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Norman Kangun, Keith K.

Cox, James Higginbotham, and John Burton

Consumerism and
Marketing Management
How do consumers perceive consumerism . . . and what are the implications
of these perceptions for marketing managers?

D ESPITE predictions that today's con-

sumer movement would subside as its pre-
decessor had subsided, consumerism continues to
the study reported here is on (1) the meaning of
consumerism, (2) the importance of certain con-
sumer issues, (3) the choice of corrective actions
grow in both scope and support as society pro- as they relate to specific consumer problems, and
ceeds through the 1970s. An earlier wave of the (4) the perceived importance of the consumer
consumer movement, stimulated by Upton movement today and in the future. The results of
Sinclair's expose of the meat packing industry, this study suggest some implications for the ac-
created action and attention for a while and then tions marketing management can take to meet
diminished. However, the current consumerism the challenge of consumerism.
movement appears to be becoming increasingly
institutionalized, as evidenced by the formation Research Methodology
at all levels in govemment of new agencies to
represent and protect the consumer interest. A convenience sample of 367 respondents living
Some examples are the Office of Consumer Af- in the metropolitan area of a large southwestem
fairs, now located in the Department of Health, city was surveyed in 1973. The sample was com-
Education, and Welfare, and the Consumer Prod- posed of 241 students drawn from marketing
uct Safety Commission. The creation of a federal classes at a major state ixniversity in that city, 55
Consumer Protection Agency is likely in the near nonemployed adult women, and 71 businessmen.
future, while state and local govemment agencies The completed questionnaires from nonemployed
set up to protect consumer interests continue to women and businessmen were collected from
expand. Other countries are also struggling with neighborhood civic clubs and professional busi-
adequate representation of consumer rights.' ness organizations in the area.
Table 1 presents a description of the demo-
Previous studies on consumerism focused on graphic characteristics of the subsamples. The
the deficiencies of the market system, the specific students were considerably younger and their in-
causes of consumerism, the semantic problem
come substantially lower than the other two
that exists between businessmen and their critics,
and general attitudes on the part of consumers groups. The students' political philosophy as self-
about specific marketing activities.^ The focus of reported was slightly more liberal than that re-
ported by the nonemployed women. The
1. See, for example, Hans B. Thorelli, "Consumer Infor- businessmen were the most conservative, but
mation Policy in Sweden—What Can Be Leamed?" JOURNAL perhaps not as consenative as might have been
OF MARKETING, Vol. 35 (January 1971), pp. 50-55. predicted. Both the nonemployed women and
2. See Andrew Shonfield, Modem Capitalism: The Chang-
ing Balance of Public and Private Power (New York: Oxford
business groups indicated higher income levels
University Press, 1965); Philip Kotler, "What Consumerism than the general household levels in the United
Means for Marketers," Hansard Business Review. Vol. 50 States.^
(May-June 1973), pp. 48-57; Raymond A. Bauer and The division of respondents into student,
Stephen A. Greyser, "The Dialogue that Never Hap-
pens," Han'ard Btisiness Rex'iew. Vol. 46 (January- ing and Consumerism," JOURNAL OF MARKETING. Vol. 36 (Oc-
February 1969), pp. 122-128; and Hiram C. Barksdale and tober 1972), pp. 28-35.
William R. Darden, "Consumer Attitudes Toward Market- 3. See Monroe Friedman, "The 1966 Consumer Protest as
Seen by Its Leaders," Joumal of Consumer Affairs, Vol. 5
Journal of Marketing. Vol 39 (April 1975), pp 3-10. (Summer 1971), pp. 1-23.
Journal of Marketing, April 1975


Demographic Students Women Businessmen
Characteristics (N = 2 4 1 ) (N = 55) (N = 71)

Under 25 66.4% 5.5% —%
25-34 30.7 49.1 38.0
35-44 2.5 38.2 45.1
45 and over .4 7.2 16.9
Total Annual Income
Under $10,000 38.6 3.6 1.4
$10,000-$ 14,999 27.8 16.4 8.5
$15,000-$24,999 19.1 47.3 54.9
$25,000 and over 11.2 29.1 33.8
No response 3.3 3.6 1.4
Number in Family
1 15.4 1.8 5.7
2 30.7 16.4 18.3
3 20.3 14.6 18.3
4 18.3 29.1 31.0
5 6.2 23.6 21.1
6 or more 6.6 14.5 5.6
No answer 2.5
Polit ica I Ph ilosop hy
Liberal 20.8 18.2 9.9
Moderate 68.1 56.3 60.5
Conservative 7.4 20.0 29.6
No response 3.7 5.5 —

nonemployed women, and businessmen groups efforts of consumers seeking redress, restitution
will enable us to measure the extent to which and remedy for dissatisfaction they have accumu-
different perceptions about consumerism exist lated in the acquisition of their standard of
among these groups. When perceptions among living."-' This definition, like most, is highly am-
these segments are homogeneous, fertile ground biguous because it does not distinguish the issues
exists for cooperative endeavors. Where beliefs included within the domain of consumerism.
differ among various groups, conflict and debate Table 2 summarizes the perceptions of the stu-
are likely to make the advancement of con- dents, nonemployed women, and businessmen
sumerism interests more difficult to attain. about whether the issues of infonnation, health
and safety, repair and servicing, pricing, pollution
The Meaning of Consumerism in the environment, marketing concentration,
The term consumerism is of recent vintage, as product quality, and consumer representation in
illustrated by its absence from many dic- govemment definitely should be included as
tionaries."* In the marketing literature, there ap- components of a definition of consumerism. The
pears to be no generally accepted operational majority of respondents in each of the three
definition of consumerism. For example, Buskirk groups "definitely agree" that all of the issues
and Rothe define consumerism as "the organized listed in the table, with the exception of "pollu-
tion in the environment" and "market concentra-
4. An example is the Random House Dictionary (New tion," should be considered within the domain of
York: Random House, 1967). consumerism. Dififerences do exist among the
three groups in the exact proportion of respon-
• ABOUT THE AUTHORS. dents who believed the issues listed above should
Norman Kangun and Keith K. Cox are professors of be included in consumerism. Over 80% of the
marketing in the College of Business Administration,
University of Houston. 5. Richard Buskirk and James Rothe, "Consumerism An
James Higginbotham is president and John Burton is Interpretation," JOURNAL OF MARKETING. Vol. 34 (October
vice president of Higginbotham Associates. Houston. 1970), p. 62.
Consumerism and Marketing Management


Students Women Businessmen
Issues (N = 2 4 1 ) (N=55) (N = 7 1 )

Information (such as more 82.2% 89.1% 95.8%

informative advertising,
clearly written warranties,
Health and Safety (such as 80.1 92.7 83.1
testing and evaluation of
drugs, stronger auto bumpers,
Repair and Servicing (such 70.1 85.5 71.8
as improved servicing of
appliances and automobiles)
Pricing Issues (such as the 59.3 81.8 63.4
high price of food, insurance,
hospital care)
Pollution in the Environment 61.8 47.3 36.6
(such as dirty air, water,
excessive billboards)
Market Concentration (such 26.1 45.5 42.3
as lack of competition in the
72.2 89.1 78.9
Product Quality (such as
frequent obsolescence,
product breakdowns) 58.5 69.1 52.1
Consumer Representation in
Govemment (such as a lack
of consumer representation in
govemment agencies)

nonemployed women definitely agreed that in- the students and businessmen. A majority in all of
formation, health and safety, product quality, re- the groups definitely agreed that consumer rep-
pair and servicing, and pricing issues should be resentation in govemment should be included as
considered under the domain of consumerism. part of consumerism. On the issue of pollution in
Agreement within the student and businessmen the environment, large differences existed among
groups exceeded 80% on only two issues the students, nonemployed women, and busi-
—information, and health and safety. As might be nessmen as to whether this should be included
expected as a result of their greater involvement under consumerism. According to a majority in
in family shopping activities, more women than all three groups, market concentration does not
either businessmen or students associated pricing belong under consumerism. Therefore, this issue
with consumerism. will be eliminated from further analysis.
Further, more students placed the pollution
problem under the domain of consumerism than Importance of Specific Issues to
either the women or businessmen. This may be a Consumers
function of the concem about ecological issues
raised on college campuses during the 1970s. Although a majority of respondents may indi-
In summary, there appears to be a broad con- cate that an issue belongs under consumerism,
sensus among all three groups that the four this tells us little about how important the re-
issues—information, health and safety, repairs spondent perceives the issue to be. Accordingly,
and servicing, and product quality—definitely be- respondents were asked to rate each of the seven
long under the domain of consumerism. Pricing issues listed in Table 3 in terms of its importance
issues were associated with consumerism by over to them. The proportion of businessmen who
80% of the women and by approximately 60% of rated each issue extremely or very important was
Journal of Marketing, April 1975


Students Women Businessmen
Specific Issues (N = 241) (N = 55) (N=71)
Information 84.7% 85.5% 76.1%
Health and Safety 85.9 90.9 75.1
Repair and Servicing 87.5 90.9 85.9
Pricing Issues 80.9 81.8 64.8
Pollution in the Environment 78.9 76.4 64.8
Product Quality 85.5 85.4 76.1
Consumer Representation in 60.2 58.2 39.4

substantially lower than the proportion of stu- fix the set. Two months later, the new color-
dents or women for all issues except repair and tuning device would not work. The dealer re-
servicing. All issues except consumer representa- fused to repair the set without an additional
tion in govemment were rated important by over service charge and a charge for the cost of
75% of the students and nonemployed women, another color-tuning device.
which seems to suggest a strong consensus for Sittiation 2: You bought a brand name re-
future action in these areas of interest. Although frigerator at a leading department store on in-
businessmen rated the importance of pollution stallment credit. The refrigerator was delivered
lower than the other two groups, it is interesting to your home three weeks later, but you noticed
that 65% did rate the issue important because that the contract called for interest to be paid
only 37% of the businessmen definitely agreed from the date on which you signed the contract.
that this issue should be considered part of con- In effect, you were paying interest for three
sumerism. There was a considerable lack of con- weeks without the merchandise in your posses-
sensus both within and between groups as to the sion.
importance of consumer representation in gov-
emment. The businessmen generally preferred Situation 3: The retail cost of meat items has
less rather than more governmental involvement, increased 25% over the last two months.
but this issue may pose additional threats to their Operating on a fixed budget for food, you find it
existing business policies and practices. difficult to buy meat items for your family and
stay within your budget constraints. Because of
the importance of meat as a source of protein,
Choice of Corrective Actions you are reluctant to substitute nonmeat items
for meat.
There are no easy or simple solutions to the
vast array of problems that consumers confront Situation 4: You bought a doll for your
in the marketplace. The remedies available to daughter's birthday. Soon aftei-wards, the head
consumers in dealing with such problems are became disengaged from the doll, revealing a
limited. They range from taking no action, taking sharp metal nail which was used as a fastener
moderate action (i.e., complaining to the retailer for the head and the body. Fortunately, the doll
or writing the manufacturer), or taking strong ac- was taken from the child before she sustained
tion (i.e., selective buying routines, boycotts, or an injury.
legal action).
To ascertain the remedies that consumers As Table 4 shows, in all of the situations except
might seek, four situations were created. Respon- rising meat prices, the vast majority of respon-
dents were presented with a list of possible ac- dents in each group preferred either moderate ac-
tions and asked to select from that list those tion or no action at all. This finding is not surpris-
actions they would most likely take in each situa- ing for a number of reasons. Consumers may
tion. The four situations are described below: believe that most consumer problems can be
solved without resorting to strong action, which
Situation 1: A color-tuning component in your is likely to be costly to them in terms of time and
television set was malfunctioning. The retailer money. To the extent that many consumer prob-
from whom the set was bought was called in to lems involve relatively small amounts of money
Consumerism and Marketing Management


Students Women Businessmen
Situations (N = 241) (N = 55) (N= 71)

Television Malfunction
No action" 9.7% 2.2% 10.0%
Moderate action*" 84.5 94.2 84.0
Strong action*^ 5.8 3.6 6.0
Illegal Interest Charges
No action 22.2 8.4 18.3
Moderate action 67.7 89.8 78.2
Strong action 10.1 1.8 3.5
Rising Meat Prices
No action 47.9 46.8 71.5
Moderate action 6.6 13.2 10.2
Strong action 46.5 40.0 18.3
Doll Safety Hazard
No action 20.0 11.8 19.9
Moderate action 73.3 83.6 80.1
Strong action 6.7 4.6 —

Wo action encompasses the following behaviors: (a) probably take no action because it is
unlikely to get results, or (b) probably take no action because of the time and expense involved.
^'Moderate action includes the following: (a) write or call the manufacturer, (b) complain
directly to the dealer, or (c) call the Better Business Bureau or a local consumer protection
'^Strong action includes the following: (a) take legal action, that is, initiate a class action suit
or go to a small claims court; or (b) take economic measures, e.g., participate in a boycott.

for the individual, strong action usually is not was consistently high among the student, nonem-
economically feasible. Many consumers are not ployed women, and businessmen groups.
aware of the legal remedies available to them in
dealing with consumer problems. Finally, some
The Importance of Consumerism
consumers may hold fatalistic outlooks and be- Today and in the Future
lieve little can be done to alleviate the excesses
that occur in the marketplace. After analyzing what the respondents perceived
By contrast, the situation involving rising meat to be issues under consumerism, their personal
prices seemed to provoke more students and judgment as to the importance of these issues,
women to choose stronger actions. With real in- and their choices of corrective action to four con-
comes declining as a result of rising prices, this sumer situations, the researchers asked all of the
budget squeeze creates fioistration, which gives respondents to give their opinions as to the im-
rise to stronger actions against the visible and portance of consumerism today and in the future.
vulnerable supermarket. A substantial minority of The answers to these two questions give insight
the women and students preferred stronger action into consumers' viewpoints as to whether con-
as a means of making their feelings known. sumerism is a temporary or permanent phe-
The businessmen appeared to be much more nomenon. Table 5 shows that approximately 85%
reluctant to use strong action such as boycotts in of the students and nonemployed women believed
coping with rising meat prices. As businessmen, that consumerism was extremely or very impor-
they may be more sympathetic to the problems of tant today. Perhaps more surprising is the fact
retailers. Thus, they probably are unwilling to that 70% of the businessmen shared this view.
support the concept of economic boycotts. Given these figures, the importance of con-
In summary, there was a strong tendency in all sumerism today seems to permeate all three
situations except the meat problem to "work groups of consumers.
within the system" by taking no action or some But, is the present consumerism movement
form of moderate action such as contacting the likely to recede in importance over time? Table 5
manufacturer, retailer, or Better Business Bureau. indicates that a large majority of respondents in
This tendency for no action or moderate action all three groups believed the importance of con-
Journal of Marketing, April 1975


Students Women Businessmen
Statements (N = 2 4 1 ) (N = 55) (N = 7 1 )

How important do you believe

Consumerism is today?
Believe to be extremely/ 84.2% 85.4% 70.4%
very important
In the future, do you believe
that Consumerism will be more
or less important than it is
Believe to be much more/ 83.8 78.2 66.2
slightly more important.

sumerism would be greater in the future. About those who can develop and communicate broad
four-fifths of the students and women expressed, consumer programs that satisfy consumer needs.
this belief, while two-thirds of the businessmen For example. Giant Foods—a supermarket chain
concurred. based in Washington, D.C.—has pioneered in the
Problems associated with affluence, such as in- development of a comprehensive, consumer-
creased product complexity and rising consumer oriented program. Under the guidance of Esther
expectations, are likely to continue. Thus, the be- Peterson, former head of the federal Office of Con-
lief in the increased importance of consumerism sumer Affairs, Giant Foods was among the first in
in the future by all three groups may be well the industry to institute unit-pricing and open-
founded. dating programs—long before govemment pres-
sures were placed on the industry to adopt such
Implications for Marketing programs.* The company also has been instru-
Management mental in promoting nutritional labels and has
spent substantial amounts of money to educate
The data uncovered in this survey seem to indi- the public.
cate that: (1) consumerism, like marketing, is per- A second reason for individual firms to react to
ceived to encompass a wide variety of issues and the challenges posed by consumerism is to
is broadening its domain; (2) consumers perceive minimize govemment action. From the firm's
the specific consumerism issues to be important: perspective, govemment regulation is, at best, a
and (3) consumerism is here to stay and will grow mixed blessing. Govemment agencies can define
in strength in the future. For many marketing and make explicit acceptable and unacceptable
managers, caveat emptor is an inappropriate norms of conduct whether they are related to
philosophy today. Because the pressures to attend sales practices, advertising, packaging, labeling,
to consumer problems are likely to remain, the or the like. These agencies also can be insensitive,
obligations of marketers, particularly consumer inept, and burdensome. If individual firms want
goods marketers, will change drastically. Further, to minimize governmental controls on consumer
it behooves marketing managers to be sensitive to issues, they must address many consumer prob-
the demands of consumers since marketing is at lems. What can firms do to improve their repair
the interface between the company and its exter- and servicing capacities? Can product warranties
nal environment. be written to tell consumers precisely what the
Two frameworks for evaluating possible alter- manufacturer's liability is and not simply to limit
native courses of action for marketing manage- the producer's liability? Can package sizes be
ment are (1) company action and (2) industry- simplified and standardized to allow consumers
wide action. to choose more economically if they wish to do
so? Can simpler designs and more reliable prod-
Company Action ucts be developed? Can additional product in-
Implementation of the marketing concept im- 6 Esther Peterson, "Consumerism as a Retailer's Asset,"
plies that a firm is responding to consumer wants Harvard Business Review, Vol. 51 (May-June 1974), pp.
and needs. Profit and sales opportunities exist for 91-101.
Consumerism and Marketing Management

formation be provided? How can firms minimize lems and establish priorities among them. Such a
the safety and health hazards of products such as goal requires the development of information sys-
toys, flammable products, and appliances? Can tems that are oriented toward obtaining informa-
the organizational structures of large retail estab- tion about various aspects of consumer discon-
lishments be altered to permit greater contact tent. What is needed is a research group with a
with customers and easier ways of dealing with broad, on-going mission aimed at identifying
problems? basic consumer problems, detecting changes in
Finally, it is in the long-term best interest of the attitudes and life styles, and developing new
firm to develop programs that are responsive to measures for determining the seriousness of these
consumer problems. If consumer frustrations are problems. Firms need to be able to anticipate
not dealt with, the firm may suffer as a result of consumer problems and convert them into
reduced sales and lower profits. profitable opportunities.^
Consumerism requires a greater awareness by After consumer problems have been identified,
marketing managers and businesspeople of hap- the firm must develop and implement programs
penings in the marketplace. A number of com- to deal with these problems. The development of
panies are responding to these challenges by such programs requires innovative thinking as
modifying their organizational structures to be well as a leadership group that looks favorably on
more responsive to consumer problems. In one change.'"
survey of 157 companies, of which 109 were con-
Industrywide Action
sumer goods companies, 29 have created one or
more organizational positions or departments to A second way of dealing with consumer prob-
deal with consumer problems.^ With respect to lems is industrywide action. There are many
such departments, some companies indicated reasons for marketers to tum to trade associa-
that they had established a separate office of con- tions and other business groups to deal with
sumer affairs or a customer relations department. consumer problems. First, many problems are
A second study reported the results of a question- common to a particular industry. Consider the
naire sent to the presidents of 400 of the nation's educational problems associated with nutritional
largest corporations that resulted in 96 responses. labeling or the informational problems associated
It revealed that 54 of these firms had a "corporate with maintaining up-to-date credit records. It
responsibility officer" whose task was, among makes sense for members of the industry to grap-
other things, to report to the corporation's many ple with these problems jointly. Second, and
publics how well the company was fulfilling its perhaps more important, consumer programs ini-
societal obligations.* Another 34 firms utilized a tiated by an individual company will involve
committee arrangement for this purpose. costs; unless emulated by competition, these costs
can threaten the competitive position of that
By itself, the creation of an organizational posi- company. Thus, where uncertainty exists about
tion or department with the word cotisumer in the competitors' actions, the incentive to act inde-
title does not mean a great deal. In some com- pendently is diminished. Consequently, indus-
panies, such positions may be established as a trywide action in dealing with consumer prob-
public relations gambit. To be effective in dealing lems is attractive because it can be undertaken by
with consumer problems, a firm must understand firms without threatening their competitive pos-
the real problems, not just their superficial symp- tures.
toms. For instance, the Whirlpool "cool line" pro-
vides customers with immediate personal contact The potential for industrywide action is great.
with the firm should they experience problems Trade associations are in a good position to de-
with their appliances. In addition to handling velop educational materials and then work
problems promptly, the "cool line" tackles the through dealers to improve both the quality and
impersonality problem that often afflicts large or- 9. For an extension of this idea, see Philip Kotler, Market-
ganizations. ing Management: Analysis, Planning, and Control, 2nd ed.
(Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972), pp. 58-62; and
If the organization is to address fundamental Daniel Yankelovich, "The Changing Social Environment,"
consumer problems, it must identify these prob- Marketing News, March 1971, reprinted in Readings in Mar-
7. Frederick E. Webster, Jr., "Does Business Misunder- keting Research Process, Keith Cox and Ben Enis, eds.
stand Consumerism?" Harvard Business Re\'iew, Vol. 50 (Pacific Palisades, Calif.: Goodyear, 1972).
(September-October 1973), pp. 89-97. 10. For a more extensive discussion of company initia-
8. Henry Eilbert and I. Robert Parket, The Corporate tives regarding consumer problems, see David A. Aaker and
Responsibility Officer: A New Position on the Organiza- George S. Day, "Corporate Responses to Consumerism Pres-
tional Chart," Business Horizons. Vol. 16 (February 1973), sures," Harvard Business Re\'ie\v, Vol. 49 (November-
pp.45-51. December 1972), pp. 114-124.
10 Journal of Marketing, April 1975

flow of information about products to consumers. wide action taken by firms to deal with consum-
Witness the efforts of the National Commission ers. However, many critics today hold that the
on Egg Nutrition to educate consumers about the Better Business Bureau is set up primarily to pro-
importance of protein in one's diet. Further, an tect the businessman. Perhaps business should
arbitration board, to which injured consumers reevaluate the function and purpose of the Better
can tum as a last resort, is often best handled Business Bureau in terms of today's consumer
through business associations. The cost of sup- problems.
porting the board is shared and, because it rep- Today, the question for business is not whether
resents all or most of the membership in a given to undertake efforts to identify and correct con-
industry, its power to get members to adhere to sumer problems but how to make such efforts ef-
its rulings is enhanced. As an illustration, the fective, particularly if firms are to survive the
moving and storage industry (i.e., the largest joint pressures exerted by consumerists and gov-
firms in that industry) has set up an arbitration emment. Consumer education, the establish-
board to act as a court of last resort should a ment of product standards in terms of quality,
consumer fail to resolve a complaint with his and the development of programs for handling
mover. Similarly, the advertising industry has consumer complaints are all areas where
created the National Advertising Review Board, industrywide efforts may be productive.
whose function is to monitor advertisements and
to investigate complaints about advertising. If an Conciusion
advertiser- is found to be in violation of board
standards and refuses to change or withdraw his Those consumerism issues for which there is a
ad, that action is published and the case is tumed broad acceptance of needs and the cost of imple-
over to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). In menting solutions is not too great are logical
the Schick case, the board came out looking places for many firms to voluntarily take actions.
tougher than the FTC, which showed a reluctance It appears from the survey results that company
to act. In this case, the board found the Schick actions in the areas of product information,
comparative ad campaign for its Flexamatic elec- health and safety standards, repair and servicing
tric shaver to be "false in some respects and mis- warranties, and product quality may be very
leading in its overall implications" regarding the beneficial in terms of long-run company goals. On
closeness of its shave when tested against com- the other hand, consumerism issues for which
petitive shavers." broad consensus does not exist and the costs
The traditional role of the Better Business would be high are not likely to be addressed vol-
Bureau is perhaps the best example of industry- untarily by a business firm. The pollution issue
appears to be an area where govemment action
11. For a more detailed report on the Schick case, see may be necessary and desirable. In any case,
"Competitors Hail NARB for Schick Shaver Ruling," Adver-
tising Age, January 7, 1974, pp. 1, 6; and Stanley E. Cohen.
businesses should act to protect consumers from
"NARB's Schick Ruling Highlights Secrecy of FTC's Regu- abuses in the marketplace. If businesses do not
lations Role," Advertising Age, January 7, 1974, p. 16. respond, govemment forces will undoubtedly act.