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Students as Subjects in Consumer Behavior Experiments

Author(s): Ben M. Enis, Keith K. Cox and James E. Stafford

Source: Journal of Marketing Research, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Feb., 1972), pp. 72-74
Published by: American Marketing Association
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The use of students as subjects in studies of consumer behavior is widespread;1 entire classrooms of
potential respondents are readily available to academic
researchers at little or no cost. These respondents generally follow instructions rapidly and accurately, and the
researcher can claim (at times legitimately) that participating in such studies enriches the students' education.
But these advantages obscure the key question: do
student responses accurately reflect the behavioral patterns of other consumers? Few would deny that students
are consumers, but they typically are psychologically,
socially, and demographically different from other segments of the population. The consumer of interest in
many marketing studies is the housewife, but the respondents most convenient to marketing professors are,
largely, male, undergraduate business students. Are conclusions based on their responses valid when applied to
The usefulness of student subjects depends, in part,
upon the context of the research-its problem, objectives, and hypotheses. It cannot be assumed that students are always used as surrogates for housewives. For
example, many research hypotheses can be checked on
any segment of consumers. Yet, the fact remains that
students are often used in consumer research studies
without regard to the potential validity of the findings.
Previous research in this area has been rather sparse.
Similarities between students' and housewives' answers
were reported in a dissonance reduction experiment
[6], and students and housewives had similar factor
loadings in a study of semantic differential evaluations
of two nationally known corporations [2]. In a study
involving home economics majors, the students' re* Ben M. Enis is Associate Professor of Marketing, Keith K.
Cox is Professor of Marketing, and James E. Stafford is Associate Professor of Marketing, University of Houston. An earlier
version of this paper was presented at the 1970 Fall Conference
of the American Marketing Association. The authors acknowledge constructive comments by conference participants and by
JMR reviewers.

sponses to intervally scaled questions generally had

smaller variances than did those of the housewives, and
students tended to give somewhat higher ratings of the
product than did housewives [4]. In related research,
results of a behavioral experiment using students as test
units varied significantly from results using businessmen
[1]. The inconclusive nature of these studies prompted
us to examine this question empirically.
During a series of consumer behavior studies being
conducted with housewives, it was decided to replicate
the studies with students from our marketing principles
courses. The purpose of the project was to test the hypothesis that students' responses in consumer behavior
studies accurately reflect housewives' responses.
Two sets of experiments were conducted: one concerned the influence of race of model upon consumers'
perceptions of advertisements and the other studied bias
related to country of origin in glassware preference. The
experiments were as follows:
1. In the integrated advertisement experiment, one
third of each group of housewivesand studentswas
shown a slide of an ad featuring Caucasian models. The second third viewed an identical ad with
Negro models, and the remainderof the group saw
the ad with both types of models. A second ad for
an automobile was presented in an all-Caucasion
version and an integrated version. The advertisements were mock-ups, created by an advertising
agency for a differentpurpose [8]. For each of the
five ads, respondentswere asked to rate the influence of the models' race on the subjects' general
impression on a seven-point interval scale developed by Myersand Warner[5].
2. The glassware experiment attempted to ascertain

1An audit of the first 30 issues of JMR revealed that over

half of the consumer behavior experiments (48 of 81) involved
student subjects. A systematic review of other research-oriented
journals in marketing and the behavioral sciences would probably yield similar results.
Journal of Marketing Research,

Vol. IX (February1972), 72-4

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the influence of informationalcues (price differentials and country of origin) upon consumers'preferences for physically identical glass goblets. Price
differentials were varied systematically for subgroups of housewives and students, and their preferences recorded on a five-point (assumed)interval
scale. There were two comparisonsbetween countries and three price levels for each comparison,
for a total of six questions.
The housewife respondents were contacted through
Ladies' Aid Societies of various religious groups in the
Houston area. Although the 282 housewives were not
randomly selected, the religious groups were chosen to
represent a geographic, ethnic, socioeconomic, and religious cross-section. The 210 students included in the
study attended classes on the given day, so their selection was not random. This limitation, however, is typical of many studies of consumer behavior. Each respondent was randomly assigned to one of the groups
for test treatments for each experiment.
Since each subject responded to 11 questions (5 ads
and 6 glassware preferences), there were 11 student/
housewife comparisons. The null hypothesis for each
comparison was that the responses did not differ significantly. The scale for each question was assumed to
be an interval scale, and mean scores were obtained for
the 94 housewives and 70 students assigned to each
treatment. The difference in response for each question
was measured via the t-test, adjusting where necessary
for unequal variances [3].
Results are summarized in the table below. The
housewives had generally more favorable impressions of
all ads except the integrated automobile ad. They exAND
Mean response


Lipstick advertisement

Integrated models
Caucasian models
Negro models


Level of





Automobile advertisement

Caucasian models
Integrated models

Glassware preference: U. S. over



U. S. $2 less
Same price
U. S. $2 more


Glassware preference: U. S. over


U. S. $2 less
Same price
U. S. $2 more


pressed a stronger preference for glassware made in the

United States than did students, regardless of price differential and country of origin, in 5 of 6 cases. Fewer
of them preferred U. S. goblets over Japanese when the
U. S. product was two dollars more.
The significance of these differences is a function of
the alpha risk level chosen. The table shows that no difference was significant at the .01 level. Given this rather
stringent significance level, the null hypothesis could
not be rejected for any of the questions; we would
conclude that student responses did reflect housewife
responses to these questions. The beta risk (accepting
a false hypothesis), however, is rather high for all questions (at the .01 alpha level).
At the traditional .05 level, two advertising impressions and two glassware preferences differed significantly. The housewives rated the lipstick ad with Negro
models more favorably than did students, but were more
impressed with the automobile ad featuring Caucasian
models. Housewives were more inclined to prefer U. S.
goblets over Swedish ones, even when the latter were
two dollars lower in price, and preferred U. S. goblets
over Japanese when the U. S. products were two dollars
less. No discernible pattern is evident in these differences.
At the .10 level, one additional mean was significant;
another became significant at the .20 level, and one
more at the .25 level. Still, no pattern emerged which
would provide a plausible explanation for the differences.
Increasing the alpha risk lowers the beta risk, but we
can find no logical justification for preferring one level
of significance over another. Consequently, we were unable to definitely determine from these data whether or
not students are appropriate surrogates for housewives
in consumer behavior studies.





The results are somewhat disappointing, to say the

least, since the data do not provide a clear answer to
our question. Those who want to use students in research (for reasons of economy, convenience, or education) can find some support here, especially if they insist on traditionally strict alpha risk levels. The results
may support the continued use of students in consumer
behavior studies in which internal validity has high
priority in the research objectives. However, those who
are not comfortable with student subjects can at least
argue that these findings are inconclusive. Where external validity is important, for example, the use of
students as housewife surrogates in consumer behavior
studies may be undesirable.
Since this question is pertinent to research in marketing, further research should be done in the area. We
believe that this research will benefit from consideration
of several methodological issues encountered in the
present study. First, improvements could certainly be
made in our study, since comparison of the housewives'

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responses with those of students was not part of the

original design. A study designed expressly to investigate this question would no doubt incorporate more
than 11 points of comparison between housewives
and students. Second, the artificial (laboratory) setting
of the experiments may have affected the students
differently than it did the housewives. For instance, the
products (particularly the goblets) may have been of
less interest to the students than to the housewives.
Even if such improvements were made in future
studies, however, three fundamental questions would
1. Is statistical inference an appropriate research tool
for studies of this type? Respondents were not ran-

domly selected, yet generalizationof results is desirable-a situation typical of many academic research studies. Basic methodologicalresearchmight
provide a more secure foundation for such uses of

2. If statistical inference is to be used, what tests are

appropriate for data of this type? It could be ar-

gued, on the one hand, that such assumptionsas

interval scales and normality are not warranted,
and therefore that nonparametrictests should be
used. On the other hand, more definite conclusions
might result from the use of more sophisticated
statistical techniques (e.g., discriminantanalysis or
cluster analysis). In terms of methodology, which
position (if either)is correct?

3. How does the researcher know what level of significance to choose? The choice of level of signifi-

cance was a key factor in interpretingthe results

of our study. Could operational decision rules be
developed, in the absence of economic criteria, for
choice of significancelevel?
The following comments can be made in conclusion.
First, the question of the validity of the use of student
subjects in lieu of real world subjects has not been set-

tied. Our results may support those researchers who

contend that accumulating empirical evidence will show
that sometimes students are good predictors of housewives' behavior and sometimes they are not. Perhaps of
greater importance is the question of whether or not
criteria will be available for deciding when students
predict housewives' behavior and when they do not.
Secondly, some methodological questions have been
raised about the nature of research in marketing which
may extend beyond finding a meaningful answer to
the question of student-as-housewife surrogates. Since
much academic research in marketing employs statistical inference, the questions posed here may have implications for all such research. We hope that this report will provoke discussion on these issues.
as Surrogatesfor Busi1. Alpert,Bernard."Non-Businessmen
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2. Clevenger, Theodore, Jr., Gilbert A. Lazier, and Margaret
Leitner Clark. "Measurement of Corporate Images by the
Semantic Differential," Journal of Marketing Research, 2
(February 1965), 80-2.
3. Edwards,Allen L. ExperimentalDesign in Psychological Research, third edition. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
1968, Chapters5 and 6.
4. Enis, Ben M. and James E. Stafford. "Consumers'Perception

of ProductQualityAs a Functionof VariousInformational

Inputs," Proceedings. Fall Conference, American Marketing

Association, 1969, 340-4.
5. Myers, James H. and W. Gregory Warner. "Semantic Properties of Selected Evaluation Adjectives,"Journal of Marketing Research, 5 (November 1968), 409-22.

6. Sheth,JagdishN. "AreThereDifferencesin DissonanceReductionBehaviorBetweenStudentsand Housewives?"


nal of MarketingResearch, 7 (May 1970), 243-5.

7. Stafford,James E., Al E. Birdwell, and Charles E. Van Tassel. "Integrated Advertising-White Backlash?" Journal of
AdvertisingResearch, 10 (April 1970), 15-20.

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