What Is Consumer Misbehavior?

Ronald A. Fullerton, University of the South Pacific
Girish Punj, University of Connecticut
ABSTRACT - Misbehavior by consumers has been: 1) acknowledged as important; 2) neglected by consumer researchers. This paper aims to encourage wide-ranging research by presenting a broad and flexible definition of the phenomenon which is grounded in several well-established concepts from social science thoughtCexchange theory, labeling, norms and expectations. The definition fits well with empirical studies and reported accounts of misbehavior by consumers.
[ to cite ]:
Ronald A. Fullerton and Girish Punj (1997) ,"What Is Consumer Misbehavior?", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, eds. Merrie Brucks and Deborah J. MacInnis, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 336-339.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, 1997      Pages 336-339


Ronald A. Fullerton, University of the South Pacific

Girish Punj, University of Connecticut


Misbehavior by consumers has been: 1) acknowledged as important; 2) neglected by consumer researchers. This paper aims to encourage wide-ranging research by presenting a broad and flexible definition of the phenomenon which is grounded in several well-established concepts from social science thoughtCexchange theory, labeling, norms and expectations. The definition fits well with empirical studies and reported accounts of misbehavior by consumers.

Misbehavior by consumers has been little studied despite having been identified as an important yet neglected topic (e.g., Belk 1988, p. 51; McCracken 1988, p. 143n). These calls for attention have produced little response, however, just as did analogous calls during the 1970s (e.g., Wilkes 1978). Recent research exploring compulsive consumption (e.g. Faber et.al 1995) and substance addiction (Hirschman 1993) has focussed attention on the damage that consumers can afflict upon themselves, but perforce not upon the entire consumption setting. The long-established shoplifting literature continues to grow, to be sure, but shoplifting is only one of many variants of consumer misbehavior. Others which are common include vandalism, financial rauds, and physical and verbal abuse of other consumers and of marketer employees. The Exhibit presents illustrative accounts of common consumer misbehavior. There has been little study of these and other forms of misbehaviorCor of misbehavior’s wider implications for consumer experience and consumer culture. Our overall understanding of consumer misbehavior remains weak.

Consumer misbehavior is in fact a significant phenomenon which affects the experience of all consumers; it is an inseparable part of the consumer experience. It represents the dark, feral side of the consumer. It results in either material loss or psychological damage, or both, to marketers, to marketing institutions, and to other consumers. Those consumers not themselves misbehaving are all inevitably victimized by others’ misconduct.

The purpose of this paper is to encourage a broad research agenda by illuminating a key conceptual issueChow to define consumer misbehavior. We draw upon several concepts in social science literature to develop a definition which can encourage thorough and wide-ranging exploration of the scope of consumer misbehavior and its impact upon consumer experience. We then discuss narrower definitional approaches which we do not consider, and indicate promising future research topics.


Norms and Expectations in Exchange Settings

The rich literature of the sociology of deviance, ethics, and criminology emphasizes the key roles of norms and expectations. The term "misbehavior" implies that there are norms by which correct, as opposed to incorrect conduct may be judged; norms in turn are tightly linked to behavioral expectations. Consumer misbehavior may thus be defined as behavioral acts by consumers which violate the generally accepted norms of conduct in consumption situations, and disrupt the order expected in such situations. By consumption situations we mean exchange situations, since much of the behavior by consumers is played out within these. We concentrate on the exchange setting as the basic consumption situation.

Consumer misbehavior acts are externally directed and visible; they are part of people’s conduct in their role as consumers. These actions tend to be held in disrepute by marketers and by most consumers, butCand this is essential to comprehending consumer misbehaviorCnot necessarilywith equal conviction or intensity.

Expectations of Behavior in Exchange Settings

The norms regarding conduct in exchange settings are founded upon expectations about behavior. "Successful exchange...relationships," note Houston and Gassenheimer (1987, p. 10), "are made up of well-established sets of expectations about the behaviors of the parties involved." These expectations reflect implicit trust that the conduct of consumers will remain within the bounds of orderliness and respectability (Best & Luckenbill 1982, p.236; Mills 1979, pp.22-23). Usually the trust is what sociologists term "impersonal trust;" that is, faith in people whom one does not and will not know personally. In other words, people expect that consumers will "behave themselves." Misbehavior by consumers disrupts the openness, impersonal trust, and orderliness of the ideal exchange environment (Houston and Gassenheimer 1987).

Networks of Expectations

In an exchange setting, expectations about the ways in which consumers should conduct themselves constitute a network, within which there are three sub-networks: 1) that comprised of the expectations which the marketer has of consumer conduct; 2) that made up of consumers’ expectations about other consumers’ conduct; and 3) that comprised of the expectations which consumers have of marketer (and marketer employee) conduct.

In a smoothly functioning exchange setting, the norms of the three sub-networks are in consonance with each other, and the behavior of consumers and marketers is in harmony with these norms. Successful exchange relationships are characterized by trust, orderliness, and openness (Houston & Gassenheimer 1987). Almost anyone can enter the exchange settings in which these relationships occur, without fear for his or her security. When in the exchange setting, consumers are implicitly allied with other consumers and with marketers. Steiner, Hadden, Herkomer (1976) posit a "social contract" between the consumer and the marketer; there is also a "social contract" among consumers who are together in an exchange setting.

Acts of consumer misbehavior disrupt the exchange environment by violating one or both of these contracts. They can violate the norms of orderly behavior which marketers apply to consumers, and those which consumers apply to one another. They challenge the trust which marketers have in consumers, and that which consumers have in their peers.

Can Consumer Misbehavior Be Distinguished From Misbehavior at Large?

Acts of consumer misbehavior themselves, of necessity, may also be committed in non-consumption, non-exchange situations. Examples would include acts of vandalism or verbal abuse or theft. But their impacts upon consumer experience will perforce differ. To omit from our definition acts which could also be committed in non-exchange situations would make no sense. In a full-fledged culture of consumption such as characterizes the economically advanced societies, exchange situations are pervasive.




Labeling theory, which is a well-established element of sociological thought, offers compelling insight into the process by which misbehavers are defined and "labeled." Dotter & Roebuck (1988) critically review this work.

Labeling theory posits an interactive process by which people (in our case, marketers and consumers) interpret or define each other’s actions, instead of merely reacting to them. "The imputation of deviance resides not only in the fact of deviance per se; it also depends heavily on the meanings that the audience attach[es] to the behavior and the actor" (Steffensmeier & Terry 1973, p. 425). These meanings are not necessarily uniform. They are shaped by differing perceptions, which in turn sometimes reflect attempts to exercise powerCor to reject such efforts. Expectations may thus differ across the players in an exchange setting, and so too may norms; norm and expectation setting is a fluid and dynamic rather than static and immutable process.

Perspectives on Labeling Misbehavior

Correct behavior may be viewed by both consumers and marketers from different perspectives which only partially overlap each other. An ethical perspective demarcates behavior in terms of good and bad: a legal perspective in terms of right and wrong. Still another perspective focuses upon deviance, and perceives some behavior to differ markedly from acceptable standards. Acts labeled deviant arouse strong rvulsion in the labeler, yet are not necessarily unethical or illegal; e.g., smoking in one’s car while cruising through a Southern California drive-through liquor store.

Labeling/Interactionist theory is borne out in reports of marketers selectively prosecuting apprehended misbehavers according to such factors as age, sex, race, and value stolen (Hindelang 1974; Robin 1963). Consumers too have been shown to label selectively. Steffensmeier & Terry (1973) find that the appearance of a shoplifter plays a major role in whether other shoppers would report him/her or not.

Conflicts in Labeling Misbehaving Consumers

Conflicts can roil the labeling process. Consumers may disagree among themselves. Sheley & Bailey (1985) reveal that a majority of responding consumers has only a mildly condemnatory attitude towards purchasing stolen goods. Guffy, Harris, & Laumer (1979) report distinct segmentation among consumers regarding perceptions about the seriousness of shoplifting. Consumers may also differ with marketers, especially on the seriousness of acts of consumer misbehavior. Wilkes (1978) reports some consumers indifferent to, or even approving of, misbehavior by other consumers.

Does Labeling Define Away Misbehavior?

Labeling illuminates the complexity inherent in defining consumer misbehavior; it suggests an element of moral "relativism" which some would find unsettling. For all the fluidity inherent in the labeling process, however, there is no doubt that when a consumer steals from or otherwise defrauds the marketer, vandalizes the marketer’s premises, or psychologically abuses the marketer’s employees, his/her acts go against the marketer’s expectations and violate the openness and trust which the marketer has invested in the exchange setting. There is similar violation when a consumer is insulted, harassed, or otherwise inconvenienced by fellow consumers; or has to pay higher prices to compensate for their theft, fraud, or other depredations against the marketer.


Inadequacy of the "Criminality" Demarcation

Labeling challenges assumptions which are based upon absolute and categorical demarcations of legitimate and illegitimate behavior. We began our work by attempting to narrow the definitional spectrum with absolutes, but these efforts floundered badly in light of existing knowledge. Attempts to differentiate between "criminal" and "non criminal" consumer misbehavior, for example, broke down once we penetrated the literature of criminality and sociology of deviance and realized: 1) the inconsistent and arbitrary nature of the reporting of "criminal" acts; 2) the ever-shifting definitions of what exactly constitutes criminal action; and 3) the diverse, often clashing, viewpoints about who has the legitimacy to formulate such definitions. To distinguish between "criminal" and "non-criminal" behavior, would therefore create a misleading impression of precision. It would also blur our intended focus on consumer experience. Acts which may loom large in criminal law; for example, major shoplifting, may be far less unsettling to consumers’ experience worlds than actions which may not even be, strictly speaking, illegal; e.g., being cut off by a queue jumper.

Inadequacy of the "Intent" Demarcation

Similarly, "intent" appeared at first to be a useful differentiating element in consumer misbehavior, but proved inadequate because behavioral intent is too often unknowable. It is exceedingly difficult to know when consumer misbehavers are consciously lying about their intention(s), as opposed to deceiving themselves, for example. In some cases the misbehaver may be unconscious of intended outcomes (see Rouke 1957 and Russell 1973). Even when both the victim and the ostensible outcome seem apparent, the intent underlying an act of consumer misbehavior may not be. For example, the intent of an act of vandalism such as attacking a large illuminated sign could be:

* To show defiance towards a large, powerful, commercial institution (Baron and Fisher 1984; Smigel 1956); or

* To gain revenge for poor treatment from the institution whose sign is damaged (Bedeaud and Coslin 1984); or

* To direct attention at the perpetrator or a cause dear to him/her (Garrett 1987); or

* To enjoy a thrilling experience (Katz 1988): or

* To gain the approval of peers (Sutherland 1947); or

* Understandable only in terms of serious mental disturbance such as impulse control disorder, antisocial personality disorder, or dementia (DSM-III-R 1987).


In light of the analysis presented here, five themes are promising for future research:

1. The process by which expectations about consumer deportment originate has not yet been explicitly studied. The process evidently involves cultural values, legal norms, ethical codes, and personal experience; and these are inculcated through a socialization or acculturation process which itself needs to be investigated.

2. Since consumer behavior is linked to cultural values, and since cultural values differ in different places, expectations regarding what is acceptable conduct by consumers are likely to differ somewhat across cultures. As an example, queue jumping infuriates Britons far more than Germans. Cross-cultural differences in the formation of expectations should be investigated; this would include looking at developing as well as developed consumer economies.

3. Similarly, differences and similarities in expectations should be investigated across subcultures and the larger culture of which they are a part. Could for example differences reflect the fact that one or more subcultures do not share the values of the broader culture of consumption, and that they rebel against a value system that is imposed upon them? Recent clashes between Black patrons and Korean store owners in Los Angeles, and earlier in New York, could have been caused by a struggle for power among people with widely differing consumption values.

4. Power is the heart of a related, and extremely important, issue - that of who (if anyone) within a consumer culture has the greatest ability to impose behavioral standards. Defining consumer misbehavior raises issues of power and control. Who has the power to designate others as deviant? Critics of consumer culture assume that marketers have enormous power to manipulate and control consumers (See Leach 1993, p.386); defenders of marketing emphasize consumers’ sovereignty and power to influence marketer actions. Most likely the power to define misbehavior is sharedCalbeit not necessarily equallyCbetween marketers and consumers. The intricacies of this reciprocal power relationship merit serious investigation.

5. Research needs to explore consumers’ attitudes towards the full spectrum of types of consumer misbehavior.


Our definition of consumer misbehavior is intentionally broad. Does it exaggerate the phenomenon? We think not. Consumer misbehavior has enerally been under-reported and subject to widespread denial by both actors and acted upon; it is an unpleasant aspect of a culture which does not like unpleasantness. Misbehavior by consumers challenges some of the very foundations of contemporary consumer society: its implicit norms and role expectations, the legitimacy of marketers to establish boundaries, and the overall capacity of the system to function smoothly. The pervasive underestimation needs to be challenged; the presence of the misbehaving consumer across a wide variety of exchange situations must be acknowledged. Exchange situations are richer and more complex than often assumed. The readiness of consumer researchers during the past several years to explore deviant actions through which consumers damage themselves (e.g., Faber et.al. 1995; Hirschman 1992), and to open up investigation of consumer resistance (Penaloza and Price 1993), leads us to believe that the climate may finally be opportune for sustained investigation of consumer misbehavior.


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