Brand Loyalty and Lineage: Exploring New Dimensions For Research

Barbara Olsen, State University of New York-Old Westbury
ABSTRACT - Research on the transfer of brand loyalties has had a long gestation. Much of the focus has been on how children learn and process consumer values. This paper represents a conceptual exploration of the transfer of branded goods and consumer practices from a qualitative investigation with several families; including grandparents, parents and children. Intergenerational patterns of product use emerge through life history interviews. This study suggests a departure for intergenerational research to probe deeper into the functional and dysfunctional reasons why we adopt or reject family patterns. The conclusion situates socialization to brand loyalty within the domain of current marketplace practices.
[ to cite ]:
Barbara Olsen (1993) ,"Brand Loyalty and Lineage: Exploring New Dimensions For Research", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, eds. Leigh McAlister and Michael L. Rothschild, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 575-579.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, 1993      Pages 575-579


Barbara Olsen, State University of New York-Old Westbury


Research on the transfer of brand loyalties has had a long gestation. Much of the focus has been on how children learn and process consumer values. This paper represents a conceptual exploration of the transfer of branded goods and consumer practices from a qualitative investigation with several families; including grandparents, parents and children. Intergenerational patterns of product use emerge through life history interviews. This study suggests a departure for intergenerational research to probe deeper into the functional and dysfunctional reasons why we adopt or reject family patterns. The conclusion situates socialization to brand loyalty within the domain of current marketplace practices.


Consumer socialization occurs primarily within family settings where branded goods become imbued with meaning from the social contexts in which they are used. Research on learning consumer behavior has involved the socialization process and increasingly considers the quality of the interpersonal communication through which it takes place (Carlson et al. 1990; Moore and Moschis 1981; Moschis 1985; Moschis and Moore 1979).

For many of us advertising is our first introduction to a brand, while other brands have been in our families for generations. Until the early 1980s advertising's primary emphasis for heavily competitive products was on the differentiation of features and quality among an increasing glut of parity goods. Consumers came to distrust these messages and knew essentially that most products were the same. Advertising followed with lifestyle messages that were more subtle in the bonding practice (Jhally 1990; Leiss et al. 1990). Advertising continues to employ an emotional bond between goods and human needs by emphasizing loyalty earned from earlier generations to attract their children and grandchildren (Brooks Brothers, Fieldcrest Mills, Romano Bread, Vicks VapoRub).

One area of consumer research is concerned with the contextual meaning of goods (Kleine III and Kernan 1991); their connection to our early socialization (Bahn 1986; Carlson et al. 1990; Foxman et al. 1989; McNeal 1987; Moschis and Churchill 1978; Moschis and Moore 1983; Ward et al. 1977); how we learn to project our evolving social roles through brand/product constellations (Solomon and Assael 1987); and how we match branded products with our emotional needs as adults (McCracken 1990). The growing trend to understand these relationships utilizes qualitative research obtained from life histories and depth interviews (McCracken 1988; Rothberg 1989).

This exploratory study seeks to gain a further understanding of family influence on brand loyalty and consumer behavior among several generations of individual families. How and why does a pattern of brand preference or consumer behavior recur in the next generation for brands that have been in existence for two or three generations?


Early research on intergenerational consumption patterns ranged from behavior (Miller 1975), product choice in financial planning (Hill 1970) and auto insurance between fathers and sons (Woodson et al. 1976), to brand preference prediction and shopping strategy congruence between mothers and daughters (Moore-Shay and Lutz 1988). Guest's longitudinal study covering twenty years recognized the lifetime dimension of brand loyalty learned during childhood (1964, 1955). These studies demonstrate that preference was repeated generationally but do not address why. Similar research connects product preference to early family socialization and shows that parental influence wanes with age and fluctuations in income (Moschis and Moore 1983).

Consumer socialization research focuses on how adult consumer habits are formulated during childhood (Carlson et al. 1990) and during adolescence (Bahn 1986; Foxman et al. 1989; Moschis and Churchill 1978; Moschis and Moore 1979, 1983; Moschis, Moore and Smith 1984). This research has traditionally taken two routes and is often a combination of both. The first focuses on the importance of social agents; environmental and media factors in the social learning model (Moore and Stephens 1975; Moschis and Churchill 1978; Ward et al. 1977) and the second centers on children's developing psychology to process consumer information in the cognitive development approach (Alba and Hutchinson 1987; Bahn 1986; Bettman 1979; Foxman et al. 1989; Hoch and Deighton 1989; McNeal 1987). Bahn suggests that a family's religious orientation may influence early adoption of certain brands of beverages (1986: 392). Other socialization research emphasizes family patterns of communication. The concept orientation encourages children's consumer involvement while the socio-orientation stresses children's deference to parental decisions (Carlson et al. 1990; Moore and Moschis 1981; Moschis 1985; Moschis and Moore 1979). Foxman et al. (1989) found that adolescents and mothers share more of an influence on each other than fathers. Ward et al. also demonstrate the mother's role in socialization, however, they found mothers are often not conscious of attempting to "teach" consumer behavior (1977: 116). Further research is needed to ascertain how socialization affects particular patterns of consumer behavior. In the present exploratory work several cases clearly indicate a correlation between a dysfunctional socialization and rejection of parental behavior, while others correlate warm family ties with patterns of loyalty. Brands used since childhood can become "friends" with whom relationships are fashioned early in our social lives (Aaker 1991: 34, 40-41).

Studies have shown certain goods attract a loyal following. One survey revealed product categories with personal loyalties of over fifty percent: cigarettes, mayonnaise, toothpaste, coffee, headache remedy, film, bath soap and ketchup. Reasons varied from flavor and taste - ketchup and cigarettes; to image - beer, cigarettes and perfume (Centennial Survey 1989: B1,1).

Douglas and Isherwood have written that "Goods are neutral, their uses are social; they can be used as fences or bridges" (1979: 12). Thus, intergenerational transfer often represents the "bridge" of an emotional bond with the personal relationship. Conversely, alternative behavior or product rejection represents a "fence," signifying rebellion against a social relationship.

As part of the consumption process we engage in possession, grooming and divestment rituals (McCracken 1990: 85-88) during which we employ an "object-code" encoding/decoding process when social values are "made material" in goods that become loaded with cultural meaning. Sometimes we invest this meaning with a transcendent quality that positions a good within the sacred dimension (Belk et al. 1989). We also use goods to impress our roles within cultural categories (age, gender, occupation, class, space, time) that are contoured by cultural principles - the values of our society (Douglas and Isherwood 1979, McCracken 1990, Sahlins 1976). We learn to choose brands that constitute "product constellations" and speak a psychographic message (Solomon and Assael 1987). Thus, shared social values often find expression by members of an "'image tribe'" (Image..." 1989: 8). Members identify with each other through "charismatic brands" (Aaker 1991: 210) that possess a mystical quality called "quintessence" through which individuals relate in "a cult of 'true believers'" (Belk et al. 1989: 16).


The current work seeks a deeper understanding of intergenerational transfer. It represents a conceptual production and suggests areas to be probed in further research. Marketing students at a college in the north-east were asked to participate as "junior collaborators" (Wallendorf and Arnould 1991) using self-as-instrument (McCraken 1988: 32) in a class project. Although controversial, the methodology does allow for a wider sampling than could be obtained by a sole researcher and was useful for an exploratory penetration of familial product use to be followed-up in more rigorous research. Students conducted ethnographies of product use within their own families during four semesters from 1989 to 1991. Twenty five students participated each semester. From 100 students, half were able to interview parents and grandparents thereby contributing usable responses. The citations in the current work are examples from the sample and represent occurrences of lineage influence.

To obtain an initial reading for more systematic, rigorous follow-up research, "junior collaborators" conducted their own interviews using the ethnographic approach: participant observation and life history depth interviews with grandparents, parents and siblings. Broad product categories were suggested to help situate branded products within family consumption patterns. Topics revolved around the purchasing habits of consumables and durables over time with emphasis on the importance of price, quality, value, advertising, peer pressure, word-of-mouth, brand loyalty or other influence on behavior. In this initial study, the objective was to determine product occurrence. Generational transfer was not a consideration to prevent bias.

As consumer behavior is learned during the socialization process and related to family communication patterns, consciously learned or unconsciously observed, the expectation is that there will be a pattern of congruence communicating brand preference and behavior from one generation to the next. Research has shown that mothers are the primary socialization agents within families (Carlson et al. 1990; Foxman et al. 1989; Ward et al. 1977), therefore, we expect to find a pattern of preference between mothers and children of both genders. Fathers are also expected to influence particular product categories.


Product identification with a member of the older generation acts as a "bridge" reinforcing a bond of affection and respect. This is true for a student speaking of what he/she will do upon establishing one's own household after graduation.

(Early Twenties, Italian-American male) "My mother still buys almost every brand that her mother did. She is scared to try anything else, for it will not meet the standards, and (she) would feel bad not buying something that has been with her so long" (sisters also use the same brands).

(Hispanic-American female) "I believe that one of the reasons that my mother and her mother still buy some of the same products ... (is) that they go shopping together every week."

(West Indian-American female) "I find it hard to break away from the things I've been using since I was little; like Vaseline products, Ivory soap, Lipton tea, and corn flakes. I live on campus so I have to do my own shopping, and when I do I see a lot of my mother in myself. I buy things I'm accustomed to using, ... products my mother buys for the house."

(27 year old, Russian-Jewish-American male) "All of us have used Crest toothpaste, Breakstone butter, Hellmann's mayonnaise, and Bumble Bee tuna. All these products have been passed on and we all have remained incredibly loyal. Brand loyalty is almost mystical. It transcends time. We all use these products today."

The transcendental quality in brand loyalty is similar to the sacred described by Belk et al. (1989). This informant stressed the importance of being "faithful to our religion." The link of religion to brand loyalty has been noted by Bahn (1986). Lately, his food choices changed to healthier versions of these brands.

(Early twenties, German-American male - repairing car with father) "I happened to notice that we were working on a Dodge and that all our cars were Dodges. I also noticed that he was using Craftsman tools, drinking Schaeffer beer, and smoking Camel cigarettes. I asked him about these products and he said he got them from his father, all except the Camels which he started with his friends ... I'm very influenced by my father in terms of cars, auto parts, the tools that I use and my newspaper."

(Mid-twenties, Irish-American male) "My sister, 21 years old and married is a carbon copy of my mother. She controls the money and decides when things will be purchased just like the other women in the family tree ... the males are extremely brand loyal with price having no effect on their decisions. One noticeable difference happens on the female side. My grandmother was very brand loyal, but my mother and sister are not due to ... the coupon ... Every time I purchase a product, I hear the voices of my father and grandfather in the back of my head."

There were many cases of loyalty to a brand because an elder had worked for the company. A similar sense of loyalty is communicated by parent generations for buying American cars.


There also exist opposite behavior patterns in rituals of rebellion. Rejecting products, behaviors, and relationships in defense of one's own loyalties are echoed by the daughter whose mother bought only bargains and in bulk: "I hope never to become a manic-crazy coupon cutter when I become a mother." More severe rejections represent a "fence" constructed during the socio-oriented socialization process demanding obedience to parental consumer choice. Asserting independence through rejection can be silent statement about one's socialization process.

(25 year old, Italian-American male) "... my mother felt forced as a child to use her parents' products, so (she) wanted to break free and have her own identity and buy her own products ... her tastes and needs were totally different from her mother's. She swore to change to her own when possible. The only soap, for example, that was used in her house as a child was Ivory; now today my mother won't buy it."

(Mid-twenties, Anglo-American female) "My mother was comfortable with ... brands that she grew up with (Del Monte sauce, Betty Crocker baking goods, Campbell's soup, Lipton iced tea, Pledge, Windex, Boar's Head cold cuts, Woolite), and ... for over fifteen years she probably hardly ever used these brands because ... my father did all of the shopping and only bought what was the cheapest brand that week. When she did begin to shop (after divorce), she chose ... brands that she was loyal to from her past."

(Early twenties, German-American female) "My ... father revealed that when he entered college he bought many brands used at home plus new ones based on status ... When he married, ... he chose the durables while Mom chose all consumables. After the divorce, ... he reverted to the same products he bought when he entered college. He said he was '48 going on 22.'"

(28 year old, Italian-American female) "My mother completely mandated all product usage in our household. If any of us brought home a product other than the usual ones, she would pass derogatory remarks about the product. Reading between the lines, she was telling us that if she did not approve the product, it was no good. As a result of this rebellion my sister (age 42) and I turned to different types of products altogether. My mother uses frozen vegetables, we use canned. My mother drinks cola, we drink the 'uncola.' My mom buys Campbell's (canned) Soup, we use Lipton (packaged). And the list goes on: Lipton - Tetley tea; Colgate - Close-Up toothpaste; Robitussin - NyQuil cough syrup; French's - Gulden's mustard; Ivory - Palmolive dish detergent; All powder - Era liquid detergent; Downey liquid - Bounce sheets fabric softener; American - Japanese car."

A follow-up interview with this woman revealed the sisters were raised with three brothers (two are married in their thirties, one lives home with parents). The sons were "treated like royalty." Mother was "too protective of them" and "cared too much by doing everything for her boys." Mother was emotionally abusive to both daughters. Her sister left home at 19 when the informant was 5. The informant revealed she was sexually abused by her father until age 13. She cannot yet recall the onset of abuse. Mother was never an ally, nor is she close with her sister. "Now, when we see each other we fight." By analyzing consumption habits and personal histories we strip away the materials in which social relations are constituted and reveal the relationships they cover (Alderson 1957: 186-87). Perhaps we may discover why rejection of consumer socialization can also be a statement about family relationships.

Insights from anthropology focus a powerful lens upon ourselves. In the ethnographic context certain animals are good to "think" - reserved for totem status and tabooed for food. They are better to contemplate within the clan structure of the "social idiom" rather than to be eaten and thus acquire a different cultural meaning (Levi-Strauss 1963). So too, goods enter a sacred domain in which they come to represent our totems and our taboos (Belk et al. 1989). In analyzing the cultural consumption of goods, we should also research the irrational component, beyond functional utility, where consumption fulfills emotional needs. Brands become good to "think" for statements we make about ourselves and our social relationships. We should consider the dysfunctional quality of socialization and our reactions played out in consumer behavior that help maintain our homeostasis (Alderson 1957: 172, Sherry 1991). We know from observing children in the marketplace that there is a powerful satisfaction obtained in controlling brand preference.


We pattern our consumption behavior after role models. The study revealed that certain product categories were transferred between generations more than others. For instance, toothpaste was cited in ten families and transferred between sixteen generations; ten times between mother-daughter, five times between mother-son, and once between grandmother-grandson. Mayonnaise, cited in eight families, was transferred between twelve generations; six times between mother-daughter and six between mother-son. Bath soap, cited in seven families, was transferred between eight generations; seven times between mother-daughter and once between father-son. Ketchup, cited in six families, was transferred between seven generations; four times between mother-daughter and three times between mother-son. Automobiles were cited in seven families and transferred between ten generations; once between mother-daughter and nine times between father-son.

Why do some brands become friends? Over time a product acquires a significant investment in brand equity (Aaker 1991). For the average person a branded good is a "bundle of satisfactions" including memories and meanings that get wrapped around its advertised use value to solve problems with various benefits. These memories and meanings include individuals and contexts associated with its use.

Goods also represent a way of declaring one's own identity as shown in the cases of rebelling against a parent's preferences or establishing a sense of self after divorce. One follow-up interview revealed the scar of abuse in a dysfunctional home. A mother after divorce renewed her esteem by returning to brands she grew up with. A father rebuilt his life after divorce by returning to brands used in college. Further research could uncover the relationship between product choice and self-esteem.


It has been a little over a hundred years since brand names have differentiated one product from another. Branding simplified the purchasing process by enabling individual portions to be sold in pre-packaged units displaying the trademark. This was a revolutionary departure from selling in bulk from bins and carried away in nondescript bags.

There is an enduring quality to the notion of brand equity. While marketers always look for ways to attract new customers, they realize it can cost "up to 15 times the amount to attract a new customer than to keep existing clients (Marketing Review Panel 1990: 18), while "'The probability of converting a non-user to your brand is about three in 1,000...'" (Centennial 1989: 10). Aaker says "there usually is an enormous payoff in retaining existing customers, ... A customer base is like a leaky bucket: Increasing the input may be more wasteful than patching the leaks" (1991: 52-53). To encourage intergenerational linking we are seeing more ads geared to keeping the brand in the family:

"Recent Clinical Studies Prove Your Grandmother Was Right" (Vicks VapoRub). "We've put fiber in Roman Meal for 75 years because people need fiber from day one - So do something your kids will appreciate for the rest of their lives. Start them on fiber-rich Roman Meal breads today" (Romano Bread). "The man in the Brooks Brothers Suit - Who says charm isn't hereditary? We've been helping it along for 172 years. And while change is inevitable, a tradition of quality is our legacy. And yours" (Brooks Brothers). "Why six generations of Americans have turned to St. Marys for warmth and comfort" (Fieldcrest Mills).

This ad style is also evident in television commercials. A Kellogg's Corn Flakes commercial in which two individuals recall the cereal of their childhood ends with the slogan, "Kellogg's Corn Flakes: Taste them again for the first time." Despite eroding brand loyalty from couponing, one report suggests that certain goods (canned soups, cereal, dairy products, salad dressing) maintain sales despite higher prices due to a "strong emotional attachment in tough times" ("Brand Loyalty..." 1991: 1). Considering the importance of family in this copy style, intergenerational ads are best targeted to the new traditionalist and those for whom nostalgia is a powerful sentiment.

On the other hand, marketers are rushing to become the main socialization agents by cultivating early brand loyalty to their goods and services. Many corporations are encouraging this loyalty by advertising on school materials. AT&T, IBM, Dun & Bradstreet (Donnelley Marketing), Mars (Milky Way), Scholastic, Nike, Reebok, Coca-Cola (Minute Maid), Pepsi Cola and Whittle Communications are winning support to supply schools with badly needed educational programs, supplies and services in return for displaying logos, trademarks and advertisements in strategic locations ("Cola..." 1991: 18; Deveny 1990).


It is clear from the interviews that brands are an important component in generational bridging. McCracken reflects that each family now has a limited role connecting generations. Goods we purchase are often replacements for what we no longer inherit and their meaning changes to suit the moment (1990: 52). What we now pass on to those generations, demonstrated by this study, is the brand itself. The product becomes a symbol of the socialization process and can function as a "bridge" or "fence" as individuals interpret their own identity.

Early adoption of a brand into the construction of our commodity oriented social universe is very important to marketers as they come to appreciate the truly emotional content in the meaning of the good. "Charismatic brands" help identify social roles; Nike neighborhoods, Ann Taylor lifestyle, PAM people, Pepsi generation, Bud drinkers, Ford family. These themes are incorporated in the communication message of the ads we see. They are the subtle reminders that our cultural categories are circumscribed by commodities. When we replenish our supplies with brand named goods we also renew the relationship we have with those products and with the people who introduced us to them.


Several instances in the present work present new dimensions for further research. What is the connection between the mother and grandmother who shop together every week and buy the same brands? Why is one mother "scared" to depart from brands her mother used? Why does another informant find it "hard to break away" from brands used since childhood. The question for future research is: What is going on in the "bridge" that links the lineages? What particular roles do the models play?

A fertile area for future research resides in the "fence" built for protection from a dysfunctional social experience. Emotional and physical abuse, the most extreme forms reported in this work, as well as divorce, exemplify the layers of experience we can begin to peel away. These layers reveal the interconnection between our personal selves, our social selves and our perpetual reinterpretation of "self" through the commodities we buy. Continuing ethnographic research involves life history analysis working with incest survivors and adult children of alcoholics to investigate the relationship between dysfunctional socialization experiences and consumption. One on-going project considers the differences in consumption between recently divorced men and women. Another study explores the role of ethnicity and brand loyalty.

Future research on the contextual meaning of our goods will reveal the roles they play in the rituals of our lives. A brand may signal different meanings for each generation even though it is transferred between several. McCracken (1990) mourns with Mrs. Lois Roget that none of her children wish to inherit the heirlooms that have descended for seven generations. He claims that in our consumer culture each family can now reconstruct itself without the encumbrances of past generations by buying new. In the reconstruction process, perhaps what we now "inherit" are brands!


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