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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

July 2, 2004

The science of shopping

Marketing expert studies what, how, why young people buy

by Kevin Brown

When Kay Palan observes children in stores pleading with their parents for certain toys, her interest is more than casual.

Palan, associate professor of marketing and interim associate dean for undergraduate programs, studies family decision-making -- especially give-and-take negotiations children and parents use when making decisions together.

She also studies consumer socialization -- for instance, how children learn to be consumers. Recently, her research has focused on the effect advertising has on children's strategies to influence their parents.

Imitating ads

One test showed that children tend to use the same strategies on their parents that they see used in ads. Older kids tended to try strategies requiring more reasoning skills (for example, using a logical argument such as the a shirt is a better buy because it's priced reasonably or is wash-and-wear) to influence their parents than younger kids. She found that girls tended to use persuasion strategies (using guilt with arguments, such as "it's my turn now" or "everyone else has this") more than boys.

"I am looking at the ways kids try to influence buying decisions and how parents respond to that influence," she said. "They learn how to influence from their parents. With young children -- ages 5 to 9 years -- I study the impact of advertising and what parents do to mitigate the effects of that advertising message."

Palan also studies teens' current and future shopping habits.

"I look at what areas teens are comfortable with and how they are perceived in the marketplace," she said. "Some kids will avoid certain stores because they aren't welcome. Will this mean they also won't shop there as adults?"

Palan also examines the effects of gender on consumer behavior.

"I am interested in how those gender identities impact consumer behavior, specifically toward gift buying and advertising," she said.

A marketer's career path

Veterinary medicine -- not marketing -- was on Palan's horizon when the freshman started her college career at Iowa State.

"I was a pre-vet freshman here in 1972," she said. She changed her major from pre-vet to nursing, a decision that forced her to leave Iowa State. A few years after earning a nursing degree, she entered the seminary.

She decided to return to nursing and eventually became the executive director of a for-profit home health corporation in Fargo, N.D. She ran that firm successfully for five years.

"That experience was an epiphany for me," Palan said. "I learned I had inherent skills as a business person. But with no formal training, I decided after a year to go back to school to get a master's of business administration (MBA)."

Going to school full-time wasn't an option, so, while she ran the corporation, Palan took evening classes at Moorhead State University, across the Red River in Moorhead, Minn. After two years of core business classes, she was eligible to enroll in the MBA program, which took another two years to complete. She and her family then moved to Lubbock, Texas, where she earned her doctorate from Texas Tech University.

Palan said marketing became her focus because it touches on every other area of business.

Communicating is marketing

"For example, in the home health care business, marketing played a key role when I was meeting with doctors and nurses to encourage them to refer patients," she said. "I learned that much of what we do in business when we are communicating is marketing."

That communication carries over to the classroom.

"When I first started, I didn't even realize how much I would enjoy teaching or whether I would be good at it," she said. "I find it incredibly gratifying to know I have made a difference -- to have shown students to be marketers and to do it better and more effectively so they get those top jobs."

Her interest in continuous improvement in the classroom led Palan to serve on the advisory board for the Center for Teaching Excellence and work with other faculty on outcomes assessment.

Palan's two-year appointment as interim associate dean began earlier this week. She oversees all undergraduate programs, including teaching, advising, curriculum content, outcomes assessment and career services. She also will be involved with a university-wide entrepreneurship program, including a new learning community.

"My job is to keep steering the college in the right direction for the benefit of students," Palan said. "We want to strategically continue to serve all the needs of our students."

But she will maintain her interest in marketing.

"It is not the same thing all the time," Palan said. "You are always being surprised and challenged to figure something out all over again. Marketing is innately intriguing and never disappointing."

Kay Palan

Kay Palan (Photo by Bob Elbert.)


"It [marketing] is not the same thing all the time. You are always being surprised and challenged to figure something out all over again. Marketing is innately intriguing and never disappointing."

Kay Palan