I recently got the opportunity to edit a volume of the Sage Legends in Marketing series on Morris Holbrook and his work on symbolic consumer behaviour. As part of the development of the volume, I had another opportunity to interview Morris (a few years ago myself and Douglas Brownlie did a series of interviews with Morris which was edited into a radio style documentary which you can listen to here). The interview is reproduced below.
For the benefit of those who have yet to discover Morris Holbrook - he was chair in marketing at Columbia University for decades and during which time his impact on the field of consumer behaviour and marketing has been immense. His work on introspection and experientialism in particular in addition to his huge volume of work on symbolic consumer behaviour and so much more beside stands testament to a creative and innovative mind who has definitely made the subject of marketing and consumer research a more interesting field. An excellent place to start is his book Introspective Essays on Consumer Research. He recently retired.
Alan Bradshaw (AB). If you could start again, would you still launch an academic career via the business school?
Morris B. Holbrook (MBH). Your question flatters me by implying that some sort of planning lay behind the “launch” of my “academic career,” but nothing could be farther from the truth. Actually, I stumbled into my position at the business school through a peculiar combination of fascination for what was then a most abstruse business topic (consumer behavior); a mentor of astonishing generosity and supportiveness (John Howard); a flair for procrastination that kept me in the MBA-PhD programs for ten full years (1965-1975); and a fountain of undeserved but much-appreciated good luck that won me a job offer at a most propitious moment (the fall of 1974, I suspect after Columbia might have been turned down by whatever better-qualified candidate(s) they had tried to hire that year). At the time, the business-school community was reacting to the embarrassment of unflattering conclusions reached by the famous Ford-Carnegie Report – which had trashed business education as unscientific and unscholarly – so much so that potential signs of intellectual integrity among faculty members earned the esteem of beleaguered school administrators. In response, optimistic members of the academy hoped that business in general and marketing in particular could make some claim to be challenging areas of scholarship worthy of study in their own right. In other words, I felt that I was surrounded by a community of scholars dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Today, if I could start again from that same vantage point, I would again wish to be part of that very exciting and stimulating intellectual environment. But such a career path – accidental or not – would no longer be possible in the current climate of a university run according to a business model in which students are treated like customers and professors serve mostly to provide academic degrees useful as tickets to success on the job market. If I started again – but in today’s greatly altered setting – I doubt that the business school or even other branches of the university would offer a compatible home for the likes of me.
AB. Does consumer research marginalize itself from a wider interface with the social sciences and humanities? And, if so, what is to be done and how should we determine where the margins exist?
MBH. For as long as I can recall, the more advanced thinkers in our field have advocated inter- or multi-disciplinary consumer research that draws on all branches of the social sciences. More recently, some of us have begun to include the humanities in that call for a broader embrace of insights from all fields. So it seems that many consumer researchers willingly seek knowledge that comes from the relevant parent disciplines all across the various areas of specialization. By contrast, however, it also appears that many of the gatekeepers in the social sciences and humanities (journal editors, reviewers, conference organizers, faculty recruiters, and so forth) do not wish to mix-and-mingle with folks who come from business schools – especially if these folks have the word “marketing” attached to their names and titles. Many, unfairly, lump marketing together with (say) finance as an essentially unsavory practice dedicated to stealing from the poor and giving to the rich. Others, arrogantly, regard the intellectual content of consumer research as inferior to that of (say) psychology or sociology. At the bottom of all this lies the suspicion that business academics are only “doing it for the money” (often as part of lucrative consulting assignments), whereas social scientists or humanities professors steadfastly pursue “knowledge for its own sake” (as the hallmark of intellectual curiosity). This (mis)perception gains unjustified credibility from those absurd editor- and reviewer-imposed concluding sections of marketing articles that proudly proclaim the managerial relevance of research that often, in reality, could find no conceivable practical application. Fortunately, the leading consumer-research journals (JCR, JCP, JCB) – to which we might add some other sympathetic publications (MT, CM&C) – have managed to resist the temptation to claim managerial relevance, thereby avoiding the stigmata that needlessly afflict the more managerially-oriented marketing journals. Recently, I have noticed a worrisome trend away from this commendable restraint among those who advocate a “new” type of study called “Transformative Consumer Research” (TCR) and who insist on the advantages of clearly-specified applicability. For the reasons already indicated, I regard this as a fundamental mistake that I hope the otherwise enlightened proponents of TCR will soon learn to correct.
AB. To paraphrase W. H. Auden's “Unknown Citizen,” is the consumer free? Is he happy? Are these questions absurd?
MBH. I had forgotten all about Auden’s deeply ironic poem until you called it to my attention in connection with the present interview. It appeared in 1940 – not long before my birth in 1943 – and expressed views in opposition to mass conformity that also surface in such works as Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World. All these were required reading in my high school English classes and, indeed, captured an intellectual reaction against the smothering forces of bureaucratic oppression and mind-numbing groupthink that characterized the 1950s and beyond. The marvelous first version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers – which I first saw while visiting Montgomery, AL in 1956 (speaking of oppression) – offered another example of the artistic rebellion against the tyranny of mind control. Auden voices similar views in “The Unknown Citizen” in a way that I greatly admire because I happen to like poems that rhyme and that are loaded with sardonic wit. (For this reason, my own feeble attempts at “poetry” often resemble song lyrics – which also tend to rhyme in a witty way epitomized by the work of such talented people as Fran Landesman, David Frishberg, and Randy Newman.) Auden pays ironic tribute to a person whose main claims to fame are that he “wasn’t ... odd”; was “popular with his mates”; was seen as “normal in every way”; and, flexibly, “held the proper opinions.” Of course, all this represents the bugaboo of over-conformity in an age when “fitting in” was all-too-often treated as a synonym for “good.” In the area of business, such concerns emerged loud and clear in books such as William H. Whyte’s The Organization Man from 1956 – echoed by a wonderful old New Yorker cartoon of about that period in which a well-attired executive addresses a conference table full of managers and inquires (paraphrasing): “What this organization has is too many ‘yes’ men. Right?” All around me, I saw examples of friends and classmates desperately trying to please each other by clinging to the same styles, trends, habits of thought, and consumption preferences. Of course, I sought the obvious solution by dressing very differently from the others, speaking an alternate jazz-inflected lingo, reading peculiar books, and liking music that nobody else could stand. All this earned me the following “tribute” in our senior yearbook:
Morry ... an old guard ... came to us in Junior Kindergarten.... Moe is the class’ leading non-conformist.... favorite class is English.... illustrious Ledger Editor who writes unprintable, flaming editorials.... often referred to as Turtle.... is looking east to Harvard (The Arrow, High School Yearbook, Milwaukee Country Day, 1961).
Old habits die hard. So, to this day, I remain almost always the only person in the room wearing a necktie or – alternatively, when called for – the only person not wearing a necktie. Back then, I recall the captain of our high-school football team growing so disgusted with my unconventional musical tastes that he contemptuously used my beloved collection of jazz 45s as if they were frisbees and sailed them out the window of our “senior room” into the bushes beyond, where I never found them again. (One of these was a precious and ever-since unobtainable vinyl recording by the Oscar Peterson Trio with Herb Ellis and Ray Brown playing the composition by John Lewis entitled “The Golden Striker” – a 2:33-minute marvel that has miraculously resurfaced, after fifty years of unavailability, on YouTube see below) So – having devoted most of my waking energy to the pursuit of “happiness” in the form of “freedom” to do what I like, the way I like it – I think I can report that, insofar as he or she yields to the influence of social pressures or succumbs to the hegemonic forces that stem from the capitalistic ethos and its constant pressures toward ever-increasing materialism in the service of a culture of consumption that so inevitably enriches those who control it, the consumer is not “free” and, therefore (by my standards), cannot be “happy.” I wish that the question were “absurd.” But, regrettably, I think that it remains perhaps the central issue of our times.
AB. Is the field of marketing more or less respectable than it was before?
MBH. “Respectable” is a loaded word because it implies at least a couple of somewhat different meanings – first, worthy of high regard (respect); second, regarded (respected) by the members of society as being good, proper, or correct. If pushed to the wall, I would venture the opinion that the field of marketing has made considerable progress in gaining the first kind of “respectability” but that it still has a long way to go in achieving the second. First, let us consider the remarkable ways in which academic marketing has grown to embrace a whole host of issues that would once have appeared to be outside its purview. Here, I am thinking of the more “pure” aspects of consumer-behavior theory (where even as great a thinker as, say, John Howard wanted to focus only on “buyers”) and the broad interests of macromarketing (which consistently questions and refines the fundamental underpinnings of our discipline). The recent advent of such subdisciplines as Consumer Culture Theory (CCT) and Transformative Consumer Research (TCR) illustrate the potential worthiness of these two aspects of our efforts. But, second, one need only look around in a self-conscious way to see that, as a discipline, we still have a long way to go before attaining “respectability” in the sense that people actually respect us or what we do. Consider the proverbial cocktail party at which there arrives that unfortunate moment when the person we are talking to asks, “What do you do?” “Oh, I’m a professor at the university.” “And what do you teach?” “Oh – Ah, Um – I teach marketing at the business school.” How many times have we seen that person’s eyes cloud over in ill-disguised disgust that is conspicuous enough to make us, very quickly, retreat to something like, “But I mostly focus on consumer behavior in general and audiences for entertainment and the arts in particular”? In this, we try – with mixed success – to reposition ourselves as prophets of high art and pop culture. But there always lurks the suspicion that – because the word “marketing” or “business” appears in our title or job description – we are somehow tainted by an association with the greed-inflected pursuit of money for its own sake or what many people who recall their Bible studies think of as “filthy lucre” (Titus 1:11). Bravely, we hide behind claims that we participate in a “professional school.” But, in our hearts, we know that (say) teaching Harvard cases to MBAs does not qualify as “professional” in the same sense as (say) imparting the fundamentals of biology to medical students who will become the health-oriented life-saving doctors of the future. Doctors have a goal worthy of respect – namely, enhancing the well-being of society. They do so by saving lives. Marketers could, but often do not, pursue a similar goal. Sadly, instead of saving lives, we are all-too-often seen as destroying them.
AB. The expansion of the marketing concept, as previously advocated in the 1960s, now seems entirely consistent with a neo-liberal logic that dictates that the market structures should determine almost all forms of organization. Assuming agreement that we are governed by a neo-liberal paradigm, should we now consider limiting the scope of the market and consumer concept?
MBH. I think that this question raises at least a couple of somewhat different issues – namely, (1) Does the market govern everything in ways that need some kinds of regulation or control? (2) Is virtually every type of human behavior a form of consumption experience? and (3) Do Issues #1 and #2 interact in ways that might prove promising or troubling? I would argue for positive answers to all three sub-questions. In a spirit consistent with that of the present volume in the Legends series, let me focus on an illustration that pertains to the motion-picture industry. (1) First, few would deny that market-, marketing-, and marketplace-related forces play a huge and perhaps overly impactful role in the reception of films. Extravagant promotional budgets help to ram otherwise lackluster movies down our throats. On any given weekend, every multiplex within hovercraft distance plays exactly the same five or six films, to the point where we have little real choice about what we get to see. Reviewers write adulatory or condemnatory recommendations that aim, above all, to fit the pre-established tastes of their publications’ readers or their programs’ viewers. And these engineered preferences are further reinforced by the insistent clamor of public opinion, in which a film’s popular appeal – reported via the media in endless lists of top-ten ratings, box-office revenues, and the like – becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy in which obediently impressionable consumers strive to keep pace with what their neighbors want to see. Unfortunately, when “everybody” wants to see something – given the statistically impregnable fact that half these people, by definition, have below-average taste – the offerings that rise to the top will inevitably be pretty bad. (2) Second, this market-, marketing-, and marketplace-driven situation replicates itself in virtually all walks of life or, to put it only a little differently, in every aspect of our consumption experiences. These include everything from movies to television shows to books to clothing to groceries to automobiles to animal companions to dating on the Internet. Right now, NBC devotes two hours of prime time once a week to a program appropriately called “The Biggest Loser.” J. K. Rowling industriously sells children’s books to adults everywhere, with massive success. Every school kid wears baggy shorts that hang from way beneath the hips to just above the ankles (often revealing a rather unattractive view of flabby butt cleavage). Meanwhile, people actually object when New York’s Mayor Bloomberg announces a ban on selling sugar-sweetened soda pop in containers holding more than sixteen ounces (roughly 200 calories). Cars now come equipped with more and more popular-but-dangerous devices for watching screens, pushing buttons, twirling knobs, and doing almost everything except actually paying attention to driving the vehicle. Pet owners vie for access to the most popular breeds (Soft-Coated Wheaten Terriers) or the most crowd-pleasing hybrids (Cockapoos) to the extent that in-breeding in the service of market satisfaction has begun to dilute the integrity of our canine population. And way too many folks entertain self-destructive hopes of finding their true loves on-line rather than at (say) a church group or the work setting. (3) Third, to paraphrase the famous New Yorker cartoon drawn by Carl Rose and captioned by E. B. White, “I say it’s spinach and to hell with it.” The interactions between markets and consumers are dangerous (at best) or even destructive (at worst) because the market caters to the masses and the masses have tastes that favor appeals to the lowest common denominator (by which, face it, we mean a fondness for crap).
In these senses, to return to W. H. Auden, consumers – in so many areas of our everyday experience – are not truly “free.” Rather, they are pushed, pulled, pummeled, and persuaded in directions intended to prove profitable to our large capitalist enterprises. And, as a result, they are not really “happy.” Rather they must settle for what other people – business managers or influential neighbors – want them to have. Can we or should we in any way “regulate” this? Absolutely not. We are all too committed to freedom. But, perhaps unfortunately, the freedom that we seek is freedom of the market and not the freedom of consumers, in all walks of life, to get what they want or what they need. Speaking personally, I want a world in which jazz – America’s one genuinely original contribution to the arts – is treated with dignity; presented in comfortable ways, in attractive locales, at reasonable prices; and esteemed by people who have been educated in our schools or at home to appreciate good music when they hear it. But this will not happen in a regulation-deficit world of free markets because, hey, jazz is hard to understand; it requires effort to appreciate; and, as a result, nobody likes it. To paraphrase Star-Kist Tuna, “Sorry, Charlie, we don’t want tunas with good taste; we want tunas that taste good.” (Happily, this brilliantly insightful specimen of Madison Avenue profundity can be found on YouTube below).
Well, I’ve started to rant-and-rave – all in response to your excellent questions about markets, consumers, and interactions between the two. In summary, I do think that, as a society, we honor a strong commitment to “freedom” in the marketplace; that this often intrudes upon “freedom” in the lives of consumers; and that the only remotely feasible “regulatory” mechanism that can possibly remedy the potential dangers therefrom involves education in the form of information about what’s good, why it’s good, how to appreciate it, and where to get it. Perhaps, with better education across the broad spectrum of ubiquitous consumption experiences that permeate our lives, we shall one day see a television show where – instead of watching a bunch of morbidly obese people strip off their clothes and waddle onto an enormous scale, while the wheels spin and we eagerly await the official reading for this week’s weight loss, just before (with the wheels still spinning) they break for a commercial for Olive Garden, McDonald’s, Hostess Twinkies, or Coca-Cola – we shall have the pleasure of viewing a program that tells us something about the value of proper nutrition, about what foods are good for us to eat, and about how to achieve a healthy diet that would set us free and would thereby make W. H. Auden, not to mention Charlie the Tuna, quite happy.