February 25, 2019 • By Aaron Orlowski
Mary Gilly’s career has been studded with honors and positions of high responsibility and leadership, including representing the University of California Academic Senate before the Board of Regents in Oakland for two years.
But more than that, Gilly, a professor of marketing, is an academic giant and prolific scholar with one of the highest number of citations of any scholar in the Merage School. And now Gilly has earned another achievement in her storied career — a nomination to the Dean’s Leadership Circle Endowed Chair.
Gilly’s research on consumer behavior has been published in top-tier journals in marketing and she has served on several editorial review boards. From her early years, Gilly has done research leading to profound insights in the world of marketing.
In the 1970s, when Gilly was earning her doctorate, the common theory of consumer behavior suggested a certain family life cycle through which people moved in stages and which profoundly impacted purchasing: singlehood, marriage, child rearing, empty nester, death.
“I felt that while the theory may have explained behavior in the 1950s, it wasn’t relevant in the 1970s,” Gilly says. “I saw that people got divorced, had children out of marriage and generally did things in variable order.”
So, in an early sign of her frontier-pushing research, she developed an alternative theory.
Ultimately, her dissertation focused on consumer complaints, tracking how companies’ responses to consumer complaints affected the consumers’ subsequent behavior.
“I’ve always been interested in the consumer’s point of view,” Gilly says. “As researchers, we’re not the handmaidens of marketing. How do you protect consumers from marketing tricks that, for instance, entraps them in debt?”
Most recently, Gilly has studied consumer behavior in the context of debt management programs. The literature suggests that financial literacy programs don’t work, yet this is the approach of consumer counseling services. In one study, Gilly found that mindful consumers (those who pause to consider their goals) were best able to resist temptation and complete the program, while mindless consumers were the least likely to succeed. A third group was able to succeed only sometimes — their lack of pride in resisting temptation stymied them.
“One woman in the study would look at a picture of her daughter every time she was tempted to make a purchase, and that helped keep her from falling back into debt,” Gilly says. “As a society, we need to do more to help people such as that mother manage their response to the temptation to buy what they can’t afford.”
Early on in her career, Gilly was faced with the persistent truth that not many women were represented in the higher levels of the business world — or in business academia.
She built up a reputation for mentoring underrepresented minority business doctoral students and was inducted into the PhD Project’s Hall of Fame for her commitment to minority doctoral business students. Gilly’s students consistently praise her teaching.
Gilly was recently inducted as a Fellow of the American Marketing Association, the highest honor in that professional organization and she is a member of the American Academy of Advertising.
Gilly has also taken on leadership roles at the Merage School, serving twice as senior associate dean, with the primary responsibility of working with the dean’s leadership team to set the internal academic direction of the school.