Consumer Activists: What Makes Them Different?

Jacques C. Bourgeois, Carleton University
James G. Barnes, Memorial University of Newfoundland
ABSTRACT - Throughout the debate on the consumer movement, few attempts have been made to determine the characteristics of the leaders of the movement or to differentiate the vocal consumer from the passive. For the most part, the research which has been done in this area has examined the characteristics of those people who say they are interested in consumer matters. Using a behavioral measure, this paper will develop a profile of consumers who have become involved in the consumer movement. The question will be asked and answered: "What makes the consumer activist different from the average consumer?"
[ to cite ]:
Jacques C. Bourgeois and James G. Barnes (1976) ,"Consumer Activists: What Makes Them Different?", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 03, eds. Beverlee B. Anderson, Cincinnati, OH : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 73-80.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1976      Pages 73-80


Jacques C. Bourgeois, Carleton University

James G. Barnes, Memorial University of Newfoundland


Throughout the debate on the consumer movement, few attempts have been made to determine the characteristics of the leaders of the movement or to differentiate the vocal consumer from the passive. For the most part, the research which has been done in this area has examined the characteristics of those people who say they are interested in consumer matters. Using a behavioral measure, this paper will develop a profile of consumers who have become involved in the consumer movement. The question will be asked and answered: "What makes the consumer activist different from the average consumer?"


Much has been written in recent years about the growth and activities of the "consumer movement" and about the direction in which "consumerism" will move in the future. It has been generally acknowledged that consumerism is but an outward and early manifestation of an underlying social concern which has been sweeping our society. The current consumer movement, which developed during the 1960's, is now part of a more general concern for the quality of the environment, the rights of individuals, protection of privacy, the state of the economy, the impersonality of big business and big government, and other related social and economic issues.

Throughout the debate on the consumerism phenomenon of the 1960's and 1970's, few efforts have been made to determine the characteristics of the leaders of the consumer movement or to differentiate the vocal consumer from the passive. This paper will develop a profile of consumers who have become involved in the consumer movement and should prove to be of interest to marketers and public policy makers for a number of reasons: (1) it marks the first time an attempt has been made to profile consumers who have joined a consumer association; (2) it will determine for the marketer whether the consumer activist constitutes a sufficiently important and viable market segment to warrant development of marketing programs designed to appeal to consumers who exhibit the characteristics of the activist; (3) it will examine the consumer activist in detail from a number of different perspectives; (4) it will determine those characteristics which best distinguish the consumerist from the mass of consumers who are more passive on consumerism and other social issues.


Previous attempts to examine the characteristics of the consumer activist have suffered from a number of weaknesses which cast doubt on their appropriateness for the development of marketing programs and government programs in the area of consumer affairs.


Firstly, authors in this area have generally relied upon surrogate measures of consumer activism, assuming that consumers who scored high on a Social Responsibility Scale (Anderson and Cunningham, 1972), or who expressed a concern over environmental pollution (Kinnear and Taylor, 1973), or who expressed negative attitudes toward business (Hustad and Pessemier, 1973) are consumer activists.

Secondly, research dealing with consumer activism has, almost without exception, relied upon psychological measures of the construct.

Thirdly, most studies have relied simply upon demographic and socio-economic variables to profile the consumer activist.

Fourthly, with the exception of the work of Kinnear and Taylor (1973), previous studies have not incorporated Canadian data, with the result that little work has been done to examine the consumer activist in this country.


While these previous studies have not employed a measure of actual consumer activism, some of their findings are, nonetheless, interesting. Hustad and Pessemier (1973) found that subjects who were strongly anti-business were higher in employment status and education level. Barksdale and Darden (1972) found that younger, more liberal respondents were more critical of marketing and more impressed with the accomplishments of the consumer movement. The Roper Organization (1971) found younger, more affluent consumers to be more concerned with environmental pollution and more willing to contribute to its reduction. Kinnear, Taylor and Ahmed (1974) found ecologically concerned consumers to be high in income and to be more open to new ideas, and higher in the need to satisfy intellectual curiosity and the need to obtain personal safety. Anderson and Cunningham (1972) assumed that subjects who scored high on the Social Responsibility Scale (SRS) would also manifest social consciousness in consumption decisions. Those who scored high on the SRS were younger and characterized by higher occupational and socio-economic levels. The high scorers on the SRS were also less alienated, less conservative, and more cosmopolitan than subjects in the low socially responsible group.

These findings have relevance for the study at hand only insofar as the dependent measures employed in these previous studies are assumed to be correlated highly with consumer activism.


The Sample

The sample consisted of two groups: the first contained members of the Market Facts of Canada Consumer Mail Panel (MFP) resident in the Toronto Metropolitan Census Area; the second was comprised of members of the Consumers' Association of Canada resident in the same area. MFP members were found to be quite representative of the population at large (Tigert, Barnes and Bourgeois, 1975). Membership in the CAC represents a behavioral measure of consumer activism.

Questionnaires were mailed to 1327 MFP members and to 600 CAC members. These mailings yielded 968 completed, usable questionnaires from the MFP group and 267 from the CAC group. Both samples were restricted to female beads of households because of the importance of the wife and mother in the family buying decision and because the membership of the CAC is predominantly female.

The Questionnaire

The questionnaire employed in this study consisted of three main sections. A fourth section containing demographic and socio-economic questions was added to the questionnaire for mailing to CAC members. These data were provided on MFP members by the panel operator.

The first section of the questionnaire consisted of 139 "life style" statements to which subjects were asked to indicate their level of agreement on a six-point, Likert-type scale. Each of the statements in this first section pertained to subjects' activities, interests and opinions in the areas of retail shopping and the mass media. The second section contained questions pertaining to subjects' exposure to and attitudes toward the mass media and selected retail stores. The final section of the questionnaire contained two retail newspaper advertisements to which subjects were asked to indicate their reactions by responding to twenty-one "life style" statements, each of which pertained to one of the following elements of reaction: 1. perceived believability; 2. perceived value for the money; 3. motivation to initiate action leading to purchase.

The Data

Blanks in the data, where subjects were found not to have answered particular questions, were replaced with the mean score on those questions for the group (MFP or CAC) to which the subject belonged. The effect of this procedure was to provide complete data for all subjects in the sample, a necessary condition for most analytical procedures.

The large number of variables in the data base was reduced through the use of principal components factor analysis. This approach to data reduction was employed in four sections of the questionnaire and was used to replace subjects' scores on a large number of variables with their sum scores on factors which represent underlying dimensions of subjects' attitudes or behavior. Responses to "life style" statements in the first and third sections of the questionnaire were factor analyzed and sum scores calculated for subjects on factors which represent underlying attitudes toward retail shopping, the mass media, and reaction to advertising. Similarly, information on readership and listenership of a number of individual magazines and radio stations was factor analyzed and produced factors which represent readership of types of magazines and listenership of types of radio stations.


The univariate analysis of the data involved a three-step process. Firstly, the mean scores on each variable were calculated for each of the two groups of subjects. Secondly, t-tests were performed on each variable to test the significance of the difference between the mean scores of the MFP and CAC groups. Thirdly, those variables which produced a significant t-statistic in comparing the group means were examined in a cross-tabulation analysis.

Demographic and Socioeconomic Variables

Results obtained from comparing MFP and CAC subjects on these variables are presented in Table 1 and are found to be quite interesting and support some of the findings reported in earlier studies. The consumer activist was found to have attained a much higher education level than had the mail panel member. The crosstabulation analysis revealed that 67.8% of CAC members had attended college as compared with 22.5% of MFP members. The results, when comparing the groups on husband's education level, are equally striking. Similarly, CAC members are more likely to be employed outside the home than are MFP members and, when employed, are more likely to hold professional, management, or supervisory positions. The husbands of CAC members are also more likely to hold such positions. One result of such differences is that fewer CAC members are found in lower income groups.



It was found that consumer activists are more likely to live in apartments and townhouses than are MFP subjects and are less likely to own their own homes. In addition, CAC members appear to reside in households with fewer members. These results may be explained, in part, by the fact that the mail panel understates the number of unmarried female heads of households who reside in apartments (Tigert, Barnes and Bourgeois, 1975).

Life Style Variables

Table 2 presents a summary of the univariate analysis on the "life style" variables. Fourteen life style variables produced differences between groups which were significant at a < 0.05. Significant mean differences were found between the MFP and CAC groups on six life style factors. CAC members generally expressed less interest than did MFP members in shopping for bargains and also tended to derive significantly less enjoyment from shopping. The consumer activist also expressed more negative attitudes toward shopping at discount houses. In media-related matters, the CAC member was found to be more skeptical of the accuracy of news reporting by the mass media and expressed much more negative attitudes toward media advertising than did members of the mail panel. The negative attitude of the consumer activist toward television as an information source was also revealed in this section of the analysis and is discussed in more detail later in this paper.



Additional information regarding the attitude of the consumer activist toward shopping and the mass media was obtained through examination of responses to statements which failed to load on any of the twelve factors. In the shopping area, consumer activists tend to agree that the durability of clothing is more important than style and indicate that they prefer to shop alone. The CAC member is also less bothered than are MFP subjects when approached by sales clerks in a retail store. They are also less likely to overspend when shopping and spend less time discussing products and brands with friends. The activist also considers other variables more important than price when making a purchase decision. With regard to the mass media, consumer activists tend to watch more educational television than do mail panel members and also tend to agree that too much television is bad for children.

Readership Variables

As evidenced in Table 3, quite different patterns of print media usage emerged in comparing responses to these variables. The most striking difference in the newspaper area is the fact that the consumer activist is a very heavy reader of the Toronto Globe & Mail (a conservative, more establishment newspaper) but reads the Toronto Star far less frequently than does an average consumer. Much information on the personality of the consumer activist is revealed by the fact that she is a heavier reader of national and international news and of the financial and editorial sections of a newspaper. Her cosmopolitan nature and aversion to advertising is reflected in the fact that she is a significantly lighter reader of the local news, women's pages, and newspaper display advertising. In magazines, the consumer activist is much less likely than is her mail panel counterpart to read traditional women's magazines such as Ladies' Home Journal and Better Homes and Gardens, but is much more likely to be a heavy reader of Canadian magazines and of news and travel magazines such as Time, Newsweek and National Geographic.

Listenership Variables

The consumer activist also exhibits a significantly different behavior toward the broadcast media. Table 4 points out clearly that the activist is much less exposed to the broadcast media than are average consumers and would appear to seek relaxation and entertainment in pursuits other than radio and television. Consumer activists have, on average, fewer radio and television sets in the home than do average consumers. The sets which they do own see considerably less use. The consumer activist is exposed to less AM and FM radio than is the MFP member, both during the week and on weekends. When she does listen to radio, she tends to reject stations which feature a predominantly 'music" format in favor of stations which stress quality news reporting and public affairs programs.





The consumer activist is exposed to considerably less television programming than are average consumers. For example, on weekdays, 26.1% of MFP subjects, but only 7.1% of CAC members, are exposed to more than six hours of television programming per day. This relatively light exposure to television is reflected in the fact that the consumer activist is significantly less likely than is the average consumer to watch most types of programs. Both groups are, however, equally likely to be exposed to news programs and the consumer activist is more likely to watch public affairs and documentary programming.

Attitudes Toward Advertising

In general, Table 5 shows that consumer activists expressed significantly more negative attitudes toward advertising than did average consumers. This aversion to advertising was exemplified both in reaction to the advertisements which were contained in the questionnaire and in response to certain "life style" statements pertaining to advertising. CAC subjects expressed consistent negative reaction to one of the two advertisements in the questionnaire on all three dimensions (perceived believability, perceived value for the money, motivation to act). Similarly, consumer activists voiced significantly stronger agreement with statements that there is too much advertising on television, that advertising makes people buy things that they don't need, and that they are reluctant to react to television advertising by buying the advertised product.\

Summary of Univariate Analyses

The univariate t-test and crosstabulation analyses reveal some interesting characteristics of the consumer activist. These may be summarized as follows: - she is considerably better educated and is more likely to be employed outside the home in a management or professional position. - she exhibits more negative attitudes toward shopping and is less likely to be a "bargain hunter". - she would appear to be more interested than is the average consumer in the "functional" attributes of a product. - she uses radio and television for "information" rather than "entertainment". - she exhibits a more negative attitude toward the mass media. - she is likely to exhibit a strong negative opinion of advertising in particular and, likely, of business in general. - she appears to be a much more cosmopolitan individual and more interested in the world around her. - she is more independent and subscribes more to a contemporary view of women in society, rejecting the women's pages of newspapers and women's magazines which may be perceived as presenting a traditional picture of the role of women.

Due to editorial restrictions a complete description of the analyses performed is not contained herein. Although, one should take note that limiting oneself to only a series of univariate significance tests can be misleading and could lead to erroneous conclusions (Tatsuoka, 1971). Thus, a multivariate analysis was conducted and is discussed in depth in another paper (Barnes and Bourgeois, 1975). In summary, the multivariate analysis suggests that not only do the two groups differ significantly on overall mean scores, but that they also relate the variables differently and therefore also 'think' differently.




A discriminant analysis was carried out and owing to the extensive list of variables, only those significantly different (at a < 0.05) variables in the t-test analysis were entered into the discriminant analysis. The purpose here was to identify a subset of these variables which best "discriminates" between the members of the consumers' association and average consumers. Table 6 presents those statistically significant variables.

The reader should realize that, in general, high statistical "significance" does not necessarily imply a large "magnitude" of difference, especially when the sample size is large. Thus, the significant F-statistics should not be equated with the magnitude of the difference between the two groups. Tatsuoka (1970) provided a measure (w2) which measures the magnitude of this difference. Therefore, to measure the extent of differention or total discriminatory power, w2 was used. It was found that approximately 45.1% of the variance in the discriminant space was relevant to group differentiation. Thus, it was discovered that not only do we have a statistically significant difference between the two groups, but that this difference was also large.

A classification matrix showing the number in each sub-sample classified into MFP and CAC groups by the discriminant function is also presented in Table 6. The hit ratio or percentage of respondents correctly classified (87.5%) was approximately 22% better than what would be expected by the proportional chance criterion (Morrison, 1969). However, it should be noticed that a hit ratio calculated in this fashion may suffer from an upward bias (Morrison, 1969). Thus, in order to overcome this shortcoming, the discriminant function derived from the first half of the sample (MFP1 and CAC1) was used to classify the validation sample or the second half of the sample (MFP2 and CAC2). Although this showed a slight upward bias as hypothesized (84.0% vs. 87.5%) the difference was small and the percent of respondents correctly classified in the validation sample was also significantly better (a << 0.001) than that obtainable by chance.



Since we have significantly different sample sizes (about one CAC member for every three MFP members), we should also briefly examine the percent correctly classified in each group. Relying only on the aggregate hit ratio could lead to a misinterpretation of the data. Upon examining the hit ratio for each group we find that the results are quite consistent across all groups (87.5%, 87.6%, 85.0%, 80.0%). Thus, the results were not biased towards any one group, as indicated by the consistent hit ratios across all groups. It is, therefore, concluded, from the statistical significance of the results and from the discriminatory power of the function, that the two groups are indeed quite different.


The most evident conclusion from the analysis described above is that the consumer activist, as represented by the CAC member, is, indeed, very different from the average consumer. These results tend to support earlier findings in this area, but the addition of life style and media-related variables permits a much more comprehensive profile of the activist. The description of the consumer activist which has been presented in this paper suggests a number of important implications.

Implications for Marketing Management

The percentage of the MFP sample which was misclassified as activists in a discriminant analysis may be considered an estimate of the percentage of the total population who exhibit characteristics similar to those of the CAC member. This analysis indicated that approximately 15% of the population at large are similar to the activist on those variables which were included in the discriminant analysis. This result suggests that the consumer activist may comprise an important and viable market segment for certain marketing purposes. The fact that such a large percentage of the population likely share the views of the activist toward business and advertising would also likely be of some concern to management.

There is also some suggestion that this 15% of the population which may be considered activists may be understated. It is conceivable that the members of the CAC who would take the time to complete and return a questionnaire are the most active of the activists. If this study has, in fact, attracted responses from the most active of activists, then the proportion of the population which shares the characteristics of the consumer activist is likely much larger than 15%.

In addition to constituting a large segment of the market in their own right, there is evidence that consumer activists are also important as a result of their influence on the behavior of others. The fact that the consumer activist exhibits many of the traits which have. in past studies, been attributed to the opinion leader, would also suggest that she is likely an important channel of communication from the marketer to the population at large. A number of studies have reported on an obvious cosmopoliteness demonstrated by opinion leaders (Rogers & Shoemaker, 1971). This characteristic of an interest and orientation outside her immediate community is definitely demonstrated by the consumer activist in her media usage patterns. This media behavior, being oriented more toward information than to entertainment, would also support the finding of Tigert and Arnold (1971) that the opinion leader is an information seeker.

The opinion leader has also been pictured as more self-confident and independent than the average consumer. Such traits are clearly demonstrated by the consumer activist in that she tends not to rely upon advice from others when shopping and prefers to shop alone. The orientation of the consumer activist outside the home, as suggested by more employment and less dependence on radio and television for entertainment, indicates greater opportunity for social participation, another characteristic of the opinion leader (Rogers & Shoemaker, 1971).

Although few studies have concluded that demographic differences exist between opinion leaders and their followers, a number have suggested that the opinion leader is likely to be better educated and to have higher educational and social status (Robertson, 1971; Rogers & Shoemaker, 1971). Again, these characteristics are clearly demonstrated by the consumer activist.

In addition, many of the characteristics of the opinion leader are also exhibited by the innovator and are similarly reflected by the consumer activist (Rogers & Shoemaker, 1971). Engel, Kollat & Blackwell (1973) report that the innovator is likely to exhibit cosmopoliteness, to be extremely well-informed, and not to be especially interested in low prices per se. Again, these are characteristics demonstrated in the profile of the consumer activist developed in this paper.

Such evidence suggests that the consumer activist should be of interest to the marketer not only because she may constitute at least 15% of the population, but also because she is likely to be particularly influential in informing other consumers.

The question will inevitably arise: "how can the professional communicator reach the consumer activist?" What types of information does she seek and where does she look for it? In her purchase behavior, the consumer activist would appear to look for more functional information than does the average consumer. She is less interested in bargains per se, is not likely to rely upon prices as an indicator of quality, and is more likely to consider the functional rather than the psychosocial aspects of a purchase. Her obvious aversion to media advertising indicates that she does not look to advertising for product information. She also does not seek shopping information from friends but, rather, prefers to shop alone. Her self-confidence and independence would suggest that she relies heavily upon her own ability to determine what is the best purchase decision. Her membership in the CAC would also suggest that she makes use of impartial sources of information such as the Canadian Consumer and Consumer Reports to assist her in making purchase decisions.

The number of consumers who share the interests and characteristics of the activist and the potential for influence of the consumer activist make consumerism a force in society that marketers cannot afford to ignore.

Implications for Public Policy

The results of this study provide the public policy maker with information on the characteristics of the leaders of the consumer movement in Canada. These findings, however, raise important questions regarding the extent to which the consumer activist is actually representative of the population at large. The difference between the activist and the average consumer which have been presented above indicate that the activist may not be sufficiently similar to consumers in general to represent their interests before policy-making bodies. The issue of whether consumer advocates and activists actually represent the interests of the mass of consumers has been raised before (Winter, 1972; Barnes, 1975) and the data presented here suggest further that those charged with the responsibility of formulating regulations in the interest of consumers should at least be aware that the groups and individuals who may be lobbying for such regulations may not be totally representative of the broader consumer interest.

White the question of the representativeness of the consumer activist may be raised, her ability to influence other consumers on various issues should not be ignored. The consumer activist may often appear to be representing the interests of a small group, but her opinion leader characteristics suggest that she is also likely to be capable of mustering public opinion concerning those issues in which she is interested. The vocal consumer activist and the associations to which she belongs have proven themselves effective in the past at generating interest in consumer affairs, often through the use of a willing public press. Legislators have also shown themselves generally willing to support proposals for legislation which are made by activists in the interest of consumers in general. A major danger, however, is that legislators and public policy makers will react, to activist pressures by passing laws and regulations which may be neither appropriate nor enforceable.


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