An Evaluation of Televised Consumer Education: a Pilot Study

Paul N. Bloom, University of Maryland
Gary T. Ford, University of Maryland
James W. Harvey, University of Maryland
ABSTRACT - A pilot study was conducted to examine the differences in knowledge levels, behavior, and satisfaction between viewers and non-viewers of the television program "Consumer Survival Kit." The results indicate that the differences between the groups are large enough to warrant further investigation into the role, if any, that "Consumer Survival Kit" has played in producing these differences.
[ to cite ]:
Paul N. Bloom, Gary T. Ford, and James W. Harvey (1977) ,"An Evaluation of Televised Consumer Education: a Pilot Study", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 04, eds. William D. Perreault, Jr., Atlanta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 388-391.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, 1977   Pages 388-391


Paul N. Bloom, University of Maryland

Gary T. Ford, University of Maryland

James W. Harvey, University of Maryland

[The authors would like to thank the staff of "Consumer Survival Kit" for their assistance. This research was partially supported by funds provided by the College of Business and Management of the University of Maryland.]


A pilot study was conducted to examine the differences in knowledge levels, behavior, and satisfaction between viewers and non-viewers of the television program "Consumer Survival Kit." The results indicate that the differences between the groups are large enough to warrant further investigation into the role, if any, that "Consumer Survival Kit" has played in producing these differences.


Many individuals have recognized consumer education's potential for producing a variety of social benefits (Bloom and Silver, 1976; Scherf, 1974; Seitz, 1972; Staelin, 1974). It has been suggested that consumer education could produce, among other things, fewer product-related accidents and injuries, greater competition among sellers, a reduced need for government consumer protection actions, and, in general, a more satisfied consumer population. Unfortunately, while much has been written about the potential of consumer education, very little has been written about the achievements of the numerous existing consumer education programs. There have been few published studies (Staelin, 1974; Uhl, 1970) devoted to evaluating the effects of consumer education programs on the knowledge levels, behavior, and satisfaction of consumers. Thus, it is not known whether consumer education has begun to fulfill its potential.

In an effort to obtain a better understanding of what consumer education can actually accomplish, the authors have begun a comprehensive evaluation of an ongoing, large-scale, consumer education program. The purpose of this research is to determine how much the nationally broadcast television program "Consumer Survival Kit" has affected the knowledge levels, behavior, and satisfaction of its viewers. To initiate this program of research, a small pilot study was conducted to generate ideas concerning hypotheses to test and methodologies to use in a future larger study. This paper reports on the preliminary findings of this pilot study.

The paper first contains a discussion of the rationale for evaluating "Consumer Survival Kit" rather than other consumer education programs. This is followed by a description of the methodology used in the pilot study. The preliminary findings of the study are then reported, along with some analysis of these findings. Finally, a short description is provided of the future plans for evaluating "Consumer Survival Kit."


"Consumer Survival Kit" is a television series produced by the Maryland Center for Public Broadcasting. The series began in 1974 and was originally broadcast only within the State of Maryland. In 1975, the series was picked up by most of the stations in the Public Broadcasting System and it now appears on about 240 out of 260 public television stations around the country.

The series covers a different topic on each half-hour program. Topics that have been covered on this show include: how to buy plants; how to buy a condominium; how to use the small claims courts; how to use advertising; and how to do your income taxes. Twenty-six different programs are produced for each calendar year, and each program is aired during two different weeks --i.e., the series is run through twice. Many stations have broadcast each program more than once during a week.

A variety of techniques are used by "Consumer Survival Kit" to teach viewers about the selected topics. The show always begins with a three-question, true-false quiz which viewers are asked to try to answer. After the answers to the quiz are explained, a number of serious and humorous segments are aired to instruct viewers in the given topic. One such segment tells viewers about places in their local area where they can get additional information or help. The show always ends by offering the viewers a chance to send in for a booklet that contains original and reprinted articles on the given topic. Thus far, over 600,000 of these booklets have been sold at one dollar apiece.

There are several important reasons why "Consumer Survival Kit" was selected for evaluation over other consumer education programs. First, "Consumer Survival Kit" is a program that serves primarily adults. The decision was made to evaluate consumer education programs targeted at adults since this group is more likely to have an immediate chance to engage in the forms of behavior recommended in a consumer education class or message. Examining how a consumer education program has affected the behavior of young people poses a difficult measurement problem, since several years may pass before they have the opportunity to behave in recommended ways (Staelin, 1976).

The availability of a list of "students" of "Consumer Survival Kit" provided another reason for evaluating this program. The list of names and addresses of people who have sent in for the booklets or "Kits" --the vast majority of whom are viewers of the show--has been made available to the authors. It would be impossible to identify and contact such a large population of students of other adult consumer education programs -- particularly students who have all been exposed to similar educational "treatments."

Finally, "consumer Survival Kit" was selected because possibilities were seen for doing some interesting cross-sectional and longitudinal research. The show is not broadcast in all localities, nor is it broadcast at the same times or given the same kind of promotional support by all stations. The opportunity therefore exists for setting up experimental and control groups for purposes of studying the show's effects on knowledge levels, behavior, and satisfaction and for also studying the most effective ways of marketing televised consumer education.


A mail survey of 652 Maryland consumers was conducted in August of 1976. The sample for this survey was selected in the following manner:

- A systematic random sample of 244 people was selected from a list of Maryland residents who sent in for the "Consumer Survival Kit" booklets on the first ten topics covered during 1975.

- A systematic random sample of 408 people was selected from telephone directories covering the entire State of Maryland. When a non-residential number was selected the next residential number (and name and address) was utilized instead.

The survey was limited to Maryland consumers because of a desire to obtain rapid responses and to ensure that all respondents had an approximately equal opportunity to have seen "Consumer Survival Kit." The show has been on for a longer time in Maryland than in other states. The possibility that non-Maryland residents might react differently to the survey, because it was being done by University of Maryland faculty members, was also considered.

Approximately ten days after the initial survey mailing, follow-up phone calls were made to non-res-pondents to urge them to return the questionnaire. After adjusting for non-delivered questionnaires, the final response rate came to 49 percent for the sample taken from the list and 28 percent for the sample taken from the telephone directories.

The study was described in the cover letter as an investigation (sponsored by the University) into the habits and characteristics of Maryland consumers for the purpose of designing activities and programs to help consumers. The questionnaire sought information on the following subjects:

1. Viewership of various television consumer programs.

2. Performance on several true-false questions that had been discussed on recent Consumer Survival Kit programs.

3. Frequency of engaging in activities such as writing or telephoning complaints or testimonials, going to a library for information before making a purchasing decision, or writing a legislator about cons-met legislation during the previous two years.

4. Readership of various consumer publications.

5. Satisfaction with purchasing decisions.

6. Demographic characteristics.

The basic purpose for seeking this information during the pilot study was to discover if viewers of "Consumer Survival Kit" know more about topics covered on the show, report higher levels of activity as consumers, and report higher levels of satisfaction than non-viewers. If this were clearly not the case, then there would he no reason to do more elaborate experimental or quasi-experimental studies in the future to examine whether watching "Consumer Survival Kit" has caused its viewers to be different.


Respondents to the mail survey were categorized into three distinct groups: (1) non-viewers of Consumer Survival Kit, (2) light viewers of the program (i.e., those who had watched it from two to nine times), and (3) heavy viewers of the program (i.e., those who had watched it ten or more times). Simple cross-tabulations were performed to identify differences between the three groups. In general, it appears that the knowledge levels, behavior, and satisfaction of the three groups are different.

Heavy viewers of "Consumer Survival Kit" outperformed light viewers and non-viewers on a ten item true-false quiz that utilized questions that were discussed on the program during the 1976 season. Respondents were awarded two points if they answered an item correctly, one point if they answered "not sure" or provided no answer, and zero points if they answered incorrectly. Thus, a perfect score on the quiz would receive a 20 and a score for someone with all "unsures" would be 10. As shown in Table 1, 38.3 percent of the heavy viewers scored a 15 or higher on the quiz, while only 16.2 percent of the non-viewers scored this high. A chi-square test of independence found the relationship shown in Table 1 to be significant at the 0.01 level. Additionally, the mean scores of the three groups show that heavy viewers performed better on this ten-item quiz than non-viewers.



Heavy viewers of Consumer Survival Kit also seemed to be more active consumers than light viewers or non-viewers. As indicated in Table 2, the heavy viewers were more likely to have engaged in each of the following activities during the previous two years:

1. Written a letter or made a telephone call to complain about a product or service.

2. Written a letter or made a telephone call to praise a product or service.

3. Stopped buying a product or brand of a product because of concern over how safe it was.

4. Checked Consumer Reports magazine before making a purchase.

5. Sent for or picked up a government pamphlet or booklet on how to buy a product or service.

6. Gone to a library to look up information about a product or service before making a purchasing decision.

7. Talked to a cooperative extension service worker or similar government employee before making a purchasing decision.

8. Written to a member of Congress or the state legislature about any proposed laws that could help consumers.

In addition, heavy viewers also tended to be more likely to have engaged in these activities three or more times during the previous two years (See Table 2). The significance levels of the relationships found in the 3X3 contingency tables that compared viewership and frequency of engaging in each activity are indicated in Table 2.



Heavy viewers were also found to be much more frequent readers of various consumer publications. As shown in Table 3, 55 percent of the heavy viewers reported reading four or more of the following publications "sometimes" or "frequently": Consumer Reports, Consumer Guide, Money, Moneysworth, Changing Times, Consumer Survival Kit, and "Other." A chi-squared test found the relationship depicted in Table 3 to be significant at the 0.001 level. Moreover, the differences across groups in the mean number of publications read indicate that both light and heavy viewers read substantially more consumer publications than non-viewers.



Heavy viewers also seemed more likely to be satisfied consumers. As shown in Table 4, this group was more likely to answer "slightly more" or "much more" to the following question: Compared to the households of your friends and neighbors, how satisfied, generally, is your household with the things it buys? However, the relationship depicted in the table is not statistically significant.



The data reported thus far seems to indicate that viewers of "Consumer Survival Kit" are different types of consumers than non-viewers. The problem, of course, becomes to determine how much of the differences are due to viewership of the show and how much of the differences were already present before these consumers began watching the show. The next section of this paper discusses how the authors plan to attempt to solve this problem. The remainder of this section is devoted to discussing the results of questions asked about demographic characteristics and television viewing habits. These questions were asked to obtain ideas concerning other variables that might explain the differences between viewers and non-viewers.

Table 5 presents a socio-demographic profile of light, heavy, and non-viewers. Although heavy viewers tend to be somewhat younger, have less of a chance of being married, and have a greater tendency to live in one or two person households than respondents in other groups, these differences are slight and were not statistically significant. Moreover, a comparison of income levels and occupations did not reveal significant differences across groups. However, 64 percent of the heavy viewers are college graduates, which is a much higher percentage than for the light and non-viewers -- a difference which was statistically significant at the 0.05 level.



Examination of the average number of hours that a television is turned on in the household shows no significant difference across the viewer categories. Moreover, when respondents were asked to rank the three types of programs they watched most frequently, only a few significant differences in viewing habits were revealed (See Table 6). As one might expect, heavy and light viewers watch significantly more educational television than non-viewers. In addition, heavy and light viewers watch less sports than non-viewers.



In summary, it appears that there are differences in the knowledge levels, behavior, and satisfaction of viewers and non-viewers of "Consumer Survival Kit" that cannot be explained by demographic variables. Although viewers definitely seem more educated, education alone does not seem capable of explaining all the differences that were found -- particularly the more frequent information-seeking, safety-conscious, vocal behavior reported by the heavy viewers. Thus, further research clearly seems warranted into the role, if any, that "Consumer Survival Kit" has played in helping to produce viewers that are more "active" consumers. It must be determined whether watching "Consumer Survival Kit" tends to be a cause or merely an additional manifestation of the more active consumer behavior of its viewers.


The immediate plans of the authors are to do further statistical analyses of the data obtained from the pilot study. Multivariate statistical methods will be employed to obtain a better understanding of the relationships between the variables discussed in the preceding section. After this has been completed, a field experiment will be designed to study the effects, over time, of "Consumer Survival Kit" on its viewers. Experimental and control populations will be selected from various localities that receive and do not receive the show. Instruments for taking pre- and post-measures of consumer knowledge, behavior and satisfaction will be developed and an approach for administering these instruments will be determined.

At the present time, the inclination of the authors is to rely primarily on personal interviews to collect data during the field experiment. During the pilot study, it was recognized that a mail survey has only a limited potential for studying the kinds of questions that must be answered. Several group interviews were done with viewers of "Consumer Survival Kit" while preparing the pilot-study questionnaire, and these interviews clearly revealed the advantages of using an approach that allows one to probe into the details of people's behavior and into the motivations behind their behavior. Many of the interviewees discussed specific instances when they had changed their consumption habits after hearing something on the show.

Current plans are to conduct the field experiment during the 1977 calendar year. A final report on the entire study is anticipated before the end of 1978.


Paul N. Bloom and Mark J. Silver. "Consumer Education: Marketers Take Heed," Harvard Business Review, 54 (January-February, 1976), 32.

Gerhard W. H. Scherf, "Consumer Education as a Means of Alleviating Dissatisfaction," Journal of Consumer Affairs, 8 (Summer 1974), 61.

Wesley D. Seitz, "Consumer Education as the Means to Attain Efficient Market Performance," Journal of Consumer Affairs, 6 (Winter 1972), 199.

Richard Staelin, "Consumer Product Safety: A Discussion Paper," presented before the American Marketing Association Conference on Consumerism, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, March, 1976.

Richard Staelin, "The Effects of Consumer Education on Consumer Product Safety Behavior," presented before the American Psychological Association Conference, New Orleans, Louisiana, August, 1974.

Joseph N. Uhl, "The Purdue Consumer Education Study: Some Findings and Implications," Journal of Consumer Affairs, 4, (Winter, 1970), 124.