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May 13, 2009

A Short History of the Business of Fantasy and Feelings

Catherine New
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From left to right: John O’Shaughnessy, Mac Hulbert, Morris Holbrook, Don Lehmann, Noel Capon

Last weekend, faculty and current and former students gathered for Morrisfest, a “not-so-stuffy” academic conference to honor marketing professor Morris Holbrook, who is retiring after 35 years of teaching. Public Offering spoke with Holbrook about the evolution of research on consumer behavior.

Marketing professor and consumer behavior scholar Morris Holbrook dispels the notion that “evil German scientists” were responsible for early forays into consumer behavior research.

“As part of the fallout from World War II, a number of psychoanalytically trained researchers came here from Germany. They weren’t licensed to practice, so they got jobs in advertising agencies doing motivation research, figuring out the deep underlying repressed needs of consumers and how they could be manipulated to sell more Cornflakes,” says Holbrook. “But that approach was attacked on the basis of a kind of ethics. It was disgraced and abandoned and went into hibernation.”

In the early 1980s — after marketing research began to adopt a decision-oriented perspective — the qualitative science of consumer behavior was back, this time with Holbrook leading the scholarly pack. He says it was a natural response to the field’s direction, which had become overly focused on the “rational economic behavior model.”

“We said, ‘Wait a minute! What about all the irrational stuff, the daydreams, the fantasies, the feelings, emotions, misperceptions and biases?’” Holbrook says, recalling the shift to the more experiential approach.

“We started focusing on various aspects of consumer emotion and the hedonic aspects of consumer pleasure and the aesthetics of consumer behavior,” he says. “[The rational model] was omitting so much of people’s real emotional connection to the consumption experience and the other kinds of value associated with the experience.”

He adds, “Today, people have assimilated that into their thinking. It’s not news anymore … and it’s kind of caught on and the management guru types have embraced it. It’s very much related to various notions that branch off from it like branding.”

Read more about Holbrook’s research in Ideas at Work.

Photo courtesy of Eric Johnson