Presidential Address


David M. Gardner (1977) ,"Presidential Address", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 04, eds. William D. Perreault, Jr., Atlanta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 1-3.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, 1977   Pages 1-3


David M. Gardner, University of Illinois

The tradition of the presidential address is not yet firmly established which gives the president of ACR great freedom. Unlike some organizations in which the presidential address is a major summary of an important area of inquiry or a major policy statement, my address will deal primarily with the broad field of consumer behavior and how an organization like ACR fits into that field.

For the purposes of perspective, I think it is necessary for us to review how the field of consumer behavior has developed to the present time. The roots of this field reach into several disciplines: economics, home economics, and the behavioral sciences. For uniquely different reasons, each of these disciplines has over the years developed an interest in the consumer. Not only have the reasons for study been different, but the research approaches have been markedly different. I don't need to belabor this point, but I think we need to keep reminding ourselves that the study of consumer behavior is. not confined to business schools who look at the psychology of consumer behavior, nor is it confined to economists, the Bureau of the Census or to Proctor and Gamble.

Economics and more recently Managerial Economics is generally recognized as the discipline that had the earliest interest in the consumer. The economist has long been interested in the household, i.e. the consumer. For the macroeconomist - the questions deal with how consumer behavior depends on income. The use of powerful econometric methods have allowed the economist to explore what variables, in the aggregate, influence consumption expenditures in addition to income.

And of course, micro-economics has contributed in the form of marginal utility, risk and uncertainly. The various approaches of micro-economics have provided lively exchange but also much information on how consumers behave in given circumstances. It has been the desire of many to move away from the how consumers behave question, especially in the aggregate, to questions of why the consumer behaves. Economics can provide part of that information as variables that co-vary or seem to be acting as independent variables are discovered and tested. It was out of that desire to not only know what variables seemed to exist in a cause-effect relationship but to understand why these variables were related that led initially to early research efforts. The earliest efforts ended up in disaster and still plague us today. The most publicized early efforts went under the rubric of motivational research. Why was motivational research such a disaster? Because its premises were too simple and tended to treat the consumer as something to be manipulated.

But, in my estimation, that disaster left in its wake the seeds for the birth of a field of inquiry into human behavior that has been labeled consumer behavior. Without the great confusion and discouragement that surrounded motivational research and its overblown promises, there would have been considerably less "motivation'' to try to understand how and why consumers behave with regard to market place activities.

The emergence of this field was due to several factors, but primarily due to the work of several early pioneers and the developments in the areas of quantitative methods and the behavioral sciences. We typically think of pioneers as some hardy types who have passed on after having led a meager existence in some remote town. But that is hardly the case with the pioneers of this field. In fact, of the pioneers I have chosen to single out today, they are all living and only two have retired. That clearly suggests that the field of consumer behavior is a young field and because of that youth, is still developing and some ways from reaching maturity.

You are all aware of these pioneers, but you may not have thought of them in this light. Keep in mind, that in every case, the early work in this infant field was carried out by people who were trained with one exception as economists.

The first pioneer was our keynote speaker at the Maryland conference in 1971. He of course is George Katona. His contributions are legend through such books as: Psychological Analysis of Economic Behavior, 1951, The Powerful Consumer, 1960 and the Mass Consumption Society, 1964. And of course, the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan stands as a monument to his efforts to bridge nose counting with understanding.

The next two pioneers received funding from the Ford Foundation in the early sixties to retool and rethink. As an outgrowth of that experience, John Howard produced two books.

And of course, Howard went on to later incorporate this early thinking into the Theory of Buyer Behavior with Jagdish Sheth in 1969. The other pioneer receiving support from the Ford Foundation is a person not well known to many of you, but who has had an impact on my life. Bob Holloway was one of the first professors to formally train people in the area of Consumer Behavior in a program at the University of Minnesota that lasted from about 1962 until about 1969 or 70. Out of that program came Cardozo, Middlestadt, Venkatesan, Taylor, Belk, Faircy, myself and a number of others. In the same category we must put Levy and Britt at Northwestern.

By putting together the first significant collection of readings in this emerging field, Perry Bliss gave structure that has shaped our thinking to this day.

The last pioneer I want to mention turned our attention to the decision process approach to studying consumer behavior. Francesco Nicosia tried to introduce the modeling procedures employed in other disciplines into the study of consumer behavior in his 1966 book.

There have been countless others. Some may want to include Engel as the father of ACR. Others may want to list Kassarjian and Robertson and Ferber as the first editor of JMR.

These pioneers largely started by borrowing from other disciplines. Some of the things they have borrowed have stood the test of time, others have led us on some wild goose chases. But it soon became evident that if we were truly to learn how and why consumers behave, some serious investigation needed to be on consumer behavior, not on what a communication researcher had learned about presenting your strongest arguments first or last during WWII. But, fortunately, as their explorations started, two things were happening. The first was the advancement in mathematical techniques and then later statistical techniques. While the technique of Multidimensional scaling was initially conceived outside the consumer behavior area, it was largely developed by people working with the consumer as their primary focus. And at the same time, advancements were taking place in the behavioral sciences. The field of social psychology was only a few years ahead of the development of consumer behavior with its emphasis on individuals within groups. It is hard to believe, but in the middle sixties, many schools did not recognize social psychology as a legitimate area within psychology. Out of this emphasis came such constructs as cognitive dissonance (I hope I never see another cognitive dissonance study), the multi-attribute attitude theories and now information processing approaches.

The developments in consumer behavior as a legitimate field of investigation have not been confined to marketing. Purdue University has its consumer psychology area, Consumer behavior in home economics has moved largely away from shopping behavior and preferences to understanding of why consumers prefer one fashion or style to another and a much needed investigation of family decision making processes.

Let me just detour for a moment. At present, more consumer research goes on within the discipline of marketing than any other discipline. There are, of course, some very good reasons for that. The biggest being that of the consumer orientation within the umbrella of marketing management. But what needs to be kept in clear focus is that the consumer is studied by other disciplines and that there is much to learn from each other. Admittedly, the motivation of other disciplines in their study of consumer behavior may be different. For instance, a psychologist, may study consumers because they are either convenient at the time to test a particular theory or at the moment he is interested in consumers and their behavior but next year it will be group behavior within lose knit organizations. Likewise with sociology. But there are at least three disciplines where there is a full blown research thrust called consumer behavior (consumption behavior): marketing, economics and home economics.

My biggest disappointment since being associated with ACR is the failure of many both inside and outside to recognize that we have much in common and can learn from each other and hence all be better off.

A mark of maturity of any field of inquiry is the existence of a professional organization and a journal. In some ways, this field can be said to be mature with the existence of ACR and JCR being the testimony. But I think it can be argued that, even with the existence of ACR and JCR, we are not a mature field of inquiry. Maturity will probably be signaled when we have several "middle-range" theories that have stood the test of time. While we have come a long way from the "borrowing'' of the 60's, we are only now moving away from isolated empirical findings.

Now, let me turn to prophecy. I would like to address five questions concerning the future of the field of Consumer Behavior, and in the process ACR.

The first area concerns the question of whether or not there will ever be a unified field of consumer behavior, i.e., will the home economists go their way, the managerial economists theirs, the psychologist's theirs, the marketer's theirs? Or will we come to have a unified field of consumer behavior? The answer depends on your perspective. If you believe that the consumer is studied as he interacts with the marketplace, whether it be for the purchase of products or services or the theatre, blood, hospitals, swine flu vaccine, then you will be optimistic and suggest that eventually that their will be unity. Unity in the sense that we will have a common understanding of the macro and micro aspects of consumer behavior. Unity in the sense that we will turn to common approaches, common data banks and be interested in what other areas are doing because it has direct bearing on what I'm doing. If, however, you believe the consumer is studied in some way separate from the marketplace (maybe just for the sake of studying the consumer) then I think unity is far away.

The second is not so much a question as pure prophecy. I believe the seeds have already been sown for the eventual merger of the fields of social psychology with those who study organizations and those who study the consumer from a marketing orientation. At the University of Illinois these three groups have already formed an Applied Behavioral Interest Group. They list our faculty and our courses along with theirs and vice-versa. The reasons are numerous, but they primarily stem from the recognition that we study almost the same body of basic literature, the research tools are almost identical and that the consumer and the organization represent the most realistic way to move away from the college freshman and sophomore to enrich the understanding of human behavior. Furthermore, I believe that we are now at the point where the knowledge we now have of the consumer can lead directly to applications. These groups will come together to start solving real problems. And the reasons the marriage will work is because marketing and organization behavior types have a knowledge of institutions and the dynamics of the marketplace that will blend nicely with the strong research orientation of the psychologist.

Third, what will be the role of business and government research on the consumer? There is little to suggest that business firms will do anything different that at present. Sponsor research to answer very specific strategy questions. I'm not sure I disagree with that position. However, as the field of consumer behavior grows and matures, I anticipate more sharing of techniques if not data. As more and more people who understand the contributions of research and as it becomes necessary to use research to prove various kinds of legal suits, the government will use more research, but not be a leader in development. The notable exception is NSF. I expect a slow, gradual increase in its interests in the field of consumer behavior, especially as we recognize not only the importance of the consumer to society, but as consumer behavior is increasingly applied to things beyond soap and toothpaste.

Fourth, I predict that the field is reaching the point where specialties within consumer behavior will emerge. We already see evidence of this. I'm not sure what these specialties will be, but they may evolve out of some of the present models and if so may deal with social and cultural influences, information processing, etc., but also I believe that application specialists will emerge. We will start to see specialists who work with consumer behavior for instance in retailing, in the family, etc. But with some exceptions, I believe no matter what the area of specialty, they will all be more pragmatic that theoretical.

Finally, what does this mean for ACR? I believe that ACR was conceived on sound premises - the dissemination of information about research on consumer behavior. I see a prominent future for ACR provided several things are kept in clear focus. First, there are other organizations which offer an outlet for research on consumer behavior. Let's face it, most of us are somewhat provincial and practical and if we are a home economist with only average or less stature, we will be happier presenting our research at a home economics conference because we get more brownie points with the Dean. Therefore, ACR will continue to have trouble attracting members and participants from disciplines other than psychology and marketing until it becomes the pre-eminent organization. The way it can become pre-eminent is to provide researchers the environment in which creative and original research can be presented. As we have grown, we seem to have lost some of that. Second, ACR should become the leader in sponsoring workshops and symposia that demand the attention of those in other disciplines. ACR should define what consumer behavior is and what research on consumer behavior is and is not. This is an educational task that must be performed. We can not assume that because we know what consumer behavior research is that government officials, lawyers, businessmen and others do.

Let's start focusing on high quality and put less emphasis on getting members from other disciplines. If we have the quality, variety and depth that represents the field, then they will be attracted. But to attract them and not be able to deliver because we expect them to bring "something" with them is impractical if not short-sighted.

But this puts a tremendous burden on academic-marketing types who are increasingly becoming "inbreed" more and more. Those who study consumer behavior from a marketing perspective are being trained largely within the fortified walls of business schools. Little emphasis is put on training in basic areas outside the business school. The burden is to force ourselves to find-identify, etc. not only the needs, but the issues that need to be explained by those in other disciplines. Then we need to encourage ACR to fill those needs.

Above all, we need to be bold enough to recognize that ACR can not be all things to all people but also recognize and plan to avoid being another professional group that does things exactly in the same way as every other professional group.

I think we can be bold, but open systems have to work to avoid negative entropy. What this means for the members is your active involvement and creative suggestions coupled with a willingness to carry out your suggestions. No more brick-bats, unless coupled with your willingness to work to solve the problem.

I see a very, very bright future for ACR if we concentrate on what we're all about - dissemination of research findings on consumer behavior. We have the unique opportunity to shape the growth of a yet young field of inquiry. I'm confident we can do it, and have fun at the same time.



David M. Gardner, University of Illinois


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 04 | 1977

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