Is Consumerism Dead Or Alive? Some New Evidence

Darlene Brannigan Smith, University of Maryland
Paul N. Bloom, University of Maryland
ABSTRACT - The findings of four studies are evaluated in light of several research questions concerning the viability of the consumer movement. The results suggest that the movement is still alive and that strong potential exists for renewed enthusiasm and synergy.
[ to cite ]:
Darlene Brannigan Smith and Paul N. Bloom (1984) ,"Is Consumerism Dead Or Alive? Some New Evidence", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, eds. Thomas C. Kinnear, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 349-373.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, 1984      Pages 349-373

IS CONSUMERISM DEAD OR ALIVE? SOME NEW EVIDENCE

Darlene Brannigan Smith, University of Maryland

Paul N. Bloom, University of Maryland

ABSTRACT -

The findings of four studies are evaluated in light of several research questions concerning the viability of the consumer movement. The results suggest that the movement is still alive and that strong potential exists for renewed enthusiasm and synergy.

INTRODUCTION

The drastic cutback in Federal consumer protection activity that has taken place in the last few years might suggest to some observers that consumerism is dead. The organized consumer movement's inability to reverse this trend can certainly be viewed as a signal that the movement's days are numbered. However, there are those who argue that in spite of what has been happening in Washington the consumer movement remains alive and healthy. For instance, Bloom and Greyser (1981) have proposed that consumerism has entered a mature stage of its life cycle and now consists of a highly fragmented "consumerism industry" with numerous organizations and institutions selling consumerist "products." They foresee the demand for the products of this industry remaining strong and the competition for this demand remaining heated. They predict that certain trends will favor the fortunes of local and grass-roots consumer organizations over national organizations in the competition for gaining public approval and assistance. Their views have received support in the work of several individuals, including Herrmann and Warland (1981), Peterson (in Cohen 1981), Metzen (1982), Molitor (1982), and Greyser, Bloom, and Diamond (1982).

This paper presents some new evidence that can be used to evaluate Bloom and Greyser's ideas and provide other insights into the current and future status of consumerism. Four different research studies are examined in an attempt to answer the following questions:

1. What is the current status of public attitudes toward consumerism?

2. Are people engaging in behaviors (e.g., joining consumer groups) that are consistent with their attitudes?

3. Are there specific sub-segments of the population which possess more favorable attitudes and behaviors toward consumerism?

4. Are policy makers in Washington accurately assessing the public's attitudes and behaviors toward consumerism?

5. Bow well are various consumer groups competing in the consumerism industry?

Probing the first three questions can help to reveal information about the intensity and dimensions of the demand for consumerism. The fourth question is addressed to reveal whether there is some potential for the demand for consumerism to be intensified because of neglect or misunderstanding of consumerism by Washington policy makers. Finally, the last question is treated to suggest which types of consumer groups might become the strongest in the coming years.

The four studies that are examined are:

1. The "Consumerism in the Eighties" study conducted by Louis Harris and Associates(1983) under the sponsorship of ARCO. Although the authors of this paper were not involved with this study (as they were with the other three), its recency and size make it an important work to review in developing answers to the above questions.

2. A poll of residents of a Middle Atlantic state conducted in the fall of 1982.

3. A survey of Washington policy makers conducted in the summer of 1982.

4. A survey of activist organizations conducted in the fall of 1982.

This paper is organized as follows. First, each of the four studies is reviewed separately. Next, the results of all the studies are integrated to provide answers to the five questions. Finally, the implications of the results for public policy makers and consumer researchers are discussed.

FINDINGS

Louis Harris Survey

Data for the "Consumerism In The Eighties" study were based on responses from 1252 randomly selected adults nationwide. They were telephoned during the period October 15 through October 26, 1982 via a modified random digit dialing procedure. The results suggest many answers to the research questions addressed above.

The public appears more concerned today about many consumer problems than previously. According to Harris, "forty-one percent of the total sample cite a great deal of worry over a majority (six or more) of the eleven concerns" found in Table 1 (Harris, 1983 p. 13). An examination of the table shows that four of the concerns show at least a 10: increase, three show a slight increase, and only two show improvement since 1976. In addition, when consumers are asked to assess how things have changed in the last 10 years, several areas are thought to have gotten worse. Seventy-six percent of all respondents perceive that the value obtained for money spent on most goods and services has gotten worse. and 59% say that the quality of most products and services has grown worse. Overall, 54% of the public feel the deal consumers get in the marketplace is worse, as approved to 31% who feel it is better, than 10 years ago. Thus, there appears to be support for the contention that strong demand exists for consumerism.

Despite these favorable evaluations, public participation in organized consumer groups is weak even though there appears to exist strong potential for involvement. Only 65 of the respondents indicate they have ever taken an active part in a consumer group and only 14% have ever personally contributed money to a consumer group. but "two thirds say they would certainly or probably support a consumer pressure group in their area under certain circumstances" (Harris 1983, p. 8).

TABLE 1

PROBLEMS THAT WORRY CONSUMERS "A GREAT DEAL": 1982 AND 1976

The Harris survey also provides profiles of 3 groups which may be of interest to researchers and policy makers: the Black consumer, women, and the elderly. 'the overall picture of the Black consumer. . . is one of a group that seems particularly vulnerable to and concerned about consumer protection, that is an ally of those who press for more government regulation but that does not feel quite so well served by the movement today as it might be" (Harris 1¦83, p. 67). Similarly, 'Nomen appear to be more sensitive to consumer problems and less satisfied that these problems are being solved, (and). . . think that government should be doing more to protect consumers" (Harris 1983, p. 68). Individuals over the age of 65 are more skeptical and less convinced that "there has been progress in the marketplace, that the impact of the consumer movement is good, that government regulation is desirable, and that the benefits of consumerism are worth the costs" (Harris 1983, p. 69). In general, the lower income and less educated groups are pro-consumerist when it comes to having worries about consumer problems, perceiving deterioration in the marketplace, and preferring more government regulation and protection.

How effective do consumers perceive the number of policy-makers and consumer organizations to be? Table 2 presents some results. Consumers Union and the Better Business Bureau are far better perceived as protecting the interests of consumers, which is in sharp contrast to the perceived efforts of the current Washington administration, state governments and private industry. Congress receives lower ratings than did the White House. The Consumer Product Safety Commission is the only arm of government receiving a positive rating while the Federal Trade Commission receives only a 26% confidence vote. Overall, the ratings have remained stable over the past 5 years with the exception of Ralph Nader, who has dropped 15 percentage points.

Clearly, consumers perceptions of the consumer movement, its impact and accomplishments are more favorable than their opinion of its leadership. 'there is a widespread perception (66%) throughout the public that the consumer movement is stronger today than it was five years ago" (Harris 1983, p. 26). There are, however, some complaints about consumer leaders. Forty-eight percent of the respondents think the leaders are "out of touch" with consumer feelings and 49% do not think the leaders consider the cost of what they are asking for. Even though this criticism still results in favorable evaluations, the shifting opinions are clear and should represent an early warning to consumer groups.

TABLE 2

RATINGS OF THOSE INVOLVED IN CONSUMER PROTECTION: 1982 AND 1976

Another area which has shown diminishing public support is government regulation of business in general. Only 21% think there should be more regulation, 33% feel the same level is needed, and 41% prefer less regulation. Consumers are overwhelmingly in favor, though, of protective intervention - 94% favor approving new drugs, 88% are for approving new toys, and 67% for deciding the misleadingness of television advertisements. It is important to note that 42% of the respondents feel that government regulation has not done enough to protect consumer, 28% have mixed views, and 27% think it is about right. Only 3% feel government regulation has gone too far.

Middle Atlantic State Poll

Residents of a particular mid-atlantic state hold similar views to their cohorts nationwide. Many would seem to disagree with the current administration's policy of pulling back from consumer issues. These results were obtained from a small telephone poll (while questions on a diverse set of topics were asked) which surveyed a cross section of state residents. A random sample was obtained by using the random digit dial method of selecting telephone households and a probability selection of individuals within a household. One hundred forty-two individuals were interviewed during October 1982. The sample was representative of the state profile regarding various demographic factors.

When asked to respond whether the government should exercise more, less, or about the same level of responsibility as it now does for regulating the advertising, sales, and marketing activities of manufacturers, 32% of the sample preferred more, 38: preferred about the same, and 30% indicated less government responsibility. These results are not identical to those found in the Harris study but seem to indicate a stronger preference for more government regulation. This question, however, probes concerns specifically about marketing activities in contrast to the Harris question which dealt with the regulation of business in general.

The survey results also identify differing attitudes across race, education, and income groups. Black respondents overwhelmingly indicate the need for more government responsibility which is in sharp contrast to the views of most of the state's white residents. Fifty-six percent of all Black respondents prefer more regulation responsibility, while only 25% of the white respondents feel this way. Likewise, only 9% of the Blacks indicate a desire for less regulation responsibility as compared to 35% for the white population. Similar results are obtained for lower income and less educated subsegments of the state's population. Table 3 presents the summary percentages. Over one-half of those individual with less than $10,000 annual income feel the government should exercise more responsibility as compared to one-third of those with incomes exceeding $10,000. Comparable figures can be seen for those who are less educated. These data are in general agreement with the Harris study.

TABLE 3

MID-ATLANTIC STATE POLL

Survey of Washington Policy Makers

A telephone survey was conducted of individuals in staff and administrative positions of Congress, the executive branch and independent regulatory agencies during June of 1982. Table 4 presents the questions and overall responses to each. (Responses are based on five point Likert-type scales.) The questions specifically examined perceptions of the continued viability of consumerism and the effectiveness of various consumer groups.

TABLE 4

SURVEY OF WASHINGTON POLICY MAKERS

Generally speaking, most Washington policy makers (82%) feel the consumer movement has been good for the public. There is, however, less enthusiasm about its impact on business. Only 56: of the respondents feel the movement is good for business, with over one-quarter of the sample indicating that it has been bad for it. In addition, over one-half of the people surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that the consumer movement seems to be running out of steam. This belief may, in part, be based on their perceptions that both the current Administration and Congress is not pro-consumer. Only 20% of the respondents agree or strongly agree that the Administration is pro consumer while 37% assessed Congress as pro consumer. Thus, Washington policy makers have mixed views on the continued viability of the consumer movement, despite the current pro-consumer mood of the public. One optimistic note is that almost 80% of them indicate they expect to see the same or an increasing level of consumer activities in five years.

It is also interesting to consider how these policy makers view the effectiveness of their cohorts and various consumer organizations in responding to the consumer movement. From the percentages in Table 4 the most effective groups, in descending order, are: state and local consumer protection agencies; state/local non-government agencies, national consumer organizations, U.S. Congress, trade and professional organizations, and the White House. While none of the groups receive majority support, there is a clear distinction in the perceived effectiveness consumer protection agencies versus policy making bodies (i.e., both government and private business concerns). These results are very similar to the ratings obtained in the Harris survey.

Public Activists Survey

In an attempt to obtain more direct evidence concerning the effectiveness of certain consumer groups, an examination was made of 15 organizations to obtain information about the size of their staffs, memberships, and budgets. Data were obtained through both primary and secondary resources. Telephone interviews were conducted during October 1982 in order to obtain current figures. Trend data was compiled with the use of Public Interest Profiles compiled by the Foundation for Public Affairs (1977, 1980, 1982) in Washington, D.C.

The consumer organizations selected for review are ones that were judged to be the most visible and influential in recent years. They to not, by any means, represent an exhaustive list of consumer interest organizations but it is believed that they provide a reasonable estimate on which to examine growth patterns. A listing of the organizations is found in Table 5. It should be noted that the term "consumer organization" is used here to refer to an organization which has as a stated mission the improvement of the satisfaction consumers obtain from individual market transactions. Such groups are concerned with the safety, quality, effectiveness, and price of consumer Products and services.

TABLE 5

1982 DATA OF SELECTED CONSUMER ACTIVIST ORGANIZATIONS

Table 6 provides an aggregation of staff, membership, and budget data across various types of consumer organizations. Overall, staff sizes have decreased while membership and budget levels have risen. A better understanding of changing patterns is seen, however, by examining data for each of the three types of consumer groups studied--national organizations, community/grassroots groups, and corporate/government accountability groups. These titles are somewhat broad in scope but do capture the nature of the programs emphasized by the groups classified in the category.

TABLE 6

TREND DATA ON CATEGORIES OF CONSUMER ACTIVIST ORGANIZATIONS

National consumer groups appear to be the most affected by changing patterns in the social movement. Staff positions have been cut by over 44% since 1978. These reductions no doubt reflect the relatively small increase (3 percent) in membership. Despite the limitations on the growth of these two resources, budget levels continue to maintain strong growth a 49 percent increase since 1978. These figures would seem to suggest that national consumer organizations are effective in managing their resources and mobilizing monetary resources.

Community and grassroots organizations also appear to be extremely effective in developing support for their programs. Staff positions have increased by 24% since 1978, membership has increased by 70%, and budget levels by 52%. This supports Bloom and Greyser's contention that "locals" should have considerably more success in selling their products in the consumerism industry. They offer direct and tangible benefits in the form of redress assistance, education, and information. Thus, it appears, that community and grassroots organizations have a reasonably bright future.

Corporate/government accountability groups appear to be holding their own. Staff positions show modest gains and budget levels are up by 33 percent. Despite these seemingly optimistic gains, this category shows the smallest growth of the three categories presented. It is probably safe to say that a stable level of support exists for these organizations.

DISCUSSION

The four studies examined provide some interesting answers to the five research questions introduced previously. They reflect an assessment of the vitality of consumerism from varied perspectives. The focus of the following remarks is to interpret the common threads running through these studies. In general, the following conclusions can be drawn.

1. Public attitudes toward consumerism are extremely favorable and should remain strong for at least the next several years.

2. There is a willingness to engage in activist behaviors (e.g., join consumer groups) even though actual participation is limited.

3. Certain subsegments of the population possess more favorable attitudes and have greater demand for the "products" of the consumerism industry. Their needs, unfortunately, have not yet been effectively met.

4. Policy makers in Washington do not appear to be accurately assessing the public's attitudes and do not seen to be doing a good job in reacting to the needs of the public (e.g., especially in the area of consumer protection).

5. Some consumer groups are competing more effectively than others in the consumerism industry but, overall, accomplishments of the industry are rated highly.

Each of these conclusions will now be elaborated upon.

Attitudes toward Consumerism

The public opinion polls presented here consistently indicate considerable dissatisfaction among consumers with their situation in the marketplace and sustained support for consumer protection initiations. Survey respondents are telling that they want consumer protection and are willing to pay to get it. The evidence provided in these four studies suggests there is a great deal of strength and depth in the consumer movement. It has no traditional, social, demographic, or political lines. According to Harris, "If there were no movement up to now, let me assure you that the American people would go out and organize one" (Sinclair 1983, p. A21). There are a wide variety of individuals and groups who want their interests better represented in the marketplace.

Attitudes versus Behavior

The potential for translating attitude into behavior is growing stronger as consumers grow increasingly unhappy with the quality of goods and services, with the way government protects their interests, and with consumer leaders. This supports the proposition held by Greyser, Bloom and Diamond (1982) that consumerism is shifting from a "spectator" activity to a "participative" activity. Smaller, local organizations serving the needs of select target groups, as opposed to larger organizations and national celebrities, will apparently epitomize the consumer movement in the latter half of the 1980's. So while current participation in the organized consumer movement is low, the potential for future involvement is extremely positive.

Needs of Sub-Segments in the Population

Evidence illustrating the problems of the poor and disadvantaged was brought to light in both the Harris and mid-atlantic state polls. In the face of the current economic and financial conditions, the number of disadvantaged consumers may actually be increasing. Andreasen defines disadvantaged consumers as those "who are particularly handicapped in achieving adequate value for their consumer dollar in the . . . marketplace because of their severely restricted incomes, their minority racial status, their old age, and/or their difficulties with the language" (Andreasen 1975, p. 6). It is clear that future programs and policy initiatives will have to more specifically target these consumers.

Assessment of Washington Policy Makers

There is an obvious gap between the public's needs and expectations and policy maker's assessment and reactions to them. Data suggests the public does not want a change in the pro-consumer stance of government. Individuals, more than ever, want and are demanding consumer protection. Their criticism of government leaders for not doing a good job in this area is illustrated in the Harris survey. A clear majority does not rate any of the federal agencies in a positive manner.

Washington's less than accurate assessment of public attitudes is further supported by the severe budget and employment cutbacks faced by the Federal agencies responsible for consumer protection. According to two recent articles in the Washington Post, the Federal Trade Commission will be taking an 8.3 percent cut before inflation with the 1984 proposed budget. It has lost personnel steadily in the past two years and will lose another 10 percent of its staff by 1984. The proposed budget of $32 million for the Consumer Product Safety Commission is "below its spending level of 1975, when the buying power of a dollar was almost twice as great," (Washington Post 2/9/83, p. A17), and its work force will be lower than when it opened its doors in 1973.

Effectiveness of Consumer Groups

Approval of the consumer movement's accomplishments is high and very widely and evenly spread across the population. Yet consumers feel the leaders are "out of touch" with their needs. This may, in fact, explain the marginal increase in the growth of national consumer organizations while community and grassroots groups are growing much more rapidly. Better responses to specific needs may be the reason why individuals are contributing to and joining such organizations. With the onslaught of increased competition, organizations n,ow have to mobilize their limited resources to position themselves to take advantage of the widespread discontent. All organizations, not just local/community grassroots groups, can provide people with selective benefits in return for their support.

RESEARCH IMPLICATIONS

At this particular point in time, it seems reasonable to place emphasis on both evaluative and descriptive research. More empirical studies need to be devoted to the reasons why individuals join and support groups. With the current high level of unhappiness with the marketplace, it would be worthy to investigate the gap between people's attitudes and behaviors. Is it fear of embarrassment, lack of confidence, insufficient information or other variables which explain why only a small percentage of individuals are engaging in behaviors (e.g., joining consumer groups) consistent with their attitudes?

Another area for future research deals with the effectiveness of consumer organizations. More extensive studies are needed to access the strength and vitality of the specific components of the consumerism industry (e.g., national groups, grassroots organizations, etc.). Probing questions and larger sample sizes would be useful in examining the changes over time of funding and membership, the level of support given to these organizations by other interest groups (e.g., political, labor and private business concerns), and their abilities to mobilize resources and support.

Not only can research describe and explain the problems associated with individuals and consumer groups, but it can serve as an evaluative tool as well. The effectiveness of existing programs and mechanisms initiated by government and consumer groups need to be critically examined and alternative policy actions provided. One particular area where substantial research is needed deals with the disadvantaged consumer. Studies need to examine both the qualitative and quantitative problems associated with those subsegments in society who have a greater need for consumer protection, education, and redress. Findings can help guide government and consumer group initiatives aimed at these specific people.

CONCLUSION

Consumerism is most definitely alive. In spite of (or perhaps because of) the recent actions of Washington policy makers, public attitudes toward consumerism are favorable and participation in consumer group activities, though limited on an overall basis, is growing--particularly on the local level. Continued research on consumer activism and consumer problems should therefore be welcomed by public policy makers, business firms, and consumer groups themselves.

REFERENCES

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Barksdale, Hiram C. and William D. Perrault, Jr. (1980), "Can Consumers Be Satisfied?," MSU Business Topics, Spring, 19-30.

Barringer, Felicity (1983), "Major Regulatory Agencies Facing More Cuts in Fiscal '84," Washington Post, February 9. A17.

Bloom, Paul N. and Stephen A. Greyser (1981), "The Maturing of Consumerism," Harvard Business Review, November December, 130-139.

Cohen, Stanley E. (1981), "Peterson Sees New Coalition of Consumers," Advertising Age, 52 (January 26), 10 and 72.

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Public Interest Profiles Washington, D.C.: Foundation for Public Affairs, 1978, 1980, 1982.

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