How We Spent Our Summer Vacation: a Preliminary Report on the 1986 Consumer Behavior Odyssey

ABSTRACT - The following comments briefly present how the 1986 Consumer Behavior Odyssey came to pass. The papers that follow represent the preliminary report of the odyssey participants to the consumer research community.


Harold H. Kassarjian (1987) ,"How We Spent Our Summer Vacation: a Preliminary Report on the 1986 Consumer Behavior Odyssey", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, eds. Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 376-377.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, 1987      Pages 376-377


Harold H. Kassarjian, UCLA


The following comments briefly present how the 1986 Consumer Behavior Odyssey came to pass. The papers that follow represent the preliminary report of the odyssey participants to the consumer research community.


By now one can assume that everyone knows about the infamous 1986 Consumer Behavior Odyssey. Yet few seem to know much of its inception. Hence, first let me back up and recall how it all began.

In January 1985, Russ Belk sent out nine copies of a letter to:

Beth Hirschman

Morris Holbrook

Sid Levy

Jerry Olson

Dennis Rook

John Sherry

Melanie Wallendorf

Bill Wells


Belk's idea was for a small group of consumer researchers to travel from coast to coast one summer in order to qualitatively document various buyer and consumer behaviors via video-taped interviews, unobtrusive still photos, field notes, audio tapes, and impressionistic journals.

The goal was to approach people shopping, buying, and consuming products and services in a largely unstructured way, without a priori hypotheses, to obtain archives of data for whatever teaching, research, or learning purposes we could devise. Belk felt that data collection sites might include high end department stores, discount stores, and garage sales. Also flea markets, county fairs, tourist attractions, restaurants, picnics, weddings, and even brothels, dance halls, the opera, rock concerts etc.

The reaction was enthusiastic and many who heard of it felt an excitement - the thrill of embarking on a new direction for the field. To many, consumer behavior had become boring, and to many this was a chance to head in a new direction.

To me it was something skin to the interest that was generated when ACR was first proposed, or publishing of Proceedings was suggested, or the publishing of a new Journal, JCR. For here would be something new, something different - atheoretic descriptive data that could be used to generate theories, test and prove theories, and be used to better understand what the phenomenon of consumer behavior was all about. The closest precedent in marketing was W.T. Tucker's Foundations for a Theory of Consumer Behavior (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1967). And Tucker, had failed in his implied goal. It was an idea before its time. Maybe now the time had come.

But, others had a different agenda. Some had become distressed by, "the tendency of academic researchers to migrate from real consumers to theoretical never-never land." Here was a way, those people felt, to bring bright researchers back to reality. And still others felt that this would be an opportunity to study topics that had not been touched by the field - flea markets, junk stores, repossessions, circuses, fairs, the de-acquisition process, etc.

Thus each seemed to have his own agenda, and with it came a very serious risk. For the methods of qualitative research - ethnography, humanism, relativism, and antipositivism tent to attract not only the most talented and most creative researchers, but also the very weakest -those individuals who can't distinguish between an R square and a Chi Square. Those who are unable to design a tight experiment, to sophisticated analyses, or conduct solid empirical research are also attracted to the new approach. There were ominous signs that this could happen; but, interestingly, it did not.- But that is another tale.

The first meeting of the planning group was to be held in conjunction with the Winter AMA meetings a few weeks later. In a restaurant, preliminary decisions were made over a communal dessert, the beginning of much communal activity. Among those there were Russ Belk, Melanie Wallendorf, Beth Hirschman, Jerry Olson, John Sherry, Valerie Folkes and the Kassarjians.

It was here decided that: the odyssey would occur during Summer of 1986; that we all needed to acquire skills in interviewing, videotaping, oral history writing, and all those other skills not taught in research courses; that professionals such as cinematographers and people with skills in documentary production would be necessary; and it was decided that the nest meeting would be at the ACR meetings in Las Vegas in October 1985.

In the coming months new faces began to appear: Tom O'Guinn - the needed photographer and cinematographer, Rick Pollay - the Archivist, Alan Andreasan, Jeff Durgee, Feiffer, Heisley, Johar, and Keith Hunt.

Funding for a pilot by the Marketing Science Institute had by now become a reality. In November 1985 the three day pilot was carried out in a place we call the Red Mesa Swap meet in New Mexico with Belk, Sherry and Wallendorf participating. With its success, and in quick succession, additional funding came from MSI; Needham Harper Worldwide; Foote, Cone i Belting; the Universities of Illinois, Utah, Arizona, California, and Northwestern among others. In all:

- in excess of $35,000,

- hundreds of rolls of film,

- hundreds and hundreds of reels of 3/4 inch videotape,

- dozens of audio tape cassettes,

- portable computers,

- tape recorders,

- cameras and videorecorders and portable batteries,

were to appear under the direction of Russ Belk and Melanie Wallendorf.

And a 27 foot recreational vehicle was rented for the summer. The first phase of researchers gathered in Dennis Rook's apartment in Los Angeles in June 1986. Miracle of miracles, it had started. The first interviews and the first set of data was to be gathered by Sherry, O'Guinn, Belk and Wallendorf with the assistance of Folkes and Buchanan. Shortly after, the RV left for Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Denver, Chicago and points east. and the Odyssey was on its way.

What is it that was accomplished? What is to be tone with mountains of descriptive data, hundreds of hours of video and audio tapes, and dozens of floppy computer disks - recording the feelings, opinions, values and attitudes of so many consumers; not to mention the feelings and reactions of more than a dozen researchers?

Ant what will come of the innumerable experiences, stories and tales without end? Tales of bright, talented researchers, crammed for days on end in a RV that was to be at once a study, a bedroom, a bath, a darkroom, and a kitchen.

Is this science, is this research, or is this amateur journalism? In many ways the controversy that has surrounded the project and its approach of naturalistic inquiry reminds me of a time in the history of consumer behavior that predates ACR. Marketing departments were run by the structuralists and functionalists who could not understand what we were all about.

Ant with all that was in them, they resisted the ideas and contributions of the emerging breed of behavioral and quantitative researchers. New and different ideas from mathematics, psychology, statistics, sociology, and computer science were encroaching on those souls. Those old timers fought valiantly to protect their turf; but eventually had to give way and make room for the rest of us - empirical researchers and logical positivists that we were.

To many Odyssey participants, but not all of them, naturalistic inquiry is believed to be richer and superior to the empiricism and logical positivism of today. And to the opponents of the Odyssey the whole affair is assumed to be an anti-scientific boondoggle of major proportions. Fortunately, in the field of consumer behavior there is room for those that get excited by conditioned dogs, for those that prefer the laboratory with its tight controls and one-way mirrors, for the researcher that insists the only way to collect data is in front of a computer screen; and surely for those that prefer to study consumer behavior from behind a videocamera, the roof of a recreational vehicle, or by holding a microphone of a tape recorder.

As our field moves on, the critical question is: Is the work science of the highest calibre and is it making a legitimate contribution to our knowledge of consumer behavior? The first of the answers will appear in proceedings, journals and monographs in the coming months and years. For a little peek under the covers, let us turn to the papers that follow.



Harold H. Kassarjian, UCLA


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14 | 1987

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