An Evaluation of Negative Word-Of-Mouth Research For New Extensions

ABSTRACT - Prior research mostly investigated the topic of negative-word-of-mouth within the framework of consumer dissatisfaction and complaint behavior. Researchers have been less interested in modeling word-of-mouth antecedents and outcomes in the context of everyday conversations. This paper attempts to evaluate the factors influencing the source to generate negative word-of-mouth communications. Some insights from psychology are introduced and in the light of these new hypotheses are developed. Finally, based on past research, a framework of the word-of-mouth communication process is presented. This framework which has an intrapersonal perspective is likely to help synthesize research efforts in the area as well as leading to new research hypotheses.Further, there is a need to generate models outlining factors from an interpersonel perspective in word-of-mouth communications.


Gulden Asugman (1998) ,"An Evaluation of Negative Word-Of-Mouth Research For New Extensions", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, eds. Basil G. Englis and Anna Olofsson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 70-75.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1998      Pages 70-75


Gulden Asugman, Bogazici University, Turkey


Prior research mostly investigated the topic of negative-word-of-mouth within the framework of consumer dissatisfaction and complaint behavior. Researchers have been less interested in modeling word-of-mouth antecedents and outcomes in the context of everyday conversations. This paper attempts to evaluate the factors influencing the source to generate negative word-of-mouth communications. Some insights from psychology are introduced and in the light of these new hypotheses are developed. Finally, based on past research, a framework of the word-of-mouth communication process is presented. This framework which has an intrapersonal perspective is likely to help synthesize research efforts in the area as well as leading to new research hypotheses.Further, there is a need to generate models outlining factors from an interpersonel perspective in word-of-mouth communications.


Word of mouth(WOM) has been long recognized as one of the most influential type of communications regarding a product or service (Dichter 1966; Engel, Kegerreis, and Blackwell 1969; Sheth 1971; Weinberger and Dillon 1980; Brown and Reingen 1987; Wilson and Peterson 1989.) Its role in diffusion of innovations have been researched and in the earlier studies about the topic, only or mostly the positive WOM has been the issue of concern for researchers. Later studies indicated the role of negative word-of-mouth (NWOM) and discussed its role in the context of dissatisfaction with products/services and retailers (Blodgett, Granbois and Walters 1993; Diener and Greyser 1978; Richins 1983; Richins 1984). Research in the area has also indicated the higher influence of NWOM compared to positive WOM (Engel, Kegerreis, and Blackwell 1969; Herr, Kardes, and Kim 1991; Mizerski 1982; Weinberger, Allen, and Dillon 1981; Wilson and Peterson 1989). Furthermore, the power of rumors about products and firms emphasized the role NWOM plays in shaping consumer action (Tybout, Calder, and Sternthal 1981).

The present study is an attempt to focus on and interpret the factors influencing the source to engage in NWOM activities. The emphasis will be on the psychological factors rather than objective measures of dissatisfaction with a product which leads to public and private complaining, including NWOM.


Recent studies by Richins (1983; 1984) which discussed the importance and impact of NWOM defined it as "interpersonal communication among consumers concerning a marketing organization or product which denigrates the object of the communication (1984, p.697)." She pointed out that systematic NWOM by large numbers of consumers who are not satisfied with a product or service will have considerable impact.

Reviewing earlier work in the area, Richins indicated several instances of negative effects of WOM communications on the potential consumers’ buying behavior. As emphasized in other research as well (Whyte 1954; Dichter 1966), the strongest point of WOM communications is its being a non-marketing dominated source. Regarding this point Sheth (1971) provided some evidence that personal sources have greater impact on individuals compared to impersonal sources such as the mass media. Stressing the importance of "the advice of a friend", Dichter (1966) discussed the issue in detail in terms of positive WOM. He classified sources in terms of their credibility and influence. According to his conclusions, role of intentions play a major role in determining the effectiveness of communications. It is apparent that in the case of WOM communications, the source does not have any material interest in doing so. This, according to Dichter, "is the most basic motivation for the listener in accepting and acting on the recommendation" who is in search of the "truth about the product (1966, p.157)."

Another strength of WOM communications results from its high diffusion rate. In an empirical study, Engel, found that 90% of those who tried a new service had told something about their experience to at least one person and 40% had told two or more people within a few days following their trial. Blodgett (1993) reported that 75% of all their respondents indicated engaging in NWOM. Tese people reported that they have told their experience approximately to five people. In another study, Swan and Oliver (1989) pointed out that of the new car buyers that constituted their sample more than 70% engaged in WOM. The fact that diffusion of innovation models tried to incorporate the effects of positive and negative WOM (Mahajan, Muller, and Kerin 1984), provides further evidence as to the impact of WOM communications.

The impact of negative information on recipients have been studied by researchers (Arndt 1967; Giese, Spangenberg, Crowley 1996; Herr, Kardes and Kim 1991; Mizerski 1982; Smith and Vogt 1995; Weinberger, Allen, Dillon 1981). These studies indicated that in addition to above mentioned strengths, NWOM has been disproportionately weighed by recipients in comparison to positive WOM. Thus, studies in this regard point to the need to study the relevant factors in NWOM area.


In earlier studies in this topic, researchers focused on positive WOM and incidences in which people would engage in it (Dichter 1966; Engel, Kegerreis, Blackwell 1969). These studies mostly dealt with the role of WOM communications in diffusion of innovations.

Sheth (1971) arguing that "the existing research indirectly implies that word-of-mouth will not be important in less radical or low-risk innovations (p.15)", tested the effects of WOM in the case of stainless razor blades. His findings indicated that WOM not only informed the consumers but also influenced and reassured them even in the case of stainless razor blades which has been regarded as a low risk innovation. These results not only pointed out the fact that WOM was important in the case of less radical/low-risk innovations, but also indicated the existence of "three-or-more-step flow of communications" rather than a two-step flow where the WOM communications have been attributed to the opinion leaders. Thus, although at the beginning WOM has been recognized as an important factor in the diffusion of innovations, in time its existence in almost all product categories and in different retail settings has been supported (Higie, Feick and Price 1987; Price, Fecik and Guskey 1995).

In the case of NWOM communications, studies usually focused on consumer complaining activities and NWOM in this context (Brown and Beltramini 1989; Diener and Greyser 1978; Richins 1983; 1984; Wilson and Peterson 1989). Most of them dealt with identifying and measuring dissatisfaction and the likely actions people would take as a result of this dissatisfaction. Consequently, rather than studying the average consumer as to when and how often s/he may engage in NWOM, consumers with significant dissatisfaction about a specific product or service have been studied as to the extent of their NWOM activities (e.g., Blodgett, Granbois and Walters 1993). However, this does not have to be the case since NWOM communications are as likely to have a place in daily conversations as the place of positive WOM activities. As suggested by Richins (1984), random NWOM and random positive WOM coexist in our daily conversations regardless of the existence of a registered complaint action. Therefore, it is highly likely that people will engage in NWOM for products/services for which they would not consider complaining to the firm at all, just out of the need of self-expression of perceived experiences. Results of Swan and Oliver (1989) indicated significantly higher levels of engaging in WOM rather than complaining or praising to the seller. To remind then, the points made in this artcle do not refer to specific dissatisfaction cases with significant products/services, but to general negative comments engaged in about goods and services in daily conversations.


Motivating factors in the case of WOM communications have been discussed both in the case of positive and negative WOM. Dichter (1966) provided four motives to engage in WOM communications in a positive way. These are;

* product involvement, which causes a tension and leads to product related conversation to reduce the tension,

* self involvement, which leads to WOM communications to satisfy certain emotional needs and can be summarized as self-confirmation,

* other involvement, which stems from the need to be helpful to others, and

* message involvement, which occurs as a result of ads and commercials of the specific product.

Richins (1984) reviewed other studies which provide support for these categories. She also cited other categorizations of possible motivations, some of which coincide with Dichter’s categories. Instrumentality, which is the need to appear well informed is another motivation in addition to the above cited motives in engaging in WOM.

Some of these motivating forces may as well be influential in the case of NWOM. Richins (1984) defined one of these as catharsis, which is similar to the explanation of product involvement by Dichter (1966). Catharsis provides anxiety reduction through sharing of product related negative information with others. Richins (1984) also suggested vengeance as an important motivator in the case of NWOM where the dissatisfied and the angry consumer wants to "get back at" the firm. Altruism is another reason of engaging in NWOM as mentioned by Richins. Similar to the other involvement category of Dichter, an altruistically motivated consumer wants others to benefit from own experiences. Recent work regarding altruism by Price, Feick and Guskey (1995) indicated its important role in everyday market helping behavior. Another construct developed and tested by Price, Feick, and Guskey (1995) is marketplace involvement. These researchers found evidence that marketplace involvement is an antecedent of market helping behavior which encompasses WOM activities by consumers.

Regarding the motivating forces reviewed so far, there is a need to differentiate them in terms of consumer intentions. Intentions of consumers may be very different when engaging in NWOM depending on the motivating force. The extent of dissatisfaction with a product/firm and the company responsiveness to complaints may be crucial determinants of consumer intentions in engaging in NWOM (Blodgett, Granbois and Walters 1993; Richins 1983; Singh 1990). In cases of high dissatisfaction with product and complaint handling behavior of the marketing institutions, the most likely motivator in engaging in NWOM can be vengeance where the consumer may expliitly desire some kind of harm for the institution since it seems justified.

Although Richins (1983) focused on the extent of dissatisfaction and company responsiveness as important determinants of NWOM behavior, as she mentioned random NWOM is very likely to have a place in everyday conversations as well. Therefore, there is a need to analyze the factors influencing individuals to engage in NWOM activities even in the absence of any redress intentions about products/services.


Contrary to Richins’ comment about NWOM being "at odds with self-presentation needs (1984, p.699)", NWOM may serve as a means to restore self image. According to the new version of cognitive dissonance theory developed by Cooper and Fazio (1984) and tested by Scher and Cooper (1989), the necessary and sufficient condition to experience cognitive dissonance is the "felt responsibility for bringing about an aversive consequence (p.902)." In the case of motivation in engaging in NWOM, the dissonance causing action can be the act of purchasing a dissatisfactory item. Here we need to remind ourselves that the specific product need not be deficient in any objective way.

If we assume that a product which may satisfy the needs of an individual perfectly, may leave another consumer dissatisfied, it becomes clear that in fact there may be nothing wrong with the product. Since different products have different target segments of consumers and try to reflect this in their promotional efforts, a consumer who realizes that s/he is consuming a product that is being identified with a consumer segment with which s/he does not want to be associated, may realize that the purchase was a wrong decision. Dissatisfaction may result due to the perception of a mismatch by the consumer between his/her self image and the tangible and the intangible offerings of the product. The perception of having purchased a dissatisfactory item may violate the perception that the person is powerful and in control of things. This in turn may lead to embarrassment and a loss of self esteem (Scher and Cooper 1989). In this case people may engage in NWOM to attribute blame onto the product/company and situational factors and thus to restore self image. In contrast to intentions of punishment in the case of vengeance motive, in this case people may not have any desire for harm to the firm.

In order to get rid off the disturbance caused by the realization of an improper product choice, consumers may attempt to downgrade the product to others by engaging in NWOM. It may help to restore self image to attribute the blame onto the product and situational factors and thus may leave the consumer assured that although s/he was free in choosing the product, the dissatisfactory result was unforeseen. Dichter (1966), mentioned the need to reassure oneself in front of others as a major motivation of WOM activities. Within this context, NWOM may also serve as a means of disassociating oneself from the product and the apparent target consumers of it. Dichter’s comments about needs of identification in the context of positive WOM communications may as well apply in the case of NWOM activities.

Another point worth mentioning in this context can be the nature of the product. It seems possible that this kind of NWOM may be more common in the case of publicly consumed items rather than privately consumed products.

Whenever the motivation to engage in NWOM is a self affirmation need, the likely recipients of this comunication are possibly family members and close friends. Duck (1987) in discussing the phases of dissolving relationships, indicated that in the intra-psychic phase, people evaluate their relationship with the other person and weigh costs of withdrawal against positive aspects of alternative relationships. This may as well be applicable to relationships between people and products. Duck (1987) also indicated that in the intra-psychic phase, people complain about the partner to other people which is similar to engaging in NWOM activities about products. According to research results presented by Duck (1987), comforting has been provided by recipients of complaints to hurt and disappointed people of this stage, and the extent of comforting varied according to how the person constructed the situation. Thus, the same motivation of seeking comfort may be the case in NWOM communications about products/services. Consequently, recipients of such NWOM communications are more likely to be family members and close friends in comparison to the kind where the motive of the consumer is revenge from the firm. Whenever the person perceives enough justification to complain about the firm and products to get revenge, the likely audience may be much larger and differentiated in terms of closeness compared to the case of self affirmation need based NWOM. Such a process of adjustment of audiences according to needs seems plausible considering Dichter’s comments:

We found further that the speaker is likely to choose such products, such listeners, and such "words" as are most apt to serve his underlying needs and ends (of which he is only rarely or partially aware), (1966, p.148).

Thus, in the case of self-involvement based WOM, initiators are likely to seek audiences whose possibility of agreement with their judgement will be quite high. As indicated by Dichter, if a self-involved source receives disagreement or rejection from the recipient, s/he feels hurt and rejected. Therefore, if a self-involved person who engages in NWOM receives counter feedback from the recipient, his chances of attributing blame to sources of other than self will be lost. If this happens probably the initiator will change beliefs about the recipient, concluding that the recipient has low standards, does not have a good judgement, and finally is not a good friend. To minimize such risks, people are likely to choose recipients who do not have experience with the product as well as guaranteeing that thay are close family or friends, eager to provide approval.

Instrumental function of engaging in NWOM activities, still is another category. In such cases, where the need to appear well informed is the primary motivating force, people may engage in NWOM without any first-hand experience with the product. They may be just transmitting incoming information from others. As in the case of self-affirmation based NWOM, in this case again people may not have any desire of harm for the product or the firm.

Although the effects of negative information on recipients have been analyzed by most researchers (Giese, Spangenberg, Crowley 1996; Herr, Kardes, Kim 1991; Mizerski 1982; Richins 1983; Smith and Vogt 1995; Tybout 1981), effects of engaging in NWOM on the source have not been researched. It may be of special importance to focus on the source since it would be most effective to be able to prevent NWOM communications before they are initiated.

As mentioned before, according to the cognitive dissonance model (Cooper and Fazio 1984), in order to experience cognitive dissonance, the person needs to perceive an aversive consequence which initiates a search or responsibility within the individual. Perception of responsibility, in turn, leads to dissonance arousal and then the person should either change perceptions about aversiveness of consequences or the self responsibility. It can be worthwhile to analyze these processes in the context of NWOM activities.

First of all, there is a need to differentiate between NWOM engaged in with motives of revenge vs. with self-affirmation or instrumentality needs. In the case of former, people may desire some aversive consequences since the ignorant marketing institution deserves them. As such, the perception of aversive consequences to the firm (such as decreasing sales, closing down some stores of a chain) may be overcome easily by changing perceptions about the aversiveness of results. People who have been dissatisfied with a product or with the complaint handling behavior, may believe that what happened was less than the company deserved. Results of Blodgett’s (1993) investigation showed that complainants’ NWOM behavior depended upon their perceived justice of the firm.

In the case of NWOM stemming from self-affirmation or instumentality needs, people engaging in it may not have a desire to actually harm the product/firm. Since they do not have such a goal, they may be underestimating the results of their activity. Even if we assume that undesired consequences for the product/firm are perceived by people who engaged in NWOM, factors which have been discussed by researchers (Sherman 1970; Steele and Liu 1983; Zanna and Sande 1987) in relation to the effects of collective actions on the felt dissonance, suggest that these people will hardly experience any disturbance for what they might have done.

According to the factors Zanna and Sande (1987) discussed, the fact of being in a group provides the chance to diffuse responsibility for actions. Thus, a consumer who hears that a firm about which s/he engaged in NWOM went bankrupt, can easily blame millions of other consumers who are as likely to have a part in NWOM activities as s/he had. Furthermore, as mentioned by Zanna and Sande, research findings showed that "when interaction between group members is minimal and may be better considered as coaction, all subjects perceived very low levels of personal responsibility for their actions (1987,p.156)." This description is especially applicable to the consumers’ case. As indicated by the researchers, responsibility diffusion is more likely to occur in groups composed of strangers than in groups composed of friends. It seems easier to diffuse responsibility for aversive consequences to unknown others rather than to friends. Therefore, the fact that consumers are mostly strangers to each other enhances the diffusion of responsibility among them. Lastly, the lack of public accountability for what has been done is another factor enhancing responsibility diffusion.

Within this context, personality variables may have a moderating role. Zanna and Sande (1987) determined that having an egocentric vs. altercentric disposition acts as a moderator in diffusing responsibility. Specifically, egocentrically biased subjects assumed more credit for their action than others gave them whereas altercentrically biased subjects took less responsibility than others gave them. This personality variable may be important in the context of NWOM activities by moderating the level of NWOM one engages in and by effecting the perceptions of responsibility as a result of one’s actions.

Based on the new insights from psychology literature, following hypotheses can be proposed to extend NWOM research:

H1: Likely recipients of NWOM stemming from self-affirmation needs will be family members and close friends.

H2: Initiators of NWOM who are motivated with self-affirmation needs will expect approval and comforting from the recipients

H3: In case of perception of harm to a product/company for which one engaged in NWOM with a motive other than revenge, the person will not feel any responsibility by underestimating his/her role and overestimating other consumers’ roles.

H4: Egocentrically biased people will be less likely to engage in NWOM compared to altercentrically biased people.

H5: Egocentrically biased consumers will assume more responsibility for a perceived harm to a product/firm about which they engaged in NWOM, compared to altercentrically biased consumers.


The preceding review of WOM research suggests a need for a comprehensive model of WOM communications. Such an effort is likely to bring together the pieces of research done in the area.As a preliminary effort in this respect, this paper proposes the model seen in Figure 1. This framework has an intrapersonal perspective, bringing together the factors between the time one intends to initiate a piece of WOM information and the time one transfers the message to another.

Specifically, three major phases are defined in this model as pre-communication phase, communication phase, and post-communication phase. Then,based on past research on WOM area, influential factors during each of these phases are determined. Accordingly, during the pre-communication phase several motivators, mediators, and moderators are assessed. Regarding the communication phase, characteristics of the presented WOM are indicated as influential variables. Finally, personal outcomes and outcomes for others of voicing WOM messages are listed as post-communication phase processes.

Such a model is likely to help generate future research in the area by focusing attention on parts of the model that are deficient in past research.


After reviewing the existing literature in NWOM area, we can conclude that the topic needs more attention and as it stands, is underresearched. One topic that previous studies have significantly dealt is motivators in NWOM communications. To sum up, six major motivators have been defined as product involvement, self involvement, other involvement, message involvement, marketplace involvement and instrumentality. Past research, however, mostly focused on definitional work, lacking extensive hypothesis testing. Outcomes of NWOM communications, have also been defined in past studies and these are self-affirmation, instrumentality, altruism, catharsis, and vengeance.

This paper, in addition to reviewing the literature in the NWOM area brings in some new insights from psychoogy research. Specifically, the new form of cognitive dissonance model is discussed and interpreted for its role in NWOM communications. As stated in one of the proposed hypotheses, the consumer is not likely to feel any resposibility for engaging in NWOM even in the presence of aversive consequences. Further, certain personality characteristics are likely to mediate the outcome of NWOM activities. To conclude, future research is needed in NWOM communications area to test the framework proposed that brings together the motivators, mediators, and outcomes which will help both practitioners and academicians to improve their understanding of this subject.




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Gulden Asugman, Bogazici University, Turkey


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3 | 1998

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