, who might be newly considering this genre
of work or who would like to recharge their long-time faith in
applied consumer research via ACR.
The organizers of our conference and I have been gratified by
the response of ACR members who submitted papers and session
proposals around the theme of transformative consumer research.
Hopefully, future ACR conferences, including those in Europe, the
Asia-Pacific area, and Latin America can build upon these initial
efforts. I respectfully urge the program committees and the organizers
of these conferences to not only include transformative consumer
research as a content code in the submission page of research
topics, but also to extend and mature this endeavor in their own
ways through the conference plans they make.
Before announcing further steps, I want to stress and clarify
two essential issues. First, we have by no means intended for
transformative consumer research to become some overarching or
predominant orientation for ACR. Our association is characterized
by broadminded and mutually respectful members. ACR will
continue to welcome all researchers who have keen interests in
consumer behavior, regardless of their topic or research paradigm.
Secondly, transformative consumer research is not something
new, nor has it been dormant. More than one past presidential
address at ACR has pointed in this direction. Also, occasional
articles in the Journal of Consumer Research have looked at
transformative consumer research topics. The Journal of Public
Policy and Marketing, the Journal of Research for Consumers, the
Journal of Macro Marketing, and the Journal of Consumer Affairs
have also published many related papers, and some special issues
are now forthcoming at those journals that fit under the rubric of
transformative consumer research as I have outlined it today.
This brings me to my precise point. I am not insinuating that
few ACR members care about or have published research that deals
with consumer welfare. That would be patently false, though as my
remarks intend to advocate today, we categorically could do much,
much more. Ten years ago at this conference, the honorable Bill
Wells alleged that our field was rife with irrelevance. I agreed then,
and I still mostly do. But over the last decade during which I have
pondered Bill's indictment, I have come to believe that our irrelevance
is ironically most situated in the association itself. ACR has
made little systematic effort to draw together the resources and
skills of members who wish to work on consumer welfare, little
systematic effort to encourage and reward more of this sort of
research, and little systematic effort to inform either the public,
consumer advisors, or policy administrators who would most gain
from learning of the research and its implications.
It is critical, therefore, that additional concrete steps be taken.
Otherwise, transformative consumer research via ACR will risk
being never more than just kindly thoughts and ambiguous aspirations.
With the devoted input of several of you in the audience
today, I have worked during this last year to move transformative
consumer research beyond our three-day gathering in San Antonio.
As you have probably noted, there was included in your
conference registration packet a short report on an ad hoc Task
Force. With the support of ACR's Board of Directors, I recruited
through email 46 individuals who have strong interests in consumer
welfare, to brainstorm ideas on a small set of key issues that will be
crucial to the viability and success of transformative consumer
I will not take much time or space here to convey the task force
results, since you have already received the summary report. In
brief, the task force members identified some of the most pressing
research topics, including
• vulnerable consumer groups (such as the poor, children and
adolescents, and the illiterate),
• tobacco, alcohol, and drug consumption,
• nutrition and obesity,
• violence in movies and computer games,
• financial and medical decision making,
• environmentally protective behaviors, and
• organ donations.
Among the most mentioned barriers were motivating and
valuing transformative consumer research. Other challenges were
the need for explicit funding and for increased publication opportunities,
especially in the leading outlets. Advice for addressing
these crucial issues included:
• enlisting ACR opinion leaders to be decidedly involved,
• obtaining earmarked research funds for ACR members,
• working with journal editors to find new or increased means
to publishing related research,
• arranging for ACR to provide outgoing communications
that are widely accessible and understandable, both to the
public and policy administrators, and, finally,
• developing doctoral seminars that can encourage and train
new scholars in conducting, publishing, and publicizing
transformative consumer research.
Taking these insights as a springboard, immediately following
my remarks today there will be a special session on the task force
report that will feature a select panel of the task force members. A
sizeable period of this session will be open discussion between the
panel and audience members, as moderated by our conference cochairs,
Connie and Linda. I invite all of the task force members to
attend, and I hope that several others of you, who have curiosity or
interests in the promise of transformative consumer research, will
participate vigorously as well.
I am additionally pleased to announce that the ACR Board of
Directors has endorsed a proposal I made to form an ongoing
Advisory Committee on Transformative Consumer Research. The
committee will report to the Board, and it will work side-by-side as
needed with the ACR president, executive director, website editors,
and others to invigorate and carry on transformative consumer
research. I have volunteered to chair this committee at the beginning,
and its membership will rotate on a regular basis. Its first duty
will be to review the task force report and underlying data, as well
as the feedback during the special session following this luncheon,
and to begin to prioritize and implement the best recommendations.
I am delighted to name the charter members of this advisory
committee. They are:
Steve Burgess, University of Cape Town, South Africa
Marv Goldberg, Penn State University
Ron Hill, University of South Florida at St. Petersburg
Eric Johnson, Columbia University
Punam Keller, Dartmouth College
Connie Pechmann, University of California, Irvine
Simone Pettigrew, University of Western Australia
Joe Plummer, Chief Research Officer, Advertising Research
Linda Price, University of Arizona
Brian Wansink, Cornell University
Rick Wilk, Indiana University
I am also very excited to reveal a new source of ACR research
support. To my knowledge, it is the single largest monetary donation
to our association in our history, for any purpose. With the
assistance of Linda Price, ACR has received a $30,000 fund of seed
support from the Kellogg Foundation to provide for research
expenses associated with transformative consumer research. This
support has been made most directly possible by Ms. Cynthia
Milligan, who is the Dean of the University of Nebraska School of
Business and the President of the Board of the Kellogg Foundation.
We owe immense gratitude to Cynthia and the Kellogg Foundation
for this generous and uplifting support.
The distribution of the Kellogg Foundation funds over the next
two to three years will be managed by the ACR Advisory Committee
on Transformative Consumer Research. The first call for research
proposals will be made soon via the ACR website and the
ACR listserv. Proposals will be reviewed by the committee and the
recipients will be announced shortly thereafter. The committee will
also seek additional funds to replenish and build upon the initial
Kellogg Foundation monies.
Among the most emphasized concerns by the task force was
the need for research on consumer welfare to be more welcomed at
our top academic journals. To this end, I am pleased to acknowledge
that John Deighton, the new editor of the Journal of Consumer
Research, has offered to develop a special issue of JCR in the spirit
of transformative consumer research. This effort will fit soundly
with the philosophy John espoused in his first editorial (Deighton
2005), namely that consumer research should be "useful" by
"illuminating a real-world consumption phenomenon" and harboring
"implications for practice." The call for submissions has just
recently been posted on the JCR website, and will soon appear on
the ACR listserv and elsewhere. I thank John and the JCR Policy
Board for making a higher priority of pragmatic studies of consumer
welfare. What is also prospectively satisfying about this
special issue is that, over the last two years, JCR has had tremendous
success in getting the news media to notice and incorporate more of
its research into a variety of journalistic articles and stories on
consumer behavior. Thus, there is opportunely an increased likelihood
that the public at large will be exposed to the insights and
implications of this special issue.
I hope these opening steps for developing transformative
consumer research will usher in a renaissance of an original mission
of ACR, namely, to conduct and impart outstanding research in the
service of quality of life.
In closing, I want to go back to 1969. Not to ACR's genesis,
but to another event occurring independently, which surprisingly
paralleled the founding dreams for ACR and the re-envisionment I
have called for today. That event in 1969 was the presidential
speech given before the American Psychological Association by
the renowned psycholinguist, George Miller. Here are some of his
sentences stitched together from across his address. As you hear the
word "psychologist," think "consumer researcher." Miller (1969,
p. 1063, p. 1074) said:
The most urgent problems of our world today are the problems
we have made for ourselves….Our obligations as citizens are
broader than our obligations as scientists….If we have something
of practical value to contribute, we should make every
effort to insure that it is implemented….I recognize that many
of you will note these ambitions as little more than empty
rhetoric. Psychologists will never be up to it, you will say….On
the other hand, difficulty is no excuse for surrender. There is
a sense in which the unattainable is the best goal to pursue. So
let us continue our struggle to advance psychology as a means
of promoting human welfare, each in our own way. For
myself, however, I can imagine nothing we could do that
would be more relevant to human welfare, and nothing that
could pose a greater challenge to the next generation of
psychologists, than to discover how best to give psychology
Several of our founders intended ACR to be a principal
channel for giving consumer research away. Inviting, as I have
today, a middle age, self-analysis of ACR, how do you feel about
giving consumer research away? If you agree—even if only moderately—
how would you grade ACR's performance? Where are we
There will be plentiful doubts about transformative consumer
research, and more than enough impediments. But we should all
feel buoyed by someone who knows a lot about resilience and noble
goals. "Our deepest fear," Nelson Mandela said, "is not that we are
inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond
measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us."
How true of ACR as well! Let's not be deterred. Together we
can raise the meaning and mattering of our scholarship in this world.
ACR can still become the brighter beacon it was conceived to be.
Deighton, John (2005), "From the Editor-Elect," Journal of
Consumer Research, 32 (1).
Kernan, Jerome B. (1979), "Presidential Address: Consumer
Research and the Public Purpose," in Advances in Consumer
Research, Vol. 6, ed. William L. Wilkie, Ann Arbor, MI:
Association for Consumer Research, 1-2.
Miller, George A. (1969), "Psychology as a Means of Promoting
Human Welfare," American Psychologist, 24 (11), 1063-
Pechmann, Cornelia and Susan J. Knight (2002), "An Experimental
Investigation of the Joint Effects of Advertising and
Peers on Adolescents' Beliefs and Intentions about Cigarette
Consumption," Journal of Consumer Research, 29 (1), 5-19.
Seligman, Martin E. P. and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2000),
"Positive Psychology," American Psychologist, 55 (1), 5-14.
Wells, William D. (1995), "Anniversary Session: What Do We
Want to be When We Grow Up?" in Advances in Consumer
Research, eds. Frank R. Kardes and Mita Sujan, Provo, UT:
Association for Consumer Research, 561-563.
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David Glen Mick, University of Virginia
NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 33 | 2006
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