Broadening the Concept of Consumer Behavior

Brian Sternthal, Northwestern University Gerald Zaltman, Northwestern University
[ to cite ]:
Brian Sternthal, Northwestern University Gerald Zaltman (1974) ,"Broadening the Concept of Consumer Behavior", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 01, eds. Scott Ward and Peter Wright, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 488-496.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, 1974    Pages 488-496


Brian Sternthal, Northwestern University

Gerald Zaltman, Northwestern University

[Brian Sternthal is Assistant Professor of Marketing at Northwestern University. Gerald Zaltman is A. Montgomery Ward Professor of Marketing and Professor of Education at Northwestern University.]

During the past few years, the emergence of a broadened concept of marketing has eradicated the boundaries that had traditionally defined its domain. Marketing now comprehends the facilitation of the exchange process, regardless of whether economic goods and services, persons, institutions, places or ideas constitute the object of exchange. Strategies and tactics which were once indigenous to a business setting are now being employed in a variety of contexts.

Since consumer behavior is a subfield of marketing (as well as other disciplines), it seems logical to suggest that it too should be concerned with a breadth of consumption contexts. Certainly a major objective of this workshop is to examine the derivation and application of consumer behavior knowledge in "nontraditional" settings--specifically, health, education, and welfare. Of equal concern is the development of a paradigm for the understanding, prediction, and control of consumer behavior in its broadened context.


The thesis advanced here is that the evolution of a broadened concept of consumer behavior has involved the progression through three overlapping but distinct eras: the era of segregation, the era of comparativism, and the era of integration. Each of these eras is considered in some detail.

The Era of Segregation

With the emergence of the modern marketing concept after World War II, marketing researchers and practitioners began to study consumer behavior as an aid to decision making. These investigations tended to focus on the content of consumer thought. Measures with high face validity as behavioral predictors, such as attitude, personality, and demography, were administered to determine the profile of potential market targets. Furthermore, the theoretical underpinning of this approach were typically monomial; consumer behavior was ground in either micro-economic, psychoanalytic, or perceived risk theory.

In contrast social scientists concentrated their investigations on the structure of consumer behavior as a subset of human behavior. Processes involved in the diffusion of innovations, mass persuasion, and the like, received substantial empirical study. However, because these studies were often conducted in contrived settings and dealt with topics which were seemingly irrelevant to the consumption of economic goods and services, they were seldom used as a basis for marketing practice.

In essence, the era of segregation was characterized by a fractionation of those interested in consumer behavior phenomena. Marketers focused on the substance of consumer thought in order to predict situation specific behavior, while social scientists centered their attention on the processes that explained human exchange processes. Unfortunately, there was little communication between them.

The Era of Comparativism

Although remnants of the era of separation still remain, it seems evident that since the mid sixties consumer behavior has progressed into an era of comparativism. Marketing has attracted a group of scholars who combine a grounding in marketing issues and a sophisticated understanding of social science theory. As a consequence, there is a growing body of knowledge which juxtaposes practitioners' knowledge of what strategies are likely to be effective and researchers' knowledge of the mechanism that explains these observations.

To elaborate this point, consider the following example. Advertisers have recently adopted the "quick cut technique." Quick cuts involve rapid movement from one scene to another. A television commercial for a headache remedy may use quick cuts by first showing a mother scolding her children. The next scene depicts the mother at the medicine cabinet taking the analgesic being advertised. This is quickly followed by a scene in which the mother is cheerfully playing with her children, and then by an announcer who explains why the advertised brand is more than twice as effective for the relief of headache pain than the leading competitive brand.

The rapid movement from one scene to another is a technique adapted from flashbacks used in the film industry. It is employed by advertisers because it is creative and because it is an effective means of conveying information quickly. To determine the relative efficacy of using quick cuts versus some other technique, the advertiser must follow a trial and error procedure for each product tested.

Juxtaposed to this practice, is both theory and experimental evidence which give some indication of why quick cuts are effective. On the basis of cognitive response analysis (Greenwald, 1968), it is hypothesized that much of persuasion is self-persuasion; it entails the individual's rehearsal of his repertoire of attitude relevant thoughts. Thus full comprehension is unnecessary for persuasion, at least in situations where the individual has some familiarity with the issue in question.

This assertion is congenial with evidence reported in distraction (Baron, Baron, and Miller, 1973), inoculation (McGuire, 1964; Tannenbaum, 1967), and compression (Wheeless, 1971) studies. In comprehension studies for example, parts of a tape-recorded persuasive appeal are systematically deleted and the remainder of the tape-recording is spliced together Although subjects exposed to this procedure exhibited less comprehension than those played the complete version of the message, no differences in persuasion were reported (Wheeless,1971).

Thus, characteristic of the era of comparativism is the juxtaposition of practitioners' knowledge of what strategies work and social scientists' understanding of the mechanism underlying this observation. Moreover, during this era eclectic theories have replaced monomial explanations of consumer behavior phenomena. The theory of consumer behavior may be conceived as being analogous to a jigsaw puzzle in which the various theoretical positions constitute the pieces of the puzzle. For some parts of the puzzle, there are at present no pieces; theory and empirical work is virtually silent. In other parts of the puzzle, there appears to be multiple competing pieces. For example, cognitive consistency, learning theoretic, and behavior theory formulations are offered as alternative explanations of the same phenomenon.

The Era of Integration

Despite the isomorphism between practitioners' knowledge of what strategies work and social scientists' ability to explain, seldom has the prediction, explanation,and control of consumer behavior been systematically studied in natural settings. From a practitioner's viewpoint, such a paradigm would provide an externally validated explanation of the processes underlying behavioral observation. Given this knowledge inferences could be made about the likelihood that a particular strategy would be effective in a variety of contexts. From the researcher's perspective, testing explanations in natural settings would provide strong evidence concerning the efficacy of the theory.

Although true integration of practitioners and researchers concerns is still somewhat rare, there are studies which approach achievement of this end. Consider a study by Richard Evans and his coworkers (1970). In an initial contact with high-school students measures were taken to determine their behavior, behavioral intentions, and attitudes toward dental hygiene. In a subsequent contact subjects were randomly assigned to one of five treatments: severe threat of physical consequences, mild threat of physical consequences, social approval for proper dental hygiene practice, recommendations only, and elaborated recommendations. Several post-tests were administered to determine the extent and persistence of the communication's effect on attitude, behavioral intention, self-reported behavior and actual behavior.

Although the issue under investigation falls under the rubric of health, it has several noteworthy methodological attributes. First, it allows the researcher to test the effect of physical threat and induction of social approval in the same study. Second, it provides an opportunity to administer a scaled and relatively unobtrusive measure of behavior; plaque accumulation and the condition of the gingiva are highly sensitive indices of an individual's dental hygiene practices. Third, it enables examination of the relationship between self-reported and actual behavior. Finally, it addresses the question of the relative efficacy of threat and other motivationally based appeals in achieving compliant behavior.

The Evans et al. study may be recast in terms of a prediction of behavior paradigm. Using this approach, the induction of various levels of physical threat may allow systematic manipulation of an individual's personal normative beliefs; that is, what a person believes he ought to do in a particular situation. Further, manipulation of the level of social approval may have a systematic effect on individual's social normative beliefs--what he perceives significant others to want him to do in a given situation. Thus the causal relationships between two normative belief variables and behavior may be investigated. This study would make a significant contribution to extant knowledge which indicates a significant association between personal and social normative beliefs and behavioral measures.

Despite the advantages of such paradigms as the one used by Evans in integrating substantive and structural concerns, they fail to satisfy the objectives of social scientists. Specifically, they afford only a superficial level of explanation. The mechanism underlying the prediction made by a theory is seldom tested. A study in the welfare area will clarify this point. Freedman and Fraser (1966) studied the effectiveness of the foot-in-the-door technique as a means of interpersonal persuasion. Initially. Palo Alto homeowners were visited and asked to sign a petition or display a small sign dealing with one of two issues: keeping California beautiful or driving safely. The vast majority of homeowners who agreed to comply with the request were visited several weeks later and asked to display a large, poorly lettered Drive Carefully sign on their front lawn. They were shown a photograph which indicated that the sign would almost completely obstruct the view of their home from the street.

Thus a 2x2 design was employed with two levels of task similarity and two levels of issue similarity. It was found that all experimental groups complied to a greater extent than did a control group which was only visited once and asked to display the large Drive Safely sign. This finding is congenial with the prediction made by self-perception theory (Bem, 1972). Individuals who complied with some small request dealing with a social welfare issue attributed this behavior to the fact that they were socially concerned individuals. This attitudinal predisposition, in turn, led them to comply with the larger request. However, it should be noted that Freedman and Fraser's study does not address this question. Thus self-perception or some competing theoretical formulation may explain the results observed.

The point of this discussion is not to disparage a particular investigation. Rather, it is to indicate that even studies which examine causal relationships may not afford adequate explanation of the phenomenon observed. True integration of the practitioners and researchers perspectives will require more elaborate tests of the process underlying reported relationships in natural settings. Once this is achieved, information should be disseminated to consumers concerning effective modes of using and resisting marketing strategy--in effect making the consumer a salient audience for those investigating and reporting about consumer behavior phenomena.

In summary, it appears evident that consumer behavior has progressed through a series of stages. At present, the concept of consumer behavior encompasses a wide variety of issues. However, to truly broaden the concept of consumer behavior the concerns of practitioners, researchers, and consumers must be more adequately integrated. Of focal concern is the development of research paradigms which not only test theoretically based predictions but also provide an explanation of the process involved.


Consumer behavior is usually defined by pointing to phenomena which fall into its domain. Despite the growing number of texts which deal with consumer behavior, relatively few have formally defined it. For the purposes of this workshop consumer behavior may be defined as the purchase and consumption related activities of consumers engaging in the exchange process.

This definition is presented not only because it reflects a broadened concept of consumer behavior, but also because it is a convenient vehicle for indicating the underlying structure of this workshop. A consideration of the definition's components will clarify this point.

Purchase and consumption related activities--indicates the purpose of exchange processes.

Consumers--refers to the actor or actors whose purchase and consumption related behavior is under consideration. These social units may include individuals, groups, or organizations. Each of these units of analysis will be addressed in this session.

Exchange process--reflects the fact that consumer behavior is of concern to marketers and social scientists. Both are interested in determining how social units process and use information in making decisions, and the influence of interpersonal, situational, and environmental forces on consumers' behavior. Of particular concern in this workshop is the exchange process in the areas of health, education, and welfare.

The workshop program closely follows this definition. A series of papers will be given which focus on substantive issues in health, education, and welfare. Within each of these contexts papers will deal with the individual, group, and organization as the unit of analysis. Each of these papers is reviewed briefly.


The Family as a Consumer of Mental Health Services (Thomas L. Woods, University of Chicago).

The decision process in seeking mental health services for children is similar to that for more traditional goods and services. However. several aspects of the process appear to be uncommon.

(1) Misattribution of the problem. When a child exhibits a severe behavioral disorder involving disobedience, physical and verbal aggressiveness, running away, and the like, parents often misattribute the problem. They perceive these maladaptive behaviors to be related to educational, religious, or medical problems. In response, they may consult the child's teacher, a pediatrician, their minister, or some other authority. If the solutions offered by these experts fail the problem may be redefined as psychological.

(2) Vacillation in seeking help. Even when a psychological disorder is recognized, parents may vacillate before seeking help. They may take a wait-and-see attitude, read a book on child development, change their style of discipline, or elicit advice from friends in the hope that these activities will resolve the problem. Resistance to seeking professional help appears to derive from the social stigma attached to therapy, and parents' perception that psychiatric treatment for their child is an admission of their failure.

(3) Difficulty in determining appropriate service. Since the decision has been made to seek psychiatric help, parents have little guidance in selecting the appropriate service. Therapists offering group, Rogerian, Freudian, neo-Freudian, behavior modification and other types of treatment are often available. Moreover, even in the few instances where consumers are able to sample various types of treatments, the criteria on which to select a particular service generally remain unclear. Word-of-mouth thus becomes an important basis for physician selection.

(4) Lack of commitment to a therapeutic service. Consumers of therapeutic services often terminate treatment prematurely. In part, this may be attributable to the expectation that patients are to be passive, dependent, and essentially follow doctor's orders. However, unlike other forms of medical treatment, therapy demands relatively independent, active and self-dependent patient roles. To counter unrealistic assumptions, some therapists inform patients about the nature of the therapeutic process before therapy begins.

The Marketing of Health Maintenance Organizations (M. Venkatesan, University of Iowa).

In order to market HMO's it is necessary to determine their basic characteristics as innovations and to understand how the organizational structure of potential adopting groups operates. Important aspects of HMO's are their relative indivisibility making trial prior to full adoption difficult; their pervasive impact on the adopting organization; their relative inexpensiveness; and their emphasis on preventive as compared to curative medicine. Important structural aspects of organizations affecting their adoption of HMO's include complexity; formalization; centralization; and the existence of conflict reduction mechanism. High complexity and formalization favor the initiation of innovation and retards the implementation of innovations. High degrees of centralization retard initiation but favor implementation.


The Urban Teacher as a Potential Consumer (David H. Florio, Northwestern University).

The resistance of the urban teacher to educational innovations may be understood by examining the environment in which they work. Characteristic of the teaching environment is the lack of decision-making authority given to teachers. In fact, they have little say about the composition of the conscripted student population, class materials, and teaching body.

As a consequence of the limited investment of authority in teachers, they have continually been resistant to educational innovations. For example, the teacher often perceives team teaching as an intrusion upon his(her) domain. This innovation imposes a collegial interaction that is viewed as a serious threat to both the limited autonomy teachers have and their relative freedom from peer appraisal. Underlying this resistance is the limited authority teachers have in selecting their colleagues.

Florio suggests several strategies to overcome teacher resistance to innovation. The teaching environment must be modified so that teachers feel an "ownership" of innovations. Moreover, innovations intruding on traditional functions must appeal to teacher aspirations, satisfactions, and professional goals. Finally, innovations must be sold to parents and students as well as the teacher if they are to be implemented effectively. This will involve participation in decision making by all relevant publics in the local school community.

Diffusing Educational R & D Innovations to School Organizations (Stanley Chow, C.L. Hutchins, and Linda Sikorski, Far West Laboratory for Educational Research and Development).

It is the authors' contention that planning for the diffusion of educational innovations involves an examination of the interactions of user characteristics, innovation attributes, and diffusion strategies as they relate to innovative organizational behavior and as these variables are influenced by environmental constraints impinging upon the school organization. The authors described the important attribute dimensions, diffusion strategies, and environmental constraints that impinge on the educational marketer


Municipal Information Collection: A Marketing Perspective (E. Laird Landon, University of Colorado).

Landon suggests that the political process may be viewed in marketing terms. Politicians attempt to ascertain the demand for public goods and to translate public opinion into policies for generating public services. Five approaches have traditionally been employed to measure public opinion: elections, informal communications from constituents, pressure group opinions, open hearings, and advisory boards. Despite the usefulness of these vehicles, they present the politician with a biased view of constituent sentiment; relatively few constituents from specific socio-economic strata avail themselves of these communication channels.

A viable addition to municipal information collection techniques appears to be survey research. It exposes the politician to the "representative opinion" on various issues, facilitates determination of reasons underlying public opinion, helps uncover areas of public ignorance, and enables the monitoring of opinion over time. Yet, survey research is almost exclusively used by politicians to determine voter opinion toward candidates. Public opinion on other issues is left to the media.

Several reasons underlie politicians' aversion to survey research. It is argued that opinion pools are too expensive and require too much lead time to conduct. Moreover, Landon observes that surveys may be threatening to the politician. Uncovering negative attitudes may provide ammunition for the political opposition. In addition, representatives fear that once public opinion is known, their ability to act contrarily will be proscribed. Thus ways of overcoming this institutional reluctance must be developed, to allow politicians to benefit from survey research technology.

Consumer Behavior in the Contraceptive Market (Philip D. Harvey, Population Services International).

Harvey observes that their is a consistent pattern of consumer behavior in the condom market. Consumers in various countries (Bangladesh, Kenya, Ceylon) have repeatedly exhibited a preference for top-of-the line brands of condoms. Furthermore, price appears to be used as a surrogate indicator of condom quality. In fact, mere increase in price has in some cases heightened demand.

Variables other than price have been manipulated to stimulate demand. Product innovations include a variety of colors, preshaping, texturizing, and the like. Consumer response has been substantial whenever these innovations have been diffused.

Finally, Harvey notes that the sales of condoms have increased when they are marketed in non-medical settings. It appears likely that consumers prefer to purchase condoms in a pleasure-oriented and innovative setting.

Understanding the Market for Christianity: A Report on Asian Christian Strategy (James F. Engel, Wheaton Graduate School).

Engel examines the effectiveness of the church's marketing strategy in Asia and the South Pacific. Despite an optimistic picture, several impediments to progress are present.

(1) Failure to base strategy on understanding of audience decision process. Communication of religious information has been predicted on the assumption that the audience has sufficient awareness of Christ to permit the use of mass media. Engel asserts that such an awareness is uncommon, thus resulting in ineffective communication.

(2) A program orientation. Information dissemination strategies have concentrated on increasing the availability of religious material rather than on stimulating demand. What is needed, Engel states, is a marketing orientation that begins with an assessment of consumer needs.

(3) Fragmentation within the communication community. Evangelical communicators tend to work without awareness of what others are doing. Thus there is little integration in the information dissemination efforts.

(4) Absence of effectiveness measures. The effectiveness of various marketing strategies is seldom measured formally. As a consequence, it is difficult to state unequivocally the composition of the audience and the effect of religious appeals on their behavior.

(5) Conflict between missionaries and nationals. Although the goal of missionaries is to bring about a nationally run religious organization as rapidly as possible, this has seldom been achieved. In part, this may be attributable to missionaries' lack of trust in nationals' ability to run such a program. In part, missionaries may be reluctant to give authority to nationals because they would work themselves out of a job.

The Need for a Sociology of Consumption (Francesco M. Nicosia and Terrence H. Witkowski, Berkeley).

Nicosia and Witkowski speculate that some industrial societies are moving toward a "preindustrial" or "affluent" society. Furthermore, the gap between affluent and industrial societies will become as large as that between industrial and subsistence societies. The emergence of an affluent society will require an understanding of consumers' macro roles. This may be achieved by constructing a new body of theories and empirical knowledge termed the "sociology of consumption."

It is argued that the present economic and psychological concepts that are pertinent to an industrial state fail to describe the post-industrial society. For the latter purpose a sociology of consumption will be indispensable. For example, it will provide the basis for at least three facets of the optimal design of the advertising institution: the examination of goals and measures, the location of clients, and the delineation of the institution's components and environment. Since the most pressing issues concerning the advertising institution and the social management do call for an ability to conceptualize consumers and society as a whole, the need for a sociology of consumption is clear.


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