Family Communication and Consumer Socialization

George P. Moschis, Georgia State University
Roy L. Moore, Georgia State University
ABSTRACT - This paper investigates family influences in terms of mediating socialization processes on adolescents' consumer skill acquisition. Family influences are first conceptualized as parent-child interpersonal processes, and hypotheses regarding their impact on the adolescent's consumer learning are formulated on the basis of theory and previous findings. Family influences are also assessed using path analysis.
[ to cite ]:
George P. Moschis and Roy L. Moore (1979) ,"Family Communication and Consumer Socialization", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 06, eds. William L. Wilkie, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 359-363.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 1979      Pages 359-363

FAMILY COMMUNICATION AND CONSUMER SOCIALIZATION

George P. Moschis, Georgia State University

Roy L. Moore, Georgia State University

ABSTRACT -

This paper investigates family influences in terms of mediating socialization processes on adolescents' consumer skill acquisition. Family influences are first conceptualized as parent-child interpersonal processes, and hypotheses regarding their impact on the adolescent's consumer learning are formulated on the basis of theory and previous findings. Family influences are also assessed using path analysis.

INTRODUCTION

In recent years, consumer learning among young people has become of increasing interest to several groups of people including marketers, public policy makers, consumer educators and students of socialization and consumer behavior (Ward 1974). In spite of the growing interest, relatively little research has been focused upon the process(es) by which young people acquire consumption-related skills, knowledge and attitudes--i.e., consumer socialization. Most of the published research in the area has focused upon television influences on consumer learning of children (e.g., Ward 1974) perhaps as a result of the recent issues surrounding the effects of marketing activities upon young consumers. Considerably less attention has been given to the examination of other sources of consumer influence (e.g., parents, peers) and age groups (e.g., adolescents) which are believed to be of great importance in the socialization of people to the consumer role (e.g., Moore and Stephens 1975, Moschis and Moore 1978, Ward et al 1977).

This paper investigates family influences on the acquisition of selected consumer skills during adolescence, a period believed to be crucial in socialization (Campbell 1969). Family influences are first conceptualized in terms of parent-child interpersonal processes. Hypotheses regarding the family's impact on adolescents' consumer socialization are then formulated on the basis of theory and previous research findings. Finally, the paper presents a path analytic model concerning family influences on adolescent consumer learning.

CONCEPTUALIZATION OF FAMILY INFLUENCES

Past approaches to understanding how the family influences children ranged from very broad of global nature to situation specific. The first category includes structural variables relating to family characteristics such as social class, family size and ethnic background. Situational variables are more specific and "closer" related to the particular type of socialization such as parental consumer behavior and parent-child interactions about consumption (Ward et al 1977). Situational variables appear to have an advantage over global variables because they can often provide specific information regarding the influence.

One type of situation specific variable, parent-child communication about consumption, appears to be important in the socialization of children and adolescents (e.g., Ward et al 1977, Moschis 1976). However, little is known how specific communication patterns affect consumer socialization. Several studies in the related area of political socialization, for example, show that the specific pattern of parent-child communication has a more significant influence in socialization than parent-child frequency or amount of interaction (McLeod and Chaffee 1972).

Studies of general parent-child communication processes constantly find two relatively uncorrelated dimensions of communication structure: the first is called socio-oriented, the type of communication that is designed to produce deference and to foster harmonious and pleasant social relationships at home. The child in homes characterized by such a communication structure may be taught to avoid controversy and repress his feelings on extra-personal topics, for example, by not arguing with adults and giving in on arguments rather than risk offending others. The second type of communication is called concept-oriented, a pattern that focuses on positive constraints helping the child to develop his own views about the world. The parents may, for example, encourage the child to weigh all alternatives before making a decision or may expose him to controversy--either by differing openly on an issue or by discussing it with guests at home (McLeod and Chaffee 1972). The two general dimensions of parent-to-child communication produce a fourfold typology of family communication patterns (FCP): laissez-faire, protective, pluralistic, and consensual (McLeod and Chaffee 1972).

Laissez-faire families lack emphasis on either kind of communication; there is little parent-child communication in these families. Protective families stress obedience and social harmony in their communication with their child; there is little concern over conceptual matters. Pluralistic families encourage open communication and discussion of ideas without insisting on obedience to authority; the child is encouraged to explore new ideas and express them without fear of retaliation. The emphasis in this communication structure appears to be mutuality of respects and interests. Consensual families stress both types of communication; the child is encouraged to take an interest in the world of ideas, yet to do so without disturbing the family's hierarchy of opinion and internal harmony.

Extensive research evidence has led researchers to assume that these communication patterns help guide the child in coping with various situations he encounters outside the immediate family context--for instance, situations in relation to public affairs issues, school activity, and mass media use (e.g., Chaffee et al, 1966 and 1971; McLeod and Chaffee 1972); they have been extensively used in the area of political socialization and have predicted the person's learning in this area rather well (McLeod et al, 1968-1969; Chaffee et al 1970; Sheinkopf 1973). Since the area of political socialization is similar to consumer socialization in many ways (Ward 1974b), FCP may also predict consumer learning. The general hypothesis made in this study is that the adolescent's consumer behavior is conditioned by the structure of parent-child communication roles in the home. Specifically, the FCP as a generalized socializing influence would hypothetically lead to (a) different perception of consumer good, and services, and (b) different levels of competence of the adolescent's consumer skills.

HYPOTHESES

Ward (1974b) speculated that families stressing conformity to others may implicitly encourage children to "learn to purchase and to derive satisfaction from their purchases on the basis of the perceived effects on others" (p. 40). Thus, a socio-oriented communication structure, which encourages the child to develop respect for others and other social orientations (Chaffee et al 1971) may lead to the development of materialistic orientations.

H1: Socio-oriented family communication structure is positively related to the adolescent's materialistic attitudes.

Because previous research found materialistic attitudes to be related to social utility motivations for watching television commercials and programs (e.g., watching commercials and programs to learn what products to buy to make good impressions on others) (Ward and Wackman 1971; Moschis and Churchill 1977), such motivations may also be the result of family communication structure at home. Thus, a socio-oriented family communication structure may implicitly encourage the child to pay attention to the mass media as a means of learning how to behave in various social settings.

H2: Socio-oriented family communication structure is positively related to the adolescent's social utility motivations for watching television commercials.

H3: Socio-oriented family communication structure is positively related to the adolescent's social utility motivations for watching television programs.

Research in the related area of political socialization revealed that a family communication environment stressing strong-concept orientations stimulates a greater political competence than an environment stressing socio-orientations. Furthermore, the pluralistic children tend to be more competent in political affairs than children from consensual homes because of the absence of social constraints in the former category. Specifically, pluralistic children were found to have greater political knowledge, were more sensitive to information contained in messages, and had greater ability to cognitively differentiate political stimuli (could point out similarities and differences among political candidates) than children from other types of communication environments (McLeod and Chaffee 1972). Similar findings may also apply in the area of consumer socialization.

H4: Adolescents from homes characterized by pluralistic family communication patterns (a) have greater consumer affairs knowledge, (b) are better able to filter puffery in advertising and (c) are better able to cognitively differentiate among products than adolescents from other types of family communication environments.

THE STUDY

The sample for this study consisted of 301 adolescent respondents attending junior and senior high schools of an urban and a semirural city in Wisconsin. Self-ad-ministered questionnaires were completed by students in various classes of three different schools.

Family Communication Measures

Since the dependent variables were consumption related in nature, some of the traditionally used items to measure the two general parent-child communication structures were revised to reflect communications more directly relevant to the consumer field. Items used to measure socio-orientation were:

(Parent) says the best way to stay out of trouble is to stay away from it.

(Parent) says his ideas are correct and (child) shouldn't question them.

(Parent) answers (child's) arguments with saying something like "You'll know better when you grow up."

(Parent) says (child) should give in when he argues rather than risk making people angry.

(Parent) tells (child) what things he should or shouldn't buy.

(Parent) wants to know what (child) does with his money.

(Parent) complains when he does not like something (child) bought for himself.

Responses to these items were measured on a 5-point "Very often-Never" scale. The concept-orientation relation was measured similarly and included the following items:

(Parent) says (child) should make his own decisions on things that affect him.

(Parent) emphasizes that every member of the family should have some say in family decisions.

(Parent) admits that children know more about some things than adults do.

(Parent) says that getting (child's) ideas across is important even if others don't like them.

(Parent) asks (child) what he thinks about things (parent) buys for himself.

(Parent) tells (child) why he buys some things for himself.

(Parent) tells (child) he should decide about things he should or shouldn't buy.

(Parent) tells (child) what he does with his money.

The reliability coefficient alpha of the two scales were .67 and .71, respectively, above the .50 to .60 reliability coefficients often recommended for constructs in the early stages of research (Nunnally, 1967, p. 226). The high internal consistency among general and specific items further suggests that the general family communication structures also apply to communication structures specifically related to consumption matters; and it provides validity for the revised items.

External validation for the revised items was also performed by correlating each family communication pattern with media use variables and comparing the results to those of previous studies that have used the traditional FCP measures but similar media use variables (e.g., Chaffee et al 1971). Table 1 shows that these correlations are fairly similar to those of previous studies. For example, adolescents in pluralistic homes give considerable attention to media news reports and spend relatively little time with television.

The sample for this study was divided into relatively "high" and "low" groups on each dimension by splitting each of the two scales at median, which yielded a four-fold typology of family types with approximately equal numbers in each cell.

TABLE 1

ADOLESCENT'S MEDIA USE HABITS BY FAMILY COMMUNICATION PATTERNS

Criterion Variables

Consumer affairs knowledge referred to the accuracy of the cognitions held with respect to basic terms used in the marketplace as well as basic consumer-related legislation. This variable was measured by summing responses representing correct answers to 11 "true-false-don't know" items such as: "The mortgage is the down payment on a house" and "Milk sold in the store must show the last day it can be sold." The alpha reliability coefficient was .57.

Cognitive differentiation was operationally defined as the ability to identify products that are claimed to be different on specific attributes. This variable was measured by asking respondents to write the names of 12 products or brands selected at random during prime-time programs over a 3-month period and summing up items to form a 0- to 12-point index. A typical item was:" camera weighs 16 ounces and costs $66.00." The reliability coefficient was .86.

Puffery filtering referred to the respondent's ability to discriminate "facts" from exaggeration in advertising. Forty adult judges were presented with a long list of advertising claims containing various amounts of puffery and were asked to determine the degree of puffery in each item. The final list consisted of 12 items. Six of these items were considered (on the basis of the pretest) to contain the greatest amount of puffery; the other six were considered to contain "true" information. Respondents were given scores of 1, 2, and 3 for responses "believe it is completely true," "believe it is partly true," and "believe it is not true at all," respectively, given to those items that were considered to contain the greatest amount of puffery; they were given scores of 3, 2, and 1 for providing similar responses to advertising claims considered to be true. Thus, the accuracy index could range from 12 to 36, with alpha reliability coefficient of .25.

Social Utility Reasons for watching television commercials and programs referred to adolescent motivations to watch TV commercials and programs as a means of gathering information about life styles and behaviors associated with uses of consumer products. Respondents were asked to indicate whether they ever watch television shows and commercials for ten different social reasons such as "to find out what qualities people like in others" and "to learn what things to buy to make good impressions on others." Responses were summed to form two 0- to 10-point scales: one which reflected social utility reasons for watching television commercials and another tapping the respondent's motivations for watching television programs, with alpha reliability coefficients of .64 and .70, respectively.

Materialism was operationally defined as "an orientation emphasizing possession and money for personal happiness and social progress" (Ward and Wackman 1971, p. 426). It was measured by soliciting responses on a 5-point "strongly agree-strongly disagree" Likert-type scale to six items, many of which were similar to Ward and Wackman (1971). The alpha reliability coefficient was .60.

RESULTS

The first phase of data analysis dealt with the examination of the relationships between selected demographic characteristics of the respondents (age, sex, and social class) and measures of family communication structures and patterns. No significant relationship emerged between the three characteristics and the communication structures and patterns, suggesting that the extent of these communication processes among the respondents in the sample was not affected by their demographic characteristics. This finding eliminated the need for including age and other demographics as control variables in conducting further analysis.

The data supported Hypothesis 1. The correlation between socio-oriented family communication structure and materialism was statistically significant (r = .18, p < .001), while the relationship between concept-oriented communication structure and materialism was insignificant (r = .00).

The resulting correlations between socio-oriented family communication structure and social utility motivations for watching television commercials was .21(p < .001), supporting Hypothesis 2. Similarly, the correlation between the socio-oriented communication structure and the respondent's motivations to watch television programs for social reasons was equally strong (r = .17, p < .002), which supports Hypothesis 3. These results suggest that families characterized by socio-orientation communication structure may be encouraging their children to turn to the media to learn appropriate social orientations or consumption behaviors appropriate to certain roles. This may in turn lead to the learning of materialistic orientations.

Table 2 shows mean values of measures of various consumer competencies by family communication pattern. As expected, students from pluralistic homes scored significantly higher on all three consumer competence measures. Children from such a family background seem to know more about consumer matters; they are better able to filter puffery in advertisements; and better able to cognitively differentiate among products as a result of their exposure to television commercials, even though pluralistic children do not watch significantly more television than their counterparts. These results support Hypothesis 4.

TABLE 2

ADOLESCENT'S CONSUMER SKILLS BY FAMILY COMMUNICATION PATTERNS

The final concern in this study was the investigation of the extent to which family communication structures directly or indirectly affect consumer learning. Direct impact on consumer learning may be the result of purposive parent-child interaction structures (e.g., purposive consumer training, acting as a consumer under parental guidance). Indirectly, the influence of family communication on consumer learning may be through influence of the child's interaction with other socialization agents, which in turn may influence learning. Previous researchers have reported that purposive consumer training is a rare occurrence at home (Ward 1974, Ward et al 1977), suggesting that the effect of family communication structure may indirectly affect consumer learning. Studies, in addition, have found that consumer and political skill acquisition strongly related to the child's frequency of reading and viewing news (consumer/political) (Chaffee et al 1971; Moschis 1976), which in turn relates to the family communication structures at home (Chaffee et al 1971). These findings suggest that family communication structures at home may indirectly affect the adolescent's acquisition of the three consumer competencies via public affairs media use.

On the basis of these speculations and in the context of a general conceptual model of consumer socialization discussed in greater detail elsewhere (e.g., Moore and Stephens 1975; Moschis 1976; Moschis and Moore 1978), path analysis was used to empirically address this question. Age and social class were included in the analysis as antecedent variables that may affect learning directly or indirectly (e.g., Ward 1974), while the two family communication structures and public affairs media use can be viewed as intervening socialization variables (e.g., Moschis and Moore 1978).

Figures 1a, 1b, and 1c show results of this path analytic investigation, with the effects of antecedent variables and socialization processes on the three consumer learning skills reported in the form of path coefficients (betas). The results in all three figures suggest that the influence of the family communication structures on the learning of the three consumer skills examined may be indirect. Concept-oriented family communication structure apparently leads to differential exposure to the mass media, which in turn may lead to the learning of the three skills. The influence does not appear to be direct nor to be totally explained by the antecedent variables. Age and concept-oriented family communication structure are the best predictors of the adolescent's frequency of interacting with the media regarding public affairs content (frequency of reading news about the economy, government and advertisements; and viewing national and local news on television--measured on a 5-point "everyday-never" scale). Exposure to public affairs in turn seems to be the best predictor of all three skills examined.

SUMMARY AND DISCUSSION

The present study investigated the effects of family influence on adolescent consumer learning in terms of mediating socializing processes. These processes were studied in the context of a two-dimensional model of communication which provides a four-fold typology of family communication patterns.

The results suggest that family communication structures, which appear to vary from family to family, may affect the child's perception of various marketing stimuli. Specifically, parents who emphasize the importance of social relationships (socio-oriented structure) in their communications with their children may implicitly encourage their children to evaluate their actions (including their consumer behaviors) on the basis of the perceived effects on others. This may result in the development of materialistic orientations. The findings also suggest that family communication structures at home as generalized socializing influences may lead to the differential exposure to mass media content, which in turn may result in learning of consumer competencies.

With respect to the influence of the various family communication patterns on the acquisition of the specific consumer competencies examined in this research, the data suggest that children from "pluralistic" families are more likely to have greater knowledge about consumer matters; they are better able to filter puffery in advertising; and they were better able to cognitively differentiate product-related information they are exposed to in the advertisements. These results regarding consumer competencies were similar to results regarding political competencies among adolescents.

FIGURES 1A, 1B, 1C

RESULTS OF PATH ANALYTIC INVESTIGATION

REFERENCES

Earnest Q. Campbell, "Adolescent Socialization" in David A. Goslin (ed.) Handbook of Socialization Theory and Research (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1969).

Steven H. Chaffee, Jack M. McLeod and Charles K. Atkin, "Parental Influences on Adolescent Media Use," American Behavioral Scientist, 14(January-February, 1971), 323-340.

Steven H. Chaffee, Jack M. McLeod, and Daniel B. Wackman, "Family Communication Patterns and Political Participation,'' Paper presented to the Association for Education in Journalism (Iowa City: Iowa, 1966).

Steven H. Chaffee, Scott L. Ward, and Leonard P. Tipton, "Mass Communication and Political Socialization," Journalism Quarterly, 47(Winter, 1970), 647-659.

Jack M. McLeod and Steven H. Chaffee, "The Construction of Social Reality," in J. T. Tedeschi (ed.), The Social Influence Process (Chicago: Aldine-Atherton, 1972), 50-99.

Roy L. Moore and Lowndes F. Stephens, "Some Communication and Demographic Determinants of Adolescent Consumer Learning," Journal of Consumer Research, 2(September, 1975), 80-92.

George P. Moschis, "Acquisition of the Consumer Role by Adolescents," Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1976.

George P. Moschis and Gilbert A. Churchill, Jr. "Mass Media and Interpersonal Influences on Adolescent Consumer Learning," Paper presented at the American Marketing Association Conference (Hartford, August 8-11, 1977).

George P. Moschis and Roy L. Moore, "An Analysis of the Acquisition of Some Consumer Competencies Among Adolescents,'' Journal of Consumer Affairs, forthcoming, 1978.

J. C. Nunnally, Psychometric Theory (New York: McGraw-Hill Company, Inc., 1967).

Scott Ward, "Consumer Socialization," Journal of Consumer Research, 1 (September, 1974), 1-14.

Scott L. Ward, "Consumer Socialization," (Cambridge, Mass.: Marketing Science Institute, 1974b).

Scott Ward and Daniel Wackman, "Family and Media Influences on Adolescent Consumer Learning," American Behavioral Scientist, 14(January-February, 1971), 415-427.

Scott Ward, Daniel Wackman and Ellen Wartella, How Children Learn to Buy (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1977).

----------------------------------------