Reflections on ACR 2008 in San Francisco, II: Amazing Speech

I left off the last blog entry where John Deighton was coming to speak at the Doctoral Symposium at ACR this year in San Francisco, on Thursday October 23rd at the lunchtime Plenary Session. He had no PowerPoint’s and was reading the presentation off of his laptop, which was an experiment that he predicted would likely end in failure.

It was anything but a failure. What I gathered from John’s presentation truly clarified and captured what I was just beginning to detect in the zeitgeist of the American spirit, as I wrote about just a little while ago in this blog.

John’s presentation took a historical view. He took us back to the changes in business schools in the 1950s, after the Carnegie and Ford Foundations examined the state of business schools in America and found them lacking. They were places operated mainly by ex-business people, and were teaching business based on anecdote. The foundations called for a more scientific approach. Almost overnight these schools transformed themselves into scientific institutions. They hired Ph.D.s in basic fields. They built applied fields for themselves in a matter of years.

According to John, the two crowning achievements of these years were both in the field of Finance, both were derived from Economics, and both had much of their origins in the university of Chicago and its Economics department  and approach.  First, the Efficient Market Hypothesis, that asserted that the market always knows best, and can adjust itself accurately to demand without the need for heavy-handed regulation. Next was the Markets and Hierarchies and agency theory approaches drawn from the Transaction Costs approach of Oliver Williamson, which provided a rationale for deregulating economic actions and allowing self-governance and self-regulation.

According to John, these two theories had an impact akin to that of a religion. They provided the ideological underpinning for a half-century of Milton Friedmanesque deregulation of one market after another.

And again, according to John, we had just seen the ultimate defeat of this perspective. The death knell of this Chicago economics ideology was ringing in the air all around us.
I must say that, ever since I became a business school professor in 1997, finance was always the major that attracted  many of the best students. This has always, for me, been just “the way it is.” Investment banking, merchant banking, financial positions-these were the ones where  people could make the most money the fastest, and this suited many MBAs just fine. Marketing was for those with a bit more of a creative,  expressive, curious,  streak, those who put some sort of job satisfaction above the goal of simply making massive incomes (although massive incomes would, of course, be sort of nice).

What was going to happen now that banks and finance companies were failing?

This wasn’t just an oncoming recession. This was the End of The Era of Unregulated and Self-Governing Finance. The end of the endless trough, the Big Feeding Frenzy Party. Could it be the end of Big Business and Big Finance regulating themselves? This could, conceivably, be the beginning of something like the post-Depression Era, the Roosevelt New Deal Projects-the age of bigger government, of (gasp-don’t-say-it-in-front-of-the-children)-a more Socially adept (don’t say it), socially aware (don’t say it), yes, Socialist-style government in American (damn! I said it). Yikes. Or, Whoah. Or Wow.

This is real Sea Change stuff.

John tied his talk up by bringing in the connection to the field of consumer research. In this new era where Finance’s EMH had been discredited, where  finance no longer held its position on the high point of the b-school and business pyramid, where regulation, negotiation,  and understanding public policy were coming into positions of prominence, in this new era where would business need to turn for the answers that vexed it.

According to John, there was no one better suited to formulate and answer these questions than the scholars who were in the building for ACR, for the following reasons.

  • We are already deeply involved in understanding the mechanisms of consumer choice and consumers’ actual behaviors.
  • We are already concerned with the effects of marketplace behaviors, and formulating recommendations to ameliorate and improve unintended consequences and ill side effects.
  • We have achieved  impressive levels of scientific understanding, from fieldwork to Bayesian models to lab experiments, about the ways that markets and consumption really work, as opposed to the ways that they were supposed to work and that had been assumed, reified, then deified in the halls of Finance Departments around the world.
  • We have many active,  important ties to industry, and to the parts of industry that actually interface with the world, with regulators, with public relations people, with advertising and media, and with consumers themselves.
  • And we are beginning to flex our muscles in the field of social policy.

This was heady, amazing, call-to-arms stuff. Powerful stuff. For me, John’s speech was one of the major highlights of ACR 2008. I’ll tell you more about some of the other highlights tomorrow.

Reflections on ACR 2008 in San Francisco

There are only a couple more posts until I add my interpretation to the poetry
-hypothesis generation entry. If you haven’t checked it out yet, please scroll down and do so. Check out the three amazing interpretations in the comment section by some very bright and talented blog readers. And please feel free to add your own comments/interpretations…

Okay.

Last year, I was asked by Punam Anand Keller, the duly elected President of the Association for Consumer Research, to co-chair this year’s Doctoral Symposium. It was a huge honor to be asked to do this for ACR and of course I immediately said that I would be happy to do it. My co-chair was the wonderful, organized, thoughtful and easy-going researcher Meg Campbell from the University of Colorado in Boulder. Of course, having Meg involved that sweetened the deal even more. The funny thing is that I first met Meg in 2001, during the very first ACR Doctoral Symposium when we sat on the very same panel. There’s another synchronistic moment of solicitious synchronicitous synchronicity-for those of you (like me) who are keeping track.

The Doctoral Symposium is a forum for Ph.D. students interested or involved in the field of consumer research to learn about the field and theories of consumer research, and also to meet and hear from some of the most prominent and upcoming of consumer research professors. Choosing people wasn’t difficult-we have a wealth of wonderful people in our field who are both prominent and high-status and kind enough to come a day early and volunteer their time to share insights with students. We invited many of the top people in our field-of course, there were also many high-fliers and big thinkers who we couldn’t have at the Symposium for one reason or another.

I’m going to reflect mainly on the Doctoral Symposium, since that was the focus of my attention this year. I’ll talk a bit about the overall conference, which I thought was remarkably well-organized,and put together in a spirit of bridge-building and cross-disciplinary/interdisciplinary  exchange.  I hear that conference registration was at an all-time high and that it was expected to crack one thousand for the first time in history. That’s a major accomplishment.

This year we tried to structure the Symposium in a different way that we hoped might help better meet students’ needs. Meg and I figured that students at different stages of the Ph.D. program had different needs, and wanted to get different things from their participation at the Symposium. We had three groups: (1) about to enter, just entered, or pre-examination Ph.D. students, (2) post-exam or early dissertation students, and (3) late exam or “job market candidate” students.

Moving from a scary, slow start, the enrollment response was gratifying. We had the largest Symposium registration in recent years: 130 students. Last year I believe that the registration was just over 100 students.

The Symposium started with sessions that helped students to plan for and organize their burgeoning careers. I was very happy to see that the discussions in these three rooms were radically different. In the rooms with the new students, there were some deep discussion about how to choose a thesis chair, how to study for exams, what the role of political power wan in chairing a thesis, In the post-exam phase there was a lot about what constitutes a good thesis topic, how to conduct an efficient literature review, how to improve one’s thesis writing, how many studies to include in a thesis, what the risks were in choosing a currently-fashionable topic. Finally, in the job market groups there were presentation and discussions about publishing in the two top journals in the field-JCR and JM, represented by Managing Editor Mary Ann Twist and Editor Ajay Kohli, respectively–giving students’ detailed, helpful concrete suggestions for successful publication.

The next session synthesized current theory across four broad domains, and made it targeted and accessible to the appropriate student group. We split the field of consumer research into four groups:

  • Affect, Motivation, Intention and Goals
  • Attitude and Persuasion
  • Behavioral Decision Models and Choice
  • Consumer Culture Theoretics

In each session, there was interesting overlap and synthesis showing how we are looking at some major problems in the world of consumption and consumer behavior through a number of sophisticated theoretical lenses, and how these views both contrast with and complement each other. I would have loved to have seen even more coordination and complementarity, to enhance what was already there. That might be something to think about and consider working on for future years.

After lunch, we had a plenary session where five top luminaries in the field presented on the open theme of “Inside/Outside”-an invitation to reflect on how consumer research insights were drawing on and also affecting academic,  interest group, journalistic, social, and other constituencies outside of our small but growing field of consumer research.

Russ Belk opened up with a stirring, stimulating, inspiring presentation that encouraged students to stretch themselves, take risks, and dare to investigate the questions that interested them. Punam Keller followed with a fascinating case study that revealed high-profile research she had with the US Government to try to help single mothers to better manage their financial affairs. Her approach was both practical and scientific, and has resulted in her research gaining wide use among public agencies, and her further appointment to important advisory positions within government committees-also meaningful, inspiring stuff.

John Sherry then presented an erudite, well thought out, imaginative presentation charting the course of consumer research and the problems it could answer. Some of the problem areas that John recommended nascent researchers investigate was the interface of economic, social, and ecological consumption interests, and he proposed that we would need new ways of understanding moral communities and the notions of obligation. One of John’s slides showed a first person view of a shopping cart, headed down a diverging road with a sign that indicated the rider would be forced to choose a path. John indicated that this was the situation that many thesis students had been told they were forced to choose from, but that this wasn’t true.

The words of Led Zeppelin echoed in my head:

“Yes there are two paths you can go by,
but in the long run,
there’s still time to change
the road you’re on.”

Is it true? One of the students later asked about this, and it seemed to me that the assembled professors could not offer very much in the way of enthusiastic encouragement for students to try to honestly cover every angle of consumer research in their academic careers.

The next talk, by John Lynch was also pragmatic and applied. He presented research he had conducted to help understand how to work with a sophisticated consumer group-young professionals-to save more effectively for retirement. Like Punam Keller’s presentation, John’s focus was on combining rigorous research with important real-world questions and coming up with actual policy implications that can be readily used and adopted by government agencies. I found this fascinating and inspiring stuff.

The final of the three Johns-and no, we didn’t plan it that way-was John Deighton, the current editor of the field’s top journal, the Journal of Consumer Research. Oddly, John had no PowerPoint slides. He said he’d been working the speech on the airplane and it was last minute. He read his speech off of his laptop, which he apologized for, and predicted as he started that his talk would end in “failure.”

I’ll tell you more, lots more, about John Deighton’s presentation to the Symposium in my next blog entry. You’ll have wait until then to see if his predictions of failure and embarrassment were realized.

Back in the USA: Obama Propaganda and Meltdown Realities

I am writing this entry on an airplane riding out of San Francisco towards Dublin, Ireland. I was in San Francisco for the 2008 Association for Consumer Research Annual North American Conference. I’d like to report a few things about the conference to you.

But first, for today, given that I’ve been out of North America for about eight weeks, I wanted to reflect on a few things that I noticed in my five days back in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.

First, I have to mention the incredible energy and excitement that permeated San Francisco surrounding the upcoming Presidential election. On the corner of Market Street and Embarcadero, the active little streetcorner situated next to my very architecturally elaborate and beautiful conference hotel, The Hyatt Regency Embarcadero (whose wireless Internet service in the heart of Silicon Valley was absolutely the worst I’ve encountered anywhere, ever), was set up a big table with Obama buttons, t-shirts, and other items for sale.

Obama in red white and blue. Obama done in traditional African ochres, oranges, and browns. Obama in Peter Max ’60s style silkscreen with the simply evocation “Change”  beneath him. Obama, hand raised, eyes forward and gaze lifting upward, trailing waves of hope as evocative as any poster of any powerfully propagandist political figure. I can’t help but think of Chairman Mao, Stalin, and Lenin when I see these posters. Check them out.

Obama poster 1 obama-change.jpgbarack-is-hope.jpg

I have to say that I find the parodying of these posters pretty apt and funny. Here are a couple that tickled me, courtesy of thepeoplescube.com, which made them and retains all rights to them. They’ve got some very funny stuff on their site…much of it dedicated to skewering the Obamamania sweeping the nation.

obama_poster_hitler_yesweca.gif                obama_poster_clinton_grope.gif

The posters and buttons I saw on the Streets of San Francisco were not, as in prior elections, being given away to supporters with the promise of their vote of support, used as a form of inexpensive WOM and attention building, a visual popularity count.

My conclusion is pretty simple. In the time since I’d left North America, Obama has become an icon.

The imagery marketing Barack Obama is propagandistic, yes. But it’s also just good plain branding. Simple images, simple messages. That’s potent, effective branding. It’s no wonder that it looks like propaganda, since the early PR and advertsign industries actually were founded based on the model of persuasive mass communications honed to perfection by the fascist propaganda of WW2 (anyone ever heard of Edward Bernys?). Good mass marketing, particularly of the political variety, is indistinguishable from propaganda.

And in San Francisco, at least, and I suspect in much of the country as a whole, perhaps even dare I say it across the globe, the air of ecstatic anticipation, the building soaring thrill of the possibility of real change was all-but-palpable.

With the many California propositions being actively touted, pamphleted, debated, shouted-down, and counter-argued on the streets-I was educated about one against Gay marriage (“Prop 8″), and another one supporting animal rights (“Prop 2″)-there was an enlightened carnivalesque quality to democracy spilling into the streets, forming the chief locus of visual imagery, activism, and spectacle.

These propositions were the key places there was debate about politics in San Francisco. Walking the streets, overhearing people, conversing with people it was obvious that the McCain-Palin ticket had very little chance of presiding in this area. Obama buttons, t-shirts, and stickers were almost all that I could notice. I spotted perhaps four or five McCain buttons and bumper stickers, as compared with literally dozens and dozens of Obama images and buttons.

The second thing I wanted to reflect on was the sense that something has shifted, or was shifting, in the world of finance and business. Away in Australia and New Zealand, I’d certainly heard about and followed the financial crisis or meltdown. When I spoke to my family in North America, I’d also gotten earfuls about how bad the stock market was, and how it was affecting everyone’s savings, particularly those on fixed incomes, and those who were depending on the market or mutual funds for retirement or pension income.

But the financial crisis really never quite hit home like it did when I got to California. The meltdown is all over the news. People seem genuinely chastened, Dopwn but not out, certainly. The general talk I heard about the economy is fairly doom and gloom. Although in California there also was some upbeat optimism about the upcoming positive effects of regulation.

But actually, in my district, around the tourist shops of Union Square and Chinatown, there didn’t seem to be much of a slowdown. In fact, shopping for some clothes yesterday at Ross Dress for Less, the Shoe Pavilion, and the Discount Shoe Warehouse (all discount stores), there were massive unbelievable, twenty-minutes-plus, snaking-right-through-the-store-up-to-the-entrance-sign lineups and at Westfield Mall, and at Nordstrom and other high-end stores there was plenty of hustle bustle and capitalist adrenaline evident.

But I was told that this was the tourist section, and it wasn’t typical. And the real enthusiasm and buying was in the discount stores. And, gosh-darn-it, I’ll be darned if Americans like me don’t just love Love LOVE to shop. Why would they slow it down? This hedonistic excessive, contagious, and seemingly unquenchable sense of fulfillment through spending is something that has served America and Americans well through past crises. I suspect it will serve us well again.

What I am detecting is a real sense that something has shifted, that the glory days of making money the way it was made in the last twenty years or so have come to an abrupt, skidding halt. It seems like the eighties all over again, with the easy post-Reaganomic  deregulated money and Gordon Gecko materialism and Charlie Keating banking scandals all being nostalgically challenged by current events.

Something is very different. And one of the speakers for the Doctoral Symposium that I co-chaired at ACR absolutely nailed it in his speech. I’ll be happy to tell you about it in my next blog entry, tomorrow.

For now, goodbye to my friends at ACR, to dramatic mountain-ocean vistas and picturesque dining at Waterfront. Goodbye to Fisherman’s Wharf walks and to Alcatraz and the Golden Gate bridge, to Union Square and the surprising lineups, Obama buttons and No to Prop 8, and the whizzing retro-Bladerunnery  glass elevators of the Hyatt on Embarcadero.

Goodbye to wonderfully, energetic, surprisingly sunny San Francisco.