published in Marketing Educator, vol 13 (Summer 1994): p. 1 & 3
"Start Making Sense," Atlanta Journal-Constitution (July 16, 1995)

Herbert Jack Rotfeld
Department of Marketing
Auburn University, Alabama

Too many marketing students are unable to speak clearly and can't write a simple sentence. But then, neither can faculty.

The problem is not foreign-born professors or the large numbers of teaching assistants for whom English is a second language. For some strange reason, in marketing, as in many other fields, to be incomprehensible is to be respected.

Academic marketing theories and research often could be interesting and useful to the public if they were presented in everyday language. Yet alien creatures on "Babylon 5" speak clearer than most presentations at academic conferences -- and if the speaker is clear and understandable, it is usually different than the actual paper later found in the conference proceedings.

An extensive vocabulary could (and should) be used for greater precision in writing and speaking. But in the tortured language of our academic world, some words merely confuse and many words are misused (and others they might make up).

Admittedly, not everyone should be expected to understand the latest microbiology discovery or nuclear physics research. However, academic research from marketing could possess relevance and guidance for government, business and the public. But first, it must be presented in a way people could understand.

Why must marketing faculty talk in nonsense instead of making sense? Our subject is not particle physics; we are selling soap. We also have safe sex messages to communicate, or we can discuss business' ethical concerns. But academic discussion imposes special language on these everyday issues. Our incentive for using the jargon of a personal sorcery is obvious, or so I think. Colleagues who publish the most articles in academic journals get the top salaries, while those whose strongest skill is clear communication with students and the public often get notices terminating their teaching contracts. And to publish in academic journals, faculty are discouraged from writing and speaking clearly.

The most respected academic journals in many fields get poor scores on various measurement scales of readability. And I think the writers do it on purpose.

Ivan Preston of Wisconsin once illustrated how advertisers alter straight-forward true claims into oblique statements consumers might perceive in a misleading fashion. Similarly, journal authors apparently work to use jargon for obfuscation instead of aiming for simple clarity. An issue of Journal of Marketing Research carries such typical titles as "The Effectiveness of Alternative Preference Elicitation Procedures in Predicting Choice," or "Antecedents and Consequences of Salesperson Job Satisfaction: Meta-Analysis and Assessment of Causal Effects." (Why not just say: "What Makes a Salesperson Like the Job and What Happens If They Do"?) This is not meant to single out authors or articles. As I said, these titles are typical.

I once read Journal of Marketing manuscript guidelines specifically noting that articles are to be "read, not translated." And Journal of Advertising has, under some editors, engaged in extensive copy editing of papers. But such efforts are the exception, not the rule.

In marketing, as in other areas of "professional education" such as pharmacy or telecommunications, colleges claim to educate students for careers in various fields. Yet faculty often are discouraged from writing articles for magazines that are heavily read by professionals working in those same fields. While many research articles discuss pragmatic implications for their findings, or many talk about the value of marketing science for business decisions, the very language used discourages communications with practitioners. Nor do practitioners care about what is written in academic journals. A 1988 American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business study concluded that "The business world is not very aware of what research is being carried out, and [the managers and executives] typically report that they do not pay much attention to it."

It should be no wonder that current public policy debates on marketing issues focus more on bad research in medical journals or Mother Jones or on ABC television's "20/20," instead of much better data presented in the usually incomprehensible prose of marketing publications. One well-known scholar told me that he no longer writes for Journal of Marketing or other business journals, turning, instead, to books and law journals because he wants to "influence the law and public policy."

Despite the limited readership and low readability, faculty must publish in "respected" journals to get tenure, promotions and merit pay. And if faculty also can talk this way, so much the better.

For example, interview procedures usually include a time for potential new faculty members to conduct a sample lecture or research presentation. A friend relates how, having missed one such talk due to a schedule conflict, he asked a colleague what he thought of it. "It was pretty good," was the reply, "but I didn't understand most of it."

And even faculty readership of journals is limited. Many of our colleagues have stacks of journals that pile up, unread. Many researchers relate citations to their articles surrounded by text that indicates the publication was never read. And it is my impression that more people read Marketing Educator cover to cover than Journal of Marketing Research, Journal of Public Policy & Marketing or Journal of Advertising.

Editors and authors tell me that essays such as this one engender more letters than provocative pieces in academic journals. And, for me, almost every positive letter also includes a note: "I hope you already have tenure."