Roper, Burns Worthington (“Bud”)

views updated

Roper, Burns Worthington (“Bud”)

(b. 26 February 1925 in Creston, Iowa; d. 20 January 2003 in Bourne, Massachusetts), marketing and opinion research executive.

The eldest of two sons born to Elmo Burns Roper, Jr., a businessman, and Dorothy Camille (Shaw) Roper, a homemaker, Roper spent his early childhood in the rural community of Creston, where his father owned a jewelry store. Roper’s father experienced business reversals but developed a passion for market research. These interests prompted his decision in 1933 to move his family east, where he established Roper Research Associates in New York City. The firm became involved in straw vote journalism and attracted considerable favorable publicity after accurately predicting the landslide reelection of President Franklin Roosevelt in 1936.

In 1943 Roper earned a diploma from Pelham High School in Pelham, New York, and began his attendance at Yale University. That same year, the eighteen-year old Roper interrupted his studies to join the Army Air Forces. He flew thirty-five bombing missions over Europe and in 1944 copiloted a damaged B-17 bomber back to base in England. Returning to Yale in 1945, Roper considered careers in labor organization, architecture, and public opinion research. He dropped out of Yale in 1946 to join his father’s firm as a research assistant. He became a project director in 1948 and a partner in 1955. When his father retired in 1967, Roper became president and chairman of the board. A gregarious raconteur and defender of the average American, Roper enjoyed socializing with his buddies from World War II. A Democrat, Roper served as a trustee of the National Urban League and was associated with the United Nations Association of the United States of America and with Freedom House. Roper married Elizabeth Kellock on 7 February 1945. The couple had three children and later divorced. On 26 December 1958 Roper married Helen Gillette Lanagan, who died in 1990. The couple had one child. Roper married Helen Grinnell Page on 19 September 1991.

Roper emphasized professionalism and close ties with university survey research institutions and encouraged the commonality of interests between commercial and academic researchers. An active board member of the American Association of Public Opinion Research, Roper frequently contributed articles to Public Opinion Quarterly. He also taught public opinion research courses through the Roper Center at the University of Connecticut. Roper emphasized the importance of the art of opinion research—the necessity for careful field techniques and attention to the precise wording of questions. In approximately 1971 Roper formulated the question asking Americans whether they thought “things in the country are generally going in the right direction” or had “seriously gotten off on the wrong track,” a highly regarded option widely used by other pollsters. In his presidential address to the American Association of Public Opinion Research in 1983, Roper argued that that “question wording has more to do with results obtained than sampling error does.”

Roper was a critic of inadequate or misguided polling and often cited the following two examples of such polling. In 1957, just as new research showed that consumers wanted a reliable and inexpensive automobile, Ford Motor Company released its powerful, flashy Edsel. Buyers rejected the celebrated car. In 1985 Coca-Cola Company introduced new Coke on the basis of results of extensive one-time taste tests. Consumers, however, turned away from new Coke. Roper argued that Coca-Cola marketers had ignored research results suggesting that although consumers may initially appreciate sweeter products, they often change their minds. Roper maintained that Coca-Cola executives might have employed normal usage tests in which individuals would be given the new product for two or three weeks before being asked for responses.

Although he was an observer of rather than a participant in the Edsel and new Coke failures, Roper found himself at the center of two polling debacles of his own. One occurred early in his career, the other toward the end. In each case Roper emphasized the need for prompt public recognition of mistakes and for correction. In the 1948 presidential campaign the Roper organization, as did Gallup and others, confidently predicted a victory for the Republican candidate Thomas Dewey. Harry Truman’s surprise election created a crisis within the polling industry. The pro-Truman Roper later quipped that it had been a classic good news–bad news situation: “Your mother-in-law drives off the cliff in your new Cadillac.” Roper and his father agreed that they should concede that their organization could not have been more wrong, a stance that took much of the heat off of them. Follow-up research convinced them that their error had been twofold: they had stopped polling much too soon, in mid-September, and they had missed the fact that published results of opinion polls might have helped lull some Dewey voters into not voting. Turnout was low in 1948, the Ropers found, especially among overconfident, middle class Republicans.

A second embarrassment followed a Roper survey conducted in 1992 for the American Jewish Committee. The results indicated that 22 percent of Americans doubted that the Holocaust had taken place. Sensing a mistake, a mortified Roper determined that the wording of the question had been confusing. He apologized to the American Jewish Committee, accepted criticism, and ordered a new poll in which the question was worded differently. The results showed that only approximately 2 percent of respondents doubted the occurrence of the Holocaust. A shaken Roper presented his findings to the American Association of Public Opinion Research at its 1994 convention, where he was applauded for his candor and professionalism. Roper’s difficulties with the Holocaust survey coincided with his retirement to Cape Cod. There he served on a local zoning board before dying of lung cancer on 20 January 2003 at his home in Bourne, Massachusetts. Roper’s ashes are buried in the family plot in Umpawaug Cemetery in Redding, Connecticut.

Roper built on the work of his father and other pioneering pollsters from the 1930s. He worked to strengthen ties to academic survey institutions and encouraged increasingly careful sampling and wording procedures. Roper’s informed, commonsense approach to survey research helped defuse criticism of his profession.

The Elmo Roper Papers and the Burns Roper Papers at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut are the best sources for study of the Roper family. Jean M. Converse, Survey Research in the United States: Roots and Emergence, 1890–1960 (1987), provides indispensable background information on the polling profession. Two especially useful articles are Leah Rickard, “Burns Roper Leaves His Mark in Research,” Advertising Age (13 June 1994), and Tom Krazit, “Like Father, Like Son: An Interview with Polling Veteran Burns W. ‘Bud’ Roper,” Public Perspective (Nov./Dec. 2002): 13–16. An obituary is in the New York Times (23 Jan. 2003).

William Howard Moore