Research on Consumerism: Opportunities and Challenges

Paul N. Bloom, University of Maryland
ABSTRACT - A short review is presented of previous research on the subject of consumerism. Several ideas are offered on where the most valuable research contributions can be made in looking at consumerism in the future.
[ to cite ]:
Paul N. Bloom (1982) ,"Research on Consumerism: Opportunities and Challenges", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 09, eds. Andrew Mitchell, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 520-522.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 9, 1982      Pages 520-522


Paul N. Bloom, University of Maryland


A short review is presented of previous research on the subject of consumerism. Several ideas are offered on where the most valuable research contributions can be made in looking at consumerism in the future.


Consumerism has been the subject of considerable discussion over the last two decades. This social movement- which has sought to help consumers attain safer products, more information, adequate selection, and better access to redress mechanisms--has been examined by researchers from numerous disciplines using a wide variety of research approaches. These researchers have sought to describe, explain, predict, and control the overall consumer movement and the organizations, individuals, and issues that have made up the movement. Put differently, one could say that these researchers have studied consumerism extensively on both a macro and micro level.

This paper contains a brief review of the research that has been done on consumerism during the last two decades. The review is not designed to provide exhaustive coverage of past research studies, but, instead, to point out areas where research has been lacking or where new research opportunities have recently emerged. Actually, the paper refers to only a small number of past research studies three of which are the studies that were presented immediately prior to the delivery of this "discussant's" paper. The review is organized to cover research seeking to (1) describe and explain consumerism (on both a macro and micro level), (2) predict the movement's future (on both levels), and (3) control aspects of the movement (on both levels)


Much effort has been devoted toward describing what consumerism is and toward explaining why the movement emerged and developed the way it did. Numerous writers have offered descriptions of the legislative debates, the legal battles, the boycotts and demonstrations, and the fund-raising techniques that have characterized the consumer movement (see, for example, Clark,1980; Greyser, 1973; Handler, 1978; Herrmann, 1974; Kotler, 1972). These writers have offered an assortment of explanations for the rise and sustained vitality of 1960's-70's consumerism, placing importance on factors such as the increase of material wealth of the American public, the depersonalization of shopping, the support of prominent political figures, the skills and charisma of Ralph Nader, and so forth.

The empirical work directed at describing and explaining consumerism has tended to be very limited in its focus. Most of the empirical research has sought to either (1) describe the characteristics of consumers who hold "consumerist" attitudes or who report being "dissatisfied" or (2) explain what has caused consumers to develop "consumerist" attitudes or to become "dissatisfied." One could say that this research has tended to look at consumerism on a more micro level, being concerned with understanding more about the individual attitudes and opinions that provide some basic underlying support for the consumer movement. More macro-level empirical studies, examining how the strength and vitality of the overall movement has been affected by consumer attitudes and opinions versus factors such as those mentioned in the previous paragraph, have not been done. Furthermore, only limited effort has been devotedtoward other types of micro-level studies, such as investigations of individual consumer groups, their supporters and clients, and the reasons why people choose to become supporters or clients.

Thus, what is available is a large assortment of studies on "consumerist" attitudes and opinions, and the three studies reported upon prior to the delivery of this paper all contribute nicely to this body of literature. Through the guidance of all this literature, much is now known about who favors consumer protection legislation (Sentry, 1977), who likes Ralph Nader (Barksdale and Perreault, 1980), who thinks business cares about consumers and charges reasonable prices (Darden, Stanley, and Howell, 1982), who feels dissatisfied (Warland, Herrmann, and Willits, 1972), and why dissatisfaction develops (Deshpande and Krishnan, 1982; Richins, 1982). In addition, it is now known that much of what consumers think and feel about consumerism has remained reasonably stable over the last decade or so (for a review of relevant studies see Bloom and Greyser, 1981). What past empirical research cannot reveal, however, is why--in spite of relatively stable and favorable thoughts and feelings about consumerism across many different types of consumers--the consumer movement as a whole has had relatively dramatic ups and downs? Clearly, some new and different forms of empirical research will be required to address this question.

While the previous research on attitudes and opinions has been helpful--by showing that an important element for the vitality of a social movement, mass public discontent, has been present--it has not been enough. Sociologists who have analyzed social movements have come to recognize that to understand a social movement, it is necessary to look beyond data on discontent toward information about the resource mobilization abilities of the organizations making up the movement. In fact, a "resource mobilization" approach has essentially replaced a "discontent" approach as the dominant paradigm in the sociology literature for analyzing social movements (Zald and McCarthy, 1979; Jenkins and Perrow, 1977).

Thus empirical research on a more micro-level that would be consistent with the "resource mobilization" approach might examine things such as: (1) the changes over time of funding and memberships for various consumer organizations, (2) the reasons why individuals contribute to and join consumer organizations--something which Richins (1982) has, to a degree, addressed in her work, and (3) the amount of assistance and political support given to consumer organizations by certain labor unions, legislators, celebrities, and others. Such research is needed to begin to understand how individual consumerist attitudes get converted into group consumerist behaviors and a national consumer movement.

There is also a need for some more macro-level empirical research that would examine how certain global indicators of the movement's health (e.g.s legislative victories, lawsuits won, information programs commenced) are related to variables such as the inflation rate, per capita income, GNP, and public attitudes. It might also prove interesting to conduct a more macro-level study on the consumer movement similar to one that was conducted recently on the farm workers movement (Jenkins and Perrow, 1977). In this study, abstracts from the New York Times Annual Index were content analyzed to identify major events and activities that occurred between the late 1940's and early 1970's that were related to the farm workers movement. Statistical analyses of the relationships between various measures developed in the content analysis provided support for the notion that the farm labor movement was most successful (in achieving its own objectives) when numerous supportive actions and activities were undertaken by groups and individuals who were not formally part of the movement. The results were interpreted as supplying support for the idea that discontent--which remained strong among farm workers throughout the studied period--cannot, by itself, determine the strength (or weakness) of a social movement; that a movement's strength is determined to a great extent by its ability to mobilize resources and support from all sectors of society (Jenkins and Perrow, 1977).


Nothing helps one make a good prediction like a good explanation. But, as has just been lamented, good, empirically tested explanations of consumerism have not appeared. In spite of this lack of guidance for making predictions | or perhaps, because of it--writers have not been shy about forecasting the future of the movement. Marketing scholars (including this writer see Bloom and Stern, 1978; Bloom and Greyser, 1981), economists (Herrmann and Warland, 1980), futurists (Molitor, 1981), and consumer advocates themselves have spoken out freely and frequently about consumerism's future. The predictions that have been made have generally been based on personal observations, discussions with consumer advocates, and intuition, without much rigorous theoretical thinking or empirical analysis to back them up. About as rigorous as the predictions have gotten is the work of Graham Molitor (1981), who uses futurist curve-plotting techniques to forecast the strength of the movement and its most prominent issues. Unfortunately, (and understandably) Molitor--who is now a private consultant-has not laid out the details of his forecasting methodology for review by others.

In the view of this author, the best available approach for predicting the future of consumerism, given the lack of tested theoretical explanations of the movement, involves two elements:

1. Studying the trends in consumer attitudes and opinions (or discontent);

2. Examining the potential resource mobilization skills of the individual organizations making up the movement.

Such a two-pronged approach to prediction would be consistent with the resource mobilization literature cited earlier. It would involve both careful review of public opinion polls that have been conducted over a period of years and critical evaluation of, in a sense, how well various consumer organizations market themselves.

This author recently finished working on a forecasting project that employed such an approach and arrived at the following conclusions (see Bloom and Greyser, 1981):

1. Public discontent with certain features of the marketplace, and a consequent desire for consumer protection initiatives in areas like product safety and health care, have not diminished in recent years (public contentment with government has diminished). This suggests that a constituency for consumer organizations should remain available for at least the near future.

2. National consumer organizations have been experiencing funding difficulties and should continue to face them unless they can determine a way to overcome the "free rider" problem (Olson, 1965). This is a problem that emerges because people have little incentive to contribute to a collective action if they can get the benefits of the collective action without contributing a any way.

3. State and local consumer organizations should have a brighter future because they often deal with the "free rider" problem more effectively. These organizations can provide people with "selective benefits" such as consumer education materials and redress assistance in exchange for their contribution to collective actions.

4. The organizations that position themselves to take advantage of certain societal trends should be the most successful and will probably be at the forefront of the movement. Trends will probably favor groups that deal with, for example, the problems of the elderly and the consumer difficulties produced by the new communications technologies.

Additional research is clearly required to refine and find further support for these predictions. Of particular help would be research that explores dimensions of the "free rider" problem, seeking to understand how consumers are likely to react to calls for collective action in the future. This is another way of saying what was said in the previous section about the need for more micro-level research on the supporters and clients of consumer organizations.


There are certainly individuals who would like to be able to exert some control over the evolution of the overall consumer movement. Some members of the business community would probably like to steer consumerism toward a quick death, while certain consumer advocates would like to steer consumerism toward a position of much greater importance in American politics. On a more micro-level, a desire to be able to exert control over the fortunes of individual consumer organizations clearly exists among many consumer advocates.

Research that could help these various people in their control efforts has been very limited. Of course, research seeking to explain consumerism could indirectly help them and, perhaps, has helped them by suggesting causes of discontent and activism that they might try to eliminate or exacerbate (depending on what they were trying to accomplish). But more direct assistance to control efforts can probably be attained by various forms of evaluation re- search. Studies that could tell something about how well certain control efforts have actually "worked" would be most useful. Thus, much could be learned from evaluations of lobbying efforts--such as Schwartz's (1979) study of the business lobbying effort against the proposed consumer protection agency--or of programs initiated by various organizations to attract members, educate consumers, or handle redress problems. An example of this last type of evaluation can be found in the TARP, Inc. (1979) study of complaint-handling procedures in various public and private organizations. It should be recognized, however, that evaluation research of consumer programs can be extremely difficult and frustrating (see Bloom and Ford, 1979).


Volumes have been written on the subject of consumerism, but only a relatively small portion of this writing has contained reports on empirical research. The focus of the empirical work in this area has thus far been on understanding the nature and determinants of consumer discontent. A broader understanding of consumerism could be obtained through more research on consumer organizations, their supporters and clients, and the performance of their programs and initiatives.


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