Perspectives For Studying and Implementing Consumer Education

Melanie Wallendorf, University of Pittsburgh
Gerald Zaltman, University of Pittsburgh
ABSTRACT - Research findings from consumer behavior can be used to develop propositions applicable to consumer education contexts. Macro and micro social structures organize differences between groups and thereby make them differentially receptive to consumer education. Similarly, the "educated consumer" can be seen as a role with certain perceived expectations. Finally, individual adoption and resistance and communication patterns have an impact on the diffusion of such programs.
[ to cite ]:
Melanie Wallendorf and Gerald Zaltman (1977) ,"Perspectives For Studying and Implementing Consumer Education", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 04, eds. William D. Perreault, Jr., Atlanta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 376-379.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, 1977   Pages 376-379


Melanie Wallendorf, University of Pittsburgh

Gerald Zaltman, University of Pittsburgh


Research findings from consumer behavior can be used to develop propositions applicable to consumer education contexts. Macro and micro social structures organize differences between groups and thereby make them differentially receptive to consumer education. Similarly, the "educated consumer" can be seen as a role with certain perceived expectations. Finally, individual adoption and resistance and communication patterns have an impact on the diffusion of such programs.


Many advances have been made in the past few years in the area of consumer education. There now exists a diverse array of consumer education programs. These cover many subject areas, using many media and presentational forms, and are designed for all age and ethnic groups. Yet consumer educators remain concerned about how to best study and implement consumer education. Perhaps the best way is to look to the field of consumer behavior for insights into the processes which are operating. Specifically, consumer educators can use consumer behavior findings to learn how buyers make choices, what influences those choices, how these influences operate, and the processes underlying post-purchase feelings of satisfaction and/or dissatisfaction. By understanding these behavioral processes and their explanations, consumer educators can design more appropriate and more effective programs. In addition, the process involved in the adoption of consumer educational materials by various organizations (whether they be schools, local public television stations, state governments, or private corporations) can be better understood by studying organizational innovation adoption and resistance. This is an area very infrequently researched by those in the field of consumer behavior. (The reader is referred to Zaltman, Duncan and Holbek, 1973, for a discussion of organizational change.)

Specifically, this paper will deal with five different areas of inquiry in consumer behavior which have relevance for the consumer educator. Each area has a unique perspective for viewing consumers. These areas are also examined for their implications for consumer education. These perspectives are not exhaustive; they have been chosen because they are often overlooked, yet provide considerable explanatory power and richness. Other papers have been written on the more traditional perspectives of attitude change and cognitive information processing (Bettman, 1975). The five perspectives covered in this paper are:

(1) The influences of macro social structures.

(2) The influences of micro social structures.

(3) Role behavior.

(4) Individual adoption and resistance.

(5) Communication processes.

These perspectives all have implications for the design of consumer education materials and programs as well as implications for the efforts made to persuade consumers to read/watch/listen to the materials. Thus it is not only what reaches consumers, but also how they are reached which is crucially important for effective change to take place. In each of the six sections, propositions about consumer behavior are translated into the consumer education context. Such translation naturally implies the need for empirical research to test whether the translation is reasonable. Toward this end, an attempt has been made to state the propositions in such a way as to facilitate the task of testing them.

The Influences of Macro Social Structures

Macro social structure is the organization of differences among people in a society. Various aspects of macro social structure include social class structures, differences among various groups which explain differences in communication patterns and channels, value sets, educational level variations, industry structures, and ethnic differences in behavior patterns. Clearly, the macro social structure serves as more than a backdrop for consumer behavior and consumer education. In fact, macro social structure is perhaps the most pervasive influence on these two processes (Rogers, 1971). As has been shown in many research efforts, changes in the structure of interaction clearly produce changes in the behavior of individuals as well as individuals' feelings about their behavior and interactions (see, for example, Leavitt, 1949).

The structure of communication (i.e., its content and channels) in a society sets the stage for what can be done to persuade consumers to engage in consumer education activities as well as what content these activities can have. The larger the number and variety of mass media channels in the society, the greater the communication exposure among its consumers and hence the more favorable the climate for change in that society. The greater exposure to more information is likely to increase the perceived need to change and to increase knowledge about opportunities to satisfy that need. In addition, to the extent that exposure to a variety of media makes individuals aware of more desirable alternatives for satisfying current needs, these communication media can create or enhance a perceived need for change. Therefore, consumer educators can increase the number of communication channels, for instance, by introducing new magazines similar to Consumer Reports or new television programs (i.e., "Consumer Survival Kit") to disseminate their messages. Alternatively, they can increase the variety of types of communication channels (i.e., nutrition information on supermarket paper bags or fresh produce wrappers, nutrition booths in supermarkets or shopping centers, co-sponsorship of youth group work weeks emphasizing consumer education opportunities in the community).

However, macro social structure issues also focus on the structure of differences in people's lives. These differences are often relevant for the consumer educator. For instance, the greater the desire for excellence in order to accomplish personal goals, the more favorable the climate to change in a society will be. Thus the high achievement motivation which is transmitted to individuals in the U.S. through social institutions (McClelland, 1971) makes for a favorable climate for change. However, those individuals who are most affected by this motivation transmission process, that is, those who are high in need for achievement, will be good prospects for consumer education. This may partially account for the repeated finding that consumer activists are batter educated and have higher incomes and higher occupational status than the average consumer (Bourgeois and Barnes, 1976; Friedman, 1971; Herrmann, 1974). That is, the high need for achievement may explain both the efforts to become knowledgeable about consumer interests on the one hand, and the desire for high levels of education, income, and occupational status on the other.

This is closely related to two other propositions concerning individual differences. The better the reading skills of consumers and the more accustomed they are to reading the greater their flexibility in thinking and thus the more readily they can accept new products. The greater the consumer's ability to read and the more materials they read, the more likely it is that they will possess the knowledge or skills necessary to accept and use new products in an effective manner. Therefore, if we consider consumer education as the new product referred to in the above propositions, another reason for the "upscale bias" becomes evident. The problem is larger than simply a need on the part of the consumer educators to make certain their materials and programs are not of a high level of reading complexity. Even if the level of reading complexity of consumer education materials is reduced, educators will still he faced with the problem of dealing with people who may not readily accept new programs and may not have the knowledge and skills necessary for such acceptance. This makes the challenge of reaching consumers with Low education levels even greater. Perhaps materials which are used in reading training (especially for teenage youths and adults) can be designed so that their content centers on consumer issues while their main intent centers on increasing reading levels.

Another individual difference which is one which varies by culture as well as within cultures is that of locus of control. The less consumers feel they are able to control their future (external locus of control), the less likely it is that they will recognize the importance of trying to respond to a problem. Thus, frequent and recurring product dissatisfactions may not be enough to result in consumer action (by registering complaints, or by seeking additional information about the product and/or choice strategies used) on the part of persons with an external locus of control. One function of consumer education, then, might be to assist consumers in seeing that, at least in some consumer situations, it is possible to partially control one's future by responding to a problem.

The social and communication networks of consumers are also elements of the macro social structure which influence the diffusion of programs such as consumer education. The greater the number of public and private professional associations in a given context, the more readily a new product or service will be diffused in that context. Initially, there existed few organizations which had as a major interest the facilitation of consumer education programs. In the past few years, however, many more organizations have been formed and some already existing organizations (in particular, public high schools) have taken on consumer education as a goal. Consumer educators would he wise to make use of the pervasive existing organizations of contemporary urban social structure. Since it now appears that the U.S. is characterized by many group memberships per person (Blau, 1974), consumer educators should make use of these existing organizational ties by attempting to persuade various existing organizations to adopt consumer education as a goal. For instance, consumer educators could work with Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, and Campfire Girls in developing "Consumer Awareness" badges. Speakers' bureaus and programming aides could serve existing organizations. These strategies would extend the organizational range of consumer education.

The Influences of Micro Social Structures

Micro social structures include small group patterns, norms, collective decision-making patterns, and the impacts of small groups on individual behaviors and choices. Thus micro social structures are the structures which differentiate people in small-scale social systems such as families and informal social groups. The structure of interaction in these groups affects the likelihood that individuals within them will adopt an innovation. In this context, as in others, we can think of consumer education as an innovation in the perceptions of those consumers who have not yet participated in the programs or seen the materials.

One of the ways groups have an impact on group members is through norms. Norms are collective expectations about behavior which are enforced and which reflect the values of a group. One of the advantages of diffusing consumer education through existing groups is that the content of the education effort may become a group norm. One research study found that "in a consumer decision-making situation where no objective standards are present, individuals who are exposed to a group norm will tend to conform to that group norm." (Venkatesan, 1966) Thus, consumer education will be most effective in the group context when it relates to decision-making situations for which the members do not have specific standards for evaluation. This implies that educational efforts should be undertaken prior to the time a consumer begins to purchase a particular class of products. Therefore, the less previous experience consumers have in purchasing a particular class of items, yet the closer to the time when they will purchase the items, the more effective will be consumer education efforts aimed at setting norms about decision-making criteria.

However, attempts to get consumers who are in such a situation to adopt these decision-making criteria may backfire. This may happen if the educational or norm generating attempts are perceived as coercive by the consumers. Thus, the same research study found that "in a consumer decision-making situation where no objective standards are present, individuals who are exposed to a group norm and are induced to comply, will show less tendency to conform to the group judgment." (Venkatesan, 1966) This implies that consumer education efforts should be directed at existing groups and organizations. However, attendance at programs and understanding of the material should not be required or formally enforced. In such cases, the situation is ripe for reactance, or behavior contrary to that suggested. This places serious questions on the recently enacted laws in several states which require that high school students satisfactorily complete a consumer education course or module.

With regard to the content of educational materials, it appears that, at least from the perspective of norms, generality is preferable to specificity. That is, the more a norm applies to a wide array of situations, the more likely it is that consumers will conform to it in any given situation. Thus, guidelines for making purchase decisions will he more likely to be followed if they are stated generally. To the extent possible, price-quality relationships should he defined in terms of product classes rather than specific items or specific stores. A few general guidelines may be much more effective than handbooks and volumes prescribing product-by-product choice criteria and decision strategies.

Educators must also be conscious of different kinds of norms which operate in groups. For instance, moral norms are ideal behaviors, or what members believe should be done. Behavioral norms are beliefs about what one's peers actually do. The actual behavior of consumers will be somewhere between the moral norm and the behavioral norm; it will be closer, however, to the behavioral norm (Buffalo and Rodgers, 1971). This partially explains why consumer utilization of product information disclosures is so low. Although almost everyone would agree that making careful choices is the ideal behavior, they may think it too difficult to do and not worth the effort if they perceive valued peers making choices in a casual way. This will lead people to make their own purchase decisions somewhat carelessly. The strategy for consumer educators, then, would be to either encourage stronger enforcement of the moral norm (which seems difficult if not impossible), or, more realistically, to increase the perception that others do, in fact, make careful choices based on available information.

Role Behavior

A role is a structured set of norms, values, and interaction patterns which are expected of persons who occupy a certain position (i.e., mother, student, scientist, etc.). Although individuals do personalize the ways in which they carry out a certain role (Thornton and Nardi, 1975), expected role behavior is essentially independent of the particular occupant of the position. In fact, role acquisition is an evolving process of decreasing formalization and increasing personalization. In other words, new occupants of a particular position will be more likely to carry out the idealized role behaviors and have high consensus about what this ideal is. They will adjust to fit the role. However, as time passes, role occupants will rely more heavily on their own conception of what should be done. They will adjust the role to fit themselves. The implication of this phenomena becomes obvious when we view consumer education as the process of acquiring the role of an educated or informed consumer. Therefore, consumption guidelines must be stated in such a way that new occupants of a role will have a clear idea of what constitutes "ideal" consumption behavior and choice processes. However, these guidelines must also be stated in such a way that persons who have occupied the educated consumer role for a period of time can personalize or modify the guidelines to meet their own needs and situation. This implies that segmentation is in order. Some materials with very clear guidelines should be given to "new occupants"; other materials which assist in personalizing the role should be developed for others. It is with the latter group that consumer educators must be careful to not emphasize the rigidity of the distinction between judicious and injudicious choices.

This brings us to the point of asking how to insure that informed consumers will continue in that role. Here again, work in the consumer behavior field gives us insights. The likelihood of continuing in a role is greater, (a) the greater the consistency of personal values with a role, (b) the greater the net balance of immediate rewards over costs, and (c) the greater the cost of acquiring and continuing alternative roles. Additionally, these conditions are listed in order of decreasing importance to the role continuation decision. The most important condition (personal value consistency with consumer education) can most easily be met by designing the program or material to reflect and demonstrate value consistency with the audience. Perhaps one problem of consumer education programs (as with all self-improvement programs) is that they promise long-term rewards in return for immediate costs (such as time spent becoming informed). Thus, efforts should be addressed toward satisfying these conditions so that informed consumers will decide to continue in that role.

Individual Adoption and Resistance

Adoption and resistance are relevant to consumer education in two ways. The first way relates to the decision by an entity (either a person, group, or organization) of whether or not to become involved in consumer education. The decision by an individual to adopt or not adopt involvement in consumer education will be treated here. The second way in which adoption and resistance relate to consumer education is in the area of persuasion by a message. In this case the actual content of the educational materials, not just the decision to become involved in it, is subject to adoption/resistance Processes. This will be treated in the section on communication processes.

One of the major prerequisites to adoption of an innovation is that the potential adopter perceive the need for the change. The less aware people are of their inadequacies, the less responsive they will be to innovations which promise to remedy the inadequacies. In other words, it is critical that consumer educators spend considerable energies creating an awareness on the part of consumers of the potential values of more informed choices. This, by implication, would develop a performance gap such that consumers would be receptive to available programs and materials.

However, this also has implications for the type of person who can successfully carry out consumer education programs. In this case, the educator is a marketer of consumer education. The less a marketer understands the consumer situation, the less able the marketer is to help consumers perceive a problem or identify a potential solution to the problem. Thus being able to make consumers aware of their own performance gaps can be done most successfully by a person who is adept at role-taking. Role-taking is the ability to view things (including oneself) the way another person views them (Turner, 1965). Thus role-taking is simply an extension of the marketing concept which stresses starting marketing planning with the study of consumer needs. Role-taking provides a means of gaining insights into those needs.

The rate of adoption is also influenced by expectations about the effects deriving from adoption. Two types of innovations exist: those with incremental effects and those with preventive effects. Increment innovations are those which increase the amount of some desired event. Thus, if consumer education is perceived as a means for obtaining more dollar value in purchases, it would be considered an increment innovation. Preventive innovations, on the other hand, are those which are adopted to avoid some unpleasant event. Thus, if consumer education is perceived as a means for avoiding fraud and deception, it would be considered a preventive innovation. Obviously, the two types are not mutually exclusive. One study has found that increment innovations are adopted at a faster rate than are preventive innovations. However, innovations perceived as having both incremental and preventive effects are adopted at a faster rate than either of the two kinds separately (Koontz). Therefore, the optimum strategy is for consumer educators to stress both the incremental and the preventive effects. In situations where, due to resource limitations, they can only stress one type of effect, they should emphasize incremental effects. If a situation occurs in which they must stress preventive effects, these effects must be made perceivable and communicable (which is difficult since the aim is to get someone to perceive the absence of something).

Finally, one must recognize that the adoption process does not end with a decision to use or purchase the innovation. Rejection can follow what was, at an earlier time, adoption. Discontinuance of use of an innovation increases as the involvement of the marketer with past and current adopters decreases. This implies that consumer educators should continue to send follow-up reports and additional information and descriptions of the value of informed choice to persons who previously completed consumer education programs.

Communication Processes

Obviously, any educational effort involves communication processes because it is the transfer of information or experiences from one person to another. This, then, is another way of viewing consumer education. This view highlights such phenomena as source credibility, message effects, and communication participation.

A source's credibility, and thus his or her persuasiveness, is reduced when the audience perceives that the source has something to gain from these persuasive attempts. This implies that consumer education should not come directly from a manufacturer or retailer. However laudable such efforts may be from a social responsibility of business perspective, it may well be the case that these efforts are not very effective in changing the behaviors of consumers. Thus what appears to be socially responsible may be merely a demonstration of the desire to appear socially responsible. This proposition and implication are expected to hold particularly when at the end of the consumer education message the sponsor (manufacturer or retailer) concludes that (or tries to lead consumers to conclude that) the sponsoring firm is better because of its sponsorship of such activities or materials. In such cases, resources might be better spent by contributing to independent consumer education organizations.

One way to avoid this destruction of source credibility and still have the manufacturer or retailer directly involved is to restructure the message. The low credibility source can increase his or her influence by arguing for a position which is perceived to be against his or her own self-interest. The message can still contain the same information bits, but the nature of the presentation can be changed to increase persuasiveness.

The discussion to this point has carried the implication that consumer education communications are unidirectional: from a source to a consumer. However, the greater the degree of participation of the intended audience in the communication process, the earlier the time at which members of the audience will decide to implement the recommended change. Thus the strategies used by some consumer education materials and programs of having on-the-spot quizzes ("Consumer Survival Kit") or forms for figuring out one's own purchase requirements (Consumer Reports) develop participation and thus enhance the persuasion process.


Findings from five different areas of consumer behavior research have been translated into their meanings and implications for consumer education. Propositions were stated in testable form to encourage research into these processes.


James R. Bettman, "Issues in Designing Consumer Information Environments," Journal of Consumer Research, 2(December, 1975), 169-177.

Peter Blau, "Presidential Address: Parameters of Social Structure," American Sociological Review, 39 (October, 1974), 615-635.

Jacques C. Bourgeois and James G. Barnes, "Consumer Activists: What Makes Them Different?", Advances in Consumer Research, 3 (1976), 73-80.

M. D. Buffalo and Joseph W. Rodgers, "Behavioral Norms, Moral Norms, and Attachment: Problems of Deviance and Conformity," Social Problems, 19 (Summer, 1971), 101-113.

Monroe Peter Friedman, "The 1966 Consumer Protest as Seen by Its Leaders," Journal of Consumer Affairs, 5 (Summer, 1971), 1-23.

Robert O. Herrmann, "The Consumer Movement in Historical Perspective, in David A. Aaker and George S. Day (eds.), Consumerism: Search for the Consumer Interest, 2nd ed., (New York: The Free Press, 1974), 10-18.

Virginia Lansdon Koontz, "Determinants of Individual's Level of Knowledge and Attitude Towards and Decisions Regarding a Health Innovation in Maine ," unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan), Chapter 5.

Harold J. Leavitt, "Some Effects of Certain Communication Patterns on Group Performance," doctoral dissertation, (MIT, 1949).

David C. McClelland, The Achieving Society (Princeton, New Jersey: Van Nostrand, 1971).

Everett M. Rogers, "Social Structure and Social Change," American Behavioral Scientist, (1971), 767-782.

Russell Thornton and Peter M. Nardi, "The Dynamics of Role Acquisition," American Journal of Sociology, 80 (January, 1975), 870-885.

Ralph H. Turner, "Role-Taking, Role Standpoint, and Reference Group Behavior," American Journal of Sociology, 61 (1965), 316-328.

M. Venkatesan, "Consumer Behavior: Conformity and Independence," Journal of Marketing Research, 3 (November, 1966), 384-387.

Gerald Zaltman, Robert Duncan, and J. Holbek, Innovations and Organizations (New York: Wiley-Interscience, 1973).