Consumer Soclalization of the Elderly: an Exploratory Study

Ruth B. Smith, University of Maryland
George P. Moschis, Georgia State University
ABSTRACT - This study examines the effects of selected antecedent variables and communication processes on attitudes toward advertising among the elderly. Theoretical perspectives related to the alteration of the behavior of the elderly in general and consumer behavior in particular are used as bases for formulating hypotheses and suggesting a socialization approach to the study of elderly consumer behavior. Disengagement theory and activity theory were viewed as explaining different levels of activity among the aged rather than as competing theories, with age itself used as an index of development. The effects of two other variables, health and cognitive age, upon interaction with mass media advertising were investigated. Then the influence of all these variables upon attitudes toward advertising among the elderly was assessed. Findings indicated that age and health were related to interaction with mass media advertising, while cognitive age was associated with more favorable attitudes toward advertising among the elderly. Results generally support the socialization approach to the study of elderly consumer behavior and suggestions are made for future research.
[ to cite ]:
Ruth B. Smith and George P. Moschis (1984) ,"Consumer Soclalization of the Elderly: an Exploratory Study", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, eds. Thomas C. Kinnear, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 548-552.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, 1984      Pages 548-552

CONSUMER SOCLALIZATION OF THE ELDERLY: AN EXPLORATORY STUDY

Ruth B. Smith, University of Maryland

George P. Moschis, Georgia State University

ABSTRACT -

This study examines the effects of selected antecedent variables and communication processes on attitudes toward advertising among the elderly. Theoretical perspectives related to the alteration of the behavior of the elderly in general and consumer behavior in particular are used as bases for formulating hypotheses and suggesting a socialization approach to the study of elderly consumer behavior. Disengagement theory and activity theory were viewed as explaining different levels of activity among the aged rather than as competing theories, with age itself used as an index of development. The effects of two other variables, health and cognitive age, upon interaction with mass media advertising were investigated. Then the influence of all these variables upon attitudes toward advertising among the elderly was assessed. Findings indicated that age and health were related to interaction with mass media advertising, while cognitive age was associated with more favorable attitudes toward advertising among the elderly. Results generally support the socialization approach to the study of elderly consumer behavior and suggestions are made for future research.

INTRODUCTION

The consumer behavior of the elderly is becoming of increasing concern to marketers, public policy makers, consumer educators and social scientists. Marketing practitioners are interested in understanding the elderly market which will have increased over 100 percent in fifty years and which possesses purchasing power estimated between $69 and $200 billion (Fox 1979). Public policy makers are primarily concerned with the consumer behavior of the aged as a means of passing legislation affecting this group of people. In addition to the necessity to protect the elderly consumer from deceptive and/or misleading advertising, fraud (e.g. mail and door-to-door), and high pressure sales tactics (Howard 1967), policy makers realize that the elderly are becoming an increasingly powerful political force (Waddell 1976). Consumer educators are interested in developing programs to aid the acquisition and use of consumption skills by the aged (Waddell 1976, Fox 1979). Finally, interest in the consumer behavior of the elderly has been expressed by social scientists including gerontologists (e.g. Goldstein 1965), socialization researchers (e.g. Rosow 1974), and students of consumer behavior (e.g. Schiffman 1971, 1972).

Whereas some descriptive work been "useful in developing ;In initial descriptive understanding of the elderly's consumer behavior... not enough is known about this population in terms of description, prediction, and explanation of behavioral phenomena to fully develop conceptualized decision-making frameworks" (Meadow, Cosmas, and Plotkin 1980, p. 745). This research attempts to fill some of the gaps in the knowledge of elderly consumers' attitudes and behavior by investigating levels of interaction with the attitudes toward mass media advertising. Theoretical perspectives related to the behavior of the aged in general and consumer behavior in particular are presented and interpreted within a unified framework from which hypotheses are derived.

Theoretical Perspectives

Most gerontologists argue that aging is not a simple biological process indexed by chronological age but a complex phenomenon involving both sociological (interpersonal) attributes as well as physical maturation (Atchley 1972, Baltes 1978, Botwinick 1978, Neugarten and Havighurst 1976, Riley and Foner, 1968). Riley and Foner (1968) note connections with such other disciplines as demography, history, political science, home economics, engineering and medicine.

Most explanations of differences in the behavior of the elderly are closely tied to theories of alternations on the biophysical and socio-psychological stages of life-span development. Examples of the first type include various developmental perspectives related to aging in general and specific biological changes in particular, including slowing of reaction time of the brain and nervous system, short range memory loss (Koller 1968) and diminished visual, hearing and other sensory acuity (Yapp and Bourne 1957). Socio-psychological changes, on the other hand, are tied to theories of disengagement, activity, social breakdown and personality.

Developmental PersPectives. A group of developmental psychologists and social gerontologists believe that some aspects of the aging individual's behavior can be explained by biological and physiological changes (e.g., Long, McCrary and Ackerman 1980). For example, data have supported a reverse horizontal decalage hypothesis - i.e. cognitive skills disappearing in the reverse order of their acquisition with the more difficult, more recently acquired skills disappearing first (Long, et al. 1980).

Disengagement Theory. This theory maintains that mutual withdrawal of the elderly and our social system from each other occurs as a natural consequence of growing old. As people age, the theory contends, there is a voluntary severing of social ites and retreat into isolation. After this inevitable process, which gradually shifts the relationship between self and society, a new equilibrium emerges -- mutually gratifying to both self and society. It is characterized by constriction of previous interpersonal contacts and increased inferiority of the individual (Cumming and Henry 1961). Schramm (1969) was among the first to suggest that the elderly use the mass media to help combat social disengagement.

Activity Theory. Also called engagement theory, this approach holds that contraction of the aged individual's life space is an involuntary exile imposed by society. Given a choice, the elderly individual will substitute other activities for previous role behaviors which have been lost (Lemmon, Bengston, and Peterson 1972). When successful substitutions are made, the elderly person is happier and expresses greater life-satisfaction (Markides and Martin 1979). Maddox (1964) has long been a critic of disengagement theory, maintaining that the elderly American is characterized by an active mode of aging ar.d that disengagement may only characterize a few very old or sick elderly. A media perspective known as activity substitution has emerged from this theory (Graney and Graney 1974), although little application of this perspective has been attempted in consumer behavior. The changing pattern of the elderly's shopping motivations and behaviors may be an effort to substitute alternatives for previous role behaviors. Mason and Bearden (1978) find that the elderly shop for a variety of reasons which include leisure and recreation. Since higher levels of activity are associated with greater social involvement of elderly people in general (Lemmon, Bengston and Peterson 1972), and since product-related social interaction may be part of general social interaction (Schiffman 1972), it seems useful to investigate possible antecedents and outcomes of activity with consumer information sources.

Most scientists in various disciplines agree that aging is a complex phenomenon involving biological and socio-psychological processes. As a result, they have recently been integrating biological and socio-psychological aspects of aging into the framework of socialization which includes both developmental and socio-psychological perspectives.

Rosow (1974) has described the transition to old age in terms of socialization, as have Riley and her associates in sociology (Riley and Foner 1968; Riley, Foner, Hess and Toby 1971), and Baltes and his associates in life span developmental psychology (Baltes 1978; Baltes, Reece and Nesselroade 1977). Within a communication context, the concept of socialization of the elderly has been applied by some researchers (e.g. Dimmick, McCain and Bolton 1979) interested in the effects of mass media as a socialization agent.

To view transition into old age in terms of socialization is not unusual, given its traditionally close association with other well-known developmental stages (e.g.,childhood, adulthood) (Piaget 1952, Kohlberg 1969). As people grow older, there seems to exist a developmental tie with learning. Individuals proceeding through the middle and later years must continually learn to play new or altered roles and to relinquish old ones (Brim 1967). Moreover, with the secular trend toward increased longevity, more mature people will be called upon to play a variety of roles in the social structure (Riley et al. 1971). Thus, there is continuous need for socialization in adulthood. Learning to respond to new demands does not stop at the end of childhood (Albrecht and Gift 1975).

The concept of socialization is one which incorporates both sociological and psychological perspectives by considering both the structure and content of learning and how it is modified over time. In terms of socialization of the elderly, Dowd and others (1981) note that aging is not an automatic process whereby the older person is "fashioned from the whole cloth of the middle-aged recruit" (p. 351). Rather, the transition to a new life span is more appropriately conceptualized as a series of interactions between the individual and others in his/her environment, and recognition is given to the idea that older people, like heir younger counterparts can be socialized (Dowd, Sisson, and Kern 1981).

In order to keep pace with the changing marketplace, the elderly consumer must continuously learn, forming new attitudes and skills and changing old ones (Mauldin 1976). Therefore, in much the same way socialization applies to young adult learning in a general contact, it should also apply to the development and change of elderly consumers' cognitions, attitudes, and behavior toward marketing stimuli. For example, as people grow older they tend to interact differently with various sources of consumer information, particularly in their increased exposure to the mass media (Real, Anderson and Harrington 1980). The criteria for media use preference also seems to change with age (Bernhardt and Kinnear 1976, Hendricks and Hendricks 1977, Phillips and Sternthal 1977).

In summation, it has been recognized that psychological and social factors affect the consumer socialization of children and adolescents (Ward 1974; Ward, Wackman and Wartella 1977), and it is reasonable to expect in consumer socialization research what general socialization researchers are acknowledging - i.e., that socialization occurs throughout the life span and affects the cognitions, attitudes, and behavior of older adults (Ahammer 1973; Dowd, Sisson and Kern 1981; Riley et al. 1968; Rosow 1974).

HYPOTHESES

Previous consumer socialization studies have used a conceptual framework of consumer socialization based upon sociopsychological and developmental perspectives (Moschis and Moore 1978 and 1979, Moschis and Churchill 1978, Churchill and Moschis 1979). The conceptual model incorporates five different types of variables: learning properties (criterion variables); age or life cycle and social structural variables (antecedents); and agents (e.g. mass media, family) and learning processes (e.g. modeling), both combined to form specific socialization processes (Moschis and Churchill 1978). Socialization theory and research also suggest linkages between specific types of variables. Generally, socialization processes are conceived as having direct influence on criterion variables, while the influence of antecedent variables can be both direct and indirect by impact upon socialization processes.

If the elderly use mass media to combat social disengagement or as a substitute activity, one would expect a higher exposure to and use of mass media for consumer information. It has been documented (e.g. Real, Anderson, and Harrington 1980) that age is related to mass media exposure. Similarly, Klippel and Sweeny (1974) and Schiffman (1971) find that the elderly use the mass media as information sources.

H1: Age is positively related to interaction with mass media advertising.

According to Barak and Schiffman, "it is likely that nonchronological age variables will provide information not generally possible when chronological age is related to consumer behavior" (1980 p. 608). The way an elderly person reports himself/herself to look, feel and act should have an impact on his/her level of activity. If an older individual feels, looks, and acts younger than his chronological age, the level of activity should be greater than for one who "feels, looks, and acts" old. Blau finds that those elderly who thought of themselves as "younger" than their age engaged in more activity (1956).

H2: Cognitive age is negatively related to interaction with mass media advertising.

The way in which cognitive age affects consumption-behavior, however, appears to be a purely empirical question.

Most gerontologists argue that health status of an individual is an important indicator of "successful aging" or adaptation to changing life conditions (e.g., Birren 1964, Botwinick 1978, Bromley 1966). Mutran and Reitzes (1981) find self-reported health status to directly affect levels of activity in the elderly.

H3: Health status is positively related to interaction with mass media advertising.

No empirical work has been done on the effects of health on the elderly's consumer behavior; therefore, this, too appears to be an empirical question.

Mass Media Advertising. One study found significant favorable attitudes toward advertising among the elderly, although they are more likely to boycott products whose advertisements they find distasteful (Warwick, Walsh and Miller 1981). It is thus reasonable to assume that the elderly's attitudes toward advertising are affected by mass media advertising exposure. "Mere exposure" theory suggests that increased exposure to a simple stimulus can positively influence affect toward that stimulus (Zajonc 1968). Thus the elderly's attitudes toward advertising are expected to be positively related to mass media exposure.

H4: Amount of mass media advertising exposure is positively related to attitudes toward advertising.

These hypotheses can be incorporated into a model shown in Figure 1.

FIGURE 1

METHOD

The sample for the study consisted of 286 senior citizens in a major southeastern city. Self-administered questionnaires were completed by each respondent. The questionnaire was pretested on thirty-eight elderly respondents in order to resolve any problems with length, ambiguous wording, and clarity of questions. The self-administration technique may cause some bias toward those respondents who are not perceptually or educationally impaired (e.g., could not see or hear instructions, could not read questionnaire). This problem is naturally more prevalent in gerontological research than in studies of other age groups because of the perceptual declines accompanying advancing age and the lower overall educational level of the elderly as a group (Botwinick 1978). Table 1 shows a comparison of the sample to U.S. Census data.

TABLE 1

COMPARISON OF SAMPLE WITH CENSUS DATA

As Table 1 shows, the sample is fairly representative of national elderly demographic characteristics. Approximately sixty percent of the sample was obtained at senior citizen centers, thus possible bias exists in that elderly who belong to these centers may have different social characteristics than those who do not. In addition, the mean social class of this portion of the sample was lower than for the rest of sample.

RESULTS

Results of Hypothesis testing are shown in Table 2.

TABLE 2

RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN EXPLANATORY AND OUTCOME VARIABLES

Age, was negatively associated with mass media advertising interaction (r = -.16, p = .003), contrary to the hypothesized direction. In addition there was no significant relationship between cognitive age and interaction with mass media advertising. Thus, Hypothesis 1 and 2 were not supported. The better the self-reported health of the elderly consumer, the greater the level of interaction with mass media advertising (r = .16, p = .003), thus, Hypothesis 3 was supported by the data. Finally Hypothesis 4 was not supported: there was no significant relationship between mass media advertising interaction and attitudes toward advertising.

The relationship between cognitive age and attitudes toward advertising, although not hypothesized, was significantly positive (r = .18, p = .01), suggesting that the younger one's attitudinal or cognitive age, the more favorable are attitudes toward advertising.

DISCUSSION

Levels of activity with mass media advertising were influenced negatively by age and positively by health, implying that both advancing age and poorer health decrease this type of "engagement". Although this does not constitute conclusive evidence for the support or refutation of either theory, it is compatible with the idea that engagement and disengagement theories describe different levels of activity. It also appears to support developmental theory. The "young-old" and the elderly in good health are more likely to actively interact with mass media advertising in terms of higher exposure and greater reliance, while the "old-old" may be harder to reach and may use advertising less as a source of consumer information. Although not hypothesized from (dis)engagement theory, the relationship between cognitive age and attitudes toward advertising reveals that these elderly who feel and act younger are more favorably predisposed to mass media sources of consumer information. Thus, advertising messages should portray the elderly as active, healthy participants in society and consumption matters, since most elderly who will receive the message feel that way. Other types of appeals may be more appropriate for the "old-old" and those elderly in poor health, such as personal and door-to-door selling or direct mail.

In general, these findings provide support for a socialization approach to the study of elderly consumers. Although the variables used are only representative of many types which could be used, this approach could prove useful in advancing understanding of the elderly consumer by considering the effects of socialization processes and the direct and indirect effects of antecedents on various outcome variables. Future research could investigate other outcomes representing different stages of the decision making process, the effects of other socialization processes (e.g., interaction with personal sources of consumer information), and other antecedent variables such as sex and social class.

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